We recently traveled to Cuba for the first time and did a ton of research prior to our visit. We wanted to make sure everything went smoothly since we don't like to stress while on vacation. To ensure your visit to Cuba goes as smooth as ours did, here are some simple steps to take for preparation:
1. Book Things Early
Cuba is quickly becoming a popular tourist destination and things are booking up fast like accommodations and tours. We recommend booking a few months in advance. We booked our Airbnb three months in advance and noticed that other Airbnbs were getting booked quickly during our research. We reached out to a couple of tour companies a few months in advance, but they were all booked. Luckily, we found a great tour company, FerTours, and had an excellent time with our tour guide, Manuel, who spoke fluent English.
**Update: There have been some changes since we visited Cuba in regards to accommodation. If you plan to book a hotel, make sure to check that they are not on the list of hotels that are prohibited by the US government. Luckily, Airbnb has not been affected and is not on this list.
2. Exchange US Dollars to Euros
If you have US dollars, it's highly recommended to exchange your dollars to Euros before traveling to Cuba. Cuba charges a hefty 10% fee when exchanging with US dollars. If you are a member of Wells Fargo in the US, they can exchange to Euros for you on the spot (as long as it's a reasonable amount) with no fees.
3. Purchase Traveler's Insurance
Most airlines include Cuba's mandatory health insurance with the purchase of your ticket, but if you want extra coverage, traveler's insurance is something you may want to get. We carry a ton of expensive camera equipment on our travels and having insurance to cover these items puts our mind at ease. For our trip to Cuba, we purchased insurance from World Nomads. They have the best reviews and travel bloggers highly recommend them. Their coverage offers trip cancellation, lost or stolen items, and more. Luckily, we did not have to file any claims on our trip, but Samantha from "Carry On, or Bust" has had to file some claims and had no issues using World Nomads.
4. Learn Some Spanish Phrases
We wish we would have learned more Spanish because there were plenty of times we were trying to have a conversation with little to no success. Cubans are so friendly and we wished we could have carried on more of a conversation with them. Learning some Spanish with the Duolingo app and having an offline Spanish translator app helped a bit.
5. Print Out All Your Materials
The wifi in Cuba is slow and only accessible at certain locations, so don't depend on your phone for the internet. Make sure you print out all your necessary documents like reservations, guides, insurance documents, etc. We downloaded maps.me (an offline map) prior to our trip and it was very handy and better than offline Google Maps.
6. Arrive Early At the Airport to Obtain Your Visa
There is no need to acquire a visa prior to your departure date. We flew with Southwest and on the day of our flight, we obtained our visa. Southwest had a visa counter right next to the check-in counter and it was a breeze. We just stated the reason for our travel (there are 12 visa categories to choose from and we chose Education) and paid $50 for the visa. The entire process took about ten minutes.
**Update: There have been some changes since we visited Cuba in the visa category. You can still travel as an individual under a number of categories. If you aren't a journalist or connected to an educational institution it's best to select the "Support of Cuban People" category. If you have doubts, check out this tweet from Marco Rubio. Many airlines have been adjusting to these new rules since June 2017.
7. Purchase Water Bottles at the Airport
Once you've gone through security at the airport, purchase some water bottles and take them with you to Cuba. Bottled water is a little hard to find as they don't have convenience stores located everywhere. You'll have to find little stores here and there that sell some. We didn't want to risk not having bottled water, so we purchased several bottles to take with us. If you want to save some money, bring several of your own water bottles and fill them up at the water fountains.
Special thanks to Danielle from ShikShin for giving us additional tips on Cuba!
We'll have more Cuba posts coming up in the next few weeks, so stay tuned! In the meantime, if you have any questions, ask away in the comments below.