Updated: Feb 16th, 2021
If you’re anything like me, dealing with trip logistics is probably not your favorite thing. And since you’ve arrived on this page, you’ve probably realized how much logistics go into planning travel from U.S. to Cuba. It is one of the most complicated things ever because the rules change all the time! It’s a shame because Cuba is such a beautiful place and everyone should be able to visit easily.
When I visited Havana in 2019, I was lucky enough to be traveling with a girlfriend who was super on top of the logistics. She brought to my attention many things I didn’t even know we had to do: getting a visa, exchanging local currency, and bringing small gifts for the locals.
I attribute a lot of our trip’s success to her. I’d now like to pay it forward and share the heaves of information we collected to make your travel from U.S. to Cuba as hassle free as possible.
Is Now a Safe Time to Visit Cuba?
According to the U.S. government travel advisory site, now is sadly not a good time to visit Cuba. Not only is the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing, there was violence at the embassy just last summer.
But mostly, don’t go because of COVID-19. Due to the pandemic, the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy Havana suspended routine U.S. citizen services and only emergency nonimmigrant visa services are currently offered. In addition, a negative COVID-19 test is now required for entry into Cuba. The U.S. embassy website is a great resource for more details on COVID-19 rules.
Despite all this, if you still decide to travel, my advice is to buy health insurance and stay healthy during your trip! The last thing you want is to end up at a local hospital and for them to not take you because they are at full capacity.
If you decide to postpone travel, good for you. Pin this page so you can refer back to it later! Otherwise, keep reading.
Do I Need a Tourist Visa?
Yes, you will need a visa to get into Cuba. And traveling to Cuba as a tourist is technically prohibited. You’ll have to instead enter under one of the 12 categories for traveling to Cuba. A common approach is to put “Support for the Cuban People” as your reasoning. You’re supporting their economy by traveling there.
My girlfriend and I left from the U.S. and had a layover in South America before landing in Havana. We bought our visa at the gate during the layover. Remember that you just need a visa when you board the plane to Cuba. Also check with your airline as they may provide additional guidance on how to obtain the appropriate visa.
Declaring Purpose of Travel
So how do you declare your purpose of travel? You’ll get a form to fill out when you land in Cuba and before you pass through customs. There will be a section that asks why you’re visiting.
Not only did we put “Support for the Cuban People,” our Airbnb host also wrote us a letter as proof that we were indeed visiting Cuba to support her business as an Airbnb host. Her letter was nice for extra assurance. We entered without any problems.
The Cubans want us to visit their beautiful country, and are on our side when it comes to making travel from U.S. to Cuba as easy as possible. When in doubt, ask your hotel or Airbnb host for help and more information.
Should I Tip?
Cuba doesn’t have a tipping culture. Instead, many travelers from the U.S. bring small gifts as a gesture of appreciation. And I think that’s super cute!
Think of it like this. Many basic items that are available in the U.S. are either nonexistent or expensive to get in Cuba. This means locals will appreciate the small things you bring from home even more. We prepared small gifts for our Airbnb host, tour guide, and driver.
Some things we brought were: small shampoo and conditioner bottles from previous hotel stays (unopened of course!), chocolate, and colored pencils. These items were either already lying around in our home or easily found at the airport, and the locals were so happy to receive them!
What is the Local Currency in Cuba?
Remember when I said the rules about visiting Cuba change all the time? Well the currency we used in 2019 is going away in 2021!
As of this year, the Cuban peso (CUP) is the only currency in use. Today, 100 CUP roughly equals $4 USD. While the CUP is the official currency in Cuba, many vendors will accept and actually prefer USD. This article goes into detail on when to use your US dollars vs. the local currency.
My girlfriend and I exchanged about half of our budget into Cuban pesos and kept the other half in USD. We ended up having to exchange more USDs into CUPs locally and it felt really sketch waiting in line outside a bank with our bags full of cash. Based on that experience, I’d maybe exchange more Cuban pesos ahead of time (at the Havana airport or in the U.S.) and just try to spend it all while you’re there. Don’t worry, you’ll find lots of ways to spend it!
Now that we’ve got the important things out of the way, let me offer one last tip: use Airbnb Experiences to plan your activities in Cuba! I used it for the first time when I visited Cuba, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. We booked a day trip to Viñales that included a tour guide, a driver, a classic car for the entire trip, and a full day’s worth of activities. Activities included zip-lining, touring a cigar plant, visiting a historical mural, and more. It was also affordable!
Booking an Airbnb Experience took some of the planning burden off of our hands because the entire day was planned for us and our guide helped us figure out the payments. It also felt safer for me and my girlfriend to be traveling an hour and a half outside of Havana with a trusted tour provider. You’ll see that there’s plenty of experiences to choose from.
Final Words About Travel from U.S. to Cuba
If you’ve made it all the way to this part of the article, that means you’re determined to travel to Cuba. And I’m super happy for you because it’s going to be amazing. I’ll share a separate article about some of my favorite experiences in Cuba. Sign up for my mailing list below if you want first dibs on when it gets published.
If you end up postponing your Cuba trip, maybe consider planning a trip to Maui or Joshua Tree in the meantime. Or perhaps stay at one of these beautiful Airbnbs in California.