How to Travel to Cuba as an American

By November 18, 2016Travel
Vintage cars are a common site when you travel to Cuba as an American

For over fifty years, travel to Cuba was illegal for most Americans. You had to prove you were visiting family, were on a religious mission trip, or were conducting academic research. Thanks to trade embargoes and non-existent diplomatic relations, Americans were just about the only people in the world who couldn’t visit our neighbor to the south.  However, all the unpleasantness has changed rapidly over the last year and a half.

Your Guide for Visiting One of the Hottest Destinations in the Caribbean

Since 2015, access to Cuba for tourism has been made much easier for Americans. (Thanks, Obama!) Now, the desire to relax on a beach with those famous Cuban cigars will no longer land you in trouble with the US government. There is still some red tape, however, but the good news is that tape is fading and not holding together as well as it once did.

So let’s start with defining what all that red tape actually is.


Cuban Travel “Restrictions”

We put quotes around “restrictions,” because the wording used by the US government is just vague enough that Americans can visit without creating a stir.

So here’s the deal: prior to President Obama reestablishing diplomatic ties with Cuba, travel was very, very restricted for Americans. You had to apply for a license, AND you had to fit into a very narrow range of categories. And sitting on the beach relaxing was definitely not one of them.

Then in 2015, things changed. There are still 12 official categories that visitors must fall into, but they’re much broader than they once were. If you fall into one of the sanctioned categories, you may apply for a license.

Here’s how the Department of the Treasury defines the 12 categories:

  1. family visits
  2. official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
  3.  journalistic activity
  4.  professional research and professional meetings
  5.  Educational activities
  6.  religious activities
  7.  public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
  8. support for the Cuban people
  9. humanitarian projects
  10. activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  11. exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
  12. certain authorized export transactions

See how number 8 is bolded? That’s the gray area that’s allowing Americans to visit. What better way to support the Cuban people than buy spending a wad of cash at restaurants, bars, and tour companies? You’re helping to stimulate the economy after all!


What to Bring on a Trip to Cuba


Visas to Cuba

You’ll need a tourist card to visit Cuba. Some tourist companies include it in the cost of the trip and will provide you with one. Otherwise, you’ll need to procure one on your own. You can find a 30-day tourist visa at the airport check-in counter for $20 USD.

Travel Insurance

Cuba requires all tourists to have medical insurance through Cuba. Basically, don’t expect to bring your American insurance card and have that take care of things – even if you have a travel protection clause on your plan. To give you an idea of what that will run you, Cuban travel insurance packages cost about $80 a day.

Cuban Travel Itinerary

There are some caveats to your visit. While spending a day on the beach is no longer frowned upon, you’ll need to make sure it’s on your itinerary. You’ll need to write out what you’ll be doing each day as far as sightseeing or other tours. So, unfortunately, if you’re one of those travelers who likes to go where the proverbial journey takes you, know that a vacation to Cuba will be more structured. If you say you’re going to take a taxi tour of a city and you actually spent the day taking pictures in a park, don’t be surprised if you catch some heat. While some Cuban officials may not care that you changed your mind and spent the entire vacation by the pool, others may care very much.  So just be aware.

Cash, Cash, Cash

Americans are accustomed to using debit and credit cards no matter where they go. Even in rural places, the chance that tourists will pass through ensures most places will take cards. However, the exact opposite is true in Cuba. Even though the rest of the world has been visiting Cuba for many decades, finding places that still take cards is difficult to do. ATMs are few and far between. So, make a trip to the bank and get some good old fashioned cash. As for how much to bring, that depends. How long will you be staying? How much are you willing to spend on food and drink? Will you be spending money on activities once you’re there? Give yourself plenty of wiggle room and be sure to estimate high. Once cash runs out, good luck finding an ATM to help you out!

Oh! And speaking of cash:

Cuba has two currencies

The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Cuban Peso (CUB). The first currency is what you’ll be using as a tourist. It’s exchanged for the dollar and worth considerably more than the CUB, which is what Cuban citizens use. Make sure to look around for the best exchange rates, which may or may not be at the Havana airport.


How to Get to Cuba

There are several ways to get to the largest island in the Caribbean. In the old days, the only real way to get there was an expensive charter flight from select US cities. You’re still able to charter flights, which may be advantageous for some, but commercial airlines are now offering cheaper flights.

JetBlue has added Cuba to its routes with service to Holguín, Santa Clara, Camagüey, and Havana.  American Airlines will offer a nonstop flight from Los Angeles beginning December 2016.


What to Do in Cuba

People-to-People trips are one of the best ways to experience Cuba. Basically, tourist companies will take you to meet everyday Cubans who simply want to share their culture with you. Taxi tours of the city are also popular. You can even pay extra to take your tour in the vintage, 1950s era cars Cuba is known for. There’s also plenty of museums, parks, churches to explore.

Take a city tour in a vintage taxi!


Internet Service in Cuba

Internet service in Cuba can be purchased via prepaid cards just like you would buy minutes. Tourists can purchase Wi-Fi cards from Etecsa, the government telecommunications provider. Wi-Fi networks can be located in major hotels and public parks.


Where to Stay in Cuba

Now that Americans are able to travel to Cuba, more hotels are sure to spring up in the coming years. For the time being, there are several options for accommodations. Chain hotels are slowly – read very slowly – making their way to the island. However, bed & breakfasts make for a fun time with locals and since they provide you with breakfast, that’s one less meal to worry about.


What can you bring back from Cuba?

Let’s get the biggest question out of the way:  yes, you can bring back those famous Cuban cigars…with some limitations. Souvenirs totaling no more than $400 may be brought back. $100 of this may go towards cigars. But all told: the total souvenirs must NOT exceed $400. Obviously, there are other restrictions, like plant and wildlife, that would apply to virtually any other international flight. For more info, you can read the official rules and regulations from the Department of the Treasury.


Travel to Cuba: Frequently Asked Questions

Still unsure about traveling to Cuba? Check the FAQ section of the Department of the Treasury’s website

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