Traveling to Cuba as an American isn't easy so here are some tips so you can learn from my experiences (and mistakes).
BEFORE YOU GO
As you know, you'll need a visa to get there. Most travelers (especially solo ones) purchase the Support for the Cuban People visa. Which is what I did. You can purchase this online or at the airport. When I got to JFK, travelers going to Cuba had their own check in section of the airport where you first wait in line to purchase the visa (if you haven't already) then you wait in another line to check in and get your boarding pass.
For the visa, I didn't save any receipts or plan what I'll be doing really as is required by some of the visas. They're apparently not supposed to stamp your passport since it'll make future traveling difficult (something I read somewhere), but mine was stamped. How did you fare?
1) Bring cash. And all of it.
- Your card won't work at ATMs. Don't even try as the lines are too long. Withdraw all the cash you'll need and then some. Don't even bother bringing your card unless you need it at the airport for when you arrive back to the States.
2) Bring a Pen
- You'll have to fill out some paperwork for customs when you arrive. There is no counter to do this all, so you'll want to get it done ASAP and on the flight to be first in line at customs.
3) Download maps.me
- There is no internet in Cuba, just a few WiFi hotspots. Make sure to download this app and download the map of Cuba or the cities you plan on visiting. I starred a few places in advance so that I had them handy.
4) Plan your itinerary on Trello
- Again, since there is no WiFi, it's easier to have all your information in one place versus searching through your inbox or in a long Word Doc like another traveler did. I couldn't even digest her 7 page itinerary.
- You can check my itinerary here. (Make sure to download your Trello board in advance!)
5) Book your buses and accommodations
- For buses, use Viazul to book your trips to other cities.
*Tip* Make sure to book accommodations within the city. You'll have to make up for the cost in cab fare, and it's definitely better to get around by walking so you can see everything and be in the action.
6) Download your tunes and movies
- For the long bus rides you might take, I suggest downloading everything in advance if you plan on watching anything or listening to music.
WHEN YOU ARRIVE
Long lines are everywhere. You'll experience it first at the airport when they take all the info at customs.
1) Exchanging Currency
- You can exchange to Euros in advance but I just brought USD. There are two local currencies and it gets confusing. This is done at departures so you'll have to exit from arrivals and go back into the airport to departures and wait in another long line.
- Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) are 1:1 to USD and has images of monuments
- Cuban Pesos (CUP) are 24:1 to CUC and has images of people
*Tip* My one hostel owner advised using CUPs to get a better deal especially with cabs, but my friends and I noticed that it's all the same.
WHILE YOU'RE THERE
I know you'll want to Instagram every post and share stories to brag to your followers. You can get WiFi at hotspots which are usually parks. You'll know you're at a hotspot when you see a swarm of locals and other travelers at a park.
- Is the only WiFi provider that I know of. $1 = 1 hour of internet and you can purchase them anywhere. There's a cap of what you can buy at a time (ex: some places have a max of 3 hours/cards). The WiFi is actually okay. Good for browsing but not for watching any videos not previously downloaded (like Facebook).
*Tip* If a home has WiFi, you'll still need to purchase these internet cards
- The Dutch girl I met and I were charged almost double for cabs vs the other European guys. Not sure if they believe it's easier ripping off women, but always haggle and haggle low. The guys got a cab for us for $10 CUC whereas we had to pay $35 CUC for a similar trip
- Cab ride costs are per car not per person. If you can share a cab, you'll save money.
3) Public Transportation
- Take the bus! It's insanely cheaper to get around via bus
*Tip* It seems like they run on a route but will drop you off anywhere, just yell stop (para) when you're ready