As travel to Cuba becomes more accessible to Americans, this Caribbean country is experiencing an influx of tourists from its neighboring country – and there’s no question why.
To Americans, Cuba is a mysterious time-capsule into the art-deco scene of the ’50s, combined with sunshine, year-round sparkling beaches and a Latin-Caribbean vibe, all while being a mere 90 miles off the coast of the United States.
While many are intrigued by Cuba, Americans are often confused by the idea of travel, particularly to the Caribbean, as the idea of a foreign beach vacation can often be synonymous with a hefty price-tag.
Cuba, however, has proven to be an extremely affordable getaway for the savvy traveler who values an authentic Cuban adventure over an “all-inclusive” resort experience.
If you’re headed to Cuba on a budget, be sure to check out these 10 tips.
1. Find the closest airport with flights to Havana.
An important “travel hack” is to find out if your airport services carriers with flights to Cuba, as well as compare airports.
Sometimes, a nearby airport can have a $100 or more difference in airfare, making it worth it to drive out the extra 20 miles for the better bargain.
2. “Google flight” search your ticket.
Google Flights is a savior for budget travelers.
Travelers are able to compare prices by location, air carrier, flight departure time, as well see which days of the month airfare is the cheapest.
As a rule of thumb, going during off-peak travel periods usually means a cheaper ticket, but checking Google Flights before calling up a travel agent or booking from the airline itself is a great way to save money and explore your options.
3. Look up bus fares to other parts of Cuba.
Generally, flying into Havana is the cheapest way to come into Cuba.
Even if you’re not a city-dweller, and are looking for a more serene, laid-back beach vibe, the inexpensive and efficient bus system in Cuba makes it easy to fly into Havana, check out the city and catch a bus to other popular spots in Cuba such as Santa Clara, Trinidad or Cienfuegos.
4. Shared taxis are way cheaper than individual taxis.
While most of Cuba is fairly walkable, or can be accessed through public transit (the Conectando bus), many tourists opt to use taxis as a mode of transportation.
Taxis, while fast and convenient, can be a burdening expense on the traveler’s wallet. Shared taxis are an alternative to traditional taxis which cost significantly less. Chances are, you’re willing to get into a taxi with a complete stranger if you can save 5-10 CUC per ride in the process.
5. Airbnb all the way.
For an inexpensive and local experience, budget travelers should consider staying in an Airbnb in a residential part of the city they are visiting.
Living like a local will not only save money, it gives the authentic feel of living in a Cuban home, with real Cubans as your neighbors.
While the hotel and resort experience is comfortable for tourists, it is much more expensive, and less authentic than staying in a casa Cubano.
6. Or stay in a renowned casa particular.
Those seeking the most authentic Cuban experience for the best value should look into staying in a casa particular, or bed and breakfast hosted by a Cuban family.
There are many of these in Cuba, and during the off-season tourists can stay in them for $20 or 15 CUC. This type of accommodation often comes with friendly hosts who, for a fee, can provide travelers with authentic Cuban meals, which are better and cheaper than restaurant food.
If you’re staying in a casa particular for more than a week, be sure to negotiate prices with your hosts.
7. Ask the locals.
Cuban locals are known for their friendly demeanor and willingness to talk to tourists. They are also experts in their country and can provide you with information on the best places to eat, the best beaches and bars to go to and the best way to stretch your pesos.
Like in most foreign countries, the ability to speak basic Spanish, or at least attempt, for the locals, can go a long way and the possibility of making friends, or potential tour guides, is likely.
8. Unlike most places – convert money BEFORE you get there – and try to use pesos.
Because of previous restrictions on Cuba, the American dollar is still not recognized at many ATMS and conversion centers in Cuba, unlike the Canadian dollar or Euro.
Many places that exchange dollars to pesos or CUC have fees of 10 percent or more, making the currency exchange pricey for an American tourist.
Cash is king in Cuba, and numerous parts of the country to not use debit/credit cards, meaning tourists should have Cuban currency on hand before arriving to Cuba.
To complicate matters further, Cuba has two national currencies, the Cuban convertible peso (known as the CUC, the “cook” or the chavito) and the Cuban peso.
Generally, more expensive purchases or tourist purchases such as hotel stays, airfare, souvenirs, will be in CUC, while items such as toiletries, groceries, etc. will be sold in the Cuban peso.
Travelers should try to pay in the peso as much as possible to save money, as items are significantly cheaper in pesos.
9. Haggle – even when it comes to things like food.
With two currencies, a language barrier and thousands of clueless tourists, it comes to no surprise that locals tend to overcharge susceptible tourists who don’t know the true value of goods and services in Cuba.
Before going, brush up on the exchange rate of currencies as well as the average price of excursions, souvenirs, taxi rides and meals so that you don’t overpay – often, vendors will have an introductory price in CUC, and if you walk away, they will lower the price, change it to pesos, and throw in something extra – yet another reason to brush up on your Español!
10. There’s an app for that… but you might not be able to use it when you get there.
If you go to the App store and search for “Cuba travel” chances are you’ll find a variety of apps which can help you map out travel routes, search for cheap things to do during your stay, and keep you in the know for other travel-hacks specific to the area you’ll be staying in Cuba.
Apps such as FunCuba, Cuba Travel Guide and Fathom can be great resources to help you plan your Cuba trip and know when and where to go – but its best to research and download these apps prior to arriving in Cuba, as internet connection in the country is notoriously meager.
While the idea of a Caribbean getaway can sound pricey, it doesn’t have to be. As Cuban tourism is rapidly expanding, the travel and hospitality industry is competing for the affection of travelers, meaning lower fares and accommodation for travelers.
Travelers looking to get an authentic blend of Latin culture and Caribbean flare should look no further than Cuba – its sun-soaked beaches and unique architecture make it one of a kind.
Relatively untouched by mass tourism, travelers should book a trip to Cuba before resort culture takes over this “trapped-in-time” paradise.