Our good friend Cristina recently went on her first trip to Havana, Cuba, and put together a fantastic list of things to know before you head to this fascinating country.
I’ve always had a sort of curiosity about Cuba and I’m big into the country count so a mere 90 miles off the coast of Florida seemed too close not to. I also really wanted to get there before it became flooded with American tourists and lost it’s untouched charm – don’t think there’s much of a risk of that happening anytime soon so rest assured you have time. It’s true what they say it truly is frozen in time and it’s completely captivating as a result.
From a time of departure perspective flight schedules were fairly similar across carriers (Jet Blue, Delta & United). I had originally wanted to leave after work but all of the non-stop flights seemed to depart in the morning and even the layover options entailed an overnight in Florida. I chose United in the end because they had the best fare for a direct flight when I was looking to go.
While a visa is not required to travel to Cuba, traditional tourism still isn’t allowed. However, it is possible to obtain a license to visit permitting you meet one of the 12 categories of authorized travel. The 12 categories of authorized travel are:
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities
- 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, or transmission of information or informational materials
- Certain authorized export transactions
When purchasing an airline ticket to Cuba from the US you are required to select which category you’re travelling under. Between myself and the other travelers I spoke to who originated in the US “people to people” exchanges were the most popularly elected choice. I found most people therefore chose “education” or “support for the Cuban people” as their license category (under which people-to-people exchanges are detailed). As part of people – to – people travel it is required that you’ll interact with the locals and you’re expected to keep records for up to 5 years. I was fascinated by culture and found the people to be so warm and friendly my friends and I couldn’t help but speak with everyone we encountered from our wonderful Airbnb hosts to a tobacco farmer we met out in the countryside. I simply took photographs and wrote down their names as I went along.
It is also required to purchase health insurance which is accepted in Cuba, as most US insurance isn’t valid. Many airlines will include the cost of that in their ticket so check the fine print (on my United flight it was included). If not it seemed relatively easy to purchase online through a travel insurance aggregator. Before I realized I had it included in my ticket I was looking at options through insuremytrip.com.
Because of all the rules & regulations I printed out proof of all documentation including my return ticket, accommodation details, health insurance confirmation (which came with my ticket) & contact number (which I found in the terms & conditions of my airline confirmation). In my case no proof was asked of me but I was happy I had it to hand.
Airports in Havana
There is one airport in Havana (HAV), however there are two terminals (2 and 3) that service international flights, which are located a sizeable distance apart from one another. If you’re meeting friends be sure to check which terminal you’ll be landing in. If you need to travel from one terminal to another, as one of my travel companions did, a taxi will take you there for about 10 CUC. Terminal 3 is much more modern and I was told has a much shorter currency exchange lines if you head upstairs to departures, instead of trying to do it in the arrivals area. However, I landed and departed from terminal 2, which was very bare bones.
Departure: At the Airport
When you get to the airport you’ll need to head to the designated Cuba check in desk. At United’s Terminal C at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), this was on level two all the way to one side, sort of standing on its own. Everyone I asked pointed me in the right direction and there were plenty of signs, so you can’t miss it. Once you’re at the designated counters you’re going to need to purchase a Cuban Entry Permit. The cost is $50 with an additional $25 service charge, but they just charge you $75 in one go. I was given the option of paying cash or card, although in the United T&Cs it stipulated card only. You’re probably going to want to pay with a card anyway so you can save your cash to convert. The permit is about the size of an airline ticket and is comprised of two identical sides requesting simple basic personal info e.g. name, birthday etc. When they issue you the form they say it must be filled in before boarding (but not immediately, you can do it at the gate) and they stress not to make any mistakes or scratch anything out because you’ll have to purchase a new one. I’d suggest bringing a zip travel wallet (large enough to stow an airline ticket in) to keep it in – I became paranoid about it’s safekeeping. That being said, I spoke to a friend who flew the day before and made a mistake, inverting a date on the form, and it seemed to go unnoticed.
After the permit purchase I then had to get back in the same line in order to check in. I wasn’t able to check in online so had to do it there. I’m not sure why I wasn’t able to check in online, perhaps because I was flying with a foreign passport, because I saw people who had proceeded directly to the gate after purchasing the visa from the gate agent. At any rate, because I couldn’t check in online and was unsure how smoothly the process would go, I gave myself 2.5 hrs at the airport (with no checked luggage) to get through the check in process, which was more than plenty of time. I’d recommend leaving a bit more time than you would normally give yourself for a domestic flight but no need to go overboard.
Once I checked in I received a sticker on my boarding pass that said “Cuba Travel Ready“.
The boarding process was the same as it would be for any United flight. Once you’re on board, you’ll receive three more forms:
- Customs declaration
- Sanitary statement for travelers (requires details related to health-related inquiries)
- International embarkation and debarkation form
I agonized over what to put on these forms and again think I over thought it. I just kept my purpose for visiting consistent as people to people tourism and selected “other” and wrote that in when asked about the purpose of my trip. Again, no way of knowing if that was right or wrong but it seemed to do the job.
Going through immigration once I landed was pretty much as expected, takes a bit of time so just settle in and prepare for some queuing time. After deplaning passengers were shuffled into a hall with a row of immigration booths. There I waited for about 15-20 minutes to hand my passport and forms over to an immigration officer who also took my picture, which took no time at all. She gave me back some of the forms and then I left through the opposite side of the booth into a security area. I then got into another queue to put my bags through scanner and walk through a metal detector before reaching baggage claim. Once in the general baggage claim area there was then another station to hand in the sanitation form and one last check to hand in the final form just before the exit. The whole process was relatively painless and straightforward. Just follow the queues until you reach the exit. Once you’ve exited if you do want to change money at the airport you need to go left through the arrivals hall to find the exchange booths. Once again another queue will be waiting for you there. There’s an information desk outside of the airport between arrivals and departures for any additional questions (I asked them where the money exchange was and they pointed me in the right direction, all in English).
There are two different types of currencies in Cuba, the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). Tourism is conducted pretty much exclusively in CUCs, which is pretty much parody with the dollar. You’re not going to be able to get CUCs until you land in Cuba so you’re going to need to bring cash to exchange, however exchanging US dollars in Cuba incurs a penalty on top of the exchange rate which makes it relatively disadvantageous to exchange, so most people come with foreign currency to exchange, with the Euro I found being the most popular. Unfortunately, American credit cards and debit cards won’t work/ aren’t acceptable so you’re going to need to bring enough cash to cover you for the duration of your journey. I was there over a long weekend, Friday – Monday, and changed €400 and ended up only using €250, however I booked an Airbnb and therefore paid accommodation up front through the site. I was happy to have the extra cash on hand since I spoke to many people before their trip who said they cut it quite fine and were running close to empty which seemed too close to comfort for me. I brought additional US dollars as well just as emergency cash but again didn’t even come close to needing it.
Once you arrive in Cuba most people head right over to the currency exchange in the terminal which causes unbelievably long lines! In my terminal there were only two of three booths open and a line of people that stretched out the door. I personally waited for two hours to have my money converted and by the time I reached the front of the queue they only had notes of 5 CUC left, which meant I left with 400 EUR worth of 5s.
After having gone through this process, I would probably try having a taxi drive me to the Hotel Nacional, one of the famous old hotels, which is centrally located, and wait while I exchanged my money there. Again, I didn’t use that approach myself but it seemed to me like a much better alternative. There are also other official places to exchange your money in Havana, like banks or Cadecas (Casa de Cambio, meaning House of Exchange). On the day I was leaving I tried to re-exchange my money there and it turned out to be too confusing and laborious so I ended up re-converting at the airport. That process is performed after you go through customs and security near the departure gates was much smoother and took practically no time at all. Note – it is not possible to convert money back to dollars at Hotel Nacional (tried & failed).
Some key things to remember as you plan:
- While you don’t need a visa, you’ll still need to obtain a license to visit, based on one of the 12 categories of authorized travel.
- You’ll need to have health insurance that covers Cuba, as most US insurance isn’t valid in Cuba. Most airlines include this in the cost of your ticket.
- At the airport, you’ll need to head to the designated Cuba check in desk – and you won’t be able to check in online.
- There are two currencies used in Cuba, but as a foreigner, you’ll use the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). You can change currency at the airport, or at a bank or Cadeca in the city.
- Have enough cash to get you through your trip, as most American credit or debit cards are not accepted in Cuba.
We hope this have provided you with some helpful tips to prepare you for your upcoming trip! Did we miss anything? Drop us a note in the comments!