In light of the White House’s recent decision to begin normalizing relations with Cuba, thousands of Americans have set their sights on visiting our island neighbor that sits less than 100 miles south of Key West. But despite its attractive proximity, Cuba poses a handful of unique challenges to visitors. For example, technology is tremendously outdated, forcing visitors to forgo many modern comforts that we Americans so often take for granted. Here are the top seven things you should know if you plan on making the trip:
1. Tourism is still illegal (kind of…)
Americans traveling to Cuba must qualify under one of 12 approved general license guidelines, but these categories are very broad and accommodating. You don’t need to fill out an applications or prove that you qualify in any way. And once you’re in Cuba, no one is looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re sticking to your approved travel reason. For me it was as easy as checking a box on the site where I booked my plane tickets, and I was good to go.
2. Rest assured, Cuba is very safe
When I told friends and family that I was traveling to Cuba, the most common concern I fielded was about my safety. However, I honestly felt safer walking the streets of Cuba than I do in the downtowns of most US cities. The communist government understands that tourism is a huge part of its economy and has strict laws forbidding locals from harming tourists in any way. In fact, the locals are extremely friendly!
3. Cuba doesn’t have enough hotel rooms
Another consequence of the US embargo is that Cuba doesn’t currently have the infrastructure to accommodate the oncoming throng of tourists. Many Cuban hotels are already booked months in advance, and new hotels aren’t exactly being built every day. I’d suggest exploring Airbnb for a more authentic experience at a fraction of the cost.
4. Cash is king!
Once in Cuba, there’s really no point in carrying debit or credit cards. In fact, I couldn’t find a single place that accepted plastic. Bring cash with you and exchange it at the airport into the Cuban tourist currency known as the Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUC. While Cuba actually has two currencies (one for locals and one for tourists), you’ll probably deal exclusively with CUCs. Because there are few ATMs, you should bring a liberal amount of cash and budget wisely because you’ll be hit with a hefty exchange rate if you choose to exchange your leftover CUCs at the end of your trip.
5. Save 10% by bringing Euros or Canadian Dollars
As a result of the longstanding tension between Cuba and the US, travelers who exchange USD for CUC upon arrival in Cuba will be hit with a 10% penalty tax that isn’t imposed on any other currency. When you add the standard 3% transaction fee, one US dollar becomes 87 cents in Cuba. Americans can save a good chunk of money by preemptively exchanging USD for Euros or Canadian dollars while still in the United States.
6. Internet is hard to come by
The Cuban government imposes one of the world’s strictest Internet policies on its population, so foreigners will have a tough time connecting as well. If you really need to access the web, most of the larger hotels offer Wi-Fi via a $3 access card for one hour of connectivity.
7. You won’t have cell phone service, either
You might as well put your phone on airplane mode for the duration of your stay in Cuba. The major US cellular providers don’t have cell towers in Cuba or partnerships that allow travelers to call or text home. Given the combination of no cell reception and the lack of internet, I’d recommend that you simply try to unplug while in Cuba and enjoy your time off the grid. I found it quite nice.Cuba