Street in Habana Centro at dusk.
Photo Ana Lorena

Ultimate Cuba travel planning and preparation guide

Getting ready to visit incredible Cuba

Mysterious, exotic, and confounding. Cuba’s secrets are revealed during your island stay. Preparing for your Cuba trip is like visiting most other countries with some notable exceptions.

Keeping current with rapid changes in Cuba

Cuban girl in Havana with sunglasses.
Cuba is in a constant state of change.

Our Cuba travel orientation guide is for US group travelers. Much of its information is useful for independent sojourners from any nation. Things change in Cuba at a dizzying pace. We update this page regularly based on reports from our American guests and our expert island staff who update fun Cuba experiences daily.

Travel with peace of mind – protect your travel investment

Cuban woman in wind.
Trip insurance = freedom from worry.

Cuba is extremely safe. But things can still go wrong before and during travel. We strongly recommend trip interruption and cancellation insurance to safeguard your Cuban holiday investment. Even you decline travel insurance, take a moment to review costs and benefits.

Documents and money matters. Don’t leave home without…

Cuban boy with umbrella in Havana.
Be prepared and bring the essentials.

Passport Must be valid for two weeks beyond your stay.

Airline ticketsList of all US commercial flights to Cuba.

Cuban Tourist VisaPurchase from Cuba Explorer in advance or during airport check-in.

Certificate of Legal Cuba Travel  Document provided by Cuba Explorer verifying your Cuba visit conforms to US Cuba travel regulations.

Cuban emergency medical insurance Included in the cost of your US airline ticket. Visitors from other departure countries need to purchase separately.

Cash is king US credit and debit cards don’t work in Cuba! Don’t get caught short of funds while abroad. Study Money matters in Cuba.

What to wear in a tropical paradise – comfort + fashion

Cuban girls share lipstick.
Cuban street beauticians.

There are very few dress rules in Cuba. However, you still want to be comfortable and not stand out like a Christmas tree. See What do I pack for Cuba travel? This page addresses what to wear in Cuba’s warm climate, and essential medicine and hygiene products to bring that aren’t available in Cuba.

What you can, and cannot take to Cuba

Cuban woman at Carnival in Santiago.
Packing tips for Cuba.

Permitted items You can take cameras, personal DVD and CD players, and gaming devices, mobile phones, laptops, MP3 players, hairdryers, electric shavers, binoculars, radio receivers, musical instruments, and sound recording devices for personal use. If you take more than one of the above items, Cuban customs may ask if you intend to leave them on the island. If you plan to, duty may be charged.

Money If you bring more than USD 5,000 in cash, you have to declare it or risk confiscation.

Prescription medicines Must remain in original containers with prescription label intact.

Prohibited items Narcotics, explosives, pornography, anti-Cuba literature, aerial drones, stand-alone GPS devices, walkie-talkies, and things considered to be weapons.

What about water, street food, and health services in Cuba?

Cuban woman snacking.
Avoiding tummy troubles in Cuba.

Can I drink the water? We recommend you avoid tap water and drink bottled water at all times. Cuba Explorer supplies bottled water during your excursions.

How about street food? It’s a personal decision. You have to weigh missing out on tasty treats over possible digestion issues. Very few visitors report tummy troubles from eating cooked street food.

What if I get sick or injured? A doctor or nurse is available to participants throughout your Cuba Explorer trip, either at your hotel, at a nearby clinic, or enroute to tour activities.

Vaccinations and Trump Cuba travel alerts – should I worry?

Cuban boy and his dog.
Cuba is healthy. Plan as if visiting Norway.

Check our Vaccinations for Cuba page for updates about Zika, Dengue, and general health and safety concerns in Cuba.

Should I believe Trump’s imaginary Travel Alerts on Cuba? All advanced nations consider Cuba to be one of the safest travel destinations. The Trump administration is the only government that issues unfounded politically motivated travel alerts on Cuba.

Offline Cuba map – never get lost in Havana or on the island

Old Cuban man in Santiago.
Navigate Havana’s mysterious streets.

Paper maps are hard to find, costly, and awkward.

Download the super best offline travelers’ map of Cuba at Maps.me

Visitors and locals love Maps.me because it is so easy to get lost in Havana. Maps.me is a comprehensive offline map app for Android and Apple phones and tablets.

Download it now before you come to Cuba because internet on the island is slow.

Cuban internet – sort of like the olden days

Cuban boy smiling in Havana.
Cubans are internet fiends – like everywhere.

You can take your mobile phone, laptop or tablet to Cuba and connect to the internet from local hotspots or at your hotel. WiFi rates range from 1.00 to 2.00 CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos) per hour. Be prepared for the Cuban internet connection to be slower than at home.

Will my US mobile phone work in Cuba?

Cuban boy swimmer.
Make a mobile telephone plan now.

Notice Our Havana office provides emergency internet and US telephone calls to our guests at no charge.

Easiest mobile access in Cuba. AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile offer voice and data plans for Cuba. This is the surest way to stay in touch with family and work. Carefully study roaming plans before you arrive in Cuba. Mobile phone and data use in Cuba can be expensive.

A more expensive alternative is to rent a Cuban SIM card or rent a Cuban cell phone. See Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or contact us for details.

What happens when I arrive in Cuba?

Cuban school girls.
We have your back from arrival to departure.

You are hosted from touch down to departure, always with 24/7 VIP attention.

You are family Cuba Explorer staff meet and greet guests upon arrival at your Cuban airport. We return you to the airport for departure following your tour. Cuban airport-hotel transfers are included in your travel package. If you are arriving early or departing later than scheduled tour days, we help with airport-hotel transfers for the cost of a taxi.

Gifts and “donations” for Cubans

Cuban girl playing in street.
Gifts of friendship during the blockade.

Cubans welcome gifts however small. Gift giving is an island tradition.

Donations for community organizations Most needed items are pens, pencils, erasers, memory sticks, calculators, flashlights, markers, note pads, stuffed animals, games, dolls, toy trucks, and cars.

Also appreciated is toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, shampoo, and good quality used clothing and shoes. Baseball bats, balls and gloves are very popular. Do not distribute donations on the street. Your guide will suggest community organizations most in need. Learn more at Best gifts and donations for Cubans.

Personal gifts While on your tour, you will make many new Cuban friends. Consider small gifts such as aspirin, multiple vitamins, makeup, manicure and sewing kits, perfume, chocolate, watches, wallets, keychains, purses, scarves, jewelry, pen sets, flash drives, and other things you’d like to receive or share with friends at home.

You’re bringing gifts – not donations On arrival, if Cuban customs asked about items you intend to leave behind, describe them as gifts. If your luggage is searched and you are questioned as to why you’re bringing 25 pencils (for example), say, “they are gifts for friends” and leave it at that. The word donation raises concerns because, in the past, bad people brought harmful things into Cuba as donations. In the unlikely event, your gifts are confiscated rest assured they’ll be distributed to Cubans in need.

Cuban customs allows you to bring 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of medicines and medical items as gifts without duty. Pack them in a separate suitcase and notify our office so we can suggest appropriate recipients.

How do I wash my clothes in Cuba?

Cuban boy at Havana Carnival.
There are no laundromats in Cuba.

There are no public laundry facilities in Cuba. If you need laundry services, ask your chambermaid or hotel front desk. They’ll help you. Generally, the cost is between 6 and 8 CUC for a plastic shopping bag of clothes. Ask the price first.

If you are staying at a private Cuban home, ask the owner for assistance.

Electricity in Cuba is similar to America but different

Cuban woman at Carnival in Santiago.
Cuba has two types of electricity.

Electricity in Cuban hotels is often 220 volts. We advise you to purchase a Type ‘C’ European Travel Plug Adapter for electrical devices you bring to Cuba. You can buy this adapter from Amazon, Walmart or electronics stores. Some hotels use 110 volts, 60Hz (same as the US and Canada), but don’t count on it.

If you are staying in a private home, most have both 220 and 110 volts. Still, a Type ‘C’ adapter will always come in handy.

Be kind, be on time for scheduled activities, or opt out

Cuban girl performs folkloric dance.
Cubans plan your activities in advance.

Eastern Time is observed across Cuba, the same as in New York and Miami.

Cuba, unlike some Central and South American countries, doesn’t operate on Latin time. Being on time is the same as in the United States. If you are late for tour activities, the whole group is held up.

Cubans who have worked hard for months preparing your special activities will feel bad. Perhaps they planned a special meal, guest, or presentation. If our bus is delayed, then the whole group schedule will have to be juggled.

Your guide announces the bus schedule the day prior. Your accommodations have wake-up call services.

All is copacetic for free spirits If you don’t want to participate in a scheduled activity, or if you had a really good time the night before, that’s ok. We don’t judge. Just tell your guide in advance, so she/he will not worry or lose time attempting to track you down.

Tipping and gratuities for Cubans

Cuban trumpeter in Santiago.
Tipping is much appreciated in Cuba.

Feel good about tipping When you give a tip to a Cuban the whole island benefits. Cuban tourist staff share tips with their co-workers and family who live on incomes. Cuban guides and bus drivers contribute a portion of their tips to the national health, housing, and education systems.

Hint Treat tipping in Cuba as you do at home. Be generous with those who assist.

Here’s the amount of tips most Americans share. You can always leave more. The amount you give is totally optional and up to you. See How much should I tip in Cuba?

Tour guide 8.00 to 10.00 CUC per day per tour participant

Tour driver 5.00 to 7.00 CUC per day per tour participant

Restaurant staff 1.00 CUC or 10% per meal per tour participant

Hotel porters 1.00 CUC or more if you have lots of luggage

Chambermaids 1.50 CUC per day per participant

Museum guides and special guides 1.00 CUC per participant

Musicians at restaurants 1.00 CUC per participant

What about gifting instead of tips? Cubans in the service industry need money they can spend on the things they really need. They already get a lot of leftover toothpaste, toiletries, and other stuff. Give personal items you don’t need to your new Cuban friends.

Once again on safety in Cuba

Cuban streets are safe.
Cubans are friendly and helpful.

Cuba is among the safest countries in the world with a meager crime rate. However, precautions with personal belongings are necessary as you would in Paris, London, or Barcelona. Don’t leave small items unattended in public areas. Don’t wear expensive jewelry. It attracts pickpockets. Keep cameras and handbags secure to your person at all times.

Participants must use a hotel lockbox for valuables, travel documents, air tickets, passport, and cash.

Only carry the amount of cash you need each day. We suggest no more than 100 CUC. Leave the rest of your money in your hotel lockbox, along with your travel documents, passport, and other valuables. (Your actual passport is necessary to exchange money.)

Taxis and public transportation

Family outing on a motorcycle.
Cuban family outing on a motorcycle.

During your tour, transportation to activities is included. During non-schedules periods you’ll likely want to explore on your own. We recommend official taxis only. However, private cars are quite common. Be sure to ask the price for your destination before you ride a private car.

Is Cuba really that different than other countries? Yes, and…

Cuban woman in body paint.
Cuban dancer in body paint for performance.

Everything is very different: language, climate, customs, and demeanor.

Cubans are courteous, emotive, candid, and have a great sense of humor. All of the small material conveniences and services we take for granted are absent in Cuba.

While Cubans are punctual delays are common because of transportation and communications problems. The latter does not impact our programs because our services are independent.

Extreme shortages of everything require great innovation. Cubans constantly rise to the challenge. We advise coming to Cuba with an open mind until you get a lay of the land. Patience and understanding are the watchwords.

Words from wise travelers If you go to Cuba looking for problems, you will be inundated, as problems exist in abundance. On the other hand, if you visit with an open mind, in the spirit of learning about a wonderful people and their unique society and culture, your journey will be unmatched. Cubans are as thrilled to have you as their guest as you are about getting to know them.

Race, sex, and LGBT+ issues

Cuban costume at Santiago Carnival.
About race, sex, and LGBTs in Cuba.

Race and sex and LGBT+ issues are upside down compared to the United States.

Skin color is nebulous. A minority of Cubans are white or black. The vast majority of Cubans fall many shades in between. Don’t assume local comments about color are necessarily racist. The historical context is different. There are scores colors in Cuba. Best to assume every Cuban is proud of their place on the color spectrum.

Cuba is not like other Latin countries where women get pinched and squeezed on their private parts in public. Some Cuban men are not beyond issuing flirtatious comments to women. Female travelers can respond as they please – consider it as a compliment or insult. When women tell men in Cuba to desist, they do. “No means no,” reigns supreme in Cuba. Suffice it to say Cuba is among the safest nations in the world for female travelers.

Homophobia like racism in Cuba cannot be compared to the United States, where hostility and physical violence is a daily occurrence. There are no laws against LGBT+ in Cuba. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people don’t get shamed or beat up. They share the streets and public spaces equally. The vast majority of heterosexual people in Cuba consider homophobia to be a significant problem rather than homosexuality.

Panhandlers and minor scams

Baby Cuban cowboy.
Begging: not common but best to avoid it.

We strongly advise against giving money to individuals who approach you on the streets. While in tourist areas, you may encounter professional scam artists who pester foreign guests with sob stories that win them hundreds of dollars a week. When an individual approaches you on the street and asks for money, or with offers to provide guide or other services, just say no. Wag your finger back-and-forth with determination (indicating you are not interested) and move on.

Failure to do so means you risk getting ripped-off. Don’t be shy or feel bad. To do otherwise could cost you heartache and your wallet!

What can I bring back to America from Cuba?

Cuban man smoking cigar.
Return home with rum, cigars, and more.

There is no limit on the amount of money you can spend in Cuba nor is there a limit on the value or quantity of items – including alcohol and tobacco products – you can bring back to the US for personal use. However, when returning home, US customs may charge duties on excessive amounts of alcohol and tobacco products.

Original works of contemporary art require a stamped export permission letter to leave the country. The artist or gallery provide this documentation. Souvenirs and touristy handicrafts are not considered works of art.

Sharing your memories leads to positive change

Cuban couple playing around.
Cuba holds memories for a lifetime.

Did you know that American visitors to Cuba have a significant impact on improving US-Cuba relations?

Recording your trip, and sharing photos, videos, and blogs with friends, helps build ties of understanding between regular Cubans and Americans. Visitors before you have shifted public opinion to favoring normal relations with Cuba.

Parting words for US citizen-ambassadors

Young Cuban woman in Santiago.
While in Cuba, Americans are happier.

When visiting Cuba, locals see you as a representative of your nation and its people, reflecting the enlightened outlook of kindhearted Americans. Cubans endure extreme hardships. Their material conditions are well below those of the poverty line in the United States. Many problems Cubans face are a result of the 60+ years harsh economic blockade enforced by the US government.

Nonetheless, Cubans view regular Americans as their best friends in the hemisphere. Islanders welcome you graciously.

In Cuba, we say, “A true friend remembers the song in your heart when you have forgotten the lyrics.”  

Cuban photographers reflecting the lives of Cubans

Photographs on this page are by Cuba artists Ana Lorena Gamboa Fernández, Norlys Pérez Padrón, and René Silveira Toledo. Contact us for use of their images.