Cuba Libre: Preparing for a trip to Cuba

The biggest step when planning any trip is buying the ticket there. When it came to Cuba, the purchase was intensified by all of the concerns I mentioned in my post yesterday. The timing couldn’t have been better, though, as Lora is currently living and working in Toronto, so she contacted a travel agent who scored an amazing package deal for us that included roundtrip airfare and seven nights’ accommodation at a resort in Havana for less than $800. An added bonus: two of Lora’s friends, Peter and Frank, would be joining us for the first week!

But traveling to Cuba requires proper planning and preparation. Since I prefer to be a spontaneous type of traveler, I left it almost completely up to my travel mates to guide me through the pre-trip phase. Since our accommodations were already arranged (you must have accommodation planned before arrival), we had just three major things to think about: money, clothes, and clearing customs.
I hate to break it to my fellow budget travelers, but Cuba is no longer cheap. I made it in Myanmar on $10 a day, but in Cuba you really spend about $50 per day. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if Americans could actually use their ATM cards abroad, but Cuban businesses still do not accept American bank or credit cards. In other words, Americans must budget carefully for the trip in advance and bring cash to exchange in Cuba upon arrival. Even budget travelers should plan on bringing at least $100 per day – preferably in Canadian cash, or bring U.S. traveler’s checks, which are now accepted at most Cuban banks at a more favorable rate. Carrying around that much cash with you is a scary thought, but it is absolutely necessary to go down there with enough money to last your entire trip.

Check the weather forecast before you pack and then choose your clothes based on the weather. Cuba is never cold, so you’ll need just one long-sleeve shirt or sweater and one pair of pants or jeans. Cubans dress quite casually, but they don’t have money to buy fancy clothes. Therefore, you should really consider bringing clothes that you will no longer wear after your trip. Lora, Peter, and Frank all stuffed their bags with expendable clothes and left them for maids, caretakers, and other Cubans they met along the way. It’s one easy way to give back to the Cuban people who desperately need luxuries we don’t have.

Even toiletries like Kleenex, soap, and shampoo cost the same in Cuba as they do in the States, and most Cubans cannot afford them. So, if you have extra room in your luggage, bring some of these, too. My travel mates gave away nearly all of their belongings by the end of their trip that they had plenty of room for Cuban souvenirs and gifts.

Clearing customs:
This concerns only Americans who are hoping to procure a tourist visa upon arrival in Cuba. Getting in and out of Cuba has to happen through another country in Latin America or Canada. Most Americans travel through Cancun (in Mexico) or Toronto (in Canada), but there are many other non-U.S. cities that service Havana (see my Travel guide to Cuba for airline information). On the plane, they give you the arrival and departure card on which you fill out both sides (one they keep, the other serves as both your visa and your departure card – so don’t lose it; your hotels will also need to input your visa information, so keep it with your passport).

Let me just tell you my experience entering through customs at the Varadero airport (2 hours from Havana): My customs agent was a woman my age with a neatly braided ponytail. She began speaking to me in English, but I wanted to practice/show off my Spanish, so I proceeded to converse with her in my best, formal Espanol. She took a picture of me, which was stored in the Cuban customs database. She looked over my passport and arrival card and asked me many questions. I answered all of the questions honestly. She even asked if I got permission to come here and I told her “No.” Soon after that she left her little stall and asked the neighboring agent a question, came back and stamped something (I couldn’t see what). Before she let me leave, she made sure to tell me my Spanish was quite good. I felt pretty good about that, and then she let me go. As I waited at the baggage claim, I flipped through my passport, but there was no Cuban stamp. Then I noticed that she had stamped my departure card, as I had been told they do. Lora, who went after me, hadn’t filled out BOTH sides of the arrival/departure card and therefore had to fill it out fully first and then go to the back of the line. In the end, her stamp landed on the departure card as well.

This is apparently the practice for all visitors no matter their nationality. Cuban customs agents stamp the departure card upon arrival and retrieve it when you depart. They stamp your departure on your boarding pass, which the airlines take before you board the plane.

So there you have it! I made it to Cuba – and you can too with the proper planning. Our first stop: Havana, which will be discussed in the next few Cuba Libre posts.

For a complete listing of my Cuba Libre posts, please click HERE.