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An easy guide for American travel to Cuba

  • May 4, 2017
  • By Christina
  • 2 Comments
An easy guide for American travel to Cuba

Ahh Cuba. The beautifully misrepresented country which was off limits to American tourists for over fifty years. The conflict between the U.S. and Cuba reached it’s ultimate climax with the Cuban Missile Crisis, setting forth an over fifty year embargo — the longest in modern history. The Cubans coined it “The Blockade” to describe the prohibition of American travel to Cuba.

Thankfully, tensions have eased, the travel ban is (mainly) lifted, and Americans are curious to know about this mysterious and vibrant country. Specifically, how to travel to Cuba as an American. Should it be moved to the top of your travel list? Is it a “high risk” country? Is it dangerous? Should you visit?

Without further ado, here is the first of several posts in which I will answer as many questions as possible and address the concerns that I, like many of you, had before traveling to Cuba.

How to travel to Cuba as an American

Step 1: Book your flight! 

I booked my flights on SkyScanner, which I have consistently found to be cheaper than many other hacker fare websites. Alaska Airlines flies directly to Havana, but I chose the least expensive fare, a red-eye with a layover in Panama. We did nearly miss our connecting flight to Havana, so make sure your layover is at least two hours.

Our flight there was through Copa Airlines, and we were able to fly directly from Havana to LAX on Alaska Airlines for a roundtrip total of $381.

American travel to Cuba

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The Malecón at sunset

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The unmistakably authentic view of Havana from basically any terrace in the city.

Step 2: The Necessary Documents

The Affidavit: As an American, before you leave the U.S. you have to fill out a form to explain why you’re choosing to travel to Cuba. Cuban-American relations remain a delicate issue, but the Cubans themselves never made me feel anything but completely welcome in their country.

You have 12 options to choose from to explain why you’re traveling to Cuba. I chose “To Participate in Educational Activities” because I am a college student. You can just as easily select the option of “Support to the Cuban People,” as tourism has a direct influence on the daily lives of nearly all Cubans.

Print the affidavit from your airline’s website and give it to the airline attendant when you check in, or before you board, depending on which airport you’re departing from. It will look similar to this one from Copa Airlines. 

The Visa: In order to gain entry to Cuba you need a Tourist Visa Card, which is good for up to 30 days. If you’re flying direct, you have to buy the Visa before you leave and can usually get it from your airline from around $60-$100. Because I flew through Panama I was able to buy it at the counter right before I boarded the plane. I was told by Copa Airlines it would cost $55, but only paid $20. True to the nature of travel to Cuba, information is often inconsistent, but in this particular instance, it worked in my benefit! 

Keep your visa safe during your trip! Upon entry to Cuba my passport and visa were both stamped with a hot pink Cuban insignia. I was led to believe Cuban authorities would keep half of the Visa when we left the country, but they kept the entire Visa and I was never asked by anyone to see it again.

Travel Insurance: You are required to bring international travel insurance when traveling to Cuba. There are several providers, this is the one we went with. The insurance was $72 and we were asked to show proof before we boarded our plane to leave LAX, but not asked for proof in Cuba.

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Step back in time in colonial Trinidad

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Step 3: A Tale of Two Currencies

Currency is a tricky thing in Cuba, especially for Americans. There are two currencies, the Cuban Peso, which locals use exclusively, and the Convertible Peso, which tourists and government workers use. As an American, you WILL NOT be able to withdraw money from the ATMs as our government regards Cuba as a “high risk” country. This label prohibits American banks from doing business in Cuba. I will elaborate more on the “high risk” myth in another post.

Know the currencies. If there is a monument on it and it is labeled “Cuban Convertible Peso,” you’re using CUC. If you see a face like Ché Guevara or another revolutionary hero, you’ve got the local currency. I have read articles about people trying to get by solely on the local pesos in order to feel better connected to the Cuban people. I used CUC the entire time, and felt very connected to the Cubans.  If you’re willing to speak a little Spanish, ask questions, eat at privately owned restaurants or at the casa particulars, be open minded and listen… the Cubans will talk to you, quite candidly in my experience.

I had several amazing conversations with locals who repeatedly referred to us Americans as their neighbors. We talked with people about the economy, politics, Cuban life, and Cuban-American relations. FYI: They do not like Trump, don’t take it personally as they do like American citizens.

How much cash to bring varies depending on how much you think you’ll spend. Booking accommodation in advance will prevent you from having to dip into your cash. I found Cuba to be a very inexpensive country for eating and drinks, and overall my budget was about CUC $50-75 a day. In any event, it’s best to bring more so you don’t run out, (like I did)!

Be mindful of menus. At one point Steve wanted a pizza from the infamous woman on the street who yells up orders to an apartment several floors up and a magical basket drops down with freshly baked pizza in it. The cost of one pizza is CUP $10, we gave her 1 CUC (around CUP $25) and called it a day. Cubans are very flexible, so you should be, too.

Traveling to Cuba_American_Havana

Cash is King

The most frustrating thing for me about traveling to Cuba was planning how much money to bring. Did I mention that you will not have access to your bank accounts in Cuba?? Before leaving, anticipate how much cash you think you’ll need each day and multiply that by how many days you’ll be there. Evidently, some hotels will allow you to pay for items with your bank or credit card, but I didn’t use mine once. I hated the idea of walking around with a wad of cash in my bag and had misread that I could get money out of the ATM. Consequently, I didn’t book all of my accommodation in advance, so I ran out of money!

In hindsight, not once did I feel like I needed to be overly paranoid about my bag. Of course, I didn’t advertise that I had cash, but petty theft is not a big problem in Cuba like in other parts of the world as the consequence for criminals who target tourists is steep. Just be smart and vigilant about your surroundings and you need not worry.

Before I left I exchanged my USD to Euros. If you bring USD you will be charged a whopping 10% penalty fee to exchange them to CUC, plus the standard 3% conversion fee. By converting to Euro and then to CUC, you’ll end up losing less. Here’s an example based off of the exchange rate in April, but keep in mind the most current exchange rate will dictate the results. Bear with me folks!

100 USD = CUC $100, but with the 10% penalty and 3% conversion fee, that CUC $100 dwindles down to CUC $87.

Instead, do this:

100 USD = 86 Euro, 86 Euro = CUC $94, or $94 USD. You’re saving $7 per $100 by first converting to Euro.

If you’re bringing a wad of dough, that $7 per hundred amounts to at least $70, if you’re a visual learner like me, that’s roughly 23 daiquiris!

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I’ll take 22 more daiquiris, please!

The Bottom Line

Bring more money than you think you’ll need. I got by dipping into my trusty emergency fund of USD which I exchanged for CUC. My boyfriend also brought a survival fund double the amount of mine which I was able to borrow from. Bottom line: He saved my butt, he is amazing, I love him and his affinity for planning is much better than mine!

Side note: I was repeatedly warned about money scams… that random additional charges would appear on my receipt for meals or that I would be short changed, or given back CUP instead of CUC. I am happy to announce that this didn’t happen to me once on my trip, in fact… I was undercharged once and had to inform the server to add what I owed to the bill!

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Step 4: Customs

Cuban citizens really do like us Americans. They want us to travel there and to mend fences completely with the American Government. This became clear to me initially because going through customs in Cuba took all of about 15 minutes. Don’t feel uneasy! It’s becoming increasingly popular to travel to Cuba from America. You have nothing to worry about if you fall under one of the 12 categories.

Going through customs getting into Cuba was effortless. Returning back into the U.S. was effortless. I wasn’t asked one question about why I traveled to Cuba!

That said, we did have a hiccup when going through customs to leave Cuba. I wish I didn’t have to write this, but I believe in informing people of the truth, so here goes. A Cuban customs official tried to make Steve go outside of the airport to pay someone to leave the country. As I went to grab the door handle to exit through customs, I suddenly heard Steve yelling my name from another counter blocked off from mine. I engaged in a heated exchange with the customs officer, addressing the fact that there is no longer an exit fee, and begrudgingly he allowed him to leave.

I don’t know what scam unfolds when a sad soul falls for it, but I was thankful to bypass it. It was an absolutely terrible way to end our trip, but it will not negatively effect my overall opinion of Cuba and its wonderful people.

If trouble surfaces, keep your cool but don’t allow anyone to take advantage of you! Be patient, be assertive, and always be nice!

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El Capitolio – modeled after our very own in D.C.!

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Just do it!

Cuba still remains a mystery to many Americans, but there’s no need to be intimidated! Traveling to Cuba is more complex than just booking a flight and packing your bags. If you’re willing to work a little harder for it, you’ll get to experience a lifestyle truly unlike any other.

Follow the steps above and you’ll be sipping mojitos and strolling the Malecón at sunset in no time! Going prepared promotes full immersion into a country where time moves slowly and communication is unmolested by social media. Perhaps more than you can ever fully prepare yourself for!

Don’t know something? Can’t google it. Lost? Go old school, look at a map or ask for directions. Hungry? Walk around until something looks good and ask locals for suggestions. Bored? Strike up a conversation and practice your Spanish!

If you open yourself up to Cuba, she will find a way into your heart and never leave. Inevitably, you will get frustrated and miss your comforts and luxuries. Alternatively, you will also realize that it’s possible to get by, perhaps even thrive! If you accept that some things will be difficult you’re more likely to go with the flow during inconveniences.

And never forget this trusty rule: When in doubt, do like the Cubans and order some rum!

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American travel to Cuba

A beautiful organic farm and restaurant in Viñales, Cuba

Want more on Cuba? Click here to get an explicit look at daily life in Cuba.

For the most up to date information on American travel to Cuba, click here.

Are you an American who has been to Cuba or is planning on traveling to Cuba? Leave your thoughts or questions in the comments below!

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By Christina, May 4, 2017
2 Comments
  • Jackie
    May 12, 2017

    Thank you for your detailed blog post, Christina! This is such a helpful guide!

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I'm Christina, a Southern California native who loves to travel! I like to chase sunsets and pursue spectacular views! Follow along if you enjoy cultural immersion, unique travel moments and a dose of awkward moments. ;)
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