Cuba Up-Close

Six Essential Tips for Your Trip to Cuba 2023

Traveler taking photos in Havana

Photo: Alamy

Six Things to Know Before You Go!

Let's be honest, major cities worldwide are becoming ever more identical. Whether you're in central London or downtown Bangkok, you're almost sure to stumble across the same major brands and outlets in malls worldwide.


Thankfully, we still have Cuba, undoubtedly one of the most culturally well-preserved travel destinations on Earth. Here, you'll discover a society like no other, surrounded by truly epic natural beauty. This singularity means that traveling to Cuba brings subtleties that you may not have encountered on previous trips.


Here are six Cuban travel tips for enjoying the uniqueness of the island without sacrificing comfort:

Interior view of a casa particular in Trinidad

Photo: Alamy

1. Look for alternative accommodation: "Casas Particulares"

You're unlikely to have traveled to a place where the government plays such an active role in the day-to-day running of its economy. As a result, service to tourists can occasionally feel slightly choreographed and play to different standards than you might initially expect.


Fortunately, smaller, independent businesses offer a far better service and the chance to make genuine connections with locals. How? Book a homestay at a private home, known as a Casa Particular, rather than a state-owned hotel. Many of these are completely private or hostless. However, we highly recommend you choose one with a Cuban family.


And don't worry, when we say "stay with a Cuban family," we're not expecting you to top and tail with the grandparents. Many are grand colonial buildings with private courtyards and balconies. Cubans are incredibly respectful of visitors who choose to stay with them, so you'll have no privacy problems and have space to unwind.


Staying at a casa particular also offers the chance to eat home-cooked Cuban food, which will vary in the local region: If you're staying by the coast, expect to be served enormous succulent langosta (lobster), or if further in-land, slow-cooked lechón (pork) accompanied by juicy chunks of ripe platano (plantain).


Your Cuban hosts can help you access a wider variety of places to eat, drink, rent a bike, or book a tour - basically, more or less everything that the government provides but with a far more personal touch.


Taking this extra step to immerse yourself in Cuban culture will allow you to see beyond the stereotypes while making an enormous contribution to Cuba's local economies.

Cuban men surfing on the internet, Santa Clara

Photo: Shutterstock

2. Get a VPN

No doubt, when planning your trip, you may have heard about the heavy internet restrictions that make streaming platforms, online banking, and social networks unreachable. Fortunately, there is an easy workaround if you need to stay connected during your trip.


Before you head to the island, download a VPN onto your phone and any other devices you plan on taking. Psiphon is currently the most popular among Cubans; however, tons of companies out there offer free trials and cheap monthly subscriptions.


Once that's all sorted, you'll be free to access your sites and accounts with relative ease. Cuba's internet speed may be not on par with central Tokyo, but what's wrong with letting your photos upload while heading to the bar for a Cuba Libre?

Cuban pesos and dollars

Photo: Shutterstock

3. Keep a few USD tucked away

We've all been there at some point: Arrive in a new country, head over to the Currency Exchange desk, change up all of your money, and walk away with a sizable chunk missing, thanks to exchange rates and commission.


In recent years, companies such as Monzo have looked to bypass annoying overseas withdrawal and transaction fees. Sadly, this isn't an option in Cuba, as most places can't take payments from international debit cards.


The Cuban Peso can only be purchased on the island, so you’ll need to change money upon arrival – there's no escaping that!


Government-owned hotels and restaurants, as well as national transport companies, will only accept the Cuban Peso, so make sure you change up enough upon arrival to set you up for your trip around the island, and avoid wasting time in long ATM queues.


On the other hand, many smaller private businesses such as restaurants, stores, and guest houses are more than happy to accept American Dollars, British pounds, Euros, and Canadian dollars. They will offer you favorable rates, and you’ll also save on exchange rates and commissions.


Our advice: keep a few dollars tucked away in your backpack. That way, when the opportunity comes along, you get yourself a good price while avoiding lining the pockets of currency exchange businesses.

First aid kit

Photo: Shutterstock

4. Bring a medical kit

No one wants to think about getting sick on vacation; however, it'd be wrong not to give you a quick heads up about the difficulties of finding medicine when in Cuba.


Sometimes many things that you would typically be able to buy at your average grocery store can be pretty tough to find here.


In case of an emergency, you're always welcome to try your luck with one of Cuba's many homemade alternatives known as medicinas caseras. If you want to avoid setbacks, it's best to have a backup supply of basic painkillers, repellent, band-aids, common antibiotics, antibacterial gel, and disinfectant wipes.


To keep yourself in the loop, you can contact your airline directly, or take a look at the Cuban Ministry of Health website.

A taxi in Santiago de Cuba

Photo: Shutterstock

5. Alternative transport in Havana

Like any big city, Havana's public transport can be challenging for first-time visitors.


Tourist sites and travel blogs tend to lean towards government-owned taxis and pricey trips in classic cars. Fortunately, there are other viable alternatives that often slip under the radar!


Looking for an Urban taxi in Cuba? Download the La Nave, Bajanda and D' Taxi apps. These are linked to private taxi companies that offer a 24-hour service and fixed prices.


Government drivers are known for hiking the price to cream off a little extra from the "official" fee. Having these apps on your phone will help you avoid any awkward negotiations, especially if your Spanish is a work in progress.


If you prefer a more environmentally friendly way to travel, Velo Cuba, Ciclo Cuba, and Citykleta, will be your best bet for reasonably priced bike rental. All three companies offer an hourly service in addition to long rental periods.

Tourist at the Malecón, Havana

Photo: Shutterstock

6. Keep an eye out

Cuba is one of the safest island nations in the Caribbean for tourists - but like most other countries, even the safest places can have dark sides with shady individuals.


Along your travels in Cuba, you might be coerced to eat at certain questionable restaurants, to drink at run-down bars, or buy souvenirs at particular stores on the busy avenues.  Be aware not to consume any foods that look unsanitary, be careful with non-name brand alcohol, and compare all prices you see around for comparison.


Try to hire an official or trusted local guide who knows all of the “tourist traps”, and can most likely take you to authentic locales where the music is blasting, and the prices are modest.  Also, negotiate any cost of services or products beforehand firmly. You don’t want any additional charges to start popping up all over the place.


Find out more about the best tips on How to Travel Safe in Cuba, and what other tricks to look out for!

Written by Gabriela Rey.


Published October 2022.

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