Cuba: A How-To Guide for Americans
Ever since Cuba has been opened up to Americans, it seems that every travel publication has Cuba in their one of their "Best Of" lists. So of course, when I found insanely cheap tickets to this tropical mystery, I decided book immediately without even asking for time off from work. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. It worked out because three days from now, I will be in Havana!
I quickly figured out that getting to Cuba is not that simple for Americans. There are some unique challenges that we face so I've compiled some of the research I've done for you.
A Little Background
The United States and Cuba have had a tumultuous relationship since the 1960s when the the U.S. placed various economic and diplomatic sanctions on the island nation. Because of these policies, American citizens were prohibited from visiting Cuba until very recently. This change began when President Obama began communications with Cuba in 2009 when Obama reversed some regulations against Cuba. The countries' relationship was again strained when an American citizen was arrested in Cuba.
This all changed in 2014 when President Obama and Raul Castro declared that both countries would resume full diplomatic ties and President Obama became the first sitting American president to visit Cuba since 1959.
Despite the progress between the two countries, there are still roadblocks for Americans wishing to visit Cuba. Because the U.S. hasn't officially lifted its embargo on Cuba, Americans are prohibited from traveling to Cuba as tourists. Don't fret, however, there are now commercial flights from the U.S. to Cuba and there are still 12 different visas that Americans can apply for to visit Cuba.
This are the 12 categories that U.S. citizens can choose from:
- Family Visits
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research or professional meetings
- Educational activities and people-to-people exchanges
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, transmission of information or informational materials
- Travel related to certain authorized export transactions
From what I've read, these categories are really general and are inconsistently enforced. When I booked my flight for Havana, I chose the educational activities as my reason to visit; I also had to pick a reason for my Air BnB. I plan to stay with local families and visit museums to fulfill that requirement.
Some commercial airlines ask for you to purchase your visa 72 hours before takeoff, whereas others allow you to buy it the day of. I'm flying with Delta and they told me that I can buy my visa when I check in the day of the flight.
Because the embargo is still in place, many American cards do not work in Cuba. Therefore, Americans have to carry cash for their trips. Another result of the embargo is that there is a 10% penalty fee when exchanging U.S. Dollars to Cuban currency. Some suggestions are to exchange your dollars to CAD or EUR first before exchanging your money.
It's good to note that Cuba actually has two currencies. The Cuban Peso (CUP) is used by Cuban citizens and the rate is roughly 1 CUP to .037 USD. There's also the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) that are for tourists; the exchange rate is about 1 CUC to 1 USD. I plan to use a mix of both currencies on my trip.
While it's always a good idea to buy travel health insurance, it's actually a requirement for visitors to Cuba. Several airlines include health insurance in the price of your ticket (Delta is one of them) so your ticket would be proof of insurance. It's best to call the airline you booked with to see if they do that; if your airline doesn't include health insurance, it can be bought at the airport in Cuba upon arrival.
BOOKING A PLACE TO STAY
Hotels in Cuba can be quite expensive. There is, however, an extensive network of casa particulares which are kind of like Air BnBs where you stay with local families. Many casas are actually listed on Air BnB. I booked my first two nights on Air Bnb and will try to navigate the particulare system when there to find other housing.
Make sure to follow my Instagram to get updates on my trip. Have you been to Cuba? Leave any suggestions in the comments!