Relations between the US and Cuba are officially better! With airlines selling flights as low as $50 one way, Havana is the new bucket-list place to be. Whether you have already booked your flight or are in the planning stages, here are 4 tips to consider.
Book a flight with a layover in Mexico
Before everything was peachy with Cuba, the only way to get to the Caribbean island was either through Mexico or Canada (most people chose Mexico). When I booked my ticket through Aeromexico (Delta), I had a 15 hour layover in Mexico City that gave me a 2 for 1 deal. Although we now have the option of taking direct flights to Cuba, if you find a cheap enough ticket (I snagged one for $75), you will be paying less and have less of a haggle to get a Cuban visa, as you can get the visa at the Mexican airport for $314 MXN (about $15 USD). Also, going through Mexico means you do not need at least two pages in your passport and you have the option of not getting your passport stamped. Mexico will have the same 12 reasons listed as the US and they did not ask me any questions (actually, no one asked me questions), just took the visa paper. I do not think anyone is keeping close tabs on the specifics of your trip but it is always good to have your “educational reasons” excuse planned out.
At immigration, entering and leaving Cuba, there are no questions asked about the reasons for your trip. They even have the option of not stamping your passport. Coming back from Cuba, US immigration did not detain me for my trip nor was I asked any questions. My traveling partner, though, was only asked what was her reason for the trip (educational reasons) and if she had any tobacco or alcohol she wanted to claim (we had cigars so she said yes). They did not check any of our bags and the procedure was standard compared to any other international trip
Look on AirBNB instead of booking hotels
Hotels are expensive in Havana, while AirBNB will only be a fraction of the cost. Unfortunately, if you are travelling in a group of 5 or more, finding an AirBNB to fit all of you will be difficult. If you want to be in the midst of Havana and walking distance to attractions and sites, most AirBNBs (casa particulars) have only one or two bedrooms. Groups may have to be split into different casa particulars. When looking for an AirBNB you want to be sure it is close to San Lazaro Street and on the eastern side of Padre Varela. Please read the reviews carefully before you book! The taxi from the airport to your AirBNB should be about $25. Most AirBNB hosts can arrange a pickup if you ask in advance but there are taxis at the airport. Map out the exact address for your BNB because there are stories of taxi drivers claiming that an address does not exist and trying to point you in the direction of another address for you to pay more. When I went, most taxis drivers were reputable and you could also find some online. The link above is to the AirBNB I stayed in which was pretty central to different everything.
Change your currency to Canadian dollars
Ok, millennials, math time. Cuba automatically charges 10% gratuity for USD conversions. So if you change $100 USD to CUC (Cuban tourist dollars) you will only be getting back $87 CUC. 1USD = 1CUC, so basically you will only be getting back $87 USD. Whereas, If you change that same $100 USD to CAD you would get back about $95 CUC. Also remember that they will charge you the same 10% to change back to USD when you leave Cuba. CUCs and CUPs can only be used in Cuba but you can take Canadian money and sell it to any bank in the US. Feel free to use the conversion chart above (recent as of 12/13/2016) and let me know if you find another foreign currency with a cheaper exchange rate.
It is noteworthy to include the currency system in Cuba. Cuba basically has a monetary system for their natives and a monetary system for their tourists. The natives mainly use Cuban Pesos (CUP) while the tourists will be given Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). 24CUP = 1 CUC, so of course the CUP is worth less than the CUC. The images below shows the difference in the CUC and CUP respectively. CUC will say “pesos convertibles” while CUP will not. Please pay attention to the change you get as you might give someone CUC and they give you back change in CUP.
CUP can also come in coin form. The coins I have in my hand are 1 CUP each.
SN: If you do have a layover in Mexico, please also change your USD to MXN. Although for a 15 hour layover I only changed about $50 USD to MXN and still had money left over after (visa and souvenirs included).
Research attractions before you go- print out a map
This tip seems a little trivial, but, hear me out. Cuba has VERY limited wifi and you get charged per hour for whatever slow wifi you end up finding. Also, Google Maps does not let you save Havana or look at “favorites” offline while you are there. So it is best to do your research and map out where everything is from your residence. I printed out a map of central Havana and brought it with me. Of course, things do not always go as planned when traveling but it saves you money to have an idea of where you are when you get there. The Cuban natives are also very nice and will give you directions if you ask but they will also ask for a tip or tell you the location is far and try to sell you a taxi. I took a horse and carriage 4 hour tour for $25 per person the first day. That pretty much physically showed me everywhere in Havana. We were good for walking around on our own after that.
The cheaper food is the best food, the tastier it is. If you are paying $15 for Lobster, shrimp and fish, you are paying too much. To find good restaurants, ask a Cuban local that works at a hotel or one of the construction workers. They are less likely to try to sell you a tour or point you in the direction of a restaurant where they make commission off of the amount of people they bring.
During your research you may find that Cuba has old car taxi tours, bike tours and horse and carriage tours. Tours are cheaper once you get to Havana and you can always bargain the price down. We took a horse and carriage tour where we told the tour guide where we wanted to go and some attractions we wanted to see. If you walk close to central park area, the tour guides will come up to you to sell a 2 hour tour for $10 per person, but if you do not tell the tour guide to stop after 2 hours they will keep going and charge you extra. We ended up paying $25 per person for a 4 hour tour.
Speaking of tours, there is a Havana bus tour that is also a very good deal. There are 3 different routes and limited information online. The bus is $5 per route and you can hop on and hop off whenever the bus stops all day as long as you show the receipt ticket. I used this option to go beach hopping and to the lighthouse on my last day in Havana. There is a local taxi that will take you to and from the beach for 1 CUC each way but once they realize that you are a tourist, the price goes up and I did not have time for the BS.
Here is some information I have gathered from my AirBNB host about the tours:
“R1: Alameda de Paula – Plaza of the José Martí Revolution.
-Castillo de la Real Fuerza
– Sevilla Hotel
– Central Park
– Presidente Hotel
– Plaza de la Revolución
– Napoleonic Museum and University of Havana
– Hotel Habana Libre
– Casa de las Américas and Ministry of Foreign Affairs,
– Prado and San Lázaro
– National Capitol and Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment
R2: Marina Hemingway – José Martí Revolution Square
– La Ferminia Restaurant
– Nautical Shopping Center
– La Cecilia Restaurant
– Miramar Trade Center – National Aquarium
– 1st and 28 Model of Havana
– 1st and 18th Don Cangrejo Restaurant
– Cira García International Clinic
– 23rd Street and 47th Ave west of the bridge over the Almendares River
– Colon Cemetery
– Plaza de la Revolucion.
R3: Central Park – Beach of Santa Maria del Mar.
-Exit of the Tunnel to Playas del Este
– Naval Hospital
– Panamerican Villa – Alamar
– Villa Bacuranao
– Taramar, in front of the Tarará Marina
– Villa Mégano
– Tropicoco Hotel
– Hotel Blau Arenal, former Itabo.”
****Disclaimer****: The information above looks like it is copied from a website but I am not sure which. I have tried to look online for information about the Transtur bus but have not found any.