Travel to Cuba: The Ultimate Guide

Samuel Clennett
28.02.20
7 minute read

Cuba is a unique travel destination, offering beautiful scenery and architecture, and a vibrant culture including great food, music and dance. Cuba’s Socialist society means a trip can be a real window into a different world, relatively untouched by consumerism.

Cuba doesn’t have to be an expensive place to visit. However, you don’t want to spend more than you have to, no matter what you’ve got planned. This guide will also touch on how to save money when you travel, with a Wise multi-currency account and linked Mastercard.

Do your research

Cuba is a great place to visit - but part of its charm is that it’s quite different to many other tourist destinations. That means you can’t expect things to be the same as at home, or other places you may have visited in the past. Research and planning is essential to make sure your trip is a success.

When you’re drawing up your itinerary, start with the Cuba tourist information website for some inspiration¹. You’ll also want to take a look at the Australian government’s Smart Traveller website, as this contains a lot of practical advice you’ll need for your trip².

If you’re travelling independently, and making all your own arrangements, make sure you’ve considered all the details such as how to get from the airport to your accommodation, how to access your money while you travel, and what you can - and can’t - pack for your trip.

How to get the most for your money

Arranging your money for a trip to Cuba will take a little planning.

Cuba has a dual currency system. Tourists will usually use Convertible pesos (CUC), but locals may more regularly use Cuban pesos (known as MN - moneda nacional). Credit cards are not widely accepted, so you won’t be able to rely on using your card while you travel. In fact, the Australian government advice is to carry a mix of cash, cards and travellers cheques, including enough cash to cover all of your costs should you find that no other method of payment can be used.

Exactly how you choose to arrange your finances for your trip will depend on where you’re headed, and your personal preferences. You’ll find plenty of recent visitors to Cuba commenting on their experience online, so you can get a feel for what to expect. Some tourists report that they were able to spend other currencies such as euros directly - but this is likely to be an expensive option.

If you’re taking cash to Cuba to exchange when you’re there, choose euros, Canadian dollars or British pounds - US dollars are expensive to change, so not a good option. Here are a few other tips to make sure your money goes further:

  • Before you change your money, get online currency converter or app to check the rates being offered are fair. In Cuba you can expect to pay a conversion fee of around 3% when changing cash³
  • You’ll pay a 10% penalty fee for exchanging US dollars - worth avoiding
  • If you plan on using your bank card in Cuba, make sure you know what charges you’ll pay. There may be foreign transaction fees levied by your own bank, for example
  • Avoid dynamic currency conversion - DCC - if using your card. If you’re offered the option to pay in Australian dollars, just say no. Paying in the local currency is usually much cheaper

Get a specialist account for your travels

If you travel regularly, you may be able to save money with a Wise multi-currency account. Hold, send and spend in dozens of different foreign currencies and make it easy to manage your money as you travel, using your Wise Mastercard.

All currency exchange is done using the mid-market exchange rate, with just a low transparent fee, so you can save compared to using your regular bank.

Things to be aware of

There are a few things which are a little different when travelling to Cuba compared to other popular tourist destinations. Do your own research to make sure you know what to expect - here are a few pointers to consider:

  • You may be asked to show your travel insurance before you’re allowed to enter the country. Make sure your chosen insurance is comprehensive
  • You’ll need to bring any medication you need with you as supplies may be limited in Cuba
  • Cuba experiences hurricanes which can cause disruption. Watch local media to get advance warning of any extreme weather events likely to impact your trip
  • Earthquakes can affect Cuba, and may also cause tsunamis. Make sure you know what the warning signs of a tsunami are, and evacuate to higher ground if you’re worried one may have been triggered

There’s no Australian embassy or consulate in Cuba. If you run into difficulties while you’re in Cuba, you can get help from the Embassy of Canada in Havana, or the Australian Embassy in Mexico.

Get to know the Visa situation

You’ll need a visa to visit Cuba. You can apply for the right visa for your situation, by talking to the travel agent arranging your trip, or contacting the Cuban embassy in Australia if you’re planning on travelling independently⁴.

Accommodation in Cuba

You’ll have a choice of hotels, hostels and ‘casas particulares’ - literally private homes - as well as a few more rural accommodation options depending on your itinerary⁵.

Hotels are either run by the Cuban state, or part of a private chain. Private hotels are mainly available at tourist resorts, and typically have better service. It’s worth knowing that the hotel ratings given under the Cuban system are likely to be generous, so your 4 star property may not turn out to be as luxurious as you might like. Do some research in advance to make sure you get what you want.

Hostels, which are available in the cities as well as more rural locations, tend to be a good option. Casas particulares are also a popular choice - these are often just a room or two rented out in a private house. If you’re travelling independently, you’ll probably find touts approach you to try to take you to one if the casas particulares they work for. You’ll then be asked to pay a commission for the service. This may work out well for you - but if you’re feeling hassled by a tout, just move on.

Getting around in Cuba

Transport within Cuba will be a key part of your planning when you are working out how to spend your time there. Within towns you can use taxis or buses - but it’s worth noting that the Australian government advises that visitors avoid public transport in Cuba as vehicles may not be safe. There are many classic cars operating as taxis in Cuba, which are a big tourist draw. Fares are negotiated so be prepared to haggle. You may also find bicitaxis - 3 wheeled bicycle taxis - and cocotaxis - which use a motorcycle instead. Once again, be prepared to debate the fare before you accept a ride⁶.

If you’re travelling around the island, do some research to understand your options. Cuba is large, so flying is a time saving choice, but the local airlines don’t all have the best safety records. There’s a rail network which is worth considering, but be aware that some trains have very basic facilities, and booking tickets is best done in advance.

Sights to see

Many visitors to Cuba go on an organised tour to make sure they'll see everything they want in the time they have available. However, it is also a place which can be explored independently if that’s more your thing. This takes more planning - but that’s half the fun. Haere are a few destinations to consider.

  • Don’t miss the chance to step back in time in Havana, with a fascinating insight into both the island’s past and present
  • Enjoy Cuban food - of course there’s beans and rice, alongside great salads and seafood, and some of the best coffee in the world
  • Head to historic Camagüey to wander around the UNESCO listed centre, and get happily lost in the winding streets⁷
  • Time your visit to take in one of the large festivals which take place throughout the year to get an even better feel for the island’s heart⁸

Tips for a great trip

Before you book, let’s look at a few more helpful hints.

  • Get a local SIM card to cut your data costs - there are 2 national networks, offering similar coverage on the island⁹
  • Getting medical help in Cuba may prove difficult. Make sure you have good travel insurance, and be prepared to travel if you need to see a doctor, including a medical evacuation if needed
  • Use the government’s Smart Traveller website for up to date travel information for Cuba, as well as a wide range of travel support and resources¹⁰

A trip to Cuba is rewarding, but independent travel there will take a bit of advance planning. Do your research to make sure you have a great trip, and don’t forget to look at the best ways to sort your money when you’re there. You’ll probably want to carry a mix of cash, cards and even travellers cheques to get by.

If you love to travel, you may benefit from having a specialist account for your holiday spending. Consider a Wise multi-currency account and linked Mastercard to limit the fees you need to pay for spending overseas, and give you a simple way to manage your money across borders.

Sources:

  1. Cuba Travel
  2. Smartraveller Cuba
  3. ViaHero - Cuban Currency: Your Complete Guide
  4. Foreign Embassies in Cuba
  5. Cuba Accomodation
  6. Getting Around in Cuba
  7. Visit Camaguey
  8. Festivals and Special Events in Cuba
  9. Local Sim in Cuba
  10. Smartraveller

All sources accurate as of 10 February 2020


This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover every aspect of the topics with which it deals. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. The information in this publication does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from TransferWise Limited or its affiliates. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.

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