Expert Tips on Traveling in Cuba

street musicians

As the United States normalizes relations with Cuba, tour operators are working hard to serve the growing number of American travelers who want to explore the Caribbean island.

Journeys International recently announced that in 2016 it would lead a 10-day Cuba trip, where travelers will visit Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad. The two departures are February 9 (women’s-only) and March 22. Click her for more information.

A main goal of the trip is for travelers to interact closely with Cuban citizens, so participants will visit a school, spend time with fruit vendors at a local farmers market, meet a flora and fauna expert, discuss Cuba’s ration system with a bodega manager, talk with young entrepreneurs to learn what it’s like to run a business in Cuba, and meet with leaders of social welfare and arts associations.

We asked Robin Weber Pollak, president of Journeys International, to share a few tips for people who are interested in visiting Cuba

We understand that there are still restrictions for U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba. How do those restrictions affect your trips?

There is still a policy that our trips have to be group trips accompanied by a representative of our company or a partner company. And they have to be structured around a people-to-people mission to connect Americans with the people of Cuba to understand their lives. But Journeys International has been all about people-to-people exchanges for 38 years. We are focused on authentic cultural interaction and travel that allows people to explore a place beyond the surface to forge deep connections.

In Cuba, are U.S. travelers restricted from visiting certain places or doing certain things?

We are prohibited from providing extensive amounts of free time. But, it’s not enforced to the point that people are forbidden from entering certain areas. People can explore the country and experience the reality of life. They can turn any corner they want to and nobody is there to slap their hand.

How is travel in Cuba going to change as more Americans visit?

We have to acknowledge that people from other countries have been traveling to Cuba freely. But we are the closest major source of tourists, and Cuba sees us as a major potential source of income. They are doing a lot of studies on the potential for revenue. I would imagine that the Cuban culture will continue to be very distinct from American culture, but every culture evolves with time, and that will happen in Cuba. So, travelers who go there in 5, 10 or 20 years will find something different.


photo by Joslin Fritz

When people visit Cuba, what are some things people should make sure they experience?

Eating in paladares, where you’re eating in someone’s home, but it’s a restaurant. Sometimes, it’s literally a table in someone’s kitchen or dining room, while some people have expanded their in-home business to be 50 tables. It’s very cool and unique. There aren’t many countries that have that model for the typical restaurant experience.

Also, the musical scene is so integral to Cuban culture. The African influence in the “Son” music is very distinctive. People should make sure they get out in the evening and experience that.

What are some other things people should keep in mind when visiting the country?

The spontaneity of Cuban culture is very interesting. You should approach your trip with a mindset to appreciate that you won’t know before your trip begins what you’ll have the opportunity to experience. Cubans don’t schedule everything the way we come to expect. You can’t pick up the local newspaper at the beginning of the month and expect to find a detailed plan of all the events that will take place. I love that’s there’s that difference in how people approach communal gatherings and celebrations.

What should travelers expect with regard to the quality of accommodations?

One thing that can be disconcerting is that you can’t apply star ratings in the way we’re used to doing. You might find a place that looks like it should be a four-star hotel, but the linens aren’t replaced every year or two. They might be in circulation for 20 years. And they’re not stained, but they’re not crisp and fresh. In Cuba, the shine has been burnished a bit. The accommodations are comfortable, but you might arrive in your room, and the housekeepers haven’t been trained to make the beds with hospital corners.

What about transportation? How easy is it to get around?IMG_3432

We use private transportation and air conditioned vehicles. There is public transportation, and you can get around by walking or riding bikes. But American travelers can’t rent cars, because you still have to be part of a group.

How is the connectivity with phones and the Internet?

You’re definitely allowed to have mobile devices, but your phone service won’t work and the Wi-Fi is not very good. It can be very hard to connect.

What are some essential things to pack?

It’s just like packing for any other almost-developed destination. You’re not going to Europe; you’re going to a place that’s more like Panama. Don’t expect that you’ll be able to go to CVS to get something your forgot. But, other than that, there’s no secret ingredient to make your Cuba trip successful. Savvy travelers who have a solid packing list for tropical destinations will get along very well in Cuba. There’s no modesty of dress—sandals are fine.

 Journeys International also offers the following advice for travelers going to Cuba:


“Cuba is a tropical climate. Prepare for days in the temperatures of 70-85 degrees in the winter, with warmer, more humid climates in the spring, summer and fall. It can drop in temperatures in the winter at night, and so it’s best to pack a light jacket or sweater. While rainstorms are very infrequent and often quickly over, feel free to pack a light rain jacket or umbrella.”

Currency exchange

“There are two currencies that are in circulation in Cuba: The Cuban Peso, which is used by local Cubans for public transportation and local vegetable markets, and the CUC, the convertible peso…You can exchange money at any hotel or money exchange house.”

 Methods of payment

“Although credit and debit cards are now permitted to be used in Cuba, they still do not work. Travelers checks as well do not work. It is very important that you bring cash for all of your needs.

U.S. dollars are not accepted in Cuba. Many ask if it is better to tip in dollars rather than CUCs. The receiver of this tip will have to exchange the dollar into a CUC, and since 1 USD only equals 87 cents of a CUC, the person would prefer 1 CUC instead. In short, we recommend tipping in CUC not in US dollars.”

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