Travel to Cuba Legally and Cheaply: What You Need to Know Now

Travel to Cuba - Playa Coral - Varadero Cuba

It’s still easier than ever to travel to Cuba, even with revised restrictions in 2018. Already most U.S. citizen may visit under the educational activities license although significant restrictions apply. And now multiple U.S. airlines have been approved to schedule flights from twelve American cities to ten Cuban destinations. Here’s what you need to know to plan legal and cheap travel to Cuba.

US Cuba relations

History Is Made: Travel To Cuba Opens Up

On March 22, 2016 President Obama addressed a packed house at the Gran Teatro de la Havana in Havana, Cuba. It was the first time in nearly 90 years that a sitting US president stepped on Cuban soil, and he was there to announce plans to lift the United States’ 50-year embargo on Cuba. I stood outside the theater with my son, Alex, grateful that we were able to be there and thrilled that now more Americans could have this opportunity.

As a journalist, I already qualified to visit Cuba under one of 12 General Licenses, although I was only allowed to bring one companion. But with thawing relations, it would be easier to qualify under the educational activities license, where a  “people to people” exchange includes direct personal contact with Cubans, promoting relationships and understanding. Now the rest of my family can fulfill dreams of exploring Cuba; and in fact, my daughter followed me there shortly.

China Air Flight from Montreal to Havana Cuba

Book a Flight to Cuba

In upcoming months, it will be possible to search any online booking site for flights from U.S. cities to various Cuban destinations. In the meantime, you can use Skyscanner.com to locate flights on international carriers or you can check directly with these U.S. airlines: Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Silver Airways, Spirit Airlines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, and Sun Country Airlines.

From the Northeast, you can find direct flights to Cuba from Newark, New York, and Philadelphia. With a favorable Canadian exchange rate, it’s also well worth looking at flights from Montreal or Toronto. I was able to get a round trip flight from Montreal to Havana for a little over $300 USD, and the reasonable park and ride option at Aloft Montreal Airport was much cheaper than anything comparable at NYC airports.

Cuba Tourist Card

Cuba Visa – Tourist Card Requirement

Visitors are required to present a visa, commonly referred to as a Tourist Card, when entering Cuba. Currently, visitors on flights originating in the U.S. should plan to spend about $50 USD to purchase the visa at their airport. Expect to pay $25-30 USD to buy the visa in the Mexico City airport, while passengers flying direct from Canada receive the free Tourist Card on the flight.

Returning to the U.S. is fairly easy and seems to run on an honor system. But it is recommended to keep a record of your itinerary for five years so that you can prove that you fulfilled the terms of the license used to visit Cuba. But why not have fun with this? A photo album with photos of new Cuban friends and interesting attractions should more than satisfy any requirements.

Mandatory Travel Insurance for Travel to Cuba

All foreign nationals must have travel health insurance to enter Cuba. You may not be asked to show proof upon entry, but why risk it? At about $3/day (a little more if you plan risky activities such as scuba diving or rock climbing) it’s a bargain for a little peace of mind. Get it before you go from Asistur S.A. online at Cuban Adventures.

Colonial House - Vendado - Cuba

A vintage car passes by the colonial house in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana, Cuba that we booked on AirBnb.com.

Accommodations In Cuba

Booking a hotel in Cuba can be an adventure in itself. Online hotel booking sites don’t carry the listings, and hotel websites (and often the physical location) leave a lot to be desired.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts was the first to sign a deal allowing a U.S. hospitality management of two properties: Hotel Inglaterra, a landmark in Old Havana, and Hotel Quinta Avenida, soon to become a Four Points by Sheraton hotel.

Sunset over Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana.

Visitors gather for Mojito cocktails and a view of the sunset on the Malecón on the lawn at Hotel Nacional de Cuba.

If price is no object, Havana offers a number of high-end luxury hotels including: Parque Central, an Iberostar property; Hotel Nacional de Cuba, well worth touring even if not staying onsite; and Hotel Saratoga, popular with celebrities.

For those of us on a tight budget, AirBnB.com lists an extensive selection of rooms and even full apartments, often with breakfast and helpful host included. My first stay at an AirBnB.com property was at a lovely colonial home in the quiet Vendado neighborhood of Havana. Jose, our host, came out to greet our taxi and helped us with our luggage before offering Cuba Libres on the rooftop garden. Over the next few days, we shared many delightful conversations as he helped us plan our stay while offering insight into what it’s really like to live in Cuba. I consider this one of the top “people to people” exchanges of our entire visit.

Cuba Money Exchange booth at José Martí International Airport

I exchanged Euros for “CUC”s at the airport so as to have Cuban currency for the taxi ride. Afterwards, I wished that I had exchanged more currency because the rates are as good as they’re going to get anywhere and it was a hassle trying to find a place to exchange money that was open when I needed it.

Cuban Currency

Probably the most challenging aspect of touring Cuba as a U.S. citizen is that it’s cash only. You can’t withdraw money at ATMs and U.S.-based credit cards are not accepted anywhere. Plus, there is a penalty for exchanging U.S. currency (we requested Euros from our bank at home to avoid the extra fee.)

Experts recommend bringing $100 USD/per person/per day, but that number will vary according to what you want to do on the island. I brought a little less than that, and had already paid for accommodations. I had more than enough for food, excursions, and taxis (airport to Vendado was about $30 USD, while most local trips averaged $5 USD.) But I had to choose between activities (scuba diving, although relatively cheap at about $60 for 2 dives, was a budget buster toward the end of our trip) and we didn’t buy any souvenirs.

Cuba WiFi Cards

WiFi in Cuba

If you want to get off the grid, then Cuba is the place to go. Wifi access is hard to find, expensive when available, and slow as molasses regardless of price. I found that a mojito went a long way toward sweetening what was a true annoyance as I had to walk several blocks to reach a hotel with WiFi access, and then it was only available in a crowded, windowless room at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba.

Since then, I learned that the ETECSA Wifi card can be purchased at a number of hotels and ETECSA centers. (Find Wifi on the island on this list published by Tripadvisor, current as of December 2015.) Scratch off the card to reveal a passcode that can be used to get online wherever there is Wifi access (with more available since Cuba opened up 35 new Wifi spots this summer.)

Cocomobil and Vintage Car on Malecon - Havana, Cuba

Cuban Attractions

Finding educational activities and “people to people” exchanges can be as easy as taking a walk in Old Havana. For a good overview of what to do, check out my list of best Cuban excursions. Many destinations in Cuba can be easily and cheaply reached on your own via Viazul bus.  But for greater insight and a little hand holding, consider a guided experience. Both short day tours and overnight excursions from the following providers:

Havana Photo Tour

Havana is a very walkable city; on the first day, I logged in 12 miles just because I lost track of time and distance photographing vintage cars, lovely architecture, and about a gazillion fascinating Cuban portraits. Here are a few must-see stops in Havana:

Fishing - Malecon - Havana, Cuba

Stretching for 5 miles along the coast of Havana, the Malecón seawall buzzes with activity day and night.

Vintage Car - Hotel Nacional de Cuba

Vintage taxis can be hired for about $30USD for a two-hour tour of Havana, including photo opps like this one in front of Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Look for taxis offering tours in front of major hotels and other touristic stops.

Che Gueverra - Ministerio del Interior - Havana Cuba

Circle Plaza de la Revolución where, in addition to a central tower, you will find large murals of heroic guerilleros Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos on government building facades.

Capitalio - Havana Cuba

In Old Havana, you’ll want to see El Capitolio. Once Cuba’s seat of government, the National Capitol Building is now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences. It sits next to a lovely park where, interestingly enough, you’ll find a statue of Abraham Lincoln, and the tree-lined Paseo del Prado, a promenade extending from the Capitolio to the Morro fort.

Paseo del Prado - Havana Cuba

El Morro - Havana Cuba

Located at the end of the Paseo del Prado, where it intersects the Malecón, Morro Castle guards Havana Bay. Every night, at 9pm, you can view the reenactment of the firing of the canon. Note that this is a popular activity; get there early (as early as 7pm) to pick up tickets before crossing the bridge into the fort and to get a good spot close to the action.

Callejon de Hamel - Havana Cuba

Tucked in a hidden corner of Old Havana, Callejón de Hamel (Hamel’s Alley) brings Afro-Cuban to colorful life. Walk through anytime to see mosaics, murals, and sculptures inspired by the Santeria religion that grew out of Cuba’s slave trade. If you can, drop by on Sundays at noon for lively rumba performances or schedule a guided tour that also includes a visit to sculptor Salvador Gonzales Escalona’s studio in addition to the dance exhibition.

Chapel - Colon Cemetery - Havana Cuba

Some of the most stunning architecture you’ll see in all of Havana is found at Colon Cemetery. Covering more than 140 acres with over 2.5 million burials, you could spend an entire day trying to see it all or just a short stroll to get the gist of it.

Milagros - Colon Cemetery - Havana Cuba

If you only have time to see one burial site, make it to that of Amelia Goyri, “La Milagrosa.” The legend goes that after she died in childbirth, her husband visited every day. When the remains were eventually exhumed, it is said that the bodies were intact, with mother embracing son, symbolizing maternal love. Today, the tomb is easy to spot because there’s a steady stream of patrons lining up to offer prayers for safe births at the site.

John Lennon Park - Havana Cuba

The Beatles live on in Cuba. In Havana, you can have your picture taken with one of the rock stars at Parque John Theodore Lennon in Vedado. The park is located next to the Submarino Yellow (Yellow Submarine) Club where you can hear live concerts, Monday-Saturday 9pm-2am for only $5USD.

Coppelia Ice Cream - Havana Cuba

Mojitos sipped on the lawn overlooking the Malecon at Hotel Nacional de Cuba is one of those sublime, iconic experiences that you must do when in Havana. For those of us with a sweet tooth, however, Coppelia Ice Cream is THE not-to-be-missed treat.

Varadero Beach - Varadero Cuba

Varadero Photo Tour

Hop on a Viazul bus to make the 2+ hour drive to Varadero, the popular beach town. Multiple buses are available daily for about $10 USD one way. Keep in mind, however, that as a U.S. citizen you can’t just lay out on the beach with a daiquiri. Fortunately, it’s not that difficult to add educational activities in Varadero to your sun-soaked days.

Balcony View - Varadero Cuba

If you squint, you can spot the ocean from our balcony.

Our Varadero accommodations were adequate, but not great. March is high season in the popular beach town, and most listings on AirBnb.com were taken by the time I made the booking. I was able to get a 1-bedroom apartment, with kitchenette and small balcony, for about $35 USD in easy walking distance from the main street and the beach.

Viazul Bus Station - Varadero Cuba

While our immediate surrounding weren’t great, we were only a block from the Viazul bus station.

Produce stand at morning market in Varadero Cuba.

And on Saturday morning, we were were right next to the bustling Farmer’s Market.

Havana Club - Varadero Cuba

Carriage rides on Coches Hicacos are available all along the main strip.

There’s plenty to see and do right on the main strip in Varadero. Lots of little shops sell straw hats, leather goods, and the usual souvenirs. We found a relatively well-stocked grocery store where we bought water in bulk and breakfast cereals.

Fast Food - Varadero Cuba

Priced at 50 MN, this entire plate probably worked out to about $2 USD.

We also found a couple of cheap “fast food” stands where items were priced in “MN,” meaning Cuban pesos (each CUC converts to about 25 MN.) Note that even this fast food was served on a washable, reusable ceramic plate. I think this helps explain why you see so little trash on Cuban streets.

Paella - Bodeguitoa del Medio - Varadero Cuba

Our only real dining splurge in Varadero was at La Bodeguita del Medio, now found around the world, it’s known for creating the mojito at the original restaurant in Havana. I can attest that they make a mean mojito and the paella is pretty good too. Plus, we got a kick out of being encouraged to add to the graffiti adorning the building.

Josone Park - Varadero Cuba

One of our favorite spots in town was at Josone Park. My son ran there every evening when temperatures cooled, and it happens to be right next to the Beatles Bar.

Beetles Bar - Varadero Cuba

Of course, we dropped in for photos with the band, but it’s also a great place to hear live music. The stage is outdoors, overlooking Josone Park, and they serve a delicious mojito.

Barracuda International Dive Center - Varadero Cuba

Across from the Beatles Bar, we found the Barracuda International Dive Center where we reserved a snorkeling trip to Playa Coral, the only nearby beach with good coral reefs, for about $35 USD per person. The beach is just far enough away that it would cost almost as much to hire a taxi out there as it does for the guided trip, and if you’re not an experienced snorkeler, it’s well worth the expense for both personal and environmental safety reasons. The center offers a number of dive trips as well as kite surfing and jet ski rentals.

Playa Coral Tour - Varadero Cuba

The “tour bus” to Playa Coral was this beautiful blue vintage vehicle, which remained parked by the beach while we snorkeled.

Coral Reef - Playa Coral - Varadero Cuba

The reef held several lovely coral formations and numerous fish, and I could see why they might insist on guided tours to protect the fragile ecosystem.

Coral Reef - Playa Coral - Varadero Cuba

On the way back, they took us to Saturno Cave for an invigorating dip in a freshwater pool.

Varadero Bus Tour

For $5 USD you can hop on and off a double-decker Varadero Beach Tour bus making stops on the main street, several attractions, and at all the resorts, with the entire trip taking about 45 minutes each way.

Varadero Iberostar Pool

We took the bus out to the Varadero Iberostar resort to get a Wifi card, and ended up spending several hours exploring the beach and lounging by the pool. Employees seemed to think that we were staying at the all-inclusive because they insisted on handing us free drinks.

Trinidad Excursion Photo Tour

I booked one overnight excursion because I was told that the one place I shouldn’t miss in Cuba is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Trinidad. It was a last minute relatively expensive decision–a little over $200 per person–but it was worth every penny as we saw a lot in a very short time. (My only regret was not booking it before traveling to Cuba as I had to use my dwindling reserve of cash to pay for it.)

Feeding Crocodiles - Zapata Swamp - Cuba

Cuba boasts several protected environments, including the largest Caribbean wetland, the Zapata Swamp Biosphere. It’s a little cheesy for my taste and I don’t know how I feel about kids feeding the crocodiles (see above) but there’s no denying the attraction’s success. Once nearly extinct, native crocodiles are so plentiful that they now sell crocodile steaks at the Boca de Guamà restaurant next door.

Bay of PigsWe made a very brief stop to take photos at the Bay of Pigs. Definitely, the drawback to traveling with a tour group was that we couldn’t just stay for a swim as we had to stay on schedule.

Marinero Restaurant - Cienfuegos Cuba

Lunch at the Marinero Restaurant in Cienfuegos, Cuba was an all-you-can-eat buffet deal, but the building where the restaurant was located was magnificent. This was just one of several buildings  we saw in the once wealthy city with over the top architecture.

Benny More Statue - Cienfuegos

As Cienfuegos was also home to Benny Moré, our guide introduced us to one of his best known songs, a tribute to the city, before dropping us off to see a plaza dedicated to the celebrated musician.

Band - La Canchara - Trinidad Cuba

One of the things I most appreciated about the excursion was that there was a real effort to make it fun. When we arrived in Trinidad, even before touring the historic town square, we started with refreshments and a live band at La Canchanchara.

Trinidad CubaThe remarkably well-preserved colonial town of Trinidad, whose wealth was built on the backs of slavery and the sugar industry, is perhaps a little too well maintained. My son likened it to a Disney set in that it doesn’t seem real. And as it happens, even a short stroll past the perfectly painted town square, brings you to dilapidated alleys where you might find locals making items to sell to tourists.

Panadero - Boca Cuba

Boca is the kind of town where every morning begins with the delivery of fresh bread.

We spent the night at a private home in the nearby town of Boca. This small fishing community seemed to be thriving with new industry, but I suspect this had much to do with folks renting out rooms to tourits. Alex and I shared a simple but clean air-conditioned room at the home of a young mom who provided dinner and breakfast. I got to chat with both mother and daughter, commiserating over how to keep kids from spending too much time on electronic screens.

La Guayabera - Sancti Spiritus

The world’s largest Guayabera Shirt at 16 feet long by 10 feet wide.

In Sancti Spiritus, I broke off from the tour group. While the others viewed historic buildings and Cuba’s oldest bridge in one the island’s first European settlements, I wandered off and found a much quirkier attraction. The Guayabera Museum exhibits nearly 200 of what is considered Cuba’s official shirt (legend suggests that a local seamstress invented the garment when she sewed patches on her husband’s shirt so that he could carry home guavas) and it boasts the world’s largest.

Che Gueverra Monument - Santa Clara Cuba

Probably the best part of the tour was that we covered a lot of history in a very short period of time. From Cuba’s oldest settlements and a discussion of slavery and the sugar industry, we turned to Cuba’s ongoing revolution. In Santa Clara we began at the Che Gueverra Monument and Museum where troops of soldiers were preparing for a major presentation.

Tren Blindado - Santa Clara Cuba

Then we hustled over to the Tren Blindado, a memorial to a major turning point in the Cuban Revolution that I had never heard of before. But that’s the beauty of travel to Cuba. You get to see and experience perspectives that may be new and unfamiliar, but worthy of consideration.

I missed some of the luxuries that I am accustomed to in the U.S.–unlimited and easily accessible Wifi topping the list–but I also appreciated the break from constantly being online. Generally, as a privileged American visitor, I kept finding that for anything missing, there was something gained. Cuba is definitely worth visiting right now, but I think that ten days isn’t enough. I’ll just have to return to fully appreciate all that this fascinating island has to offer.

Psst! Pass it on.
  • 19
  • 3
  •  
  •  
  •  
  • 1
  •  
  •  
    23
    Shares
In Category: Caribbean, Travel The World

Sandra Foyt is a storyteller, photographer, and road trip junkie. A veteran of many cross-country road trips, she drove Route 66, the Lincoln Highway, the fossil freeway, the extraterrestrial highway, and even “the loneliest road in America.” Nowadays, she stars in her own version of "Where's Waldo?," always in search of sweet treats and grand adventures.

No comments yet. Be the first.
TwitCount Button