24 Top Cuba Travel Tips and Advice

by an Experienced Frequent Visitor to Cuba

The Cuba travel visitor tips and advice found here will present you with the most important 24 Cuba travel tips and advice on how to get the most out of your trip.

Culture and history has also been included, to give you a better understanding of Cuba as a whole.

Cuba-guide from an airline pilot – 124 Cuba trips flown in the past 24 years

Cuba travel tips and advice
Getting the cockpit ready to fly from Los Angeles to Havana. Total passengers (pax) this flight: 234. Total passengers+crew, called “Souls On Board” (SOB): 242 people traveling to Cuba.

Traveling to Cuba 124 times in the past two decades has given me an opportunity to achieve a deep understanding of the Cuban culture, history, and its island’s way of current life.

I am sharing my heavy Cuba travel experiences with you here, providing you with my best travel tips, suggestions, guidance, and advice.

24 Cuban travel tips and advice, expert guide
Leaving for Havana from Los Angeles.
Expert guide on Cuba travel tips and advice
After arrival Havana, post-flight inspection.

Cuba, a favorite destination loved by visitors around the world but restricted for Americans

Arriving Havana airport by an expert on Cuba travel tips and advice.
HAV Airport, Runway 06. Credit: Cubana

Cuba is a unique Pearl of Latin Caribbean attractions. Shrouded in curiosity, separation, hesitation, yet appealing to Americans, Cuba has always been a favorite travel destination for international tourists. World vacationers have always been present in abundance in Cuba.

Havana’s Jose Marti Airport alone experienced 2.0 million international visitors last year! The City of Havana (also called Habana) has 2 .1 million residents.

Cuba’s total people population is 11.5 million.

Hotel Nacional de Cuba

Hotel Nacional Cuba. Cuba travel tips and advice
The iconic Hotel Nacional de Cuba is my personal favorite hotel in Havana. It first opened on December 30, 1930.

Tips for staying at Hotel Nacional

Here are my observations for getting the best experience if you decide to stay at this most iconic hotel:

  • Best room location: High floor is best for quiet. The bad about the high floor rooms is that there is usually a wait getting on. Elevators work fine, however. To beat the elevator lines consider a room at a lower floor, and you can walk the stairs. Rooms are very clean, with impeccable maid service.
  • Safety around the hotel: Excellent. I’d suggest a walk along the beautiful “malecon”, along the sea-wall. At night you will find the stretch packed with friendly locals.

Hotel services

  • Breakfast buffet: Excellent! Avoid the tour-groups breakfast attendees rush-hour traffic up to 9 a.m. Or, go as soon as they open. Live breakfast music entertainment (guitar/violin) 6 days a week.
  • Coffee shop (24 hours): OK.
  • Poolside: Excellent service and snacks. (2nd pool). The triangular one has been closed for a long time.
  • Celebrity Bar: Excellent staff & drinks.
  • Cigar-smoking area (close to the back door lobby-area): Yes. Non-smoking area (in the garden terrace): Yes. Enjoy the view!
  • The free walking tour is every morning at 10 a.m.! One English speaking and one Spanish speaking. This walking tour will give you a solid lesson in the history of Cuba!
  • Money Exchange: Two in-hotel changers.
  • Taxi service: Lots of taxis waiting for customers outside the hotel. They do, however, overcharge a little, typically at CUC 20, unless you can negotiate a lower price. CUC 15 should be a max fair price.
  • WiFi: Unreliable, going in and out, typical for anywhere in Cuba. Get a second card if more than one in your party needs to use WiFi. Go to the Guest Relations person for that. Non-hotel WiFi cards do not work at the hotel.
  • Hotel Gym: Excellent. Closes at 8 p.m.
Cuba travel tips and advice. Entertainment at Hotel Nacional
Entertainment at Hotel Nacional.

Why is Cuba Travel so different?

To understand why this country is virtually “frozen in time” we need to look at its past. That should help you appreciate why Cuba carries the travel tips and advice that are different from other countries.

Unlike its modern Latin Caribbean neighbors, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, Cuba got frozen into a 1960’s time warp.

This happened because of being isolated from the United States, implementing an embargo on Cuba, and the subsequent Soviet Union (Russia) pulling its financial assistance from the island.

The United States was a good friend of dictator Fulgencio Batista. But when communist Fidel Castro came to power the relationship rapidly changed for the worst.

Havana Cuba old car. Cuba travel tips and advice.
Havana, Cuba

A demographic look at Cuba

Cuba’s rich culture stems from its mix of deep-rooted past. The country’s genetic ancestry consists of 72% European, 20% African, and 8% Native American.

Waves of immigrants starting in the 18th Century mainly came from Spain, including the Canary Islands. But immigrants from Italy, Great Britain, Ireland, Greece, Portugal, and France also make up for the heavy Euro-influx and Euro-ethnic mix of Cuba.

Add the African slaves (who arrived in Cuba against their will), and today you have a sprawling Spanish-African melting pot of a nation and people, resulting in an exotic culture!

In Cuba, you can enjoy the rhythmic deep-rooted Spanish and African fused music, Latin Caribbean foods, its distinct Spanish dialect, architecture, or experience the country’s simple, yet a struggling way of living.

This all falls back on a unique culture that makes Cuba the perfect destination for travel if you know the travel tips and advice on how to visit today’s Cuba.

Significant people in Cuban History & Culture

The Revolution that created Cuba’s time-warp

The Batista Regime

Fulgencio Batista was the U.S.-backed dictator of Cuba from 1952 to 1959. Cuba travels back in those days carried no restrictions (before Castro). Cuba, “The Holiday Isle of the Tropics” was THE place to go in the Caribbean for Americans.

Batista was overthrown by the Cuban Revolution, led by Fidel Castro.

Havana airport plane 1950s. Cuba travel tips and advice
Airplane at Havana Airport in the 1950s, during the Batista-era. Credit: Granma.

Batista, during his dictatorship, built lasting relationships with U.S. organized crime figures. Mobster Lucky Luciano was one of his friends, largely responsible for crediting Havana as the “Latin Las Vegas”

Beginning of 1959 US companies owned 40% of Cuban sugar lands, almost all the cattle ranches, 90% of the mines and mineral concessions, 80% of utilities, the oil industry, and supplied 2/3’s of Cuban imports.

While many Cubans were well off a lot were also suffering under brutal poverty, political oppression, and racism under Batista.

Cuba, Holiday Isle of the Tropics (1950)

Cuba, the holiday isle of the tropics picture.
I have this poster displayed in my own living room at home.

Ricky Ricardo, step aside!

Who can forget the lovely “I love Lucy” TV series? Well, growing up with my own dad’s mambo-tunes (his own band) in the 1960s, then with my Puerto Rican salsa-tunes in the 1970s, I feel that you should get a taste of what the Batista-era’s most popular music was all about:

You can listen and watch Pérez Prado, the King of the Mambo, by clicking the each picture below:

Fidel Castro

Batista was overthrown by Fidel Castro’s Communist Revolution on January 1, 1959. That changed the U.S. relationship with Cuba immediately.

Bautista fled to Florida, and a new Cuban government was born.

Fidel Castro

The U.S.’ problem with Castro, however, was that he decided to make Cuba a Communist country. He quickly became an ally of the Soviet Union (Russia), the infamous Cuban U.S. blockade and embargo followed.

This came at a time when the word “communism” was synonymous with the worst enemies of the United States, such as the communist Soviet Union and communist China at the time.

For those too young to remember, the word “communism” at that time invoked about as much fear in the free world as what the word “terrorism” does today!

The Castro communist political system is still alive in Cuba. Combine that with the old U.S.A.-Cuba restrictive policies and you can understand how Cuba became frozen in time.

The strong and proud people of Cuba

Political hardship or not, Cuba’s biggest resource is its wonderful and brilliant people. Just look at the 1950s to 1960s cars still running perfectly around. That is ingenuity!

Where else in the world can you find people finding solutions to fixing about anything just to continue with their normal daily life?

Would you be able to keep a 60-year-old car running just fine, using spare parts made from your old refrigerator? Well, if it can be fixed a brilliant Cuban can do it for you!

Havana El Morro
El Morro, at the inlet of Havana harbor.

24 Cuba Travel Tips and Advice: Useful and Important Tips for your trip to Cuba!

Cuban flag
The flag of Cuba

#1: Shoes & Maps

Bring comfortable shoes. Be prepared for a lot of walking in Havana! I’d recommend you download the free app Triposo offline-capable map and travel guide on your phone before you leave. That’s what I use myself for walking navigation in countless cities around the world!

#2: Necessities we take for granted

Toilet tissue and soap bars are often missing in your hotel room. I’d recommend you bring your own toiletries.

#3: Crime

Here is a commonly asked question I get: Is Cuba safe? Generally yes. Violent crimes are rare. There is, however, a minor pickpocket problem in Havana, so secure your personal items while you’re walking around. Much can perhaps be said about criticizing how a country’s political system has been set up. But if there is one positive side to tourism-safety in Cuba I would say that the police cracks down on criminals very hard!

#4: Blowing your nose

Don’t blow your nose in public in Cuba. That is simply considered rude. Spitting in the street, however, is accepted.

#5: Picture taking

Avoid taking pictures of uniformed officials, such as the police and the soldiers you may spot. Cuba is indeed a totalitarian system, and you may, in the worst case, be arrested if you attempt to take such pictures. Cuba, however, does not have any heavy presence of soldiers (or police) on the streets. So don’t be surprised if you never spotted uniformed personnel during your visit at all.

#6: Be simple

Don’t wear flashy jewelry. It will create too much-unneeded attention around you. People in Cuba live a very simple lifestyle, so adjust to their culture, not yours. It’s okay to be a tourist, but try to mingle into the Cuban “norm”, please.

#7: Politics

Should you talk or discuss politics with Cubans? Personally, I stay clear of such. But if you enjoy engaging in such a conversation the locals love a lively, energetic political discussion. I haven’t heard of any reprisals from the police for doing such, however.

#8: Drinking water

Don’t drink the tap-water. Resorts, such as the one in Varadero, and many other hotels, use purified water. There it’s okay to drink the water.

#9: A nice gesture

Consider this: Hotel staff, “Casa Particulares” hosts (B&B accommodation), tourist guides, and other hosts appreciate gifts like soap bars, toothpaste, shampoo, diapers, fishing tackle, underwear, eyeglasses, school supplies, and toys.

#10: Internet coverage

Finding WiFi in Cuba can present a challenge. Most hotels, however, offer WiFi. Some hotels offer free WIFi, while others charge for WiFi. Whether you are in a hotel or purchasing WiFi time at a public place in Havana, common to either service is signal interruptions.

#11: Tipping

Tipping in Cuba operates on the same principle as the U.S., 10%-20% is the norm, based on your own judgment of service and food quality provided, however.

#12: Food and drink

Yucca. Cuba travel tips and advice.
Enjoying my yucca, which is healthy traditional food in Cuba, (as well as in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic). Of course, for a drink, I prefer a malta, topped off with a cortadito (strong Cuban coffee) and perhaps a coconut flan at the end.

Hotel food in Cuba is not the recommended place to sample Cuban cuisine. Outside the hotels, especially in Havana, you can find hamburger/pizza joints, which I still cannot recommend.

Instead, find an authentic Cuban restaurant and enjoy ropa vieja (pulled puerco, or pork), for instance. Ask the hotel or host where to find the best authentic Cuban eating place.

#13: Cash & Credit/ATM Cards

It’s very important to bring cash to cover your stay in Cuba. In general, U.S. credit and debit cards do not work there.

The only two U.S. credit cards accepted in Cuba are the Stonegate Bank (currently accepted at 800 ATMs in Cuba), and Banco Popular de Puerto Rico credit cards.

Be aware, Cuba operates with two currencies. Cubans use the Cuban Peso (CUP). Foreign visitors are required to use the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).

The CUC replaced the U.S. dollar after it was discontinued as a useable currency in Cuba. One CUC is the approximate equivalent of one USD.

13a: Exchange fees & charges

When you exchange money from USD to CUC be prepared to pay a “tax and commission charge”. This will result in a 20% fee of your U.S. money, on top of the exchange fee. Other currencies are only charged 10%. The U.S. dollar is the only currency being slapped with an additional 10% penalty, for a total of 20%.

Oh, do not exchange currency on the street. Make sure you only exchange your money at a bank or at an official “Cadeca Casa de Cambio” (exchange bureau). You get the worst exchange rate at the airport!

13b: How much cash should you carry?

How much cash should you carry in the street? The equivalent of US$200 in CUC max is plenty. Budgeting yourself for $1,500/wk per person for your Cuba-stay is good. Taxi expenses eat up your money the most.

Although there are rules for U.S. citizens on booking accommodations, try to prepay your accommodations with a credit card online before you leave home. You can do that, even if you plan on staying at a popular budget-solution B&B in Cuba. Some B&B owners, however, may specify cash payment upon arrival, depending on who and where you get your B&B arrangement from.

#14: Public Transportation vs Car Rental

Public transportation is extremely unreliable. Bus schedules are most often not followed. The roads are in bad shape. Potholes are in need of repairs and roads are not paved. I do not recommend renting a car in Cuba, although the rental prices are cheap.

Here’s why I don’t recommend renting a car:

Rental car availability may be hard to obtain, and the availability is extremely limited. Sometimes the gas you purchase can be of bad quality. Gas-stations are also hard to find. And let’s not forget to mention that Cuban driving habits are different from what you are used to. Cuba has a lot of crazy drivers with a bad temper, coño!

#15: Taxis

First and foremost, don’t take unlicensed taxis! Government licensed taxis have taxi-meters. Private taxis, (still licensed) do not have meters, so negotiate your fare up front.

The three-wheeled yellow coco taxis and the pedal cabs are great for shorter distances. Again, agree on your rate in advance.

  • A typical per-hour taxi-rate will set you back about 35 CUC.
  • The average taxi ride (5-6 km, or 3.11-3.73 miles) will set you back 6 to 7 CUC. The fare averages 1 CUC per km. (1 km is 0.621 mile).
  • If you want a picture taken with the driver with his beautifully restored 1950s car (“yank tank” or “máquina”) plan on discussing the fee first. The charge for that picture is usually around 5 CUC.

The recommended option if you want a driver to provide sightseeing to all the local attractions is to pre-negotiate a total price for a specified time to book him or her as your chauffeur and tour guide.

Havana street
Havana street scene

#16: Items to bring home

Check with your country’s government to find out what you are allowed to bring. For U.S. Citizens check the State Department’s current rules, as they are constantly changing. Recommended rum to bring home: Havana Club 7-Year-Old Rum. Cigars: Cohiba (expensive, even in Cuba).

#17: Watch out for the “Jineteras and Jineteros”

Many local Cubans are forced to resort to street hustling. That to make financial ends meet. This can amount to a local offering you direction-assistance you did not ask for. Or a person may give you a hard-luck story, then ask for money. The same principle applies to the prostitutes and escorts, selling beauty, attraction, and sex to tourists.

#18: Watch your Spanish dialect in Cuba – A few Cuban expressions you should know

Few Cubans understand English in the streets. English is used at your hotel, however. Download the Google Translate app on your phone. Use that in offline-mode as an as-needed translator for you.

Spanish dialects vary greatly in many parts of the world. There are many times when a given word spoken in Spanish in one country has a completely different meaning in another Spanish country.

At a fruit stand in Havana? Do NOT order papaya! “Papaya” in Cuban-Spanish means “vagina”! By the way, Some Cubans consider the word “papaya” to be very offensive. “Papaya” in Cuban-Spanish is “fruta bomba”.

Other Cuban-Spanish words:

  • Bus: Guagua.
  • What’s Up?: ¿Qué bola?
  • Water, or exclamation for something really good: ¡Agua!
  • Foreigner (especially addressing a light-skin foreigner): Yuma.
  • Friend: Acere or Asere. Can also mean “dude”, for someone you know well.
  • Female /Male from the Cuban countryside: Guajira/Guajiro.
  • I’m working: Estoy pinchando.
  • Cool/Yeah/Wow: Chévere. How neat!: ¡Qué Chévere!
  • How great or How awful: ¡Qué candela!
  • The girl is hot: La chica es una mango.
  • I am going to make coffee: Voy a hacer cafe. Yes, voy a hacer cafe literally translates to I am going to make coffee. But in Cuba, that expression is used when it’s time to tell someone to leave, in a polite way.
  • Hurry up/Farewell/goodbye/go ahead: A word with multi-use purpose: Dale.

#19: Do I need Cuban health insurance?

U.S. health insurance cannot be used in Cuba. That’s because of the U.S. embargo currently in effect. Health insurance is included in your ticket price, however. But it is subject to added expenses, depending on the injury or illness incurred.

A major city like Havana has a separate clinic for tourists only. The medical care there is actually slightly better than the care provided at the Cuban residents’ own hospital.

#20: Your airline or ship’s boarding pass is your medical ID card in Cuba

Your name will be on a government manifest stating you purchased Cuban health insurance. Your boarding pass acts as further proof you’re insured, should you encounter any doubt or question.

Cuban country side
Cuban country side

#21: Can I use my own phone provider in Cuba?

Yes, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon currently offer service in Cuba. Check on your provider’s fees. It is not cheap, however. The typical per minute call-cost is $2-$3. Text runs around 50 cents per message and data around $2 per megabyte of usage.

You’re better off (financially) using WiFi, perhaps calling using i.e. Facetime or Skype.

#22: Electrical outlets

Most of Cuba uses the rounded, two-pin “European style” electrical outlets. Bring your electrical outlet adapter to be on the safe side.

#23: What do I do if I need Official assistance in Cuba?

Call your country’s embassy. You can reach the U.S. Embassy in Havana at phone number: (+53) 7839-4100.

#24: Don’t Neglect the Departure Tax

The departure tax from Cuba has been included and prepaid in your ticket price since 2015. Do, however, double-check with your airline that this tax was indeed prepaid before departure for Cuba. Also, check to ensure that your medical insurance fee was paid with your ticket.

To be on the safe side, I would personally prefer to have at least US$180 in my pocket when going to the airport to depart from Cuba, to stay safe for any eventuality of unforeseen last-minute cash expenditures.

The future of Cuba

The Cuba travel tips and advice you just read about here are always subject to change, as can travel requirements to Cuba. Also, the political situation in Cuba may also change in the future.

In a few years from now, you may no longer be able to i.e. experience those awesome 1960s cars you see on the Cuban roads today.

Should democracy open up in Cuba, then the travel tips and advice you just read here may simply become obsolete.

But perhaps that is for the better for everyone involved, from the tourists to the Cuban people themselves?

Do you have comments or questions? You can contact me here.

Here is more information on our Visit the Caribbean-series of articles

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