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First time visitor to Havana? Here’s the top ten things to know about traveling to Cuba.
1. While American travelers can now travel to Cuba, their travels must fall within one of twelve categories. You cannot travel simply for the sake of traveling. Additionally, you must have a tourist visa when visiting Cuba. Your airline carrier can assist you in securing a tourist visa.
Before departure, you will be asked to fill out your official visa paperwork which should be kept with your passport. At the gate, crew members repeatedly told us to take our time filling out the paperwork because Cuban officials are very particular when it comes to inaccuracies. A single mistake, like missing a letter, will result in paying another visa fee and starting all over. First time visitor to Havana? Here’s the top ten things to know about traveling to Cuba.
2. While at Baggage Claim, your assigned carousel can change at any time and the wait can be horrendous. In the three hours we waited for our baggage to arrive, the baggage carousel changed no less than four times. The aisle in between the carousels are very narrow and fills up quickly so you can imagine the chaos that ensued when trying to locate our luggage.
3. Luggage carts are free to use. The carts are located at the far end, near cargo pickup.
4. Do not, under any circumstances, drink their tap water. Or you will end up with Traveler’s Diarrhea. It’s okay to rinse your mouth with tap water while brushing, but do not swallow it. When purchasing bottled water, make sure the cap is sealed. If you want non-mineral water, ask for agua natural or agua sin gas.
5. You should consider exchanging your money before leaving home. If you attempt to exchange USD to Cuban Convertible Peso (tourist currency or CUC and will have landmarks on the face of the currency; CUP the currency for natives have people on the face of the currency.) when you arrive in Cuba, you will lose a lot in the exchange due to fees. There is a 10% penalty (due to the US embargo) and a 3% service charge when exchanging USD to CUC.
If you exchange your money from USD to Euros while you are in the states, you can exchange those Euros to CUC upon your arrival in Cuba. Cuba has always accepted Euros since there is no embargo between the two and fewer fees as a result. However, you should consider the service fees and the USD to Euro exchange rate when taking this option. If it turns out to be less than the USD to CUC rate in Cuba, then you should wait until you arrive in Cuba.
While many people choose to exchange monies at the airport, we’ve found that you will get the best rates at local Cuban banks. However, banks will not accept damaged or torn money for exchange. Two things to remember when utilizing their banks: First, the operation of cell phones or cameras are prohibited when inside. Second, while at the teller window, only one person at a time is allowed to conduct business. If no teller is available, you must take a seat to wait your turn.
6. The most inexpensive way to eat breakfast is to have your host provide it with your room rental. It will usually be for an additional fee, but some hosts will include it in the rental price.
7. Restaurants will charge extra if you need to use a doggie bag. Portion sizes are extremely large, so you may find yourself sharing your food with your table mates.
8. Don’t be surprised if private and public restrooms don’t have toilet seats and this is mostly due to the economic embargo. Quite honestly, it is a luxury for most families. I suspect this will change as more tourists positively impact the Cuban economy. Our advice is to purchase these toilet seat covers, for obvious reasons:
9. You cannot flush the toilet paper. Their sewer system is not capable of breaking down the fibrous material. You can dispose of used tissue in the small trash can provided in the restrooms. But be aware that some establishments may not provide tissue, so bring your own or you may want to purchase personal wipes instead, but still, do not flush them!
10. WiFi access is almost non-existent on the island. However, you can access it in limited areas by purchasing a WiFi card for a nominal fee. Wifi cards can be purchased at a few hotels in Havana or on the upper level of the airport upon arrival. You will only be able to get service in public areas like parks or hotels. Chances are if you see several people on their phones, they’ve most likely accessed an elusive signal.