Travel & Money

Flights

There are flights to Cuba from the Caribbean, Latin America, Canada, and Europe. Canada has the cheapest charters, although almost always to isolated beach resorts. The packages can be so inexpensive that you can use them for the flight alone and blow-off the resort hotel and its bad food. Usually the cheapest flights are on Cuban Airlines, the state-run carrier that occasionally still flies ancient and scary Soviet-era planes.

For a comprehensive listing of departure cities, a useful resource is Nash Travel  In Cancun, contact Viajes Divermex, +52 (998)884-5005, 87-5489 y 87-5487, Leydi Ix, leydi@divermex.com.

Visas / Tourist Cards / 30-Day Limit

A valid passport is required for entry to Cuba. Visas are not necessary. Instead travelers need only a tourist cards (“tarjeta de turista”) issued by travel agents and airlines for $15 to $30. Cuban immigration stamps the tourist card rather than the passport.
The tourist card is good for 30 days and will be collected and must be presented when exiting. Tourist cards can be renewed for an additional 30-day increment in Cuba. Extensions, called a “prórroga”, involve buying $25 worth of stamps from a bank, and then going to an immigration office for the prórroga. The process may take 1 a day. Immigration offices do not like to give extensions until the visa is about to expire. Also, travel agents, at least on the charter flights, will not sell more than a 30-day RT airline ticket.

Currency

For an excellent and up-to-date report on Money Matters go to Christopher Baker’s report on LaHabana.com.

Two currencies currently circulate in Cuba, the “peso” (CUP) and the convertible peso (CUC). The CUC is called the “chavito”. It is also the only currency that a visitor will use to pay for travel, accommodations, and food, whether in a store, restaurant, or paladar.

The CUC was introduced as a substitute for the US dollars, which was the standard currency for tourism in the 1990s. Eventually the dollar became the common currency for tourists and Cubans alike. If a shop was lit, had customers, and stocked shelves, it dealt only in dollars. The government introduced the CUC. The rules are the same, simply substitute “chavito” for dollar.

The peso was the currency for Cubans, and they are still paid wages in pesos and can buy the few items available at state stores with pesos. You can easily spot the “bodegas” with empty shelves and few customers. Only Cubans may shop there using their “libreta” or ration book, entitling them to a limited amount of rice, sugar, lard, and cigarettes a month. The “official” rate of exchange is around 25 pesos to $1, or a peso is about 4 cents. Even that rate is arbitrary, since there is no international market buying and selling of pesos. You can get a few pesos for some fruit stands, or as a souvenir. But you will make many trips to Cuba without spending a single peso. And perhaps one of the few things that you can do to draw a hostile reactions from Cubans is to tip or reward them with pesos.

Upon arrival, you will need to exchange foreign currencies for CUCs. U.S. and Canadian dollars, Euros, and Pounds are easily exchanged at banks and exchange booths, although some can have long waiting lines. On March 14, 2011, the Central Bank of Cuba devalued the Cuban Convertible Peso, in effect hiking the amount of food, travel, and lodging visitors can get for their dollars and euros. And the change ends the complication of calculating currency conversions when making purchases, returning to the decade from 1994 to 2005 when the Cuban currency was pegged 1:1 to the dollar. The Cuban government, however, did not end its hostility to the U.S. dollar itself, and continues the 10-percent “penalty” on converting dollars. Thus if traveling with US dollars it is best to convert to another currency beforehand. That’s only theoretical, because multiple exchanges and commission usually may cancel out any savings.


The vocabulary of currency remains confusing. Cubans can say peso, chavitos, or “divisa”, another term for the CUC. And since the dollar was the currency for a decade, Cubans still say “dolares” to mean chavitos. And Cubans can use the word “peso” to mean both peso and CUC. “Fula” is another term for dollars, although it now a relict of the era in the 80s and early 90s, when possessing dollars was illegal; and Cubans were prisoned for years for the crime of having dollars. “Fula” means bogus; and “fulastres” were people of low moral character who had dollars. It is very unlikely to be heard now that almost the entire population shops in the equivalent of a dollar economy.

Bottomline, nearly everything a tourist needs to purchase is priced in convertible peso, which can be called CUCs, “chavitos”, “divisa”, or “dolar”. Context is the key. A beer is usually a dollar even, if quoted a price of un peso, un dolar, or un chavito. Between Cubans a peso means peso. Wherever Cubans are the main customers, such as cones of peanuts being sold on the street, peso means peso. At stores, restaurants, museums, hotels, peso means dollar or chavito. For clarity, “moneda nacional” always means pesos; “chavito”, “dolar” and “divisa” always means the CUC.

ATMs and Credit Cards

Automatic teller machines are common and reliable in Havana and most tourist areas. Credit cards and travelers checks are useful in Cuba, but expect additional, hefty commissions. Perhaps useful for emergencies.

However, U.S. credit cards/travelers checks are not accepted in Cuba. This is because U.S. banks will not pay for charges in Cuba or for flights to Cuba, even for legitimate charges and even if traveling to Cuba legally. Travelers checks on U.S. banks, including American Express, will not be exchanged. Americans have no choice but to carry only cash.

Security

Property crime, stealing packs, cameras, purses, is common. The oppressive Cuban security system has some benefits for the visitor. Outside of Havana and Santiago de Cuba, it is remarkable how often the cops know who robbed something. A Cuban can not come home with a new car or television without detection. They may steal the tires and mirrors off any unguarded rental car, but not the car! Nor can they negotiate or sell foreign credit cards and passports. If stolen, your travel documents will probably just be trashed.

As a general rule, your documents are safe if left in your room. Cash may not be, and it can be problematic. However, try to carry only the cash you need for the day and never walk around with your passport.