It is still illegal for Americans to vacation in Cuba.
Americans traveling to Cuba must be part of a pre-approved delegation. There are twelve categories of delegations that cover everything from research, athletic events, performing in a concert, working on a humanitarian project, or taking part in educational activities. (Lots of information on the internet on those categories.)
If you wish to travel to Cuba, you must apply for a visa through the State Department. This process takes weeks. General tourism is still banned. You can’t fly to Cuba for a weekend getaway and hit the beach.
Travel restrictions may lighten in 2016. Stay tuned for more details.
Here are some do’s and dont’s for Americans traveling to Cuba.
- Do come prepared with medications and first aid supplies. Cuba is an island with limited resources, and the embargo has limited its access to essential things like bandaids and antiseptic ointments. Buy a first aid kit, bring a small flashlight, and come prepared to address minor medical issues on your own.
- Do pack Imodium. Restrooms aren’t up to American standards. Hygiene varies from restaurant to restaurant. Handwashing isn’t always possible, and someone in your delegation might get sick. That someone might be you.
- Do travel with toilet paper wherever you go. Toilet paper is a luxury. Hotels offer the basics, but once you visit the heart of Havana and beyond, you’re on your own.
- Do bring Canadian dollars to Cuba. Havana has two currencies: one for visitors and one for citizens. As a traveler, you can only convert your foreign currency to Cuba’s tourist dollar called the CUC. There’s a massive tax on the conversion from USD to CUC. Canadian dollars are more favorable.
- Do pack light. It’s hot and sweaty in Cuba. More humid than you’ll expect. Be comfortable. Hotels can launder clothes. Worried about how you’ll look? Even in the nicest restaurants, nobody cares if your hair looks pretty or your makeup is applied correctly. Seriously.
- Don’t buy cigars and rum in state-owned stores. Well, technically, everything is state-owned. But find a smaller shop with fewer tourists and negotiate on price.
- Don’t expect to shop. First of all, you’re not technically on vacation. Secondly, this isn’t Mexico. There are no knock-off purses and perfumes warehouses, just yet. Havana offers the basics (t-shirts, Panama hats, handcrafted items) but more and more of this crap is imported from China.
- Don’t be snobby about the restaurant scene. While the food scene in Cuba isn’t refined, it is delicious. Havana is evolving very quickly. Visit TripAdvisor and read the most recent reviews.
- Don’t travel without snacks. While the restaurant scene is improving, it’s tough to grab a quick bite it to eat. Meals are served slowly. If you get hangry, pack protein bars.
- Don’t expect internet access. It’s the biggest challenge for American tourists. Hotels have wifi, but it is slow and painful. Remember AOL dial-up speeds? It’s like that. When you get on wifi, Apple’s iMessage works; however, there’s not enough bandwidth for Skype or FaceTime. You can find illegal hotspots around the city. Just look for a bunch of kids standing around looking at their phones. They’re stealing wifi, and you should, too. Quickly download your email and move on!
I’m just back from Havana, and it was a trip of a lifetime. I hope you find these tips helpful. Please feel free to leave advice and share your observations in the comments below. It’s my goal to help other Americans travel with ease and confidence.