How to Travel to Cuba as an American

Go Global By Stefan Zechner June 20, 2016

As the U.S. normalizes relations with Cuba, American travel to this Caribbean country has skyrocketed. In 2014 to 2015 alone, American visits to Cuba increased by 77 percent.

And these numbers are only expected to grow. The Cuban government is predicting that 10 million Americans will visit each year once travel restrictions are completely lifted; up from the three million foreign visitors they currently receive per year.

While there are still constraints to visiting, travelers are hoping to see Cuba before a massive influx of tourism visitors and imports causes the country to lose some of its 1950s charm.

Learn how you can travel to Cuba as an American so you can experience authentic Cuba for yourself.

Where to Start

As relations currently stand, you’ll likely need to register with a professional tour company to travel to Cuba. Get in touch with one of the many professional tour operators to learn what they offer and compare costs.

Be prepared for traveling on tour busses, packed daily schedules, cultural talks, pre-booked dinners at government restaurants, and if you’re lucky, an expert local guide.

How to Get a Visa for Cuba

There are 12 government-approved reasons to visit, including cultural exchange, professional research, religious activities, visiting relatives and humanitarian work. One of the most common ways for Americans to visit Cuba is on a “people-to-people” trip, which requires a full schedule of educational activities, including stops at all of the top sites, as well as an arranged visit with a local artist, school or religious site. For now, simply laying on the beach and smoking cigars isn’t a valid reason to qualify for a visa.

Most of the above travel organizations will arrange the visa for you along with the specific travel schedule needed to qualify.

How to Fly to Cuba

Scheduled U.S. flights to Havana are growing rapidly, now expanding from charter flights to commercial ones. Jetblue and American Airlines were among the first. Southwest, Delta, United, Frontier, Spirit, Alaska, and Silver Airways plan to include more flights to Cuba in 2017.

Where to Stay in Cuba

Only half a dozen hotels in Havana meet international five-star ratings, but that number is expected to grow. You can also organize stays at family homestays, or casa particulares, online or through a tour company. Airbnb has also launched in Cuba, adding more than 400 accommodation options as well as the chance to connect with locals.

Be forewarned that amenities like hot water, elevator services and furnishings may not be up to par with what you’re used to in other countries.

What to Do in Cuba

Because of the current travel restrictions for Americans, most activities will be booked for you. Some companies may extend your stay beyond the required tour if you ask. That said, don’t miss some of the best activities Cuba has to offer:

  • Walk along the Malecón in Havana
  • Explore the historic plazas of Havana
  • Visit Hemingway’s old house
  • Ride in a 1950s convertible taxi
  • Wander the streets of Vedado residential neighborhood
  • Shop for art, clothing, jewelry and more at Almacenes San José craft market
  • Enjoy cabaret at the famous Tropicana club
  • See a baseball game at Estadio Latinoamericano
  • Taste samples at the Rum Museum
  • Learn about the rise of communism in Cuba at the Revolution Museum
  • See the chronological exhibits of Cuban art at Bellas Artes national art museum
  • Visit the El Morro fort at night for a cannon firing ceremony
  • Watch cigars get made at Romeo y Julieta Factory, La Corona or Partagás Tobacco Factory

If you have time to explore beyond the capital city of Havana, plan a day trip or overnight tour to Veradero Beach, Las Terrazas eco-community or the traditional agricultural town of Viñales. Santiago de Cuba and Trinidad are a little further, so consider flying if have the opportunity to go.

Keep in mind that traveling to Cuba isn’t like visiting any other destination. Service can be slow, many buildings are in a state of halted construction and there are a lot of out-of-work locals loitering throughout the city. There are only 54 public Wi-Fi hotspots in the entire country where you can use Wi-Fi, but most hotels have higher speed options available at a slightly higher cost.

How to Access Money in Cuba

It’s important to be fully prepared before you make your trip to Cuba. American cash, debit and credit cards aren’t accepted and A.T.M.s are a rare find, even in the most urban areas. You’ll need to pay with local currency — the convertible peso, or CUC.

You can exchange at the airport, but there’s a 10 percent fee for all U.S. dollar exchanges. It’s smart to bring Pounds or Euros if you have any on hand since the exchange fee isn’t as steep. You can also send yourself CUC with Western Union if you are a Cuban Citizen or in possession of a resident Cuban permit (a Cuban ID) . There are more than 490 agent locations across Cuba, including at the José Martí Airport in Havana, and transferring with WU means you wont have to pay the 10 percent tax on U.S. dollar exchanges.

Learn more about sending money to Cuba before you plan your trip.