Millennials — or anyone else — interested in traveling to Cuba have a lot to know before they go, as traveling to Cuba is unlike any other travel experience.
It is too early since the diplomatic changes have been announced between the U.S. and Cuba to clearly estimate what the transportation costs might be because airline and cruise carriers haven’t had time to establish commercial routes. However, once you’re in Cuba, there are many financial and cultural differences about which you should be aware.
Currency exchange and availability
Cuba has a dual currency system, one used predominantly by its residents, and another more commonly used by tourists or for residents to purchase luxury goods, so that alone makes traveling in Cuba different than other places.
The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) was implemented in 2004 and has been the most commonly used currency by tourists instead of U.S. dollars. It is equivalent to up to $1 USD, but subject to conversion fees, unlike other foreign currencies. It is worth about 24 times the Cuban Peso (CUP). You can learn to recognize the visual differences between the two currencies by looking at images here.
In early 2014, Cuba announced it would drop the complicated dual currency system. Later in the year, that goal was confirmed and, according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in August, the change should occur by 2016, but the details were unclear.
Credit and debit cards from non-U.S. banks have historically not been accepted in Cuba. Even if changes are made to laws, updating systems and technology for retailers to be able to do it will also likely be very slow to implement and possibly inconsistent around the country. Cuba has been technologically isolated for a long time, and Cuba hosts few land lines or mobile phones, even among retailers.
The reliability of new technological systems is likely to be questionable as changes are rolled out. And yes, that means you need to forget about 4G or even 3G networking. You’re going off-grid, baby. For the most part, anyway. And you will really need to get out of the mental habit of thinking that using credit or debit cards are options when you run out of cash. In Cuba, it isn’t, and probably won’t be for a long time, especially outside of resort areas.
Only exchange your money at banks, and never on the street. On that note, keep any important documents in the hotel room’s lock box, but always keep your passport and identification on you. Always handle financial transactions at the most legitimate and established places you can find.
Bottom line: convert as much of your cash money as possible and bring more than you need, as it is unlikely that you will have access to funds from abroad, at least for the next few years. You won’t be able to use credit or debit cards as back up, and according to Trip Advisor, it can be “handy” to have CUPs on hand. If you wander outside of the resort areas, CUPs are available to foreigners, and some businesses that cater to locals may accept only CUPs. Just don’t offer them as tips since they are worth much less than CUCs unless you plan on giving four times as much. Rates may be higher at airports and other convenient locations.
How much should you tip?
Ah, yes, tipping. In the U.S., tipping is common in some fields, but not others. In Europe, it can be largely ignored. In Cuba, tipping can be very important, as it provides access to the more coveted CUCs, so, according to some reports, even doctors or other highly skilled professionals might moonlight as parking attendants or restaurant servers in order to get more access to CUCs.
Here is why:
In a nation where its citizens earn about $25 a month on average, tipping is a must and can really improve the worker’s life. Tipping in Cuba is not just for your servers, taxi drivers, or coat check staff. In Cuba, it is customary to tip for any kind of service, including musicians who may be playing in a restaurant, tour guides, restroom attendants, parking attendants and anyone else providing services or overseeing the safety of your items should be tipped. The good news is that the expectation is much lower, as a tip of the equivalent of 10, 25, 50 cents or $1 is welcomed. If your budget allows for more, give more.
If you can afford to travel, then you can afford to be generous with the people who are making your stay more pleasant, because you are far better off financially than they are. Tipping ahead of time or when something is going wrong can help smooth matters out, so tip well, and share your relative wealth with these hard-working people who haven’t had access to the kinds of simple luxuries many of us take for granted.
Pack necessities well
Access to goods commonly found in the U.S. are much more limited in Cuba, including items considered commonplace here in the U.S. Shampoo, soap, razors, medication, and other personal care items should be packed according to the regulations adopted by your transportation carrier.
This is particularly problematic outside of posh resort (and government-run) areas, which may actually be more interesting to explore if you want to understand the culture and experience the sites. There’s also something called casas particulares or ‘homestays” — similar to a bed and breakfast in the U.S., in which you can enjoy home-cooked meals served by welcoming, hospital people.
So, what is there to see and do?
If you look around, Cuban venues can offer private salsa dancing lessons, horseback riding, and even festive street dancing regularly at night in some locales.
As an island, it should be no surprise that Cuba also boasts beautiful beaches, especially with the lack of manufacturing, and therefore, pollution. Let’s hope “progress” doesn’t change all of that.
Some of the beaches away from the resort areas may not have as many amenities, but the advantage is that there are fewer people and the water is described by most as being very clear and beautiful.
Some beaches are clothing-optional, so do your research ahead of time to find out which beaches you would be more comfortable visiting. Some are also all-inclusive resort beaches, so be prepared to pay in cash for entrance if you have your heart set on a certain location.
Other natural island features like caves and caverns with stalactites and stalagmites are available to explore. The Bellamar Caves is the largest destination, but many exist. At Bellamar, there is an additional fee to bring in a camera, but at about $5 for admission and another $5 for the cameras, the price won’t sting that much and spectacular views can be rewarding and remember: you have more money at your disposal than the people around you have.
Last but not least, if you want to maximize the $100s-worth of cigars you can bring back to the U.S., you can learn to roll your own from some of the Cuban cigar masters. The Partagas Cigar Factory, founded in 1845, comes with high recommendations.
Traveling to Cuba is an experience like no other. Just make sure you know what to expect when you get there, especially when it comes to your money.c