I’ve just returned from a 10-day trip to Cuba with close friends and am now filled with so much I want to share. To start: How? In this post I’ll answer the following important questions…
- Can I travel to Cuba from the USA?
- Do I need a visa?
- Do I need immunizations?
- Do I need insurance?
- How about cash and credit cards?
As a citizen of the United States living under this current administration, whether and how we could travel to Cuba turned out to be a mystery we had to unravel. There is a lot of great tourism information out there, but much of it from people of other nationalities and without the red tape, rules, and confusion our group faced. This led to quite a bit of nervousness and anxiety in the weeks leading up to the trip, even for a fairly well traveled person. At one point I thought about scrapping the trip altogether. Thank goodness I didn’t. Cuba is a wonderful, magical, beautiful, safe, and friendly place. In the hopes of helping others, I’ll outline how we planned and prepared, and what it’s really like to travel to Cuba from the USA. (Spoiler alert: It’s possible. It’s amazing. Go. Now.)
Since coming home and speaking with friend the past few days, the first comment many have made was something along the lines of: I didn’t even know we could still go to Cuba. There have been comments about recent postings on the State Department website, news about goings on at the US Embassy in Havana, and questions about safety. I feel myself glowing when I dispel what I believe to be a mix of misinformation, lack of understanding, and general unawareness. Travel smart and Cuba may be one of the safest places you’ll ever visit.
As many will recall, the doors to Cuba opened under the Obama administration. Not just for those with family on the island, but also for general tourism under one of several reasons for travel. The easiest to use until recently was People to People travel which, as I understand it, was as close to not needing a real reason as possible. Just go, spend money, interact with Cubans, and enjoy. Back in November 2017, the current US administration made adjustments to those reasons for travel, making it more difficult, and more confusing for US residents to visit. Fortunately or unfortunately, I didn’t take any of this into account when booking my $196.06 round trip ticket on Copa Airlines in December 2017. It wasn’t until February 2018 that our group really began planning and realized we’d have to figure a few things out before boarding the plane at the end of March.
To say the information available to US citizens interested in traveling to Cuba is confusing would be an understatement. Especially for a group of three who wanted to travel independently and with a loose itinerary. Depending where we looked, we had to travel with a tour group, needed a private guide for the duration of our trip, or at least had to pay someone to create our itinerary. There was conflicting information about what kind of visa was needed, vaccinations, and so on. It was nerve wracking, but we sorted through it all as best we could and days before our trip were finally ready.
Here’s what we figured out, and given we’re back stateside, think it’s safe to assume it all worked out.
Can I Travel to Cuba?
Yes! Sanctions between the United States and Cuba are still very much in place. However, under the reason of Support for the Cuban People, US citizens can travel to Cuba independently. Without a tour group or guide. Without paying a third party to plan your trip. The catch is that you’ll have to keep a detailed itinerary as there is the possibility of being audited for up to five years. Specifically requiring “each traveler utilizing this authorization engage in a full-time schedule of activities that enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities and that result in meaningful interactions with individuals in Cuba”. In layman’s terms, if you want to go and sit on the beach in Varadero for the duration of your stay, don’t go. But if you want to interact with Cubans, support private businesses, and so on, book that flight now.
Do I Need a Visa?
Sort of. And depending on the airline you choose, this can be relatively easy. What we actually received was a Tourist Card. As mentioned, the airline I used was Copa Airlines out of Panama. This airline, among others, can facilitate the Tourist Card for you. I cannot speak to the process if your airline doesn’t not do this. During our one-hour layover in Panama, we approached the desk at the gate to speak to the agent. We simply handed over $20USD and in return received a blank tourist card. This is a two-part piece of paper which we filled out during our flight, then handed to immigration when we arrived in Havana. The agent stamped the card AND OUR PASSPORTS, then handed the card back to us. We were to keep it with us at all times until we left Cuba at which time it was taken back at passport control. Did you catch that? They STAMPED MY PASSPORT. I was not expecting this as I’ve heard numerous times US passports aren’t typically stamped in Cuba. The agent didn’t ask and I didn’t comment about whether or not I wanted my passport stamped. It just happened. Good news, there was no issue returning to the US.
Do I Need Immunizations?
Coming from the US to Cuba, we did not need immunizations. This is an area we found much conflicting information, but mostly from organizations who offer immunizations for a fee. On the State Department no immunizations are required.
Do I Need Insurance?
Yes. Though I’ve read mixed reports on and reasons for this, we decided to take the safe route and purchase travel insurance. Our policy was through Nationwide and covered everything from trip delays to accidental death and dismemberment and everything in between for under $60 per person. At the immigration desk the agent *did* ask me for proof of insurance and spent several moments flipping through the pages. So not only should you purchase insurance, but also print out a copy of your policy. This will also help should you need to check your benefits or use the policy during your trip. Paper copies are very helpful in Cuba as internet is scarce. (I’ll cover this in another post.)
How About Cash and Credit Cards?
US based credit cards WILL NOT WORK in Cuba due to the embargo. Your entire trip will be in cash and you’ll need to do some work on the front end for this. Though most currency exchange places will change US dollars, but the rates aren’t great and they charge a 10% tax on top. This means you’ll end up with much less cash than you likely anticipated. Many articles have suggested bringing Euros, however some of the exchange places we visited also charged a tax for this currency. My recommendation based on my experience is to bring Canadian dollars. Visit your bank in the US to change your USD to CAD before you leave. Some banks no longer change currency and some charge fees, so it’s worth doing a bit of research on this at least a few days before you fly. I’ll talk more about budgeting and spending money in Cuba later, but we spent the equivalent of $60 per person per day. Remember that you’re going to pay a commission when you change from USD to another currency and again in Cuba when you finally change to local currency, so round up and leave some cushion.
In summary, traveling to Cuba was just about as easy as traveling anywhere else. All of the nerves and anxiety were for nothing. Once we stepped out of the airport, settled into our casa, and began exploring, we knew that it was all worth the work.
Have you recently traveled to Cuba from the US? Have additional insight to share? Or are you planning your own trip and have questions? Please comment below.
(NOTE: I am not a travel professional nor should any of this information replace the research travelers should do on their own before traveling internationally. I make no claims that another experience will be exactly the same as mine. My only hope hear is to help other US citizens who would like to travel to Cuba find their way more easily than we did.)
ViaHero – Traveling to Cuba (This site was a great resource for planning and information. We did not pay them to plan.)