I recently went to Havana (Cuba) for a week with a couple of girlfriends — and it’s now one of my favorite places I have ever been. The people are wonderful, the culture is vibrant, the surroundings are beautiful, the streets are safe, and the history/architecture tells a very unique and complicated story.
That aside, it’s not that hard to go to Cuba as an American! I was surprised that many of my friends didn’t even know they could go, which is why I decided this post was needed. When I was first planning this trip, I knew it was possible to get there, but I still had a lot of questions — so this post aims to answer all of them for people like me, all in one place.
Yes, Airlines like American, Southwest, jetBlue, and Delta all fly to Havana — from Miami, New York, Houston, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, and Newark (so you might just have to transfer at one of those hubs). The hardest things for me were honestly these two: 1) not having real, secure Internet access for most of the trip, since I usually work remotely when I travel, and 2) not being able to use credit cards or ATM cards, so budgeting correctly and bringing enough cash for the whole trip was important. More on these and more below.
And if you’re looking for ideas of what to do in Cuba, and not how to get there, check out my other post: 10 Things You Must Do in Havana, Cuba.
The top 10 things to consider when traveling to Cuba as an American
1. You have to declare one of 12 “reasons for travel” to the American government — and “tourism” is not an option. This is not a Cuban thing; they are more than happy to let you in as a tourist. This is an American thing due to the not-yet-normalized relations with the Cuban government. You will have to declare your reason when buying a plane ticket, when booking accommodations, etc.
The 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba are: family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials; and certain authorized export transactions.
That said, it doesn’t really make it difficult to go to Cuba. Most tourists (and my girlfriends and I) went under “support of the Cuban people” and didn’t have any issues. It just means you have to do something every day that supports local businesses and people (and not the Cuban government). For example, there is a list of Cuban hotels and businesses you cannot support on the US government’s website. All this is really is more of an honor system, but I also don’t recommend trying to fool the American government in any way. Save your itinerary, receipts, and records for up to 5 years after your trip just in case the government does follow up with you.
If you’re still worried, we actually found it super helpful to hire a personal planner from ViaHero for just $40/day. Not only do they help you plan everything and offer unique suggestions, but they also make sure your trip falls under the “support the Cuban people” directive. You’ll get a whole PDF with a daily itinerary you can save for your records. Our guide Claudia even went above and beyond: she met us at the airport with a classic car, made sure we got to our AirBnB (Old Havana can be a little complicated), exchanged cash for us, called all restaurants to book/confirm reservations for us, coordinated a private guided tour of the city and a private horseback excursion to Viñales, arranged taxis for us on demand, and was generally available to us during our trip for any questions or issues. Use this URL to get $40 OFF your first purchase with ViaHero.
2. Due to the above, you can’t just stay at any hotel chain you’re used to — you must stay at a “casa particular” instead. This just means a private apartment/room rented by local Cuban families, and there are plenty of these on AirBnB, Vrbo, and even Hotels.com (all of which are options I recommend exploring). I can personally recommend this huge AirBnB apartment in Old Havana — it even has a beautiful private rooftop with views of the city and water. With most of these, the host families will help you figure out how to connect to the Internet, how to best exchange money (if you want to), how to order taxis, and much more. Ours even stocked our fridge with bottled water and beer (no, you cannot drink from the tap in Cuba) — or brought breakfast to our room for $5/person. Personally, I love a good bed-and-breakfast and wish we had more of a BnB culture in America.
As far as location goes, choose between Old Havana and Vedado. I like to always be in the middle of everything historical, so we stayed in Old Havana. It was super walkable and convenient — but also more crowded and noisy. Our AirBnB was actually very quiet on the 7th floor, but we still heard roosters in the morning, for example. You’ll get much larger, quieter properties in Vedado (maybe even with pools) — but most things will be further away and you won’t get as much of that Havana “feel.” So just choose based on your priorities.
3. The only “visa” you need is really just a pink tourist card you can pre-order online. It’s not even technically a visa, just a piece of paper you buy and fill out yourself. There are several websites that sell them, and this is a reputable one that doesn’t overcharge: onlinetouristcard.com. It’s $85 per card and $25 for shipping (so if you’re going with a group, I recommend one person orders them all, to save on shipping). You can usually also get them at the airport from your airline, and it might be cheaper, but not necessarily. One of my friends had to do this with United in Houston right before leaving, and it was approximately the same price. Once you get the card, you just handwrite your basic information in there and bring it with you when you check in at the airport. They will stamp this paper upon entrance to Cuba, as well as when you leave (so don’t lose it).
4. The Cuban government’s website states that you must have travel (health) insurance to enter. However, this is usually included in the price of your airline ticket — which is maybe why they didn’t even ask for proof of this when we entered. I also have (and recommend investing in) annual travel insurance if you do a lot of travel. Mine is through Allianz, for example.
5. Yes, Cuba has Internet — but I wouldn’t rely on it. Our BnB host was kind enough to set it up for us, but you normally have to wait in line to buy Internet cards (with a specific amount of data use per card). Then you use the mini modem/router provided by your BnB to add these cards to it. So yes, you can get Internet, but it’s a process, it’s expensive, it’s slow, and it’s limited in location. Some cafes and restaurants try to get you in by claiming to have Internet, but honestly, I only experienced one that actually had a quality connection (the Yarini rooftop bar). Also, don’t forget to set up a VPN if you plan to be using a lot of apps beyond the basics (since some don’t work in Cuba).
6. Double-check with your phone company, but you will most likely not be using your phone a lot. For example, with T-Mobile, it is 50 cents to send a text message from Cuba and $2 per minute of phone conversation. Let’s not even mention data (if it works) — so turn off your data roaming. I recommend having WhatsApp installed (and making sure your loved ones also do) — and using that for messages/calls once you have an Internet connection. Another thing some people do, is get a local SIM card when they get to Cuba. Then you will have a Cuban phone number and not be racking up your bill with you American carrier. Your BnB host may be able to help you with this.
7. Expect to be sans Internet when you’re walking around — so at least download some offline maps. Per the 2 points above, you probably will not have Google/Maps access as you’re walking around, which is how most of us are used to finding anything these days. So plan ahead! There’s an option to “download” any map offline in Google Maps, so do that. I also cannot recommend the app Maps.me enough. You can create a custom map with all your highlights in there (or export a custom map from MyMap in Google and import it to Maps.me, which is what I did). And then as long as your location settings are on, you can navigate at least between your pre-saved locations even when you’re offline in Cuba.
8. American credit cards and ATM cards don’t work in Cuba, so bring cash. Again, this isn’t a Cuban thing, but due to the US government’s restrictions placed on US banks. Bring cash — or a friend with a foreign bank account. Everyone accepts dollars in Cuba (so don’t go down a rabbit hole of reading about euros vs. dollars and bringing both like I did). Go to your local bank and ask for $20s, $10s, and $5s. Make sure to go through all the bills and ask for nicer copies of any bills that are ripped or overly worn — as this can be an issue for Cubans. Don’t be worried about having cash with you. We never felt unsafe doing so.
9. You really don’t need Cuban pesos — and you should definitely be careful where you exchange them. We got several hundred dollars exchanged into pesos when we got to Cuba, and we honestly didn’t need to, because almost every place accepted dollars and had dollar amounts printed on all receipts. The only time we needed pesos was for entrance fees to museums, entrance fees to clubs, and entrance fees to beaches. And exchanging $20 would be enough for all that. Your BnB host should be able to arrange this for you at a fair conversion rate — so don’t do this on the street.
10. Yes, the streets are safe, even at night. If you’re a woman, men may certainly try to engage you in conversation and hit on you, but it never feels too aggressive or dangerous. We were occasionally annoyed, but never scared. We also didn’t encounter instances of pickpocketing, much less more dangerous crimes. We saw government/military police posted on some streets when we were walking around Old Havana in the evening. Generally, the crime rate is very low in Cuba (among the lowers in the Caribbean and South America). I think that’s probably because tourism is a very precious form of income for a population that doesn’t have many other sources of income — and the government also imposes extreme penalties for crimes against tourists.