Since the Cuba embargo and travel ban has been lifted, millions in the U.S. are looking to visit Cuba “before there’s a Starbucks on every corner.” Even though there’s an urgency to experience the once untouchable country, there’s a lack of online resources and consensus on what you need to travel there as a U.S. citizen due to the newness of the venture.
Having gone to Havana for a week, I streamlined everything I learned as a quick guide to visiting as an American.
On my way to Havana, I flew through Charlotte. On the way back, through Miami. After fees and add-ons, the flight cost a little under $400 through American Airlines. Quick Tip: Each way, make sure you have at least an hour layover in case you need time to purchase a visa or exchange currency. I made the mistake of having an overnight layover in Miami, thinking I’d just spend the night in the airport. American Airlines doesn’t allow you to check bags until the day of your flight, so I was forced to find a hotel. Rookie mistake …
One thing that isn't well know, is that U.S. citizens can’t just go to Cuba to be a tourist — you have to fall under one of the 12 required reasons for visiting the country and then purchase a coordinating visa.
I went with the intention of starting a photo project, so I said I was going for journalistic activity. With that, there are vague requirements, like educational activities and support for the Cuban people. I stayed safe and brought prints of articles that I’d been in to prove why I was there. I didn't use them, but it was better to have them than not.
After buying a plane ticket, each traveler will get an email and a phone call from Cuba Travel Services. During that call, they make sure you know that you have to have a reason for visiting and also talk about buying the proper visa. Doing this a few months prior to visiting, you’ll have enough time to order a visa through the travel service. It’ll cost you around $80 and get mailed to your address. However, if you wait too long (like I did), buying one at the airport is another option for $100.
Having forgotten to get mine sooner, I was afraid it would be a long process — however, after them asking me for a passport and credit/debit card, it was fine. Luckily for me, there was no line. After the transaction runs through, the kiosk worker will give you a little tourist card to fill out before landing in Cuba.
Place to Stay:
Airbnb was a great option for places to stay. My lovely Canadian friend dealt with making the reservations, but it was very affordable and in a great location in Havana. There are hotels and hostels available too if you look hard enough.
One of the requirements is that you purchase out of country insurance. Even if your insurance covers you in Cuba, you have to buy a temporary plan. No proof of my insurance was asked for at anytime, though it's smart to get it just in case — and it's cheap.
Call your provider and ask about their international charges. In order to use wifi, you have to buy wifi cards from the government and use them at designated wifi spots. If you wait hours in line to buy a card, it’ll cost you around $1.50 for an hour card. If you’re feeling frisky and don’t want to wait in line, you can find people at the wifi spots who will sell cards for $3 each. Keep it on the DL though.
You’ll want to bring things like shampoo, toothpaste, toilet paper, sunscreen and snacks. While you’re there, buy a lot of bottled water. The food was fine, but I came back to the U.S. with a stomach bug either from the water or the food. Make sure to use bottled water instead of using the sink and look into any meds you can take beforehand that might help you adapt to the food.
I brought a lot of snack bars and oatmeal packets. If you end up staying home for the day, or you’re out and don’t want to buy a meal, it’s beneficial to have those.
If you don’t speak Spanish, try to learn the basics before going, too. I had six years of Spanish classes that I maintained a D average in, yet it still came in handy. I watched a video that suggested bringing photos from the U.S. to give to any new friends you make while you’re there. I printed some photos I’d made around the U.S. and if I met someone new who seemed interested in the states, I’d ask if they wanted a photo.
A lot of the people I gave photos to had never left Cuba and really enjoyed seeing the photos.
U.S. credit/debit cards don’t work in Cuba. All of the money you think you’ll need will have to be cash. I highly suggest converting your American dollars to Euros or Canadian Dollars the day before your flight. There’s a 10 percent upcharge for USD in Cuba, so it’s easier and cheaper to convert it. I converted $550 USD to last me a week. You’ll have to budget out how much you think you’ll need, but keep in mind that the taxi to get to the airport will likely cost $30, you might have to pay a $25 fee to leave Cuba (I didn’t have to), and there are souvenir shops at the airport that you might want to invest in.
So, make sure you have at least $55 set aside for your last day if you're going on a budget. When you get to the Havana airport, you’ll have to go outside and stand in a long line to exchange your currency.
After everything, I spent under $1,300 for a week-long trip. Although I only spent a week in Havana, it was genuinely a life changing experience and I’ll be going back as often as I can.
For more info/photos of my stay, visit: TaylorDorrell.com or contact email@example.com.