Helpful Tips for Americans on How to Travel to Cuba
A few weeks ago, my friend Annaliese and I decided to take a trip over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend. Not knowing exactly where we wanted to go, I was looking for flights on Southwest and discovered that they were soon offering flights from Florida (FLL) to Cuba (Varadero). When I checked the prices, I was shocked to see how cheap they were. Plus, I have the Companion Pass, which means half-off when I buy a ticket for me and a friend on the same flight! And thus, my curiosity around seeing and experiencing Cuba was finally to be addressed:)
I wanted to do one post for all of the Cuba weekend, but when I started going through our pictures, I realized there was way too much to show in just one blog post, so I’m doing a few… I will dedicate the blog post after this one to Fidel Castro’s death, since we were there when it happened (Ya. Wow.)
How-To (some of these tips only apply to American travelers).
- Airfare : I flew Southwest; they have cheap ($59 one-way) flights to Varadero, and now they’ve just opened up Havana. Frontier also just added flights… As of yesterday, five American airlines fly into Cuba!
- Visa : I purchased my Visa day-of in the Fort Lauderdale Airport for $50. When you purchase your plane ticket (on Southwest), one step of booking your ticket includes declaring a reason for your travels to Cuba. I did People-to-People / Educational. Be sure that you use the same reason whenever asked. I planned on being questioned when I returned to the U.S., and I also planned on needing to explain everything I did in support of a People-to-People visit, so I had an itinerary of my plans for every hour. No one in Customs, or with the airline, or anyone, asked a single question when we returned to the U.S. about our reason for going. I don’t know of anyone getting interrogated in any way about their trip reason. So, don’t let the worry of “not having a good enough reason” stop you from traveling to Cuba. You should go.
- When to Go : The weather was perfect when we were there, despite a few drops of rain on Friday night. The temperature was around 80, low humidity, sunny, strong wind. It was perfect. Go in November! Or December! Or, if the heat doesn’t bother you, go in August (just go)!
While You’re There.
- Money : U.S. banks block their use in Cuba. So nothing works there (that’s why you won’t find Cuba listed as a country in the drop-down when you try to do Travel Notifications for your banks!). Take all the cash you’ll need for your stay with you. I took $700 for four days. The currency is CUC (you can read more about the other currency of Cuba somewhere else, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll just focus on CUC b/c that’s what you’ll work with 99% of the time). The exchange rate I experienced from USD’s to CUC was the same everywhere – airport and CADECAs (currency exchanges) in town. It was .9675 CUC per 1USD. However, when changing from and to USDs, the CADECAs charge a 10% fee. That actually means that the rate is 1USD = .8675 CUC. Or, if you have CUC that you want to change back to USD before you leave Cuba, the rate on that amount would actually be 1USD = .7675 CUC because you are paying the 10% fee twice! Currently, Euros and GBP do not have a fee. Depending on the exchange rate you find for the Euro, it probably makes sense to change your USD to EUR before you leave the U.S. and then change your remaining CUCs to EURs before you leave Cuba.
- Costs : It can be very cheap, or it can be slightly expensive – whatever your pleasure. I will say the more expensive food typically wasn’t any better than the ‘dollar menu’ items that are available everywhere. Not including lodging, I spent ~$450 for four days, including transportation to / from the Varadero Airport (2 hours from Havana) and buying beaucoup cigars and 4 bottles of rum.
- Lodging : To this I am certain: Use Airbnb or some other homestay while you’re there. The hotels are very overpriced and rundown, and the homestay experience with a local Cuban is so much better than being in a hotel. Stay local:)
- Where to Stay : I stayed in the Vedado neighborhood and loved it. It’s residential, quiet, but within walking distance of shops. The only downside is that it is ~$8 taxi ride to Old Havana. Staying in Old Havana would be great too, although it is less quiet than Vedado. And it means that, unless you decide to explore, you may not see much of the neighborhoods outside of Old Havana.
- Daytrips : DO see Viñales Valley. It’s a 3-hour drive away, but it’s worth it. You’ll agree when you see my pictures:) I don’t know if the beaches are worth spending time at because I didn’t go. It was my desire to experience the Cuban culture as much as possible, and beach time doesn’t allow for that as much.
More to follow on what we did each day. Message or email me if you want more how-to information.
Next up: Good Morning. Fidel is dead.
Hotel Review – The Westin at The Woodlands
I didn’t want to forget how to travel*, so I decided to take a staycation and check out a new hotel that I’ve been wanting to see in Houston.
The Westin in The Woodlands is on Waterway Square adjacent to nice restaurants and next to the water fountains. A movie theater is close by, and the Woodlands Mall is within 5 minutes walking distance. It’s the perfect location for enjoying The Woodlands.
The hotel was opened in March, which means that it still has that ‘new car smell’ but the services are also practiced and settled in.
I checked in early (around 2pm) on a Saturday. The lobby area is very small, flanked by a Starbucks with a seating area and a nice bar space. The chandeliers that adorn the lobby and the downstairs conference area are light artwork and beautiful.
I had a corner room with the government rate. When I checked in, I was warned about the noise from the square at night and offered a room on the quiet side, but I stayed with the original room.
I loved everything in this room – the huge windows, the decor, the touchpad control panel… The blinds were sufficient to keep the light out when it got dark, but there was some noise until around 11pm. There was a view of the waterway, the water fountains in the square, and some of the restaurants, including Grimaldi’s (yumm).
The pool is at the back of the hotel, and it’s an infinity pool overlooking the waterway. It was a smallish pool, surrounded by plenty of seating and loungers. I really loved the design.
I loved the design and location of this hotel, and the service was great as well. If I need a room in The Woodlands in the future, I would definitely stay here again.
*I have a few international trips planned to places I haven’t visited before…
1. Cuba for Thanksgiving and 2. Tahiti & New Zealand in February.
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