13 Things You Need to Know Before You Go to Cuba

Planning a trip to Cuba can be an intimidating venture. For U.S. travelers especially, it can be hard to know where to start -- since travel restrictions only loosened this year, it's harder to rely on word-of-mouth recommendations, and there aren't as many Internet resources as one might hope. So for the uninitiated, we decided to share the top 13 things you need to know before you make your trip. And we're speaking from experience, since we just made the trip down to Cuba ourselves.

1. Don't Be Nervous -- It Really Is Legal, If You Do It Right

Photo credit: J Aaron Farr, Flickr

Photo credit: J Aaron Farr, Flickr

U.S. travelers who grew up knowing a trip to Cuba was off-limits may be nervous about getting a visa and going through customs. It really is OK, and they can even stamp your passport (many U.S. travelers made illegal trips by asking customs officials to stamp their visas instead before the rules changed). Cuba has long permitted U.S. travelers to enter; it's the U.S. that made it easier to travel to Cuba this year by allowing travelers to visit for these 12 reasons without having to obtain special permission. It's easiest to visit as part of an officially sanctioned tour group, but U.S. travelers can also make their own plans -- as long as the reason for the visit is legal. 

2. It's True That "Cuban Standards" Are Different

Star ratings in Cuba are inflated by international standards; the advertised four-star hotel above earned three pearls on Oyster.
Star ratings in Cuba are inflated by international standards; the advertised four-star hotel above earned three pearls on Oyster.

Trolling through TripAdvisor reviews, travelers will probably read many references to "Cuban standards" -- as in, "it's OK by Cuban standards." Cuba struggles with supply issues (the U.S. embargo being a principle reason) and because of this, a lot of things in Cuba won't meet the expectations of international travelers. Cuban star ratings for hotels, for example, are inflated compared to star ratings in the U.S. (That's why at Oyster we have our own "pearl" ratings to keep things consistent from country to country.) Don't book a five-star hotel in Cuba and expect a true five-star experience. If you go in with an open mind and an understanding that Cubans are doing the best they can with the resources at hand, you'll have a better experience. 

3. Things Like Laundry Service, Fresh Vegetables, and (Of Course) Fast Internet Are a Challenge For Hotels

A lot of hotels garner complaints for the same things: that there are no clean towels, that there aren't enough towels, that the towels and sheets have stains on them, and that they aren't changed enough. Many hotels in Cuba struggle with laundry service -- they often have to send laundry off-site (sometimes far off-site) and old laundry machines with rusty tubes can cause rust stains. Tourists might be wise to bring a towel or two of their own, and to pack enough clothes for the entire trip. Oh, and make sure to tip the maid

We also didn't come across fresh lettuce often at resort buffets -- or any fresh vegetables, for that matter. There are fresh vegetables in Cuba -- we spotted vegetable carts in Old Havana -- but they don't frequently make their way to the resorts. Luckily, there's usually plenty of fresh fruit. 

If you've done even cursory research on Cuba you probably already know that Internet is scarce (read more about the Internet situation in our article here), but hotels usually do have it -- it's just slow and somewhat expensive (2 CUC an hour most of the time).  

4. Nowhere In Havana Is Really That Touristy

El Floridita, a bar once popular with Hemmingway, is a notable exception.
El Floridita, a bar once popular with Hemmingway, is a notable exception.

Those who like to travel adventurously and veer off the beaten path shouldn't worry too much about encountering tourist traps in Havana. Sure, there are souvenir stores selling overpriced tchotchkes, and taxi drivers will sometimes try to rip you off, but Havana is still a diamond in the rough. Its beautiful colonial buildings are for the most part crumbling and even in Old Havana there are usually more locals than tourists. El Floridita, the bar and restaurant that was once a favorite of Hemingway's, is one of the few exceptions. 

5. Don't Worry That You Need to Go Right Now -- Things in Cuba Don't Change All That Fast

We saw plenty of piles of rubble around Old Havana.
We saw plenty of piles of rubble around Old Havana.

We hear a lot of travelers in the U.S. talk about how they want to go to Cuba now before things change. They are worried that if the U.S. embargo is lifted the development that comes along with the influx of U.S. money will ruin Cuba's authenticity and charm. Our take? Don't worry about that too much. This is still a communist country, and nothing happens very quickly. Cuban laws don't allow for foreign property ownership -- every hotel in Cuba is at least 51 percent owned by the government -- so developers can't swoop in and change things overnight. Frankly, Cuba could use a little more development, and if the embargo lifts, the real question will be how the country manages to keep up with the demand. 

6. Havana Hotels Book Far in Advance

Related to the above, hotels in Havana already seem to be difficult to book. We visited many hotels in Havana that were at full occupancy and sold out for months. So if you are planning a trip, make your reservations far in advance. (U.S. travelers usually need a voucher to be allowed to stay at a hotel, which is often provided by a sanctioned tour group.)

7. It's a Good Idea to Bring Toilet Paper and Hand Sanitizer

Because of Cuba's supply issues, things like toilet paper can be in short demand -- at restaurants, museums, and even public bathrooms at hotels. Having some Kleenex and hand sanitizer in your purse or pocket can save you a lot of trouble. Because of Cuba's reputation for bland food, many visitors to all-inclusive resorts also bring their own condiments, such as hot sauce.

8. The Hotel Food Really Is Pretty Bad

It's best not to have high expectations for the hotel buffets.
It's best not to have high expectations for the hotel buffets.

Don't visit an all-inclusive resort in Cuba expecting gourmet cuisine. The best you can really hope for here is "edible and reasonably satisfying." And the worst? Well, let's just say we spotted cockroaches scurrying at a couple of the buffets. The food really is quite bland overall (we've never tasted pasta so flavorless), there are precooked mystery meats, and as previously mentioned, there are no fresh vegetables at the salad buffets. (There might be some canned green beans if you're lucky.) Stick to food at the cooked-to-order stations and you'll probably be better off. Also, the pizza is usually pretty good, which surprised us. We did have an amazing meal at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, though, so bad food isn't a guarantee -- though you should be prepared for it at the buffets in particular. 

9. But Food at Paladares Can Be Amazing

Tasty "ropa vieja" at Habana 61 in Old Havana
Tasty "ropa vieja" at Habana 61 in Old Havana

There is excellent food to be found in Cuba, especially at the private (not government-run) restaurants called "paladares." A lot of the best ones in Havana will require dinner reservations -- such as Dona Eutimia, Habana 61, and 304 O'Reilly. 

10. You Can Book Casa Particulares Through Airbnb -- But Don't Expect Your Host to Get All the Money

One of the bedrooms in our Airbnb in Havana
One of the bedrooms in our Airbnb in Havana

Yes, you can book Airbnb rentals in Cuba with a credit card before you arrive -- an important consideration for travelers nervous about carrying lots of cash. Cuba already had a system of apartment rentals called "casa particulares" that Airbnb tapped into, but there are a few key differences between these and your typical Airbnb. First, because Internet is scarce in Cuba, you'll likely communicate online with a property manager rather than the actual host, and your host will likely end up only getting a cut of whatever you pay -- which will be significantly more than what you would have paid if you booked directly once in the country. (Our host flat out asked us how much we paid a night for the room because she wanted to know if she was getting stiffed.) Second, your host will likely be a bit more involved than your typical Airbnb host. Ours was a motherly type who always wanted to chat, and we often found her in our apartment waiting for us when we returned (which privacy seekers might not appreciate). Our colleagues' host doubled as their driver. 

11. Bring Lots of Cash And Know the Location of Your Embassy

Cash is king in Cuba, and that doesn't just go for U.S. travelers who don't have the option of using credit cards. Major hotels will typically accept credit cards from companies unaffiliated with U.S. banks, but pretty much nowhere else will. Non-U.S. travelers can get cash withdrawals at a Cadeca but the experience of standing in a long line and dealing with a teller can be a hassle, and ATMs are scarce. (Tourists can sometimes jump to the head of the line at a Cadeca, though.) Bringing all the cash you'll need for your trip is a requirement if you are from the U.S. and probably a good idea even if you're not. You can exchange U.S. dollars, Euros, Canadian dollars, and British pounds for convertible pesos at the airport after you arrive in the country -- but because of the fees involved (there's an additional 10 percent tax for all exchanges between CUC and U.S. dollars), you might not want to change all your money at once. It's easy to exchange money at hotels as you go. If you end up with some leftover CUC at the end of your trip, you can pay the steep fees to change them back to U.S. dollars (allowed within Cuba only) -- or you can spend it on more rum, cigars (up to $100 worth as allowed by U.S. customs), and incredible (affordable) Cuban art. 

Make sure you know where your embassy is -- if you are from the U.S. and your money gets stolen, the embassy can help arrange for family and friends to transfer funds to you. 

12. Knowing Some Spanish Will Help a Whole Lot

Even at nice hotels staff members often have limited English.
Even at nice hotels staff members often have limited English.

Even Cubans working in the tourist industry don't always understand English, so bring a Spanish phrasebook (or translation app that works offline) if you don't speak Spanish. 

13. Don't Drink the Tap Water

Hotels often provide bottled water for sale, and sometimes for free.
Hotels often provide bottled water for sale, and sometimes for free.

This one is self-explanatory. It should be safe to use the water to brush your teeth, though, especially at hotels where the water is often treated. Make sure to stock up on bottled water. 

Update: The original article incorrectly stated that CUCs could not be changed back to U.S. dollars. They can, but only within Cuba and for a steep fee. 

Now, take a tour through Cuba.

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