It hasn’t always been easy for Americans to travel to Cuba. Embargoes on American tourism have been in place on and off since the 1960s. But Cuba is a beautiful, romantic country to visit. Plan a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Cuba by following the suggestions in this guide.
Is it Legal for Americans to Travel to Cuba?
It seems as though restrictions on travel to Cuba are constantly changing. In 1960, the U.S. levied a trade embargo on Cuba. The embargo prevented many Americans from traveling to Cuba. In certain cases, such as if they had family members in Cuba or were journalists, American travelers could get to the country.
In 2011, the permission was extended to individuals who were participating in a people-to-people cultural exchange tour. In 2015 and 2016, the rules were amended again. In 2016, U.S. airlines were allowed to fly direct to Cuban airports. Cruise ships were also permitted to enter Cuban ports.
In 2017, President Trump changed the regulations again. He removed the category of people-to-people travel as an authorized way to travel to Cuba. The category of people-to-people educational travel was removed in 2019. So was the ability to get to the country via recreational or passenger vehicles other than commercial airlines.
Currently, you can head to Cuba legally from the U.S. if your travel falls into one of the following categories:
- Family visitation
- Journalistic activity
- Professional meetings or research
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, exhibitions, athletic competitions, other competitions
- Support for the people of Cuba
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations, or research or educational institutes
- Official business of the U.S. government, specific intergovernmental organizations, and foreign governments
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information
- Authorized export transactions
The most common way that most Americans get to Cuba is with the Support for the Cuban People category. That offers the broadest range of purposes for traveling to the country.
Although this sounds as though it requires you to give some kind of humanitarian aid while you’re there, it doesn’t. That’s another category.
Many of the ways in which you can support the Cuban people involve taking part in activities that most tourists would do anyway. For example, going to independent museums counts as one of the activities that fall into this group.
Any of the activities that you participate in must be conducted on a full-time schedule, though. The full summary of recognized activities is as follows:
- Meeting with local business owners
- Exploring independent museums
- Shopping at independent markets
- Attending dance classes
- Going to a musical performance and engaging with the musicians
- Attending art shows
- Talking to locals about Cuban culture
While you’re there, you’ll have to keep track of your itinerary. Hold onto your receipts. You must retain this information for five years after your trip. Also, while you’re there, you may not patronize a business that’s owned by the Cuban military.
Is this still somewhat confusing? Basically, go to Cuba and be a tourist. Engage with the local culture. Go to art galleries and museums. Shop at mom-and-pop shops. Stay at a casa particular, where you can rent a room from a Cuban family. (You can find these on airbnb.com.)
If you’re interested in art, music, food, shopping, and sightseeing, follow your passion. You’ll have to spend at least six hours each weekday taking part in these activities. During the off-hours, you can relax by the pool or on the beach.
To be clear, however, it’s the U.S. that sets forth these authorized travel categories. The Cuban government doesn’t require them. It only requires you to have a tourist visa. A tourist visa allows you to stay in the country for up to 30 days.
You must also be able to prove that you have an airline ticket home and accommodations booked for your trip. You may be asked to provide this verification when you arrive through customs in Cuba.
To comply with the U.S. Government’s guidelines for travel to Cuba, you will simply be asked to check off a box indicating your travel category when you purchase an airline ticket. You probably won’t be asked to prove your whereabouts while you’re in the country. Save your receipts, just in case. But don’t worry that the authorities are going to pull the pina colada out of your hands and drag you off the beach.
If you’re not a U.S. citizen, you may have other regulations (or no regulations) when it comes to traveling to Cuba. Check with your local government to find out what you need to do.
Step 1: Get Your Documentation In Order
You need to go through a few simple hoops to get some documentation together before you travel. Make sure that you have paper copies of everything. Also, print out your airplane tickets. You may not have access to Wi-fi or be able to use your phone while you’re traveling. Therefore, make sure that you have hard copies of all the essential paperwork, including hotel accommodations.
You’ll need a passport to travel to Cuba. It must be a full-sized passport, though. A passport card is not valid. Your passport should not expire for at least six months after your date of travel. Although the government doesn’t enforce this rule, some tour groups, airlines, and cruise lines could.
If you don’t have a passport or yours has expired, begin the process of obtaining or renewing it right away. It can take about a month to approve a new passport. Plus, you may need time to get a photo taken and gather the required personal information.
Therefore, take care of this step before you continue any of your other travel prep. Once you get this in motion, you can begin planning the rest of your trip.
How and When to Get a Visa
Unless you’re traveling for some types of business, school, or family visits, Americans will need to get a tourist card to visit Cuba. Some people refer to this as a tourist visa. (Cuba doesn’t require you to have a visa if you’re from certain countries, though).
With a tourist visa, you can stay in the country for up to 30 days. You may also be able to extend the tourist card for an additional 30 days. If you’re traveling for reasons other than tourism, you may want to apply for a full visa.
To get a visa, you’ll need to have your plane tickets. Therefore, you can’t take this step before you decide where you want to travel and buy your airfare.
There are three primary ways to get a tourist card to travel to Cuba:
- Online vendors – There are many official online vendors that sell tourist cards to visit Cuba. You’ll have to select the category of travel that you’re applying for and pay the cost of the visa plus any fees. The visa will be shipped to you with instructions for filling it out.
- From the airline – You can buy a visa through the airline that you use for travel or at the airport. You might be able to buy the tourist card on the airplane. However, check with the airline to find out the official rules. Every airline does things differently, and the regulations may change. If the airline doesn’t provide visa services, you might not be able to get on the flight. The prices also vary between airlines.
- Cuban Embassies – If there is a Cuban embassy nearby, you can always buy your visa there.
Depending on the service that you use, you might have to wait a couple of weeks to receive your visa. Many online vendors can expedite it for an additional fee. However, experts recommend that you get your visa at least three months before your trip.
When filling out your visa, please print clearly to avoid issues at immigration. You should also keep your tourist card with your passport while you’re traveling. You’ll need it to leave the country.
There is a cheaper way for Americans to get a tourist card, but it may not be the easiest. If you arrange for a round-trip ticket to another country, such as Mexico, you can get another round-trip flight from there to Cuba. You’ll have to go through immigration in the connecting country to purchase your tourist card, but it should only cost you about $20.
If you go this route, make sure that the officials at the Cuban airport stamp your visa and not your passport. This will help you avoid questions about your trip to Cuba when you return to the U.S.
Get Special Health Insurance
If you get hurt or have a medical situation arise while you’re in Cuba, your American health insurance won’t work. You’re required to have special health care coverage while you’re traveling in the country. This is a temporary policy that costs about $3 per day. Individuals with outstanding medical bills in Cuba won’t be able to leave the country.
If you’re traveling to Cuba from the U.S., your airline ticket includes health insurance. However, travel insurance that you may get through a different carrier doesn’t cover it.
Those who don’t have special insurance can buy it at the airport or port when they arrive in Cuba.
Step 2: Decide What Kind of Trip You’d Like to Go On
The most important part of your planning revolves around the type of trip that you’d like to take. Would you like to immerse yourself in city culture? Do you want to lounge around on the beach? Are you interested in joining a group tour, or would you like to travel on your own?
If you haven’t traveled extensively outside of the country or are not a confident traveler, you may prefer to join an organized group. Many organizations will take care of all of the planning for you.
They’ll ensure that you’re getting to the country legally and taking the appropriate measures while you’re there. They’ll let you know everything that you need about the currency, credit cards, accommodations, and even what to pack.
A quick online search can put you in touch with many different tour operators that travel to Cuba. You can also often work with professional groups, educational institutions, or travel agencies to find group tours.
If you take an organized tour, you might not even need to read the rest of this article. But if you’re traveling individually, you’ll probably get a lot out of the other advice that we give you here.
Step 3: Decide When and Where to Go
You won’t know where to fly into if you haven’t arranged your travel itinerary within Cuba.
Cuba is a tropical island with beautiful scenery and vibrant cities. Although it might be more expensive to visit Cuba than some other Latin American countries, it’s cheaper than going to many other places in the Caribbean.
The best time to visit Cuba may be during the North American winter. The weather is mild and beautiful in Cuba from November to March. However, this is also the busiest tourist season. If you visit during the off-season, you may run into fewer crowds. Just remember that the summer and early fall are part of hurricane season.
It’s almost impossible to avoid Havana, Cuba’s capital city, while you’re visiting. The historic city center is beautiful, with old architecture and plenty of cultural attractions.
The city is also known for its classic cars. In the early 20th century, Cuba imported cars from the U.S. for about 50 years. After the U.S. imposed the embargo, Cuba could no longer import American cars. Many automobiles have been fixed up with non-American parts for that reason. You can rent a classic car for a tour or the day in many of the touristy cities.
There are so many things to do in Havana that we couldn’t possibly cover it all. While you’re there, take in the culture. Visit art galleries, and don’t neglect the local craft markets. You’ll probably find great deals on lots of treasures.
The Museo de la Revolucion is located in the extravagant former Presidential Palace. It’s a fascinating place in which you can learn more about Cuba’s history. The Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana provides sweeping views of the ocean.
If you’d like to go somewhere a little funkier, visit Fusterlandia. This neighborhood was transformed by Cuban artist Jose Fuster. The magical place is covered in vibrant paint and attracts many creative types.
Varadero is a beach resort town that spans the Hicacos Peninsula. It has about 12 miles of coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. Varadero is about 83 miles from Havana. While you’re there, you can stay at a resort, visit local gardens or go hiking. The Bellamar Caves are also a popular attraction in Varadero.
Jardines Del Rey
Jardines del Rey is an archipelago off the mainland. It’s connected with a series of bridges and is a unique destination. The first hotel was not built on the islands until the 1990s. The area isn’t as built up as many of the other tourist destinations. There are some all-inclusive resorts, but the area is largely underdeveloped.
Maria la Gorda
If you enjoy diving or snorkeling, you might want to check out Maria la Gorda. This small town is one of the premier diving destinations in the Caribbean. It’s not overdeveloped or overpopulated, though. You can often purchase trips that include meals, accommodations, and diving packages at one price.
Baracoa was Cuba’s first capital city. Now, it’s a great place to start a trip to the rainforest. It lies at the base of El Yunque, which is a mountain that’s ideal for hiking and outdoor adventures. Plus, it’s near the beach.
Cienfuegos was established by the French instead of the Spanish. Therefore, it has a different vibe than many of the other cities in Cuba. Much of the mid-century modern architecture has been preserved.
Some people call Cienfuegos the “pearl of the south” or the “Paris of Cuba.” Some of the top attractions in the area are the el Nicho Waterfalls, the Palacio de Valle, and the Guanaroca Lagoon. You can hang out at a cafe in the city center or spend the day at the beach. The city also has a delfinario, where you can swim with the dolphins.
Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba is a town with a rich colonial history. It lies on the east coast of Cuba and features a lively culture. It’s an excellent place to visit in July, during Carnaval. That’s when the people take to the streets to celebrate with dancing, parades, and costumes.
Santiago is relatively far from Havana. Some people prefer to stay in one area during their trip so that they can immerse themselves in the culture and really get to know the cities that they do visit.
Vinales is a stunning rural area that is nestled into a valley. Rock climbers flock to the area to traverse the limestone cliffs. Tobacco farms sprawl across the region.
Vinales is an ideal destination for people who love the outdoors. You can go caving, climbing, hiking, and horseback riding. You can also learn more about farming in the area and watch cigars being rolled.
If you’re looking for a place to relax after touring a bustling city, consider heading to Vinales instead of the beach.
Trinidad is a quaint town that’s lined with rows of small, colored houses in many different hues. Get lost while strolling through the cobblestone streets, spend time at the nearby white-sand Playa Ancon, or visit a national park.
Although Trinidad isn’t nearly as busy as Havana, you could easily spend several days here. It’s a jovial town with a great deal to offer.
Step 4: Decide Where to Stay
When it comes to accommodations, you have plenty of options. You can stay at a nice hotel, an all-inclusive resort, or casa particular.
Many travelers to Cuba recommend staying at casas particulares. These are guesthouses that are owned by local families. They give tourists a chance to immerse themselves in the culture. You can find many casas particulares on airbnb.com.
If you’re not sure where to travel or what to see while you’re in the country, you’ll probably find it beneficial to stay at casas particulares. You can ask the hosts all about the best things to do in town.
Casas particulares cost approximately $20 to $40 per night. The hosts may provide you with breakfast. A mid-range hotel usually costs about what it would cost in the U.S. You can stay in a decent hotel for $90 to $150 per night. A resort or high-end hotel will usually cost about $200 to $400 per night.
Step 5: Buy Your Tickets
Once you’ve decided where to go, you can buy your tickets. International airlines fly into Havana (HAV) and Santiago de Cuba (SCU). Some search engines don’t display flights to Cuba. If you aren’t finding anything, go directly to the airline’s website.
Spending Money in Cuba
Tourists must bring cash when they’re visiting Cuba. American credit cards and debit cards won’t work in the country.
There is a special currency just for tourists. When you exchange money, you’ll receive Cuban Convertible Pesos, or CUCs. That currency matches the U.S. dollar, which makes being a tourist in Cuba a bit more expensive than being a local.
Americans are charged a penalty fee for exchanging dollars. Therefore, you might want to bring Canadian dollars or Euros to exchange to avoid the fee. You can also buy a foreign pre-paid debit card to use while you’re on your trip.
If you go on a prearranged tour, you might not need to exchange cash. Check with your tour operator before you leave your home country.
If you don’t travel with a tour company, you’ll need to bring enough cash so that you don’t run out. Make sure that you factor in the costs of accommodations and travel. Besides those costs, you should expect to spend about $50 to $100 per person per day, depending on the way that you travel, dine, and shop.
Where to Eat in Cuba
You won’t be able to pull out your phone and search Google Maps for the best restaurants while you’re in Cuba. Therefore, you might want to do some planning before you go.
Because of trade embargoes, Cuba doesn’t always source the best food options. However, eating there is cheap, and you can find some great dining.
Paladares are street-side markets that sell Cuban sandwiches or pizzas. These are quick, inexpensive meals or snacks that you can grab on the go. They’re often simple and not incredibly noteworthy, though.
Some of the best food to eat in Cuba is ropa vieja. This means “old clothes,” but it tastes better than it sounds. It’s pulled pork with gravy, rice, and beans. Eating as the locals do is often the best way to get a tasty meal in the country.
If you’re on the coast, you can find plenty of seafood options at restaurants. But if you go to larger restaurants that are heavily frequented by tourists, you’ll end up paying a lot for your food.
If you go to an all-inclusive resort, you might not need to leave. However, if you’re visiting multiple cities or sightseeing, you will probably need to use some form of transportation.
It’s not easy to rent a car in Cuba. You might not be able to use the online rental system as a foreigner. You might want to email or call a rental company from your home country to arrange for a car a few weeks before you travel.
However, because the rental car companies are owned by the state, it’s not legal for Americans to spend their money there. Hiring a driver is often cheaper and easier. You may be able to hire a private driver to take you around the entire country, depending on your plans.
Cuba is fairly well connected by bus. Viazul buses travel to many major cities. These are affordable and reliable. The routes fill up quickly. You should buy your tickets at least a few days before you plan to take a bus trip.
If you’re trying to move around within a city, you can take a cab. Modern taxis are marked. Many have meters. If they don’t, you can try to negotiate the fare before you accept the ride.
Some cities offer shared taxis. Those aren’t always marked, and they might be hard to use if you don’t speak Spanish. You may be able to hop on a bicycle taxi, but those aren’t supposed to take tourists. The driver may make you get off if they notice police nearby.
Traveling to Cuba doesn’t have to be a hassle. It’s a vibrant country that’s well worth the visit. Plan out your trip with plenty of time, and you can make memories that last a lifetime.