U.S. TRAVEL REGULATIONS
Travel to Cuba for Americans is limited. Restrictions and guidelines for travel to Cuba are shaped by the policies of the current administration and regulated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Department of the Treasury. Recently the Obama administration announced changes to these guidelines that will allow even more people to travel to Cuba for educational, cultural and religious purposes. As a result, PlazaCUBA is applying for an “Educational/People-to-People Specific License”, which will allow us to expand the types of programs we offer. Please check our website periodically for more updates.
Americans should review travel restriction guidelines before considering a trip. Click on “Overview of Sanctions” on the U.S. Treasury Department website (below) for more information about OFAC rules and the different categories of authorized travel to Cuba. (05/05/2011 - Some of these regulations are currently being updated to reflect the January 2011 changes in Cuba travel policy.)
You can also contact PlazaCUBA for more details about authorization for travel to Cuba.
TRAVEL ARRANGEMENT – Booking Flights
There are direct flights to Cuba from Cancun (other cities in Mexico), Canada, Miami and Nassau. A. Nash Travel is a professional and reliable Canadian agency for travel arrangement to Cuba from Canada, Mexico and Nassau. Contact Martha Arroyo at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 800-818-2004, 905-755-0647.
TRAVEL ARRANGEMENT – Visas
Cuba travelers need to purchase a tourist card – commonly referred to as a visa – for entry to Cuba. The cost varies cost from $15 (Nassau or Mexico) up to $75 (from Miami) and is good for 30 days. It can be purchased with your airline ticket through the above travel agencies or at the ticket counter before your departure. Ask your travel agent for information about securing a Cuban visa.
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TRAVEL PREPARATION – Inoculations
None are required prior to travel to Cuba.
TRAVEL PREPARATION – What to Bring
|Extra pair of glasses
|Contact lens supplies
|Sunhat or baseball cap
Medicine: Some products and over-the-counter remedies can be hard to find in Cuba, so bring products you may need for headaches, allergies, colds or menstrual symptoms. Prescription drugs should have the pharmacist's identification label on the container.
Food: Healthy, tasty snacks are hard to find so think about bringing some granola bars, nuts, trail mix and small boxes of soymilk, especially if you have special dietary needs or are a vegetarian.
Clothes: Pack clothes that are appropriate for the season. December and January are the coldest months and you will need a jacket and pants. Summer months, June, July and August reach temperatures in the 90s with high humidity so lightweight, comfortable clothes are best. (For more information about weather in Cuba see the “Other Travel Considerations” section below.) Also, Cubans love to get dressed up so it’s good to have some nice outfits for going out.
Gifts: It can be fun to have a few gifts on hand for Cuban friends. This is optional. Gift ideas for girls: perfume, jewelry, make-up, nail polish and hair accessories. Gift ideas for guys: cologne, disposable razors, baseball caps and t-shirts (especially with American sports logos). Other helpful items: toothbrushes, sunglasses, deodorant, tampons, AA batteries, aspirin, ibuprofen, cold and flu medicine and vitamins. Musicians: guitar strings, reeds for woodwind instruments and drumsticks are great presents, as well as jazz, R&B and hip hop music on CD. Dancers: tank tops, dance pants, sports bras and ballet, jazz, split sole dance shoes make excellent gifts.
Gift Parcels of Medical Supplies: If you're interested in bringing medical supplies to donate, please contact the travel agent that is booking your flight to see if you can avoid paying the overweight cost on medicines.
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GENERAL TRAVEL TIPS – Entering CUBA
Baggage: Airlines have different weight limits, but most airlines departing for Cuba, including Mexicana Click and Cubana, have an allowance of 40 kilos (about60 pounds) of checked luggage. The fee for baggage over the weight limit varies from $2–5 per pound.
Immigration: You will arrive at Jose Martí Airport, probably terminal 3, and will go through immigration before picking up your luggage. You will need your Cuban visa and passport. They will probably ask you where you are staying, so be sure to have the name and address of your hotel with you. They will stamp the visa, but usually not the passport.
Customs: Pass through the security checkpoint and proceed to baggage claim. Cuba also imposes a fee for overweight baggage, but this usually pertains to Cubans returning to the island and not foreign visitors. You will probably not be asked to declare gifts or have your bags weighed unless you are Cuban. There are strict limitations and fees for entry with electronic devices like DVD players. Once you pick up your bags, proceed to the exit. You may be asked to present your claim tags for luggage and/or your passport exiting the airport, so have those documents handy.
Transportation: You will need to change some money at the airport Cadeca (money changing station) for the taxi, tips and immediate expenditures. There are always plenty of taxis outside. They now charge a flat fee to leave the airport and will not use the meter. The fee is $25–30 CUC to pretty much anywhere in Havana. You can try to bargain, but usually can just get them down to $25.
GENERAL TRAVEL TIPS – Departing CUBA
Check-in: Plan to arrive at the airport at least 2 hours before the time of departure. There are sometimes long lines so it’s good to go on time. The same baggage weight limits apply when departing from Cuba so you may be charged for overweight bags.
Departure Tax: Once you check-in for your flight, you will pay the $25 CUC departure tax at the window next to the Cadeca to the right of the immigration entrance. Pay the tax before passing through immigration.
Immigration: You must have your passport, Cuban tourist card (visa), and boarding pass with the paid departure tax stamp on the back. Once these documents are checked you can pass through the security checkpoint and proceed to your gate.
GENERAL TRAVEL TIPS – Entering the United States
Immigration: From Mexico, you will go through immigration/customs in the first U.S. city you enter. If you are traveling through Canada or Nassau, you will pass through U.S. customs there, before actually entering the country. Be prepared to present your passport and declaration form. Authorized travelers can fill out the form declaring their visit Cuba.
Customs/Declaring Goods: U.S. regulations prohibit purchasing any type of consumer goods in Cuba. Consumer goods include, but are not limited to tobacco, rum, coffee and souvenirs. There is no limit on the purchase of educational materials, which include books, periodicals, CDs, DVDs, videocassettes, photographs, posters, etchings, lithographs, microfilm and microfiche. Music on CD and DVD, books, tapes and videos are all considered educational materials and authorized travelers are allowed to purchase unlimited quantities of these materials.
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MONEY – Cuban Currency
Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC): The Cuban economy formerly operated in U.S. dollars, but since November 8, 2004, all purchases in Cuba, including goods and services from stores, restaurants, hotels and taxis can only be made with Cuban convertible pesos, called chavitos in Cuban slang, abbreviated as CUC. This money was used in Cuba before 2004 as a supplement to the U.S. dollar in times of short circulation and its value at that time was exactly one-to-one with the dollar. With the change in the currency system in 2004, a 10% fee was added to exchange dollars for CUC. In April 2005, the value of the CUC was reassessed in relation to other foreign currencies and given a value of about 8% more. This makes it impossible to avoid losing money on the exchange of any currency for CUC.
Cuban Convertible Peso front
Cuban Convertible Peso back
Cuban Peso front
Cuban Peso back
Cuban Pesos (Moneda Nacional): This is the official national currency. The exchange rate is approximately 24 Cuban pesos for one CUC. Cuban pesos look different and have a different value than the convertible peso. It will not be necessary to change money into Cuban pesos as the CUC is now being used for pretty much everything. If you like, you can easily get some Cuban pesos at the cadeca (money changing institution) and use them for things like shopping in the agricultural market or buying a cup of café on the street. The kinds of purchases that can be made with Cuban pesos are limited, especially for foreign travelers.
MONEY – Currency Exchange
Cadecas and Banks: You can exchange money at many locations. The exchange is basically the same at banks and cadecas (money changing stations), but there may be a longer line at the bank. Cadecas can be found in hotel lobbies and on street corners all over town. The cadeca at the Hotel Nacional is open until 11:00pm and the Havana Libre is open 24 hours. Otherwise they close early so change enough money during the day and don’t get stuck with no chavitos!
U.S. Dollars: There are high costs to exchange all international currency to CUC. The U.S. dollar has the highest loss at almost 20%. This includes the 10% fee imposed only on the U.S. dollar, plus another 8+% that all foreign currencies lose since April 9, 2005 when the CUC was revaluated at approximately 8% higher. American credit cards are not accepted in Cuba, but credit cards from other countries are accepted in many hotels and restaurants. You can cash all types of traveler’s checks in Cuba, including Tomas Cook and American Express, but they aren’t recommended (except for extra emergency money), as you will be charged an additional 3–5% to cash them.
Other International Currency: For travelers bringing foreign currency directly from another country (not coming from the U.S.), the loss to exchange money is around 8%. Other currency does not incur the 10% change fee imposed on the U.S. dollar but it is affected by the 8+% devaluation of foreign currency as it compares to the Cuban convertible peso. For Americans that change U.S. dollars to euros or Canadian dollars before departing from the U.S., it’s important to remember that exchange rates and bank fees add up to at least 5% so you will still loose 15–18%. There may be a slight savings if you change your money to euros or Canadian dollars before your departure, but the savings is small. Here’s an example: if you bring $1,000 USD to Cuba, you get back about $800 CUC. If you change $1,000 into euros first, you will get back about $825–840 CUC, depending on the rate you were given on the euros or Canadian dollars in the first place. We do not advise changing money at the airport because exchange rates are typically poor.
MONEY – Budget
The capital city of Havana generally has the higher priced hotels, dining and entertainment. There are paladars (in-home restaurants) and afternoon shows that are less expensive forms of entertainment, but nightlife in general, clubs, cabaret shows and eating and drinking out is expensive. It’s good to budget like you are going to another popular big city like New York, San Francisco or Madrid.
|Average prices in CUC:
|| Cover: $5–10
||Bottle of rum: $10–20
||Bottle of rum: up to $30
|Cabaret show -Tropicana
||Bottle of rum: up to $50
|| Beer: $1.10
||Bottle of rum: $4–15
||Low end: $10–12
|| High end: $20–50
||Low end: $3–5
||High end: $10–30
||Within city $6–8
||Outer areas/Drivers waits: $10–20
||Store: $1 large bottle
|| Restaurant, hotel, club: $1 small bottle
||Hotel: $1–2 per piece
||Private person: $10 per bag
Tips: Tipping is customary in Cuba. We suggest at least a 10% tip for meals in restaurants and paladars. Tip bellhops, maids and taxi drivers, as well as other helpful service people, like front desk clerks and cashiers. It will be greatly appreciated. Tip person that keeps up the public bathrooms. It’s usually a woman who sits near the door with some toilet paper and a little plate where you can put .10 to .25¢ (CUC).
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TRANSPORTATION – Traveling the Island
By Air: To purchase an airline ticket from Havana to Santiago or other destination in Cuba, go to Cubana Airlines office on Calle 23 (La Rampa) at the Malecón in Vedado. A line usually forms throughout the day so you can probably get faster service if you go first thing in the morning. Offices open at 9:00am. There is an airport in almost every province but the main airports are Bayamo, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Havana, Holguin, Moa, Santiago de Cuba and Varadero.
By Bus: The most comfortable and reliable long distance bus company is Viazul. These are newer air-conditioned buses for tourists that make stops in all the big cities along the way. Sometimes the ride is over-air-conditioned so bring a jacket. Astrobus also goes all over the island and is much cheaper, but mainly caters to Cubans. There are some spaces on each bus for tourists and they pay in CUC, while Cubans pay in moneda nacional. In 2005, they started replacing the old Astrobuses with new Chinese model buses that are more comfortable.
By Train: Traveling by train can be quite the Cuban experience, as the trains are rarely on time and you never really know what to expect. The number 1 train between Havana and Santiago de Cuba is the fastest and most reliable and it actually runs 4 hours faster than the Viazul bus (barring any problems)! Many are French first class air-conditioned trains that were recently purchased by the Cuban railways.
By Car: Another option for adventurous types is to rent a car and drive around the island on your own. Rental car fees range from $50–100 CUC per day plus insurance. During the high season (June–July, Dec–Feb) there are fewer cars available, so you want to make a reservation early. The agencies with the most cars are Transtur, Cubacar, and Via Rent-a-Car and most big hotels have a rental car agency right in the lobby. If you do plan a road trip, get a good map. The best one is "Guia de Carreteras" and you can pick that up at Infotur, Calle Obispo #521, in Old Havana. There aren’t a lot of gas stations along the highway so fill up frequently. The main stations are Cupet and Oro Negro and you can find the bigger ones on the highway map, Guia de Carreteras.
Main Highways - Carretera Central (Central Highway) cuts down the middle of the island from east to west and is the main transportation axis in Cuba. It passes through all the urban centers along the way and is the route between Havana and the eastern regions like Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo. It also connects with other main thoroughfares like the National Highway, the Monumental, Via Blanca and La Farola. This is a 2-lane road much of the way that was built in the 1930s and there are virtually no signs. The National Highway was built in the 1970s and is much more modern, opening up to as many as 8 lanes. It goes through the entire western region as far as far Ciego de Avila, which is about halfway across the island and does not reach any of the eastern provinces.
TRANSPORTATION – Local
Buses: Public transportation consists of buses and “camellos” (camels), cumbersome 18-wheel vehicles that were created to carry large numbers of people into Havana from the suburbs during an economic low point in the 1990s. The camellos are now being slowly phased out as the country purchases newer buses and parts from abroad. The cost to ride is merely pennies, but most routes will have prohibitively long lines and visitors to the island should plan to take taxis.
State (Tourist) Taxis: The official taxis are well marked and equipped with meters (although the driver may try to enter into a price agreement directly with the customer). If you don’t know how much the fare should be, best to opt for the meter. A taxi can be called from a hotel, private house or public phone, or flagged on the street. Some taxi companies are more expensive than others but for short distances or sharing a cab with others, the difference will be minimal. The white Panataxis are the cheapest and most common. You can call Panataxi at 855-5555 and they usually come in 10–20 minutes. If it’s your first experience in Cuba, stick with the state taxis.
Maquinas (Collectivos): Private cars turned into taxis come in all shapes and sizes and have become one of the most common expressions of free enterprise in Cuba. As a solution to transportation issues in the mid 1990s, Cuba created opportunities for car owners to legally use their cars as taxis. Maquinas (machines) are typically large American cars from the 50s, converted to “peso” taxis for Cubans. These collective taxis run along certain routes, stopping along the way to drop off and pick up passengers. You can often catch one at its point of origin or termination before turning around, like the Capitolio or la Coppelia. A colectivo is 10 pesos Cubano (or 50¢ CUC) and sometime 20 pesos for longer distances. They are not supposed to pick up foreigners, but if you know the ropes, they almost never refuse and for the same price as Cubans.
Private Taxis: Usually Russian model Ladas, these private cars can be spotted because of the cardboard taxi sign in the window. You also may see drivers sweeping tourists areas and nightclubs at closing, asking people if they need a taxi. These drivers may or may not have the permission to pick people up, so use your discretion and always set the price before taking off. It is possible to find a private driver for longer trips or at a day rate, which would be about $30 for the day. If you take a private car, always talk first about the price.
Rental Cars: It is possible to rent a car for about $60 per day plus insurance. During the high season (June–July, Dec–Feb) there are fewer cars available, so you want to make a reservation early. The agencies with the most cars are Transtur, Cubacar, and Via Rent-a-Car and most big hotels have a rental car agency right in the lobby.
TRANSPORTATION – Maps
Maps: Street maps of Cuba can be hard to come by but there are a few for sale in Old Havana at Infotur at #521 Calle Obispo. You may also be able to find some maps on-line. Below are a few examples of maps showing all the provinces in Cuba, as well as some parts of Havana. Click map to enlarge.
Map of Provinces in Cuba
Map of Main Cities in Cuba
Street Map - Central Havana
Road Map - Province of Havana
Check the distance between cities within Cuba on this cool distance chart, Click the logo:
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COMMUNICATIONS – Calling between U.S. and Cuba
Calling Cuba from U.S.: Calling Cuba is expensive. If you make frequent calls, it’s best to have a long distance calling plan in place that includes Cuba, which will get the price down to about $1 per minute. Each province has an area code (below). From the U.S. first dial 011-53 + area code and number.
|Ciudad Havana (city)
||Ciego de Avila
|Havana Campo (country)
|Pinar del Rio
|Santi Espiritu/Isla de Juventud
|Cell phone in Cuba
Calling U.S. from Cuba: You can make direct calls to the U.S. from almost any hotel, but for a high price. Expect to pay $3–4 CUC per minute. You can also purchase a pre-paid calling card at many hotels and ETECSA communications offices for use in the public phones. The cost is $2 per minute for calls to the U.S. Insert the card and dial 119-1 + area code and number.
COMMUNICATIONS – Calling within Cuba
Local calls: Local calls from a hotel are .10 to .25¢ per minute.
From the public phones, local calls are only a few cents per minute on the calling card. From a private house there is no charge on their bill, unless you are calling another province. To call another province from a public or private phone, dial 0 + the area code of the province from the list above, and then the number.
Directory assistance: Dial 113 for assistance finding a number within Cuba and 180 for a number in any other country.
Operator assistance: For operator assistance making international calls, dial 00 and for assistance calling a number in Cuba dial 0.
COMMUNICATIONS – Internet access
There is internet access in almost every hotel in Havana now. The speed is about like dial-up, but there are some slightly faster connections. The hourly rate is $6–15 CUC per hour. The Havana Libre business center has about 10 computers so there’s usually no wait and the fee is $9 per hour. The Parque Central is really comfortable, almost always has a free computer and is somewhat faster, but it’s $15 per hour. The Hotel Palco in Playa is only $6 an hour and they have 24-hour internet access with free Wi-Fi in the lobby when there’s a big event or conference in the hotel. The Capitolio’s Internet Café is on the cheap side but is usually pretty crowded. The business center in the Hotel Nacional in Vedado has a lot of services and the internet is about $12 per hour.
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OTHER TRAVEL CONSIDERATIONS – Health and Safety
Emergencies: The number for the police is 116, but this number seems to be gaining acceptance as a national number for any type of emergency. Dial 114 for an ambulance and 115 for the fire department.
Medical Care: Some hotels have a nurse or doctor on call for minor illnesses and injuries. There are also several good tourist hospitals, clinics and pharmacies in Havana. Visitors can go to Cira Garcia Hospital in Miramar with emergencies, as well as non-critical injury or illness. The charge for a doctor visit is $25, with extra fees for lab work and medicine. Prescriptions written by a physician can be filled at a tourist or Cuban “peso" pharmacy. Havanatur sells medical insurance for a fee of $5 a day for illnesses and accidents that happen in Cuba. Ask your travel agent or at your hotel, if you’d like to purchase this health insurance.
General Safety: Cuba is a relatively safe city. Tourists can walk in most neighborhoods, but should be aware that petty theft like camera and purse snatching is on the rise, especially in Old Havana, Central Havana and Chinatown. Pay attention to your surroundings and your belongings like you would in any other big city. Lock your money, passport and plane tickets in your hotel room safe or suitcase. A copy of your passport is sufficient so avoid carrying the original with you. Be careful walking in the street. Sidewalks and streets have big potholes and pedestrians do not have the right-of-way.
OTHER TRAVEL CONSIDERATIONS – Weather
Cuba has a rainy season (May–Oct) and a dry season (Nov–Apr). The dry season is characterized by mild, sunny weather with average daytime temperatures of 75° to 80°F (24°–27°C), but passing “cold fronts” can cause a severe drop in temperature, especially in December and January. The nicest months are usually February, March and April. The rainy season has higher temperatures with summer (Jun, Jul, Aug) in the 90s with high humidity and frequent rain. August, the typically hottest month of the year, usually has some dry spells. The entire Caribbean is affected by an annual hurricane season (Jun-Oct). September and October usually have the highest number of hurricanes.
Click logo to see current weather in Havana.
OTHER TRAVEL CONSIDERATIONS – Food and Water
Food: Typical Cuban food is rice and beans, with meat, fish, or chicken, salad and usually a vianda (potatoes, platanos, boniato or yucca, boiled or fried). Cuban food can be very delicious, but lack of variety is a common complaint among tourists. There are more great places to eat in Cuba than ever before and we have some restaurant suggestions in our Guide to Havana section.
Water: Drinking bottled water is recommended because unfamiliar bacteria can cause diarrhea and other stomach problems for travelers. The tap water in Cuba is potable and many Cubans drink water from the faucet, while others boil their drinking water. If you’re visiting a Cuban friend in their home, it’s okay to ask if the water has been boiled. Drinks and ice cream sold on the street will likely not be made from boiled water. Bottled water in hotels and restaurants is expensive, but is only about 1 CUC for a 1-liter bottle in the store. Eating salads in restaurants and brushing your teeth at the sink does not normally present a health concern, but each person will need to decide how careful they should be based on their own sensitivity.
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