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Traveling to Cuba: 7 Things You Need to Know

With the lifting of travel restrictions to Cuba, Cubans are welcoming Americans with open arms. And thanks to guys like the American who arrived in Havana harbor in a motorboat with no visa or passport, they’re also learning just what morons we can be. Here are a few important tips for how not to be that guy.

You Need a Visa to Travel to Cuba

But getting one is relatively straightforward. Technically, the U.S. still forbids “travel for tourist activities.” But if you can credibly claim that your visit is for one of 12 broad purposes defined by the U.S. Department of Treasury, you’re good to go. (For details, see the Frequently Asked Questions section at treasury.gov).

In March, the U.S. Department of the Treasury updated its regulations to allow for “individual people-to-people educational travel,” which gives Americans broad leeway to travel to Cuba on their own. The key is that you engage “in a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people” that results in “a meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.” Spending seven days on the beach is an iffy fit; salsa classes aren’t.

To apply for the visa itself, check with your airline—most can provide a visa when you book a ticket—or contact the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C., at least six weeks prior to traveling.

Getting to Cuba Is Pretty Straightforward

JetBlue, American, Delta, United, Southwest, Alaska Airlines, Frontier, and Spirit, plus several smaller airlines, all now offer scheduled air service. Carnival Cruise Lines currently goes as well.

Have a Phone Plan

Most U.S. mobile phone carriers offer voice and data roaming packages that will work in Cuba. Roaming charges are expensive, however, so leave roaming turned off unless you really need it. Cuban SIM cards are available, and Wi-Fi is becoming increasingly common, especially in Havana.

Make Sure You Book Accommodations Before You Go

Whether you’re planning to stay at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba or the plethora of homestays known as casas particulares (which can be reserved on Airbnb), be sure to book ahead, even if you’re not visiting during the high season.

“In a lot of places in the world, you can just show up and expect to be able to find a room somewhere,” says a U.S. embassy official in Havana. “That’s not the case here in Cuba.”

Bring the Benjamins

If there’s one point I could not make enough times, or in a bigger headline, it’s this: Bring cash, and enough for your entire trip,” says the embassy official.

U.S. dollars can be changed at hotels to convertible pesos or CUCs (currently at a rate of .873 CUCs to the dollar). But U.S. credit and ATM cards don’t work in Cuba, and expenses can add up much faster than people anticipate. (You can easily blow $125 on a box of cigars, and it’s not hard to spend twice that, or more.)

That is creating the paradoxical problem of gringo capitalists swarming to Havana and running out of money. “The U.S. embassy is here to help,” says the U.S. official. “The problem is, a lot of folks think we have our own ATM back here, that we just tap into it and give out cash.”

“We don’t do that,” he says. “That’s not how it works.”

Cuba allows visitors to bring up to USD $5,000 in cash with them; take advantage of it.

Bring the Medicines, Too

If it’s important to budget your money wisely, it’s even more important to do so with any medications you take. “Make sure you have enough medication for your entire trip,” says the embassy official. “That happens a lot. And when people find themselves in a health crisis, that’s as bad as it can get.”

Getting Around in Cuba

The Maps.me mobile app offers a downloadable Cuba map pack that works offline—a crucial feature in Cuba.

If you know Spanish, the Android app Ke Hay Pa’ Hoy is a great way for staying up on the entertainment scene. La Papeleta is another good website and app. The websites Cuba What’s On and La Habana offer English-language entertainment listings.

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