Think a trip to Cuba is off-limits? You're not alone. But I'm not just here to let you know that you absolutely can go to Cuba … you absolutely have to.
Several members of the Thrifty Traveler team have visited Cuba over the years, but I joined the list just recently … and frankly, I'm a little peeved at my coworkers for underselling how special Cuba is. Cheap flights to Cuba and back are abundant, it's extremely affordable once you get there, and the food is amazing. Cuba offers both the serene beaches of a Caribbean nation as well as a major city dripping with Cuban culture in Havana. Plus, it's like traveling back in time – in the best way possible.
Now, traveling to Cuba can be more challenging than many other destinations in and around the Caribbean, but it can be done. We covered the nuts and bolts of getting into Cuba with this guide outlining seven things you need to know before heading there.
So while there are a few, small hoops to jump through, it's certainly worth your while. I'm already plotting my return to the island that captured my heart last month. Here's why.
- The Cuban People Are Wonderful & Need Our Support
- Cuba is Cheap Right Now (& So Are the Flights to Get There)
- Cuba is Safe
- Cuban Beaches Are Beautiful
- It's a Digital Detox & A Time Warp
- What You Need to Visit Cuba
The Cuban People Are Wonderful & Need Our Support
Above all, remember this: The Cuban government is not its people.
Yes, the relationship between the U.S. and Cuban government is complicated and tense – it has been for years. But the Cuban people are almost universally warm, welcoming, and proud to show us Americans the beauty and history of their island. As one local put it: “Just because our parents (referring to the Cuban and U.S. governments) don’t get along, it doesn’t mean that we can’t be friends.”
And critically, the Cuban people rely on our tourism dollars to get by. It's a huge – and growing – part of their economy.
The people of Cuba are having a hard time right now. They are facing massive fuel shortages, crazy inflation, and many Cubans we spoke to said basic supplies like soap and deodorant are increasingly hard to find. Yet every person we spoke to was incredibly nice and, to a person, they were all ecstatic to welcome Americans. The old adage of Americans pretending to be Canadians abroad to get better treatment isn’t necessary in Cuba. They may have some qualms with our government, but the Cuban people love the American people.
When you visit the island, there are constant reminders that Cuba remains a totalitarian state. According to some estimates, 75% of the Cuban population works for the state in some form or fashion. And while the government provides things like health care, education, and food subsidies, even a medical doctor earns just $40 to $60 a month, on average – not nearly enough to get by.
Many of the people we came in contact with through tours and Airbnb experiences were using it as side hustle to survive. The same was true of our wonderful Airbnb hosts and much of the tourism industry we interacted with while in Cuba.
Tourism to the island is still hurting, and that hurts everyday Cubans still struggling to get by. The people need our support in the form of tourism dollars. Our money is extremely valuable to them. Spending your U.S. dollars in Cuba is a huge boon for their economy.
But they also love our culture. I can’t tell you how many Michael Jordan or Steph Curry basketball jerseys we saw around Havana. And every bar and restaurant is playing American music, often using Sirius/XM satellite radio to do so. Cubans were always thrilled to strike up a conversation about the U.S. and they were so proud to show off their country to us.
Thrifty Tip: Need Cuba Recommendations? Check out our Google My Maps of the Best Things to Do in Havana, Varadero and Viñales!
Cuba is Cheap Right Now (& So Are the Flights to Get There)
Cash is king in Cuba: Your U.S.-issued credit and debit cards do not work there. While that stressed out my millennial brain before our trip, it was actually a very manageable situation once in Cuba – especially considering our dollar goes really, really far there right now.
On the high end, a classic Cuban mojito cocktail is $6. We found some Old Havana restaurants selling them for closer to $4. A good entree was about $12 to $20 at most restaurants, too. Our nicest dinner, at the famed La Guarida restuarant, cost us $100 total (including a tip), and was the fanciest meal of the trip with cocktails, champagne, an appetizer, and two entrees.
Both of our day tours on Airbnb Experiences to Varadero and Viñales cost $160 total for two of us. The taxi rides to and from the beaches of Playas del Este were $40 roundtrip. The finest cigar I've ever smoked, which was hand-rolled in front of me on a tobacco farm, cost me just $6. Six dollars!
Our beautiful Airbnb in the heart of Havana, cast in marble above some of the best restaurants and bars in the city, was $75 per night.
It seems nowadays that I can't afford to live in the United States, but life in Cuba is cheap, and we were not skimping. We brought a lot more money than we ended up spending, which is a great feeling on any trip.
But it's not just life on the ground in Cuba that was cheap. It seems cheaper than ever to fly to the beautiful island nation, too. Our Thrifty Traveler Premium members know that firsthand.
We've been finding tons of great, low fares to destination like Havana (HAV), Santiago de Cuba (SCU), Varadero (VRA), and Santa Clara (SNU) lately.
This is just the latest example of a Cuba flight deal featuring dozens and dozens of U.S. cities with one-stop service to the island. And as always is the case with Cuba, these deals feature exclusively Main Cabin fares – no stingy basic economy tickets here! – thanks to Cuba's health insurance requirement (which airlines sell you included in the fare), which means you can change or cancel your trip for a voucher whenever you want, too. Free seat selection and a carry-on bag is always included, too.
This was just the latest deal we sent. I myself booked a nearly identical flight almost a year ago now that prompted my trip down there. From Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP), my wife and I paid $760 total for the two of us to fly American, roundtrip, with a quick stop in Miami (MIA) each way.
It's one of the cheapest flights we booked this year, and that includes some domestic trips as well!
Cuba is Safe
Tourism is such an important part of the Cuban economy that the police are extremely harsh on crimes against foreign visitors. That means violent crime is almost never directed at tourists.
Even though the Cuban government doesn't produce any reliable crime statistics, it's generally considered one of the safer islands to visit in the Caribbean. At no point during our trip did I feel unsafe.
We ran into multiple travelers – men and women – visiting Cuba alone and staying in all different parts of Havana. None of them said they felt unsafe, either.
That said, it's always a good idea to take the same precautions as you would in any foreign country. Petty crimes like pickpocketing can be common in tourist areas. Be smart, use your best judgment, and you shouldn't run into any issues.
Like any country (including our own), locals may target tourists with petty scams. For instance, people will try to sell you cigars on the street at exorbitant prices, direct you to restaurants owned by their family and friends, or get you to exchange money on the street. Do your best to just keep walking and be friendly on the streets of Havana. You don't have to stop to talk to anyone if you don't want to.
Cuban Beaches Are Beautiful
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean. And with all that real estate comes some beautiful beaches.
During our recent stay on the island, we took a day trip to Varadero Beach through Airbnb Experiences. Varadero is a popular resort town about a two-hour drive east of Havana on Cuba's narrow Hicacos Peninsula.
Varadero has miles of beautiful turquoise water, white sand beaches, all-inclusive hotels, and even a golf course. It was a wonderful change of pace from the hustle and bustle of Havana. TripAdvisor previously named Varadero Beach No. 2 on its list of the world's best beaches. It's a must-stop if you have time during your trip to Cuba. We took this day trip from Havana to Varadero through Airbnb Experiences and it was a wonderful excursion.
If you are staying in Havana and don't want to venture all the way to Varadero, there are still plenty of beaches in and around the city that are worth a visit. Check out Santa Maria del Mar or Playas de Este.
These beaches are also beautiful, but are certainly busier because they're close to the city. We made a late morning to early afternoon trip out to Playas del Este and had a really nice, relaxing time. It was fun to be among the locals who were out enjoying the incredible weather. Playas del Este is about 20-minutes east of Havana. You can expect about a $20 cab ride each way.
It's a Digital Detox & A Time Warp
In Cuba, your phone will technically work. But making calls, sending texts, and using data is incredibly expensive.
Unfortunately, Cuba is one of the few countries in which Google Fi, our favorite international service, doesn’t offer service. If you absolutely need to stay connected, you can look into buying a Cuban SIM card for your phone or if you have Wi-Fi, you can use the Wi-Fi calling features from your carrier like Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, and others.
Our trip to Cuba was an opportunity for a digital detox. Other than using my smartphone camera to document the trip, I rarely used my phone. Although it was slightly forced, it was the first time in my adult life I'd done it. It helped me to connect with the Cuban culture in a way that I might not have with a phone constantly in front of my face. I'm certain that my fondness for Cuba is due, in part, to the lack of cellular or Wi-Fi connection on the island.
Beyond the lack of cell service or reliable Wi-Fi, landing in Cuba feels like using a time machine.
Communism, the U.S. embargo against Cuba, and over 50 years of Fidel Castro's rule over Cuba have had a lasting impact on the island. As you explore Cuba, it's common to see propaganda billboards and signage celebrating the 1959 Cuban revolution that swept Castro into power. The embargo was put in place in the '60s to limit almost all exports and trade with Cuba. The embargo, or el bloqueo (the blockade) as the locals call it, remains in place today.
The clearest sign of this embargo are all the old U.S. cars scattered across the island, from before the Cuban revolution. Dubbed “Yank Tanks” by the locals, they've become a part of the culture. Many are incredibly well maintained, and there seems to be a great sense of pride among their owners.
It's a blast from the past, and something you won't see anywhere else. If the embargo is ever lifted and trade resumes between the U.S. and Cuba, it will be interesting to see what happens with these classic cars.
Besides the (incredibly cool) automobiles, paying for everything with cash is also a throwback of sorts. If you're reading Thrifty Traveler, you know we love to earn and burn credit card points and miles, which almost always means we swipe our cards for everything. That's not possible in Cuba: It harkened back to a simpler life (a life I never experienced as a young millennial) using cash for all transactions on the island.
The simple, old school way of life in Cuba is different than almost anywhere else on earth. And I absolutely loved it.
What You Need to Visit Cuba
Traveling to Cuba isn't as easy as traveling to other countries … but it's not much more difficult, either. Here's a brief look at everything you need to know about traveling to Cuba as an American.
An Official Reason (i.e. “Support for the Cuban People”)
There are 12 allowable reasons to travel to Cuba as an American, and “tourism” isn't one of them. Instead, use the catch-all “Support for the Cuban People.”
Qualifying for “Support for the Cuban People” is as easy as booking an Airbnb or Airbnb Experiences and having proof of it with you when you enter and leave the country. But you probably won't even need that: My Customs and Border Protection officer in Miami simply asked, “What was your purpose for traveling to Cuba?” And I replied, “Support for the Cuban People,” and I was on my way.
Entry Requirements (Visa, QR Code, and Health Insurance)
On top of your reason for visiting Cuba, you need to have three things: A visa, a QR code entry document, and health insurance.
Visas are $100 each and can be purchased online or at the departure gate before your flight to Cuba. Here's everything you need to know about the visas.
The QR Code was a surprise for me because it doesn't explain on the U.S. Embassy's website that you need one at all. But you need to fill out a form that declares your purpose (i.e. “Support for the Cuban People) and shows that you have a negative COVID test or what manufacturer your vaccine is from. The form takes five minutes. Here's everything you need to know about the QR code.
Finally, you need a special traveler health insurance to enter Cuba, but you don't have to worry about it at all. The health insurance required is included in your airfare, which is why all airfare to Cuba is Main Cabin and not basic economy.
Your U.S. credit cards won't work in Cuba. You have to bring everything you need in cash ahead of time.
You can bring U.S. Dollars and you don't have to exchange for Cuban pesos before you arrive. Every business we interacted with in our six days in Cuba took U.S. Dollars, and most of them preferred it.
You can exchange some dollars for pesos if you wish when you arrive in Cuba, but don't do it at the airport. See if your Airbnb or Airbnb Experiences host will help you find a reputable money exchanger. The best rate is $1 to 160 or 170 Cuban pesos.
Maps and Itineraries
The cell service in Cuba is insanely expensive and very poor. The Wi-Fi is similarly challenged as well. I used this as an opportunity to detox.
But if you get stuck without a connection, you're going to want a detailed itinerary and some maps along with you, just like the the olden days.
Even though Cuba is only 90 miles from the United States, I felt like I was a world away during my trip. It was thought-provoking and easily the most unique place I have ever been, due in large part to the country's complicated history with the United States.
It's a simple, inexpensive place to travel if you are willing to jump through a few hoops to get there. But once you're there, you can take advantage of some of stunning beaches, some amazing (and cheap) cuisine, and some of the friendliest locals I've ever met traveling.
Yes, you can visit Cuba as an American. I don't just think you should – I think you need to.
I’m concerned with Food issues. What’s safe, what’s not. Any suggestions?
We had no food issues. Stick to the top restaurants on Trip Advisor and you will be just fine and enjoy a lot of delicious food.
We went there. My wife had not been back there where she was born for 40 years. I would love to go back. It is an amazing island. I agree with everything you said. The things I observed and have reflected upon I still grapple with. There are things I saw in Cuba we Americans should learn from. It is safer than the USA but much much poorer. There are no homeless I see, no drunks, no drug addicts, no loud car music, little traffic, great music, the people have dignity, it is not run by a banking cartel like our hijacked Republic, the government workers who gave us the tour had pride in their country, Cubans are sovereign and know who they are, their TV stations don’t divide their people racially and ethnically like the corrupt media cartel in America – th Cuban people are wonderful and I only wish I spoke their language. And the weather is wonderful and it is tropical!!!
Cuba obviously has problems because like so many socialist nations, thereally are inefficiencies. I’m sure there are problems unseen.
I believe America has been hijacked by a banking and media cartel. I would never support that cartel imposing onto Cuba what it has with my country.
Cuba was not a sovereign country before Castro since our criminal cartel had hijacked Cubas government.
What is the solution? I don’t know but America is collapsing and many people sense that.
Yet America had given me a great life with sufficient money and time to travel. I love America but not the cartel who hijacked my government. No how no way NEVER.
MASSIVE BANKING REFORM MUST BECOME THE NORM!!!
You should live in Cuba as a resident to explore the real Cuba. Remember the media is control by a totalitarian regime, therefore the government is not going to provide the information related to crime, homelessness, hunger, and people dying because of no medicine. As a tourist you don’t go to the ugly areas, therefore ignoring the reality of a comunista nation
Don’t travel to Cuba. Most of the money ends up in the hands of the criminal dictatorship
Why won’t cruise ships plan a cruise under one of the 12 ways to get there if it’s so easy
Because cruise ships are not allowed under the latest restrictions from the U.S.
Please American People, Don’t Support Cuban Dictators, that is what you do when you spend your money in a totalitarian dictatorship… Cubans need another kind of support from the people of EEUU , We need spread the word on all internationals levels
What sanctions does the US have on Americans traveling to Cuba? Which Airlines fly there and what is the cost of a roundtrip flight?
This post will answer most of your questions.
Flight pricing will be subject to many different factors but your best bet is to use Google Flights to find an option that will work for you. We do feature Havana deals through our Premium service as well.
If you choose to travel to Cuba you are putting money directly into the pockets of a murderous, totalitarian dictatorship. There are thousands of other beautiful destinations in the Caribbean. Don’t visit Cuba!
I’m agree with you. Thanks
Three of us went to Cuba back in 2016. It was terrific. The people were so very friendly.
Music was everywhere and free or very inexpensive. We stayed in Airbnb places with host
families and the people were very accommodating and we averaged about $30-35 per night
for all three of us. The money was paid ahead of time through Airbnb and the home owners
pocketed almost all of what we paid. We used the bus system that is mainly for visitors and it
worked well but usually you need to reserve ahead of time on their website. Eating was not
cheap but not expensive either but it was always good. On our previous trip we were in Havanafor a week and spent another week in three other cities. We hope to go again this coming winter to the
other end of the island (fly into Saantiago de Cuba) so we are hoping that Cuba survives the
Everything that Gunnar Olson told you about was pretty much what we experienced a few
years ago. Go! It’s great!