Travelling to Cuba on a budget can be both rewarding and frustrating. High-end luxury holidaymakers rub shoulders with backpackers, and the Cubans hope to earn a month’s salary from tourists in a single day. Discover these seven things I wish I knew before travelling to Cuba on a budget in 2019.
1. The Cuban tourist card is easy to get
Pretty much every nationality needs a tourist card to enter Cuba. You can either get this from the Cuban embassy or through a third party before your trip. Otherwise, most airlines sell tourist cards at the airport before passengers board the plane.
As soon as we entered immigration at Varadero Airport, a small desk sold both tourist cards and travel insurance. We also heard from other travellers that you can get the tourist card at Havana Airport too.
If you want to visit Cuba on an impromptu trip, either get your tourist card at the Cuban embassy, airport before you depart or before immigration when you land.
2. Mandatory Cuban travel insurance is cheap
Travellers need to have travel insurance that covers medical expenses and emergency evacuation. This is a requirement to enter Cuba. We weren’t asked to show our insurance at immigration.
Not every insurance company provides travel insurance to all nationalities for Cuba. I recently read a complaint from a Canadian who was refused insurance from a specific company – the same one that covered her Aussie travel mates on the same trip.
Search online and you can get coverage for as little as a few dollars each day. Pick some up at either Havana or Varadero Airport before passing through immigration. It’s probably best to have some before you go – there’s no guarantee they’ll be open when you arrive.
3. Getting to and from the airport will feel expensive
Taxis in Varadero charge between 25 and 30 CUC ($25 and $30) for the short journey between the airport and town. In Havana, it’s 25 CUC ($25) for the 20-minute journey.
You’ll have to pay this whether you like it or not. Set aside some money and bite the bullet.
At Varadero Airport, fleets of buses wait outside to take holidaymakers to the resorts. English speaking reps guide the passengers onto the buses. If there’s space, they’ll drop you off in Varadero. In 2019, this costs 10 CUC ($10). Buses wait outside Varadero Airport throughout the day, and this option is almost a guarantee if you’re flying with holidaymakers.
From Havana Airport to the centre, you’re stuck with a taxi. There are public buses, but you’ll need to walk almost 2 kilometres from the terminal. And even then, the buses don’t follow a strict timetable.
Some coach companies stop at the airport to drop off or pick up passengers as they go from one destination to the next. For example, you could book the bus from Havana to Varadero Airport for as little as $6 (USD). But they’re not reliable and don’t always run on time. The bus from Varadero to Havana stopped at Varadero Airport. But left 30 minutes late and stopped for less than a minute to drop off passengers at the terminal.
Fortunately, these high costs do balance out. And you’ll find Cuba to be no more expensive than travelling to other countries. Click here to find out much it really costs to travel long-term – spoiler alert: It costs less to travel long-term than to live back at home in the UK.
4. CUC V CUP
Cuba has two currencies: CUC, which is predominately for non-Cubans, and CUP, which is for Cubans. Shops, restaurants and taxis charge visitors in CUC. You’ll see both prices listed with 1 CUC equalling about 25 CUP. Sometimes you’ll get CUP as change from the markets. Keep it and use it again.
Pro tip: Always double check your change – both CUC and CUP look almost identical. But the first is worth much more, and unscrupulous vendors might try to make the switch.
5. Expect ultra-expensive accommodation in the resorts and ultra-cheap everywhere else
If you’re travelling to Cuba on a budget, you can find an apartment for about $15/night (outside resort areas). Airbnb offers a long list of properties located in the neighbourhoods of major destinations in Cuba. Search on Booking.com to see if you can find the same room for slightly cheaper.
Hotels and resorts in touristy areas usually cost four or five times more than in Havana and other parts of Cuba. When you stroll around the neighbourhoods, you’ll see signs advertising rooms for rent too.
Discover our secrets which practically guarantee we always get the best value for money with accommodation in our long-term travellers guide to Airbnb.
6. Food and drink in Cuba is limited and expensive
Food and drink in Cuba are on the expensive side. Supermarkets don’t have much variety apart from enormous canned goods, overpriced pasta and bland bread rolls.
Street food isn’t that easy to find either. And when you do, it’s basic. I’d recommend bringing a few of your favourite snacks with you into Cuba – just in case.
Beer prices average around 2 CUC ($2) for a small can or bottle. A 1.5-litre bottle of water ranges from 1.5 CUC ($1.50) in resort areas to 0.30 CUC ($0.30) at some of the smaller food courts.
If you’re on a budget, boil the tap water. This doesn’t taste great, but it can save $$$ if you’re on a budget.
7. Avoiding the scams in Cuba and making your money last longer
Depending on who you ask, Cubans are warm, friendly and welcoming. Or they approach tourists with the aim of ripping them off. And it all depends on who you meet.
Cubans will come up to you in the street and start a conversation. Some are curious and friendly ending with an ‘Enjoy your stay in Cuba’. Others hold out their hands and ask for money or try to get you to buy something. Have your wits about you. You’re under no obligation to give anybody any money.
If you join a tour or hire a taxi, ask for the price first. And then negotiate. Some will up their price by 10x, 100x or 1000x in the hopes of earning a month’s wage in a single afternoon. If it’s too much, there’s always someone else willing to give you a better price.
Cuba on a Budget
I’ve found travelling to Cuba on a budget to be both rewarding and expensive. As you travel around the country, the costs will balance out. You might spend on average around $60 in Varadero or $20 each day in Havana. If you have checked luggage, bring some food with you. Boil the water and pour it through a coffee filter to cut costs on water.
About the author
Sam is a full-time freelance writer who has lived a location independent lifestyle for the last three years. Over at Itching For Travel, Sam shows you how to follow your dreams. We guide, motivate and inspire you to go from 9-5 to full-time traveller earning a stable income (in less than 12 months).
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