Cuba travel tips for first time visitors

Shows a classic car on Havana's El Malecon - Cuba travel tips

Welcome to our complete Cuba travel tips guide, where we share our must-know information to know before you arrive. Cuba is a country full of culture and history that deserves much more merit in our opinion. It’s a great place to visit, but as a very unique destination, unlike many of the places you’ve probably visited, it’s important to know the basics before jetting off. From its currency to its customs and the way of life, you’ll soon realise how different Cuba is compared to other holiday destinations.

After spending time researching and exploring Cuba, we’ve assembled our top tips for visiting Cuba guide to help prepare you for an epic trip. We hope you find it useful. 😊

Things to know before you arrive in Cuba

Tips for visiting Cuba - Shows a mural of Che Guevara

From visa information to packing, here are some important things to consider before you visit Cuba:

Tourist card visa – If travelling from any country (aside from the United States) you’ll need to complete a tourist visa card ahead of landing, which will allow you to stay in the country for 30 days. This will need to be shown at the airport upon check in and also when you land in Cuba. You can order your tourist card visa directly from this website. For Americans, the process is slightly different. You’ll need to obtain a general license and are only allowed to visit the country under specific conditions. This is an essential Cuba travel tip for all visitors to the country.

Travel insurance – As with other destinations, travel insurance is essential during your stay in Cuba. It’ll protect you from any unforeseen healthcare costs, will get you back home if you have a health issue and covers other scenarios, such as natural disasters, loss of luggage and pandemics. Be sure to shop around online for the best deal and always read the terms and conditions.

Pack all the essentials – A lot of basic products are incredibly difficult to find in Cuba, so make sure you’re prepared. It’s best to overpack, rather than not pack enough when travelling to Cuba. Some essential items that are difficult to find include:  

·        Sun cream

·        After sun

·        Moisturiser

·        Shampoo and conditioner

·        Shower gel

·        Sanitary products

·        Bug spray

·        Any essential medications

·        Any other toiletries you can think of

Airport transfers – If you’ve booked a hotel and flight package deal with a tour company, your airport-to-hotel transfer is usually included. If not, there are plenty of taxis outside the main airports that can take you to your hotel or casa. Always negotiate a price before getting into the taxi. Alternatively, book a private transfer before arrival. You can view the top-rated companies on TripAdvisor here

Learn the local language – Whilst English is spoken in Cuba, especially in the tourist areas of Varadero, it’s not extremely common. Cubans will be so happy and grateful if you speak some Spanish, so definitely try to learn a few basic phrases on your travels.

What’s the best time of the year to visit Cuba?

Remove beach in Playa Blanco

Cuba has an all-year round hot climate that reaches 40+ degrees in the summer months. The best times to visit are March and April, as this is when the country has little rainfall and temperatures are manageable. The months of November – February are also good, with slightly cooler temperatures.

Wet season starts from mid-end May all the way through to October. Cuba’s climate is tropical, meaning downpours don’t last long and generally happen most days. The weather is extremely humid from June – August, so this period is best avoided if you struggle with high temperatures and humidity.

Getting around in Cuba

Cuba travel tips - Shows a classic car on El Malecon

There are a variety of different options for getting around in Cuba, depending on the type of holiday you’re looking for and your budget. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Public transport – The local transport that’s used by the majority of Cubans is the bus, otherwise known as ‘La Guagua’. This is the cheapest way of getting round, but also the slowest. You could be waiting for hours to be able to get on the bus. We recommend avoiding this mode of transport if possible, allowing the locals to make use of it. These local buses are also extremely crowded.
  • Taxis – You’ll find taxis all over Cuba, from modern vehicles, to convertible 1950’s classic cars for that true Cuban experience. Prices vary wildly between cities and drivers, so it’s important to research how much you should be paying and then negotiating with the driver.  
  • Private tours – If it’s your first-time visiting Cuba, we recommend opting for private tours. It’s a great way of gaining an understanding of the country’s culture, as you’ll have a guide with you for the entire trip. We had some excellent day trips with Cuban Compass Tours and would highly recommend them. They offer a wide range of tours around Havana, Matanzas- Varadero and Trinidad. You can book directly with them on their website here.
  • Group tours – If you want a multi-day fully organised trip, or an affordable day trip, group tours are the way to go. You’ll travel around with a group of other people and can make friends as you explore everything that Cuba has to offer. Group tours can be booked directly with a travel agent in your home country, or by browsing local tour organisers on TripAdvisor here.

Money/ currency

The currency situation in Cuba is slightly complicated and can get some getting used to. All tourists really need to understand is that Cuba’s national currency is the CUP, otherwise known as Moneda Nacional. CUC, or Convertible Cuban Pesos, used to be used in the past but is no longer used. Here are some useful Cuba travel tips with regards to money/ currency:

  • Paying in local currency – You can pay in CUP everywhere you visit. However, you won’t be able to convert currency back in your home country. Instead, bring along plenty of US dollars, Euros, Canadian Dollars or Great British Pounds. You can then exchange these when you’re in Cuba. The official way to exchange cash is at your hotel reception or a ‘Cadeca’ exchange shop. These places give you a fairly low exchange rate, so it’s much preferred to exchange cash with a trusted person on the street. Taxi drivers, hotel staff and other locals you’ll meet will be able to offer a better exchange rate.
  • Bring a lot of cash – Whilst some places accept card, cash seems to be preferred everywhere any you’ll get a better exchange rate. There aren’t many places that’ll accept card payment (except from tourist areas).
  • Preferred currency – As the CUP is very weak compared to the majority of other currencies, Cubans prefer to be paid in stronger currencies. American / Canadian dollars, British Pounds and Euros are all good currencies to have on hand in Cuba.
  • Bring a variety of different currencies – Depending on what you plan to do in Cuba, different currencies are accepted in different places. You’ll also get better rates when using some currencies, so it’s good to have a couple of different options on hand. We like to bring along plenty of US $1 notes as it’s a small denomination. CAD $5 and €5 are good for higher value transactions.
  • Private tours – If you’re doing private tours, be sure to speak to the tour guides beforehand and see what currency they prefer, to ensure you have enough cash with you.

Tipping in Cuba

Image of a luxury hotel in Varadero, Cuba

Tipping in Cuba has become more of a thing over recent years and is very welcomed by the locals. Cubans struggle on a day-to-day basis to make ends meet, and even a small gesture will go a long way for them. Tipping is one of the most searched for Cuba travel tips, as the tipping culture isn’t as clear cut as other countries.

  • Tipping in US/ Canadian dollars and Euros are preferred. US dollars are the most convenient as you can tip in smaller $1 notes. Be sure to bring plenty of singles.
  • Tipping is common when ordering a drink, having dinner in a restaurant, visiting a spa, getting room service and any other scenario that usually encourages tipping.
  • Tip as much or as little as you’d like. There’s no guideline or expectation for tipping in Cuba. It’s personal preference and in relation to the service you received.

Eating out

Tips for visiting Cuba - Shows a row of colourful colonial buildings

If you’re looking to sample traditional Cuban cuisine, then it’s a good idea to do some research beforehand. Sadly, Cuba has faced years of food shortages and many restaurants struggle to get hold of certain produce. A lot of locals can’t afford to eat out frequently, so many cafés and restaurants cater to tourists. Nevertheless, Cuba still has some amazing cuisine and restaurants to discover; you just have to search harder. Here are our top Cuba travel tips when it comes to eating out:

  • Be sure to check out reviews prior to visiting restaurants. Cuban food standards aren’t as high as they are in other countries, and you’ll want to make sure you dine somewhere that has good sanitation. You don’t want to catch a bug!
  • Local ‘paladares’ are known to be some of the best places to eat. Rather than government operated restaurants, paladares are private businesses that provide a much more authentic Cuban dining experience.
  • Use TripAdvisor and Google reviews to find the best restaurants in areas that you’re staying in. An eatery with amazing reviews will almost always give you a better dining experience. Aim for a rating of 4.5 stars+
  • You’ll find that some restaurants in Cuba are particularly expensive compared to the rest of the country, and in fact other places in the world. A lot of Cubans don’t dine out much, so the tourist restaurants, with hard-to-find ingredients, are more expensive than you’d expect. This varies throughout Cuba and meals can be cheap outside of the tourist centres, particularly in the ‘paladares’.
  • Food shortages still remain a problem in Cuba, so some places won’t have an extensive menu. Try to be open-minded when it comes to eating out and research multiple restaurant options.
  • Whilst in Cuba, don’t drink the tap water. You can buy bottled water from the shops with ease. We recommend bringing an insulated water bottle to keep your water cool during the day.

Internet / Wi-Fi

  • In previous years, internet was a huge problem in Cuba. There were certain parks / spots in the country where locals could connect with the rest of the world. The internet situation is much better these days, but don’t expect the high-speed connections that you would find in other countries. Hotels are generally good, and Wi-Fi is often included, but if staying at a Casa Particular, be aware that connection may be poor.
  • If you require access to data whilst traveling around Cuba, you’ll need to buy an ETECSA Wi-Fi card or Sim card for your phone. These can be bought in some airports, and in ETECSA shops around Cuba.
  • Data roaming isn’t available in Cuba for a lot of countries, so you won’t be able to use your contract plan. We recommend checking with your phone provider before setting off to see if you can use your phone in Cuba.

Culture

Cuba travel tips - Shows a cultural celebration in Matanzas

  • Cuba is a very cultural place to visit. Despite having its hardship, everyone gets by the best they can and lives for the moment. When visiting the country, it’s truly amazing to witness how everyone supports one another in whatever way they can.
  • Compassion is a huge thing in Cuba and the locals will help those who are in more need. This could include lending them some cooking oil, which has been challenging to find recently, or getting hold of some meat produce.
  • Music is ingrained in every part of Cuban culture and is not to be missed! Be sure to check out a show, have a dance class or listen to live music in a bar during your visit.
  • Cuba is famous for its rum and cigars. Be sure to sample both if you’re a smoker or drinker. They boast some of the best in the world for both products!
  • Baseball is the country’s number one sport, and it has a huge following. If you’re into baseball, it’s a great conversation starter with the locals and you can even attend a local baseball game.
  • One extremely important thing is not to feel pity for the locals. They are extremely proud people and have enough to get by. If you’re visiting friends, a ‘casa’, or staying at a hotel, then you can leave your left-over toiletries and bring gifts to help out.  

Sightseeing

Sightseeing in Matanzas Town - Cuba travel tips

Sightseeing in Cuba is not to be missed! The country is a large Caribbean Island that’s home to tropical jungle terrain, historic colonial towns, endless nature and powdery sand beaches. As Cuba is a developing country, getting around is a little harder than other destinations, but it’s well worth the effort. Here are our sightseeing Cuba travel tips:

  • Pick a few places to visit in Cuba and explore them fully. This will allow you spend quality time in each place and experience it in its entirety. Travel between destinations can take a long time, so if your time is limited, a short itinerary will be more fulfilling.
  • Aim to explore less popular sites so you can get a real feel for Cuba and how locals live.
  • Pack snacks and lots of water when you’re travelling as you may struggle to find them in the local shops.  
  • Be aware of scams happening on the streets, especially in Cuba’s capital, Havana. Some locals will try to exchange fake currency with you, promising good rates for Cuban pesos.
  • Be sure to have maps downloaded on your phone as you might get lost, especially if you’re unable to speak the local language. As you may not have internet access, these will come in handy.
  • Research the attractions you’re visiting on Google and YouTube beforehand. You’ll get a better appreciation of the place you’re visiting that way. Many places in Cuba have a rich history, and there are no signs to tell you about it.
  • Pack some toilet paper in your bag as many restrooms don’t have toilet roll or will charge you.

Accommodation/ hotel Cuba travel tips

Shows a hotel swimming pool and sun loungers

Tourism is a rapidly growing industry in Cuba and new hotels seem to be popping up every day. Some areas are more developed than others. In the tourist hotspots of Varadero, Havana and Holguin, there’s a vast number of hotels to choose from, with options for every budget. Less frequented areas have less hotel choice, with more ‘Casa Particular’ types of accommodation. Here are our top Cuba travel tips for accommodation:

  • A 4 star or 5-star hotel in Cuba isn’t the same as in other countries, mainly due to the quality of food available in the country. That being said, the hotels are lovely, but be sure to manage your expectations and not compare to previous destinations you’ve been to, especially if you’re a ‘foodie.’ That said, a 4 or 5-star hotel in cheap is considerably cheaper than other areas of the Caribbean. You can sample luxury for less.
  • Due to the ongoing food shortage challenge that Cuba faces, some hotels will suffer from this too. Chain hotels and well known 4 and 5-star hotel brands tend to have more food availability and better facilities.
  • Sometimes package holiday deals are the cheapest way to book a hotel in Cuba, as large tourism operators negotiate good prices for rooms. Sunwing in Canada, and TUI in Europe, offer some excellent package deals. If you plan on staying in one place, this is a cost-effective option.
  • Always check the reviews of hotels on TripAdvisor before booking. This is a travel tip you can use for any destination, but it’s particularly important in Cuba, where some hotels aren’t of the same standard you’d find in other countries.
  • If visiting Varadero, we highly recommend the Iberostar Selection Varadero. It’s rated as number one on TripAdvisor and will certainly provide you with the best Cuban hotel experience!
  • If it’s your second time visiting Cuba, or even the first and you fancy exploring different areas of the country on a budget, we suggest staying at a ‘Casa Particular’, which similar to an Airbnb. It’s a great way to support the local community and get a true Cuban experience living with a Cuban host family. Be sure to do your research and check out the reviews of the accommodation beforehand. Here’s an excellent guide on how to book a Casa Particular.

How to stay safe in Cuba

Cuba is one of the safest countries in North America, with very little crime. That being said, like with any destination, there’s always going to be some aspect of safety that you need to be aware of no matter how small. Crime in Cuba is mainly related to robbery and pick pockets. Below are our top Cuba travel tips for staying safe:

  • Don’t wander around the streets at night alone. If you need to be outside, then be sure to go with someone.
  • Be aware of locals trying to scam you and sell you fake products on the black market for a high price. Only exchange currency with those you trust and negotiate prices wherever you can. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Make a list of nearby doctors, hospitals and health care services, just in case of emergency.
  • Pack all the essentials you may need when visiting Cuba (especially medication), as these are extremely to get hold of.
  • Don’t carry too much cash around with you, in case of pickpockets. Be sure to leave the rest of your cash in a safe or hiding place in your hotel.  
  • Many travellers we’ve spoken to have experienced issues with sand flies on the beach and grass, as well as mosquitos. To prevent getting bitten, be sure to bring along a bug spray that contains at least 50% Deet. We use Jungle Formula and didn’t get bitten even once.
  • If you haven’t got one already, we recommend investing in a suitcase lock. There have been incidents of items going missing from suitcases at the airport. To help avoid this, make sure you lock your case up securely. Zip ties are another good option.

We hope you found our Cuba travel tips guide useful and you now have an insight into exploring this unique country. Cuba will always hold a special place in our hearts, so much so that we’ll be visiting again very soon and explore other areas.

We’d love to hear about your experiences, so be sure to leave a comment below. Hasta pronto! 😊

By Susie

Author bio:

I’m a passionate traveller that loves a sunny beach holiday, but also appreciate the cultural side to a trip and checking out undiscovered destinations. I’m the go-to Toucan Traveller for great holiday stories, cool photos and foodie recommendations.

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