“I want to get there before the first Starbucks!” I hear that often from adventurous travelers who want to experience Cuba while it is still a communist and underdeveloped country. Before you book the seat on one of the newly-launched flights via American Airlines however, certain realities must be considered. Visitors can have a rich, cultural experience or a memorable disaster, depending on how prepared they are.
Here are a few things that you should know to make an informed decision either to travel solo or to join organized trip:
1) Visas – The embargo on Cuba has not fully been lifted yet, which means that you can’t officially travel there as a tourist. As an American passport holder, you will need an official non-tourist visa. There are easy workarounds for this, such as claiming that your trip is an educational experience. Even taking a few salsa lessons would be enough to fall under that category!
2) Flights – It is true that you will no longer need to charter the flight with a group, and can buy a ticket on commercial flights. Yet if you plan on traveling in the December- January season, you may encounter some issues. Tickets for commercial flights are not officially on sale yet, meaning you will have to reserve seats with the airline ahead of time.
3) Money – Cuba can be very expensive for the inexperienced solo traveler. There are separate prices—even at ice cream shops—for locals and tourists. A scoop that cost 30 cents for locals can be upsold to you for $3. Traveling with a group or a local guide can actually save you a lot of money.
4) Hotels – Hotels in Cuba are still controlled by the Cuban government . Prices tend to be prohibitive and availability during the hot season (November-April) is scarce. In Havana, five star hotels (comparable to 3 star hotel in the US) will easily cost you $500 a night. You can go for casas particulares–privately owned small bed and breakfasts, or book on AirBnB (starting at $40 a night). But it may be hard to find those that would match hotel standards. You should definitely pre-book your accommodations to avoid higher prices.
5) People – Cuba is all about people. If you want to have a true cultural experience, you’ll want to build your connections before actually traveling there. Otherwise, you will be at the mercy of taxi drivers or tourist agencies who will tour you around the so-called tourist traps. Joining a small and organized group who have these local connections in place can actually expose you to more of the “authentic” Cuba.
6) Does Skype Work in Cuba? – Skype does work in Cuba from a limited number of locations that offer wi-fi service. There have been periodic attempts to block this; however, it does seem to function reasonably well from hotel lobbies such as the Parque Central or the Panorama in Havana.
7) Will my cell phone work in Cuba? – ETECSA, the national phone company, has roaming agreements with most major international carriers (excluding US carriers). So theoretically, your phone should work in Cuba. It is worth checking rates before you go: Horror stories abound of people who used their cell phones to access data packages and make calls, only to receive huge roaming bills when they get back home! As a general rule, roaming is great for texts, extremely expensive for voice calls, and variable for data access.
For Canadian visitors, Rogers and Bell offer very good Caribbean roaming plans. Increasingly, many other international carriers also offer reasonable roaming plans, which include Cuba. This can run for as little as US$60 per month for data as well as some Internet browsing.