Of all my travel experiences, travelling to Cuba independently was by far one of the most challenging! With complications like their dual currency, very little internet and next to no hostels, this isn’t the kind of place that you can just rock up in with no plan.
We spent two weeks in Cuba and, although there were times when it was tough, it’s an experience that we’re both glad we’ve had! If you’re planning on travelling independently to Cuba, I’ve put together these essential travel tips to make sure it runs smoothly. If there’s anything that you think I’ve missed, join in the conversation and let me know!
Money Tips for Travelling to Cuba
Cuba’s Dual Currency
Cuba currently has a dual currency meaning you’ll encounter two types of money on your trip. As a traveller, you’ll automatically be given CUC- convertible pesos. Cubans, on the other hand, are payed in CUP which is sometimes referred to as pesos but also as “moneda nacional”.
Although people say that CUC is the tourist currency, that’s not really the case. Cubans need to swap their CUP for CUC if they want to buy luxury items, too. It’s also simple and easy for travellers to swap their CUC for CUP but I’ll get to that later.
There are talks of a single currency being introduced at some point in the future so, if you’re travelling to Cuba, do a bit of research to see what the present situation is like.
How to Tell the Difference between CUC and CUP
1 CUC = 24 CUP so make sure that you can tell the difference between the two. Having your change given back to you in CUP rather than CUC is a common scam in Cuba (and one that can end up costing you a fair amount of money.) 1CUC is the same value as 1 USD.
The above picture shows the two currencies. The main thing to look out for is the writing. A CUC will say Convertibles and a CUP will say Moneda National.
How to Change CUC to CUP (Moneda Nacional)
One of the biggest Cuban travel myths is that moneda nacional isn’t available to tourists. Not true at all! Walk into any bank and you can pick some up for yourself. If you’re going to be in Cuba for a week, I’d change around 10 CUC to moneda national. You won’t want to spend this money all the time but it can be handy for picking up things like hole in the wall pizza, coffees and fruit.
I got addicted to the little hole in the wall espressos that only cost 1 CUP! Peso pizza is usually about 10 CUP and is a great (and completely unnutritious) way to fill up at lunchtime for very little. Food in Cuba can be a hit or a miss and, unfortunately, is rarely worth its price tag. If you’re like us, sometimes you’d rather spend 10 CUP ($0.038 USD) on a greasy oven pizza than 10 CUC ($10 USD) on a dry overcooked piece of meat with some rice.
Bring More Cash to Cuba than you Think You’ll Need
For such a relatively poor country, travelling in Cuba ain’t cheap! As an independent traveller, it’s frustrating to have to take tours when you’re used to doing things yourself. (However, bare in mind, that this does help the local community.)
I recommend bringing at least $50 per day- even if you’re usually a strict budget traveller. You might not spend it all but you’ll have it as back up if you need it.
We brought our money in cash and exchanged it as we needed it. You can use ATMs in Cuba but they don’t accept cards by American companies like American Express or Mastercard. Plus, the usage fee is around 4% so withdrawals can get expensive.
Which Currency to Bring to Cuba? (Not US dollars!)
Even though the CUC is pegged at the exact same value as the American dollar, ironically, the banks charge a 10% fee for anyone exchanging USD for CUC. Instead, bring Euros, Australian Dolalrs, Canadian Dollars, Mexican Pesos or Pound Sterling.
We brought a mix of Pound Sterling and Euros which was completely fine.
Don’t Forget to Tip in Cuba
I’ve (had the misfortune to have) met so many backpackers on my travels who tell me that they don’t tip because they’re not American or because they’re travelling or because *insert-other-stupid-excuse-here*. However, in Cuba, the locals really rely on these tips from tourists to make up for their pitiful wages. Don’t be such a tight-arse.
When you get back home, are you really going to miss that $1 you gave to a musician in a bar? Probably not.
If you can afford to eat or drink in places that have musicians for tourists to enjoy, you can afford to leave a tip for the guys providing the ambience! The exact same can be said for the people who brought your meal to your table.
Cuba is a tipping country and, regardless of whether or not you come from a culture of tipping, you should follow suit. Not only is that common decency but its also a small step towards helping the country rebuild their economy.
Accommodation Tips for Independent Travellers in Cuba
Hotels or Casa Particulars: Where to Stay in Cuba?
On our trip to Cuba, we stayed exclusively in Casa Particulars. What’s a casa particular, you might be asking? This is basically a room in someone’s house who has permission from the government to host guests. These can cost anywhere from $15 to $50 for basic rooms. In Havana, you can even find boutique Casa Particulars which cost a lot more!
The people who run the casas also often cook for guests at an extra cost. We generally ate in each casa once, if they offered dinner, and tended to eat breakfast once or twice, too. The rest of the time, we ate out as it was a lot cheaper. People say that casas offer the best value of money when it comes to food and it is true. However, I found the portion sizes far too big to take full advantage of this!
We avoided hotels as we had heard that they were run down, expensive and generally sub-par. When we saw them, we were pleased with our decision. The majority of these hotels looked like they’d been thrown up in the Soviet era and then completely forgotten about. Of course, though, there are exceptions to this; particularly in Havana and Varadero where you can find luxury hotels at Western standards- but these come at a premium.
Only Book Accommodation for the First Few Nights
When you get to Cuba, you’ll have no problem finding casas; trust me! However, for your first night in the country, you’ll probably want to have something lined up. I’d book your first couple of nights prior to your arrival. Even if you want to stay for longer, you can arrange this with your casa owner when you get there. There’s more chance of the money ending up in their pocket if it comes directly from you rather than through a site like Air BnB or Booking.com.
I still recommend pre-booking for your first few nights, though, because it’s so much nicer to fly into Havana and just let your driver bring you to your accommodation. Finding somewhere to stay when you first touch-down in a new country is stressful- especially after a long flight. Save that for when you get over your jet-lag!
How to Find Casa Particulars in Cuba
When you’re in the country, you have a two options for finding accommodation. The first is to ask your casa owner to refer you to their friend in the next city. This is a nice way to travel as your casa owner will send you somewhere reputable and the owners will usually come and meet you at the bus station.
We did this twice: our Havana casa owner sent us to her friends in Vinales and our Vinales owners sent us to their friends in Cienfuegos.
These casas were both clean and comfortable but also our most expensive stays.
The other option is to find your own accommodation. When we arrived in Playa Giron, Trinidad, Varadero and Havana (before departing), we just chanced our luck and took what we found when we got off the bus. We were given a fair price by these casa owners and didn’t feel any need to haggle.
The nice thing about finding a place by yourself is that, if you don’t like somewhere, you can easily say no thanks and head to the next place. I would feel obliged to stay if it was somewhere a former casa owner had recommended. (But that might just be me and my weird Britishisms.)
As far as prices go, we paid 25 CUC per night when our casa owner referred us and between 15 and 20 CUC when we found our own place. If you can save 10 CUC per night on accommodation, that gives you some extra pennies for mojitos!
Transport for Independent Travellers in Cuba
Bus Travel in Cuba
Bus travel in Cuba is fairly comfortable and easy. The major bus group for tourists, Viazul, hits up most of the main tourist spots. Some smaller bus companies are starting to crop up, too, though, and are worth checking out. We used a bus company called Conectando Cuba that left from a more central part of the city when we were travelling between Havana and Vinales. When you’re in Cuba, it’s easy to book these tickets at the bus station or through a travel agent. (However, the latter is unnecessary for Viazul buses.)
You can check bus times, prices and routes on the Viazul website.
Sometimes, a bus won’t go to the place you’re travelling to. This was the case when we wanted to get between Vinales and Playa Giron without doubling back to Havana. So, instead, we booked a shared taxi for $35 each. While this might sound like a good deal for an 8 hour journey, just bare in mind that we were squished up in the back of a Peagout 105 (definitely a “classic car”), so I would only recommend this if it’s the only option.
Other Ways to get Around
I’ve heard some travellers talking about hitchhiking and using local transport but, to be honest, it’s a risk I wouldn’t take. It’s currently illegal for Cubans to have foreigners in their cars or houses without a proper license so hitchhiking could get you and your host into a lot of trouble. With such an affordable and well-connected public transport system, there’s no need to resort to this.
It’s also possible to travel all the way from Havana to Santiago de Cuba by train which sounds like a pretty cool experience! Other options are hiring a car and flying but I can imagine these would really eat into your budget!
Visa Requirements for Tourists Travelling to Cuba
How to Get a Tourist Card for Cuba
Almost all nationalities need a tourist card to enter Cuba. The situation for Americans, however, is complicated and changes a lot. Since I’m not American and don’t have any experience with it, I’m not going to touch on that issue here at all. (Sorry guys, not going near it with a 10-foot barge pool!)
For the rest of us, though, it’s quite simple. I ordered my tourist card online and it cost about £25. It’s also possible to get it from the Cuban embassy in your country and some airlines even include it in their ticket price- just double check this before you fly to avoid issues. I used the website Cuba Visa and they posted my visa out to my dad in The Netherlands in no time at all.
Entry and Exit Fees for Cuba
This changes from time to time so, again, double check before you go! We didn’t need to pay any entry or exit fees when we were arriving into or leaving Cuba. All taxes are now included in your airfare.
Finding WiFi in Cuba
Wifi cards can be bought for 4.50 CUC per hour. We only bought one on our last day to double check that our flight hadn’t been cancelled. (For such a frequent traveller, I still get pretty bad travel anxiety…)
It’s worth knowing that if you buy a WiFi card, you don’t need to use it all at once. You could buy one and just use it for 5 minutes each day throughout your Cuba trip!
How to Dress as a Traveller in Cuba
Cuba is hot and, luckily, the dress code isn’t too conservative. Unlike the rest of Latin America, shorts are fine for both men and women- even in the big cities.
Like anywhere in the world, though, I’d avoid wearing excessive flashy jewelerry and carry a secure bag to avoid thieves.
Shopping Tips for Travellers in Cuba
Don’t buy cigars on the street
This is one of the biggest scams in Cuba- people selling fake cigars on the street. We bought ours in Vinales from a small tobacco farm.
Familiarise Yourself with the Price of Things
Before you go ahead and buy those cigars, speak to other travellers and find out what they payed for theirs. Some people will quote you ridiculous amounts since they know we’re used to paying so much for cigars outside of Cuba, particularly in Europe.
Some other popular things to buy in Cuba are coffee and rum. I bought some coffee from a farm in Vinales and, to be honest, it was no where near as nice as the stuff my casa owners were making! The supermarket is a great place to pick up staples like rum and coffee. You can get a litre bottle of Havana 7 Year Old for about $7! The regular stuff is even cheaper. No matter where you are, there is no shortage of Havana rum in Cuba.
What to Prepare before Travelling to Cuba
Learn some Spanish
Very few casa owners speak English so at least know the basics. If you know even more than that, you’ll have a much more worthwhile time, being able to converse with locals. But just knowing some basic verbs, commonly used words and greetings will be fine for travelling in Cuba!
Plan a Loose Itinerary for your trip to Cuba
Before you arrive, at least have a fair idea of where you might want to go. With very little WiFi on the road, you’re not going to be able to check blogs for tips and tricks. We had a list of places we wanted to go to but changed our itinerary as we moved.
You can check out my 2 week Cuba itinerary which hit up all the major hotspots!
Download a Map
We used Maps Me when we were getting around. With this, we could search for ATMs, restaurants and directions offline which was a lifesaver!
What to Bring to Cuba
Lonely Planet Book
This was our oracle in Cuba! With no internet, Cuba is one place where a Lonely Planet book is essential. As well as tips on places to go, we also used the Spanish phrasebook at the back and even read all the chapters about the culture and history, too.
We used an E-Book to save on luggage space but a print one is always nice to have, too. Shop for yours here!
Cuba’s mosquitos will suck the life out you, take my word for it. Like most imported things, though, mosquito repellent will cost you a small fortune- and that’s if you can find it at all! Bring as much as you can before you go!
I love this natural mosquito repellent which is effective and kind to skin.
We always carry our Steripen on the go to save money and to avoid using too much plastic. A litre bottle of water costs about a dollar in Cuba but sometimes people just want to charge you the tourist price which can be double or even triple. It’s better just to use your steripen. The lasers in this handy little gadget completely kill all nasties and impurities making the water completely safe to drink.
The only place where we resorted to buying bottled water was Playa Giron where yucky salty sea water came out the tap. Everywhere else was fine!
Get your own Steripen here, save more money on your travels and help the environment!
Although there is a phrasebook at the back of the lonely planet, it doesn’t cover everything! Something in depth will help you to no end!
Much like mosquito repellent, sun cream in Cuba is expensive but shouldn’t be scrimped on. We wanted to pick up an extra bottle towards the end of our trip but didn’t because it cost 25 CUC for a tiny bottle of Hawaiian Tropics! Bring a few bottles to be on the safe side because the sun is hot hot hot and you’ll need it!
If you plan to Scuba dive or snorkel in Cuba (and you should), this reef friendly sun cream is one of my favourites.
Hot Sauce (& Other Snacks)
I’m not gonna lie, the food in Cuba isn’t the kind of thing you’ll be dreaming of for years to come! To spice things up, do it like Beyonce and bring some hot sauce in your handbag. A lot of restaurants have tabasco on hand but if you like things a little bit thicker and spicier, it’s best to bring your own.
While you’re at it, bring a long some snacks as well. We brought some delicious chocolate along which Veeran’s auntie and uncle gave us in Switzerland, but that got devoured very quickly! Things like granola bars would go down a treat!
I hope these tips can help some of you guys who are going to be travelling to Cuba independently! A lot of people think that a trip like this can’t be done unless you take a tour but, with some proper planning, it’s definitely possible. If you’ve been to Cuba and have some tips for other travellers, give us all a shout in the comments!
Planning a trip to Cuba Independetly? Don’t miss these articles & Resources!
- How to Find the Cheapest Flights on the Web (I found flights from Europe to Cuba for £175 using this method!)
- The Perfect Itinerary for 2 Weeks in Cuba!
- Don’t forget to book travel insurance. I use and recommend World Nomads for all independent travellers!
- Get your Cuba Visa here
- Find budget-friendly casas in Havana here!
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Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links however, as always, all opinions are my own.