10 tips for planning a trip to Cuba

Filled with fascinating history and culture, Cuba's bright, colourful cities and untouched natural landscapes make it one of the most unique destinations in the Caribbean. 

Until recently it was a country visited by only the more adventurous of travelers. However, it's fast becoming one of the hottest holiday destinations in the world. In fact, it's one of our tips for the best places to visit in 2017

As Cuba is still developing as a tourist destination, you shouldn't expect to find all the comforts of home. But if you take a little time to read up on the country and prepare before your trip, you'll find it easy to get around. 

Travel blogger Serena Puosi has visited the country, and has offered her own top tips for a Cuban holiday.   

1. Things to do before you leave: flights, visas and health insurance

The first thing to do is book a flight to Cuba. Many major airlines now offer flights to Havana's José Martí International Airport.A direct flight from London to Cuba will take just over ten hours. 

However, only a limited amount of flights to the country depart London each week. You'll find that there's a much wider choice of flights if you transfer in another European city. Flying via a city like Paris or Madrid will give you more options for departure dates, and should only add a couple of hours to your journey. 

Before being allowed into the country as a tourist, you'll need to have proof of having booked a return ticket back home. There's also a mandatory airport tax of 25 pesos for everyone flying into the country, but this is often included in the cost of the plane ticket. 

To visit Cuba, your passport will need to be valid for at least a month after your expected date of departure. You'll also need to buy a visa, known as a "tourist tarjeta" or "tourist card". Issued by the Cuban Consulate, the tourist card is valid for 30 days (extendable for another 30). It costs £17 when purchased from the consulate in person. 

If you're strapped for time, or too far away from the consulate, you can also pick one up by post or courier. However, this comes with an additional £22 fee. 

Health insurance is also mandatory on a trip to Cuba, and you'll be asked to provide evidence of being covered at the airport. If you forget to purchase a policy in advance, you can buy insurance coverage on arrival in Cuba, but it'll be more expensive and will offer less cover than a policy you can buy before leaving. 

Immunisations aren't required for a trip to Cuba, but depending on which part of the country you're visiting, you might want to consider seeing your GP to get vaccinated for diseases like Hepatitis A. You can find out more information on the NHS' website

2. When to go to Cuba?

If you're looking for sunshine, a trip to Cuba's ideal at any time of the year. The country has a moderate tropical climate, and enjoys warm temperatures year-round. 

August is the hottest month, and January the coldest. However, temperatures are fairly constant, rarely peaking above 35 degrees, with night-time lows rarely dipping below 12 degrees. 

The most popular periods for Cuban holidays are Christmas and Easter, when visitors from other Latin American countries tend to visit, and around July 26th, when the country celebrates the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. 

3. Where to stay in Cuba?

The cheapest and most "authentic" way to stay in Cuba is to book into a "casa particular". These accommodations are rooms within private family homes. Normally they'll include your own private bathroom, while your host family will offer assistance with tourist information, bookings and meals. It's highly recommended, as it's a great way to meet with the locals. It's also the most established method of tourism in the country, so you'll find a good range of places to choose from. Check out sites like casaparticularcuba.org or casaparticular.com where you can browse listings and get in touch with host families. 

If you prefer a more traditional holiday experience, there are a growing number of hotels in Cuba to choose from. As the tourist industry is still in its infancy, they're generally not particularly luxurious, but you should find the necessities - and a few helpful extras, like bars and restaurants, pools and air conditioning. 

Cuba has some particularly stunning coastline, and a number of contemporary luxury beach resorts have opened in popular areas like Varadero and Cayo Santa Maria. 

Havana

4. Money in Cuba

Cuba has a dual currency, and you can pay for goods with CUC, the Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUP, the Cuban Peso (also known as MN or Moneda Nacional). The former is exclusively for tourists, while the CUP is reserved for locals (you can't exchange CUP outside the country). 

For a short trip you'll probably only need CUCs. However, it can also be a good idea to have a small amount of CUP to hand, for smaller purchases like fruit and vegetables from market stalls. 

At the moment, 1 CUC equals 25 CUP or $1. If you want to exchange your currency between CUC and CUP, you can do so at banks and CADECAS (currency exchange houses). 

It's a good idea to take your currency in cash form, as there aren't many ATMs in Cuba, and card payments aren't widely accepted. Many hotels and casa particulars will have in-room safes for you to store your valuables in when you don't need them. 

5. Public transport in Cuba

There are several ways to get around Cuba, including taxis, "public taxis" (which are shared with other people), buses (the cheapest method) or by internal flights. 

Cuba is the only Caribbean country to have a rail network, and it's fairly easy to get a ticket - as there's always a quota of tickets reserved for tourists paying in CUC. However, the trains are mostly old and overcrowded, so you can expect delays, cancellations and rowdy passengers (but also some very attractive scenery and local colour, if you don't mind those problems). 

6. Renting a car in Cuba

Havana's streets are famous for their vintage cars. And the thought of hitting the road and visiting some of the country's more off the beaten track sights is a romantic one.There's a considerable amount of demand for rental cars, so if you decide to go it by yourself and hire a car in Cuba, it's best to make a reservation before you arrive in the country. 

However, driving in Cuba isn't for the faint-hearted. The condition of the country's roads is not ideal - expect potholes, and no streetlights at all (it's best not to travel at night).Also, traffic on the highways is rather more diverse than you'd be used to - in addition to avoiding other drivers, you'll also have to negotiate around street sellers, hitch-hikers, horse-drawn carriages and plenty more besides. 

Trinidad

7. Phones and internet in Cuba

ETECSA is the Cuban national telephone company. In pretty much every town in Cuba you'll find one of their telephone and internet centres, where you can buy phone and data cards. If you do buy one of these cards, you'll be asked to present your passport, so remember to have it on you when you visit. 

Cuba's internet coverage is sparse, and very slow. It's also probably best to turn off data roaming on your phone, as it can be exceedingly expensive.The country is introducing limited public wi-fi coverage - you'll generally be able to find a hotspot by looking out for people internet access is still not available in private homes. To access this service, you'll need a 'nauta' data card from the ETECSA centre. 

Internet access is still not available in private homes, so you probably won't find a casa particular room with wi-fi access (although there are a few). Hotel wi-fi is generally much better, although it might be restricted to lobbies and public areas. And you might have to purchase a data card from reception before you can log on. 

8. How safe is Cuba?

Overall, Cuba is a safe country, with a relatively low crime rate and very friendly and helpful locals. Of course, you should always be aware of your surroundings, and keep an eye on your valuables to avoid pickpockets.You might be approached by a "Jinetero", or street hustler, who can helpful at first, before becoming quite pushy and insistent. It's best to avoid them, when possible. 

Teatro Nacional

9. What to eat in Cuba?

Combining a mix of international influences - particularly Spanish and African - creole cuisine is widely available throughout Cuba.  

Cheap, simple and delicious, generally Cuban food is prepared with whatever's easily available - most commonly ingredients like pork, chicken, rice, bananas and a wide variety of seafood, often followed by fresh fruits and coffee for dessert. 

Around the country you'll find both traditional restaurants, which are largely aimed at tourists, and "paladares", small family-run restaurants with really cheap prices. 

Cuba is also known for its fabulous range of cakes and pastries, so a trip to one of the country's coffee shops or bakeries is highly recommended. 

10. Travelling in Cuba with kids

Cuba might not be a "child-friendly destination" in the traditional sense. The usual features like baby changing facilities and car seats are fairly hard to find. However, the country's a good place to bring kids, thanks to the friendliness of the locals, and their attention to young travelers. 

It's best to bring everything you think you might need for your children (such as clothes, nappies, car seats, children's medicines and strong sun cream) with you from home, as you'll struggle to find them when you're in Cuba.  

Have you visited Cuba? Let us know your tips and recommendations in the comments section.

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