Cuba is one of the trendiest and hottest vacation spots right now. Understandably so, since up until recently, most United States citizens were unable to legally travel to Cuba. I traveled to Cuba in November, but unlike many Americans, this was not my first trip to Cuba. I have been to Cuba over a dozen times, with my first trip taking place when I was under a year old. My father was born in Cuba, and raised in a small coastal town called Sagua La Grande. He left Cuba to study in various other countries, and has been taking my family back to visit for years.
Travel to Cuba is a tricky subject and I am no expert on advising people on which visa they should get- perhaps call a licensed travel agent for the best way to visit Cuba in order to make sure everything is done legally. Because I have family in Cuba that I am in contact with and have maintained a relationship with, when I go to Cuba, visiting family is the reason I put on my visa.
This year, on Black Friday, instead of checking out the post-Thanksgiving sales, I got on an early morning flight to Fort Lauderdale with my parents, my boyfriend, and our friend. After a brief layover there, we got on our flight to Havana. As I mentioned, it wasn’t my first trip to Cuba, but it was the first time for my boyfriend, our friend, and… Barrett! After a lot of preparation and thought, I decided to take Barrett to Cuba with me for the week. We had rented a house with a fenced in yard so… he joined our group!
I was a little bit nervous about flying with him. He was just barely 6 months at the time and I honestly had no idea how he would react to being on a flight, or how the cabin pressure would affect him. I didn’t want to drug him so I researched different methods of keeping him calm and comfortable. I’ll tell you more about my dog travel tips in an upcoming post so make sure you check back!
After what seemed like forever, we finally took off and before we knew it (very short flight!!), we landed in Havana! I had to go to a separate area to present medical certificates for Barrett, and then met the rest of our group outside. In Havana, when you exit the customs / baggage claim area, there is walkway out to the street. That walkway is lined with dozens of people waiting for their relatives. It might be my favorite part of going to Havana. Seeing the smiling faces of my cousins waiting for me when I land is so moving and memorable. I was so happy to be able to share this experience with others who had never been to Cuba before.
After a brief stop at my aunt’s home, we went into the city of Havana and checked into our AirBnB. I am always a little bit nervous about renting a home that I have never been to, especially when I’m not 100% sure of the area that the home might be in. The host of Casa Idalia’s name was Freddy, and he answered probably a dozen messages prior to our trip, and was waiting with his wife at the home when we arrived. Freddy and his household staff were incredible. I can’t say enough wonderful things about them and will definitely look into staying at Casa Idalia on our next trip! (Check it out if you’re looking for somewhere to stay in Havana!) The cleanliness of the home, the friendliness of the staff, and probably most importantly the location- the home was a block away from the Melia Cohiba hotel, making catching taxis, accessing internet, and finding restaurants to eat at quite easy!
Although travel to Cuba is a bit complicated due to having to meet the legal visa requirements, here are a few recommendations regarding the logistics of a trip:
1. Travel on a major airline. I have traveled on charters and on Southwest (my dad has flown Jet Blue), and in my opinion, there is a huge advantage to traveling on a commercial airline – luggage. When we flew on charter airlines, every bag (including purses) was weighed and added into the total weight for our luggage. Needless to say, many people had to pay overage fees. The major airlines have set fees for bags (or you get to check them for free depending on the airline), and that’s a huge advantage.
2. Stay in an Air Bnb or a casa particular. These are hit or miss (like everywhere) because you don’t always know what you are going to get, but I have found that price to stay in a private home is much better than staying at a hotel. We have stayed in 2 different Air Bnb homes in Havana and have loved both of them. I also feel that staying in a home gives you a great feel for what Havana truly is. Definitely ask your host many questions in advance to get an idea where your home is located and also because your host may have suggestions for you on things to do!
3. Cash is king. Seriously, take cash. Take extra cash. You can’t use American credit cards in Cuba so you will need cash for everything. Because I knew I wanted to enjoy some nice meals, do some fun things, and buy some souvenirs (hello, Cuban Rum!), I figured out what I thought I would spend daily and then added a couple hundred extra. I definitely didn’t run out of money but since I couldn’t get more once I was there, I wanted to be prepared.
4. Be okay with being disconnected. US cell phone carrier roaming is pretty astronomical in Cuba so I kept my cell phone on airplane mode the entire week. You can buy wifi cards to access the internet through the Cuban Government internet (ETECSA), and access it in a number of public wifi locations. A lot of the hotels have offices where you can buy wifi cards and use the internet in their lobby, but something we discovered: although the cards all look the same, they aren’t universal. Some hotels have private wifi so you have to buy a card from them to use the ETECSA wifi. You can ask around and they will explain how to log on, but just know that the internet is slow and you won’t be able to use some of the apps that you use here because of the speed. Just go into your trip being okay with being somewhat disconnected. It is kind of nice.
5. As with anywhere, be smart about taking taxis. In Havana, you will see dozens of classic cars, and there will be someone with a laminated map trying to talk you into a sight seeing tour. There are usually a group of cabs so someone may be willing to take you for a slightly lower price. We did the classic car tour on our most recent trip and I think it’s a cool experience, albeit a touristy / somewhat pricey one — if you think you’re only going to Havana once, it might be worth it!
6. Most Importantly: Relax and appreciate the cultural differences. Cuba is very different from where I live- but that’s how it is when you travel to a different country. You might have a meal you don’t like, you might walk 15 minutes in the wrong direction, or you might find an awesome new spot to have mojitos with friends. Just enjoy the experience!
Because we were in Cuba for a week, my next post will be about sightseeing in Havana and my top picks on what you can’t miss if you’re there!