I returned from visiting Cuba last week, where I spent three days in the capital city of Havana. I previously planned to visit in September, however at the last minute I decided to coordinate my wedding anniversary and mandatory two (consecutive) weeks required time off from my employer into an extended vacation. I’ve previously written about traveling to Cuba, making planning in a short amount of time seamless.
I secured housing via Airbnb, this was my first experience using the service. I rented an entire apartment in Plaza de La Revolucion, one of the 15 municipalities in La Habana through a team of young Cuban professors at the University of Havana. The professors combine efforts to manage apartments, modestly backing up the increase of international visitors to Cuba. My payment was made in advance through PayPal, with a 100% refund if canceled 5 days prior to arrival.
CUC / CUP
Two currencies are currently in circulation in Cuba; Convertible Pesos (CUC) and Cuban Pesos (CUP), with the latter being the national currency or moneda nacional. For most people visiting Cuba the majority of their purchases will be in CUCs. This includes food (in most restaurants), tips, taxis, museum entrance fees and accommodations. Goods that can be paid for in local currency (CUP) include fruits & vegetables in the open air markets, street food, coffee and fare for the local bus system.
Cuba’s dual currency set-up is made more confusing since Cubans refer to both CUC & CUP as Pesos.
The CUC is a closed currency and cannot be exchanged outside of Cuba. For my trip I budgeted $150 USD/ day and exchanged my cash at a CADECA (exchange house) at the José Martí International Airport. CADECAs are allocated all over the country and I would consider it to be the best way for exchanging money. There was a 10% exchange fee for USD, note this is not applied to other currencies. Exchanging money at a bank is an additional option, there are four main banks in Cuba with Banco Financiero Internacional (BFI) being the most reliable as other Cuban banks operate mainly in Cuban Pesos.
Euros and Canadian Dollars might be the best currency to exchange as they are the most common and the exchange rates are reasonable. Considering CUC is 1:1 to the US Dollar, a strong US Dollar means a strong CUC, you could expect less CUCs for your Euros/CAD etc. Other currencies, which are universally accepted at banks or Cadecas, include the Swiss Francs (CHF), Mexican Pesos (MXN) and Japanese Yen (JPY).
Cash is King in Cuba and for American’s you will not be able to use debit or credit cards. For other travelers, you may be able to withdraw cash with your credit card (as long as it’s not issued by an American bank or with a bank owned by an American bank) from ATM’s around Havana. The amount you withdraw will be converted into USD and charged in USD at your home bank.
Note: The exchange rate between Convertible Pesos (CUC) and Cuban Pesos (CUP) is 1 CUC for 25 CUP.
Much of the food I ate during my stay came from a few meals I prepared inside of the apartment and street vendors. I did dine at a restaurant recommended by one of the professors, the restaurant added 10% service to the bill. I understood it to be a tax but later learned it was gratuity. If a service fee has not been added, a tip between 5-10% of the bill is acceptable.
I’ve written this as a follow up post to assist others whom are considering travel to Cuba and it is not meant to be an exhaustive guide. Listed below are a few of the mobile applications I used that were extremely helpful in advance of and during my visit.
- XE Currency App
- American Airlines Mobile App
- Google Translate (English to Spanish translation – downloaded for offline use)
- Google Trips (“Things to do” – download attractions and maps for offline use)
- VPN (Virtual Private Network – securing web traffic while connected to public wi-fi)
- Mobile Passport App (Mobile Passport is available at 20 airports, but not Charlotte. Worth mentioning because we were able to use it on our return flight from St Kitts and Nevis at EWR and it pushed us through immigration quickly)