Like most things in life, when it comes to traveling, I am a huge planner. In fact, I think planning is one of my favorite parts of traveling. I love searching the internet for the cheapest flights, reading articles and blogs for advice, and studying maps of the city before I go. The thing about Cuba, though, is that it is really hard to plan for in advance, even though it probably requires more planning than most places you can visit. The lack of ease in planning is probably caused by two major things. 1) It’s still a new place to visit for Americans, so there is a lack of information for what it will be like for American travelers on the web. 2) It’s a country that is just now being introduced to internet, so contact is a bit difficult, accessing reviews of restaurants, casas, transportation etc. is hard, and oh yeah, they don’t accept American credit or debit cards, so you have to go all cash, which means figuring out how much you are going to spend at the beginning of your trip.
Throughout our trip, we realized there was a lot of ambiguity in the information we had read before the trip. Sometimes what we had heard was true and sometimes it just wasn’t. SO I thought what better way to give you my travel tips than to play Two Truths and a Lie with my tips! I’ll start with three travel tips about Cuba that I had read before going; two that we found to be true, and one that was a complete lie. In debunking myth vs. reality, I’ll also give you my own tips for traveling in Cuba.
Round 1: No one cares you are going to Cuba, The airport is a mess, and Taxis are hard to find.
Truth: No one cares you are going to Cuba.
The biggest question surrounding traveling to Cuba for Americans is whether or not it is now legal. The technical answer to that question is that in December 2014, President Obama made it legal to travel to Cuba for one of 12 reasons without having to apply and go through a rigorous visa process before traveling. There is a lot of ambiguity around what constitutes as “people to people,” “educational” and “support of the Cuban people” travel activities. I am not here to give you the legal explanation of what the government meant by these vague statements, because no one knows that, possibly not even the government. I am here to confirm that whatever the legal definition actually means, no one seems to care that you are an American tourist traveling to Cuba.
There are two stipulations put in place by the Cuban government for entering Cuba, a Cuban tourist visa and proof of healthcare that will cover you during your stay. The US requires you to sign a self-declaring affidavit stating you are traveling to Cuba for one of the 12 legal reasons. You will also find you have to confirm this when you purchase your plane tickets and Airbnb. Here’s how the process of obtaining these three necessary requirements worked for us:
Self-Declaring Affidavit – We did self check-in at the Philadelphia Airport. We figured our self-declaring form was when we had to select our reason for travel during the check-in process. We chose to go under “educational/people to people,” and did not have to show any proof that this was actually what we were doing; I had brought a copy of the itinerary I had made for us documenting our planned activities just in case. I assume if you checked-in at the counter you would actually have to sign a hard copy of the document, but my advice is that if you want to skip the possibility of having to actually explain to a person what you are planning on doing in Cuba, just choose to do self check-in!
Healthcare – We booked our flights through American Airlines. A few weeks before our trip, they emailed us to let us know that the required healthcare coverage was included in the price of our ticket. Do not assume that just because you have healthcare in the US, the policy will cover you while in Cuba, you need a policy that will cover you abroad, specifically in Cuba. However, we were never asked about whether or not we had valid healthcare, both during check-in in the US or customs in Cuba. This may have been because airport workers were aware that anyone holding an American Airlines boarding pass was covered, or they may just never check whether any tourist has coverage. My advice, make sure you are covered.
Cuban Tourist Visa – Even though American Airlines had someone from Cuba Travel Services explain the process of obtaining a Cuban Tourist Visa to me on the phone, it was still a bit confusing. Here is how it works: You have two options, to purchase your visa at the gate, or to purchase it ahead of time. If you choose the first option, you purchase your visa at the last gate before you enter Cuba. So, if you are like us and have a layover, it’s the gate at the airport you have a layover in. We had a very short layover in Miami, and weren’t very sure of the process, which meant Nate and I were literally running with our luggage down a terminal in the Miami Airport that had to be at least a half mile long looking for our gate and where to buy a visa. Just to clarify, we learned that “at your gate” literally means at your gate. There will be a little booth set up outside the gates with flights to Cuba where you can purchase your travel visa for $100 (I had read it only costs $40 from multiple sources… not sure where that came from because everyone we talked to also paid $100). It’s a little blank slip of paper that you can fill out while on your flight. I have heard tale that the line to purchase a visa can take hours to get through, and my co-worker told me they actually held his plane because so many people on the flight hadn’t had a chance to purchase their visas. For us, there was no line and it only took about 5 minutes for both of us to purchase our visas.
Customs – Once we landed in Havana, we went through customs. The official didn’t ask me a single question, just took my passport, visa, and boarding pass. The only thing a little different from other customs experiences is that they have a little camera hanging from the ceiling that they take your picture with. I read about people being interrogated when trying to enter the country, but for me and from what I can tell, everyone else around me, it was easy. Within a minute and zero questions, I was in. They stamped both my passport and my visa. The visa is actually two identical forms stuck together; they will take half when you enter and stamp the other half for you to hold on to. DON’T LOSE IT! When you go back through customs when you exit the country, they will stamp your passport again and take the other half of the visa. Again, for me and everyone else around me, this process was harmless with zero questions asked, just another forced photo. Customs in the US was similar; they asked where I was coming from, what the purpose of my travel was, and what I was bringing back with me, just like any other trip I have taken.
Truth: The airport is a mess.
Alright, so you are going to hear plenty of horror stories about the airports in Cuba, and we found out on our flight home that there is some truth to them. I have two main travel tips when in comes to dealing with Jose Marti International Airport, and most likely all the other airports in Cuba as well: Skip the checked baggage and GIVE YOURSELF PLENTY OF TIME!
From what I had read beforehand, we decided to do all our packing in our carry-ons. Do what I did, go out and buy the cheapest maximum sized carry-on you can find at TJ Maxx and just play Tetris with your clothing until you get it all in. I promise you it is possible: I am a girl who likes to look good, and I was able to get more than I needed for 8 days of travel in my carry-on. I took 3 pairs of shoes (sneakers, sandals, and flip-flops) plus enough clothing to have two outfits a day, plus all my bathing suits (gotta have options!) and a towel. I know this section is supposed to be about airports, but if you are a girl reading this, I recommend packing lots of dresses and rompers with a lightweight jacket, like a jean jacket, to throw overtop. They are super comfy to walk around in and the outfits can go from day-to-night by removing the jacket. BUT anyways, back to air travel. I recommend skipping the checked bag because there is no formal baggage claim in the Cuban airport, they just throw all of the suitcases in a pile and leave you to search for your stuff, so it can literally take hours to claim your luggage. Since we just had our backpacks and carry-on suitcases, we were through customs and out the door in a matter of minutes.
As you become more familiar with Cuba, you will learn that lots of things take lots of time, and for the most part, it is just part of the charm of the Island. Remember, a lot of these employees are making less than a dollar a day, so there isn’t much incentive to operate efficiently. We arrived at the airport over 3 hours before our flight out of Cuba, as we were told to give ourselves plenty of time to check in. Of course, American was the only airline with a long line of people waiting to check-in, but we had time, so I waited in line while Nathan went to exchange our left over money. When I got a little closer to the front, I saw the hold up was caused mainly because there were 5 available desks, but only 1 person checking everyone in.
Two hours later and we were almost at the front when an announcement was made in Spanish and absolute pandemonium broke out. From what we could gather with our limited language skills, they had been holding a flight to Miami that was supposed to leave before our flight because they hadn’t been able to check everyone in on time. However, the flight wasn’t waiting any longer, so everyone still waiting to be checked in were being bumped to a later flight: queue uproar in Spanish. At the same time, they were also telling everyone on our flight to Charlotte that we were to go to the priority line to be checked in for our flight: queue confused English-speaking tourists throwing elbows and making a mad dash to the priority line. I mean people were literally pushing me up against the check in counter it was so intense. BUT we got checked in and boarded our plane and ended up having to wait another 2 hours in the plane because they were experiencing computer problems and couldn’t check the rest of the passengers in. But finally everyone boarded and we were on our way home.
I am not telling you this story to scare you, because I’ve been back in the US for 3 weeks now (sadly) and have no lasting scars; I am relaying this to communicate 2 tips. 1. Give yourself plenty of time, because you will need it. 2. When in Cuba, do as the Cubans do. Push and shove when everyone else is, because you got to stand up for yourself or get mowed down! But also, breathe, because even those poor Miami-bound people just got bumped to another flight and are probably living it up in South Beach right now. It might not look pretty, but you will make it home, I promise.
Lie: Taxis are hard to find.
So, time for the lie! One of the things I had read about Cuba that worried me was that it was really hard to find taxis. This myth was debunked about 0.002 seconds after walking out of the exit in the airport and being inundated by a crowd of people asking “taxi? taxi?” Our Airbnb had arranged a taxi to take us into Havana for 40 CUC, which we learned was a bit pricey, but we were willing to pay the extra charge to secure having transport when we arrived. My advice is that if this is something your Airbnb owner offers to do for you, take them up on it! But, know it’s not necessary because there will be lots of eager Cubans waiting for you upon arrival, just itching to take you wherever you need to go. Also, side note, expect to pay about 30 CUC for a trip from Jose Marti International Airport into Havana, this was the price I heard thrown around a lot while waiting outside the airport.
The taxi supply abounded in Havana as well. We found the best way to get a taxi was to head to a main road, either near the Capitol building or around the Malecon. A lot of Old Havana’s streets are narrow and cobblestone, so it’s not really practical to hang around them if you are a taxi. Once you get to Vedado, or the newer area of Cuba, its easiest to catch a taxi near a hotel, although you will pay a higher price. We learned to negotiate the price before you get in the taxi. If you don’t know what a certain trip should cost, ask a local when you have a chance. The best bet for this is to utilize your casa owner and tour guides. Most likely you won’t get the price as low as the locals, but just remember, these people need an extra CUC or two way more than you do, so over paying isn’t the end of the world.
Taxis are the most practical way to get around the city when walking is too far. The rides are pretty cheap as well, ours usually cost between 3 and 15 CUC. There are different types of taxis, the most popular are the Cuba Taxi, which can range from an old Chevrolet to a newer foreign import. There are also the classic car taxis, which you can expect to be charged a lot more for. If you want something uniquely Cuban and aren’t carrying 500 tons of luggage with you, you can take a Coco Taxi. It’s basically a cute little shell built over a motor scooter that will zip you and another companion around to wherever you want to go. Nate and I took one while in Varadero and I would definitely recommend doing it at least once just for the laugh!
My final advice for this round is about giving directions to your taxi driver. In Cuba, a street address is more like an explanation of where a place is located, so it usually gives a number and then the street and then what streets it is located in between. Its gets super confusing super fast. My advice is to give your driver a printed version of the address of your destination, as they most likely don’t speak English and you probably aren’t fluent in Spanish. If you don’t have this on hand, I would give them a landmark around the area you want to go and have them take you there, it will save you the headache of deciphering a confusing navigation system in a different language. Also, if you don’t have it already, download maps.me for your trip and mark as many restaurants, landmarks, casas, etc. you are planning on visiting ahead of time so you have a way of navigating once you get there.
This is the first of 3 rounds of “Cuba Travel Tips- Two Truths and a Lie” I will be posting, so check back in a few days for more tips and recaps. If you have a specific topic you have a question on or would like to know more about, just drop a comment and ask, I am happy to answer!