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Traveling to Cuba from the United States – A Guide for the US Citizen Traveler

This article is meant to be a guide providing accurate and helpful information for an United States Citizen, entering Cuba from the United States, to travel to Cuba comfortably, safely, and in as humanitarian of manner as possible. Any statements in this article are based on my first hand observation as a traveler, if I did not experience it first hand it is not shared here as fact or opinion.

Myself (center) and my amigas in Havana, Cuba – January 3, 2023.

In my experience preparing for travel to Cuba, I faced sorting through a lot of information that included myths, misinformation, inaccuracy, or just non-information and complete and utter surprise. So this article is meant to dispel myths and lift the veil of mis or non-information about traveling to our immediate neighbor to the South, just 92 miles from Miami. I hope this article helps give you the information you need regarding how to get there, what you should pack, how to take care of yourself, and what preparation you need so you can visit Cuba safely and with an open compassionate heart. I hope you chose to experience the beautiful complexity that is Cuba and its wonderful people.

Here are the 10 points I will cover:

  1. Yes, you can travel to Cuba legally.
  2. Fly to Cuba on American Airlines or Jet Blue.
  3. Bring ALL the cash you need in at least three different currencies.
  4. Stay in an Airbnb homestay while you are there.
  5. Get a Cuban SIM card for you phone and use WhatsApp to call, text and communicate.
  6. Pre-book experiences through Airbnb for excursions before you go.
  7. What to pack for Cuba
  8. Eating in Cuba
  9. Learn some Spanish and have a good translation app on your phone.
  10. Enjoy yourself but please be kind and thoughtful.
  11. Before you go – purchase travel insurance and make sure you are healthy.
  1. Yes, you can travel to Cuba legally from the United States.

I’ll repeat that again. Yes, United States Citizens can travel in 2023 to Cuba legally. You must have a reason to go to Cuba, however, and that reason must be one of the many listed in this CFR. So technically, you are not traveling as a tourist – but for a very important reason. I recommend you review the list below from the state department and each of the various “reasons” therein and find which one you qualify for.

https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-31/subtitle-B/chapter-V/part-515/subpart-E/section-515.560

You will purchase this Tourist Visa, like you see in my photo above, through your airline for $50 US Dollars at the airport when you check in for your flight. You must also state your said reason when you purchase your airline ticket online. At the airport you will verify your reason, sign a document saying it is your reason, and give the airline your $50 in exchange for the Visa. You do this by providing your passport at the check-in desk and filling out the paperwork your airline requires for the flight. They then give you your pink slip of paper and tell you not to lose it.

Your Travel Visa is good for 90 days as of December 2022. Make sure you do not lose it though, because if you lose it in Cuba you will have a hard time leaving as who knows how much it will cost you to get a new one. Best if you just make sure it is safely stored with your passport.

And sorry, if you are hoping you will get a Cuba stamp on your passport, it doesn’t happen. Our airline ticket was stamped on the way out and then they took our ticket leaving us only with the stub. Nothing for the scrapbook but memories.

2. Fly to Cuba on American Airlines or Jet Blue.

Based on my and my friends’ experience, you want to choose American Airlines or Jet Blue for your flight to Cuba. They have the most regular service to Cuba (and the Caribbean generally) and they know how to manage the Tourist Visa Situation appropriately. Because of their regular flights and experience you will be able to just buy the Visa through your airline versus having to go one of the more difficult and confusing routes that are out there.

If your airline knows what they are doing you just have to show up with yourself, your passport, your reason for traveling to Cuba and your payment method – and you will be on your way to Cuba. If you are originating from Florida give yourself the 2 hours or more allotted time for check-in and baggage drop at the airport. If you are coming from somewhere else, and transferring in Miami or Fort Lauderdale – make sure you have a long enough layover to take care of this. You MUST have the Visa to enter and exit Cuba so make sure you have enough time in your itinerary to manage this portion and any unforeseen circumstances.

View from a rooftop deck bar upon the Havana harbor and Castillo.

3. Bring all the cash you need in at least three different currencies.

US credit cards and debit cards do not work in Cuba so you cannot get money from an ATM or spend anything without cold hard cash. No Exceptions. There are no easily accessible money wire services to and from the United States either. So you MUST BRING ALL OF THE CASH YOU NEED. Bring more than you need – because once you are there that is what you will have. The most common reason people from the US get stuck in Cuba is because they are not prepared for this reality. Moreover, with rising inflation Cuba is not an inexpensive destination. Relative to a major city in the United States you will definitely not be facing sticker shock. BUT you should be prepared to spend a lot of US dollars while you are there, for humanitarian purposes if nothing else. And with the inability to get more money when you are there you really need to go in with more than enough so you don’t have to worry about rationing your cash, or having to haggle about things. (You can barter, but please don’t be THAT American trying to squeeze a deal out of everyone).

Based on what we encountered I recommend also bringing Canadian Dollars and Euro with you. You can pre-order foreign currency at your bank to get a good exchange rate. Cuban people can use CAD and Euros for their normal needs and purchases (where US dollars are foreboden), so these currency are accepted by all, as well as the US Dollar. People really like the US Dollar but sometimes it isn’t appropriate, and when traveling on cash only it is always good to have multiple currencies – just in case.

NOTE: The US Dollar is not accepted as a deposit for the Cuban ration card or shopping card. The US Dollar is not officially accepted for anything because the United States has an embargo on Cuba so the Cuban government does not recognize the US Dollar as a form of currency. This does not mean the US Dollar is worthless, in fact, just the opposite, it is highly coveted. However, it is coveted by those planning to leave Cuba, and for its higher value in this world of inflation. But still, the average Cuban will need to sell it to change it into Pesos or other currencies to actually use it in Cuba. Because the United States and our money is persona non grata to the government of Cuba.

You can change US Dollars (CAD and Euros) into Cuban Pesos (CUP) and you should do this with at least some of your money for your daily cash spend. Certain things can only be purchased in pesos, and it is easier when you are working with street vendors, beach vendors, and souvenir shopping to have pesos. You will get better prices for things as well if you are working in pesos (however, if your spanish is awful and its obvious you are an american with no clue, you really aren’t, but it will be easier to just buy things).

You can change US dollars at the airport for Pesos at an OK exchange rate (120 to 1 at the date of this writing). Do not change them on the street unless you know your changer intimately and you are getting at least 30 more CUP to the dollar than the going government exchange rate (110 or 120 to 1 at the date of this writing). I would also repeat, do not change your dollars on the street unless you know your changer intimately – as in they are your Airbnb host or local arranged tour guide or an actual friend you know there.

4. Stay in an Airbnb homestay while you are there.

As a United States citizen traveling in Cuba you must stay in an Airbnb or in someone’s home. Due to the US Embargo on Cuba US Citizens are not able to stay in most hotels. When choosing your Airbnb you want a host that will get you bottled water, a Cuban SIM card, and generally assist you with acquiring things that require cards and other things US travelers do not have access to. To find out if they will do these things write them via the Airbnb app while you are shopping for your place and make sure they will make arrangements with you. I wish it didn’t need to be said, but please don’t be entitled when you ask about these things – your hosts are not required to provide them, but if they do they will be amazing hosts and be super helpful to you while you are there.

Also, when choosing your Airbnb do not pick a place that does not have a means of making your own food. You want a stove, a microwave or a hot plate – something – so you can boil water and cook. And you will want to pack your own coffee, creamer, sugar, easy to cook high protein food, vitamins, travel stomach tonics, and anything else you will need for a comfortable stay (see future section in this article).

We became great friends with the manager of our Airbnb and will stay in contact with her forever because of her hospitality and our care for her and her family. So use the connection wisely and treat it with gratitude and compassion.

NOTE: If you are traveling in a group and someone purchases your Airbnb and you Venmo each other – don’t say “reimbursement for Cuba” or anything associated with Cuba. Venmo will put a hold on your transaction and you will have to prove that you are legitimately traveling to Cuba for some reason. This is also likely because of our Embargo and transactions to, from and about Cuba are looked down upon.

5. Get a Cuban SIM card for you phone and use WhatsApp to call, text and communicate.

Cuba is not covered on your cell phone plan, your data plan, or anything. Cuba does not have prevalent wifi hotspots, or really wifi at all. So If you cannot pre-arrange a SIM card with your host you will have to buy one. You can theoretically get one of these at the airport, or you will need a trusted local to obtain one for you. If you do not have a promised SIM card coming from your Airbnb, don’t leave the airport until you have obtained one if you can.

Data Roaming in Cuba is obscenely expensive. My group only had access to one SIM card so the little I posted on the internet and messaged (extremely sparingly) cost me over $500 US. This is unlike any other data roaming I have ever experienced, even in India before international plans were prevalent. So in short a SIM card is essential. You want google maps, you want your translation app, you want all the things. So plan on getting a Cuban SIM card. You will want to call taxi drivers and your host, and your guides and other friends while you are there.

NOTE: Even when you have a SIM card it is important to note that the internet in Cuba just doesn’t work that well everyday. Some days it will just not work. Some days you should turn your phone on and off again to reconnect, even if you have the Cuban SIM card. We take for granted the internet and prevalence of wifi in the United States. You will not in Cuba.

6. Pre-book experiences through Airbnb for excursions before you go.

These are great bargains, professional and run by verified hosts. Also you are able to reserve them with your credit card in the United States before you get there. Please note that a lot will ask you to bring a certain amount of cash in a certain currency to pay for the remainder of the experience. This is not shady or sketchy, it is a reality of doing business in Cuba. As any Airbnb host must funnel the money through somewhere else in order to get it through Airbnb from a United States credit card. So it is more practical that you pay a reservation fee online, then pay the remainder in cash in Cuba. But you can plan for these costs ahead of time and bring the appropriate amount of cash. And also bring a good amount to tip your hosts appropriately and generously. Paying your experience hosts in cash in the kind thing to do.

7. What to Pack for Cuba

Bring absolutely everything you think you will need and then some. Do not take for granted anything. You probably cannot buy it without significant difficulty. Everything is hard to buy in Cuba, and/or potentially non-existent there. So don’t forget your toothbrush. Bring 2 extras and even more toiletries to give to your host or any other Cuban friend you meet and make while you are there.

Also pack all your sunscreen, your medications, cough drops, supplements, stomach ailment meds, Benadryl, etc. Bring an entire pharmacy with you and plan to leave it all behind.

Bring clothing you are comfortable in and don’t mind getting dirty (but also some nice things). Bring VERY COMFORTABLE shoes for walking on the pothole ridden streets and beach towns. Bring some clothing and shoes you will give away to the Cubans you meet. I left a nice shirt and sandals, as did my friends.

Also PACK FOOD. I can’t emphasize this enough. Cuba is going through a food crisis and there are not grocery stores. So pack snacks, power bars, coffee, creamer and any milk product (shelf stable obviously) you need, pack easy to make meals that can be cooked with hot water or microwaved, pack protein sources to supplement what you can get in restaurants. This includes nuts, dried fruit, canned goods, crackers, chips, any kind of dry good/preserved thing. For example, go crazy with the Trader Joes products – e.g. canned dolmas, white beans in tomato, and anything that is just add water type of thing.

Then when you have what you think you will need, then pack a bunch of shelf stable milk and other foods to give to the Cuban people when you are there. They need it. Also don’t worry about over packing as you will leave all your extra things with your host and friends when you leave.

Cuba is experiencing an extreme food crisis. Cubans line up monthly on their allotted day with their ration card to get a specific amount of food – monthly. Not weekly, not daily – monthly. Grocery stores do not exist. They are empty. You, tourist, can only eat in restaurants and they only have what they have. So if you have dietary restrictions and allergies bring the food you need. I came in with an entire second suitcase just filled with food and things I bought at Walgreens for colds, flu, allergies and whatnot. The people of Cuba also need soap, salt, sugar, honey, milk, deodorant, toothpaste, feminine card products (like menstruation cups), they need condoms, they need all the things you take for granted that are available at competing Walgreens and CVSs across the street from one another. So – you cleaning out your bathroom medical drawer? You have extra make up and whatnot? Bring it! You will be able to give it to someone in Cuba.

Red snapper at La Playa Santa Maria del Mar.

8. Eating in Cuba

See packing for Cuba. Bring what you need to eat and be comfortable because you cannot buy it there. When I go again I will pack B vitamins on top of the probiotics and multi-vitamin electrolytes. I will also start out with an entire backpack of water from the airport (or in another suitcase).

As a tourist you will be able to afford to eat and and drink out BUT restaurants only have what they have (unless you eat at the most expensive places. And they too only have what they have). Do make reservations for the restaurants you find on google, as they get full and busy.

When ordering be aware that all large meat pieces have likely been hanging around for awhile without refrigeration so there is a high likelihood that they are rancid. So avoid beef and pork that is served in large pieces, stick to chicken and seafood because they are most likely fresh or were very recently frozen – and they are just less likely to make you sick. Unless you are extremely careful you will get some form of food poisoning in Cuba.

Cheese in Cuba is weird. Best to avoid if you like cheese or don’t do well with dairy. And dairy itself is very rare – if I ate it I felt like I was taking it from a starving child’s mouth as an uber privileged tourist. Further, it always tasted wrong so it was just better to avoid as much as possible so I didn’t have to force myself to eat it in order to not waste food in a place experiencing a food crisis.

Pack salt & pepper and hot sauce in those small travel containers or little travel hiking bottles so you can carry them in your purse or pocket or pack. Most food is very bland in restaurants, just because they do not have access to supplies. Again, you can leave what you don’t use behind with a grateful Cuban family so nothing will be wasted.

Pack iron supplements and B Vitamins because you are not going to get enough protein from animals or the right nutritious content in the foods you do eat.

The little bodega in the middle of the street frequented by Hemingway because of its good daiqaries.

9. Learn some Spanish and have a good translation app on your phone.

People in your Airbnb experiences and other tour guides may speak English, but this is pretty rare. Most everything is in Spanish so you need some ability to comprehend and communicate even if it is broken Spanish phrases. Learn “How Much?” so you can negotiate your taxi rides and not get taken on anything you are purchasing. Learn “Where is?” and “Can I have…” and other useful getting by phrases. Your attempt to even speak broken Spanish is a sign of respect and will be embraced by the people there.

Cubans speak in a swift dialect of Spanish, but it is ok to ask them to slow down so you can understand. No one will be offended that you are trying to speak Spanish. We spent a bunch of time apologizing for our Spanish, meanwhile those we were with apologized for their English. But if I had to do it again I would write down the frequent phrases I needed in my notebook along with key vocabulary so I could practice more. (I didn’t have a SIM card so I couldn’t do translation a translation app because it was too much data to constantly translate). I will brush up on my Spanish significantly before I return.

10. Enjoy yourself but please be kind and thoughtful.

As a US Citizen our $ and our ability to come and go are all privilege. Be cognizant of this and be kind to the people who are the collateral damage of world politics. There is no easy solution to the food crisis, inflation and challenges Cuba faces as a country. I personally wish the US would lift its embargo and let its by-gones by-gones but that is my opinion and it will not influence world policy. Nor would the US lifting its embargo fix everything at work in Cuba resulting in the suffering that is palpable in the faces of its people. The situation is just so complex.

When you go be prepared to see poverty and to do your best to support the people you meet. Please be thoughtful and treat everyone with respect and compassion. These are hard times and we literally have no concept what-so-ever of what they are going through to live there. So never say “you understand” or anything of the like. Just give them your heart, your money and your kindness.

So if something does not meet your expectations for your vacation please do not take it out on the one who is providing you services. Remember this is YOUR vacation, and this is THEIR LIFE. You have a choice to be there. Our Cuban hosts do not.

11. Before your go purchase travel insurance and make sure you are healthy.

You can purchase travel insurance through your airline, but the kind I am talking about is separate from that. It is a $30 policy and it covers $100-200K in medical expenses, repatriation of your remains and/or airlifting you out and a number of other horrible worst case scenarios. It is worth $30 and it used to be required by the Cuban passport control before they let you in. In my experience, they did not check to see if I had travel insurance, they did ask me a WHOLE BUNCH of questions as to why I was there, where I was staying and when I would leave. I told them the truth that I was there to write an article to encourage more Americans to travel to Cuba safely. I don’t know if that was the right answer – but they eventually gave me back my passport and allowed me in to go about my business and enter Cuba.

So be prepared when you go to talk about your reason. Be prepared and in good health and bring all the things you need to maintain that good health. Be prepared to experience something different than any other place you have traveled. I have been to almost 30 countries, war zones, poverty stricken areas, post-communist transition areas, you name it. But Cuba is unique in its isolation, in its story, in its people hearts, in the time capsule that it is frozen in thanks to the US embargo. I’ve never met a people with hearts so open and whose inner light is so resilient. But they are struggling and the marathon of struggle is not over.

I am changed as a result of my travel to Cuba. I have more gratitude and awareness of the great amount of abundance and waste we participate in here in the United States as a result. There are many other things that I will share in my next article that you can choose to read or not read about my experience there. But I hope this article gives you what you need to travel to Cuba as a United States citizen with confidence, care, and compassion.

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