Thanks to recently loosened travel restrictions between the United States and Cuba, newlyweds have one more culture-rich Caribbean island to put on their honeymoon wish list. Over the past year, JetBlue, American Airlines, Southwest, and Delta have all launched flights, while Airbnb's presence has grown rapidly, with approximately 13,000 listings (and counting). Hotels—including two from Marriott International—and cruise lines are also getting in on the action. But while there's more access than ever, some rules still do apply, so we've created a comprehensive guide to help you plan your Cuba honeymoon.
What documents do we need to travel?
You'll need a visa and health insurance. But, don't worry: This sounds more complicated than it is. JetBlue, Southwest, American Airlines, and Delta, for example, include the $25 insurance fee in the fare price. Visas are purchased for $50 at the airport prior to boarding your flight. Additionally, your trip will need to fit into one of 12 categories as authorized by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
What do you mean, the trip has to fit into a certain category?
While getting to Cuba is easier than ever, travelers can't spend their time relaxing on the beach, riding jet skis, and just hanging out—in other words, be tourists. The approved categories include humanitarian projects, journalistic activities, and family visits. You'll get the chance to select it when booking plane tickets, and make sure to check "Educational activities." Put simply, these trips—commonly referred to as "people-to-people"—need to incorporate activities where you engage with locals. According to Tom Popper, president of the tour company insightCuba, this can mean visiting an artist at his or her studio or even striking up conversations with those who congregate at Parque Central. But, he says, "There really is no way to make sure you're doing that, so it's more or less on the honor system. As long as you're out and about and finding people to talk to, that would be compliant."
How much money should we bring?
First, a word on currency. The country has two types: the convertible peso (CUC) and the national peso (CUP). CUC can be exchanged for many foreign currencies, including the U.S. dollar, and is the one you'll use the most while in Cuba. (Though you might want to get some CUP to pay for bus fare or produce from market stands or if you plan to visit less-touristy places.) The exchange rate with the U.S. dollar is more or less 1:1, but there is a 13% tariff on it—so $100 will net you 87 CUC. There are some ways around it, like bringing euros to exchange instead of dollars, but ordering the currency from your bank requires more work and fees on the front end.
As far as how much cash to bring, note that credits cards from U.S. banks are not accepted—which means you'll be shelling out cash for things like your hotel. Popper recommends bringing at least 20% to 40% more than you think you need. "You don't want to run out because you can't get more," he says. "There's no safety net because you can't use your ATM or credit card. That's difficult for most people to conceive."
What's the best way to get around?
According to Popper, taxis are easy to flag down on the street and are reasonably priced for quick rides around town. You can also hire a driver for the day for $30 to $60; they usually stand outside the hotels, and you can ask your concierge to help negotiate. Renting cars is another option, but be prepared to wait. "They don't use computerized systems, so you have to fill out a lot of paperwork and it can take a while," Popper says. "Also, they often don't know their inventory, and may not have the car available at the time they say they will." If you do drive yourself on any overnight trips around the island, make sure to be off the roads after dark because they aren't well lit.
Can we bring back rum and cigars?
Yes! There are no longer any restrictions on alcohol and cigars. But, says Paula Twidale, the executive vice president of the travel company Collette, "be sure to abide by the allowance as it is very specific that this change is for personal consumption [as opposed to commercial] and transport by personal baggage only."
Where should we stay?
There are a handful of nice properties—including the Hotel Parque Central and Hotel Saratoga. Keep in mind, however, that "the level of service in Cuba may be different from what you've experienced," says Eddie Lubbers, from the Cuba Travel Network. "It may not always run like clockwork and with the efficiency that you're used to."
Airbnb is another great way to go since you can pay in advance with your credit card (whereas hotels you can only reserve your room and pay in cash upon arrival). The rental homes are historic, and often in great locations. But, warns Popper, be prepared for no or unreliable hot water and fewer creature comforts like high thread-count sheets.
Where should we eat?
Until the 1990s, restaurants were state-owned and the food was, to put it simply, awful. After the revolution, however, individuals were allowed to open their own restaurants inside their homes, called paladares. According to Popper, Havana had around 30 or 40 a few years ago; today, that number has grown to more than 200. Ask your concierge to point you in the right direction. A few favorites include Atelier, La Guarida, and El Cocinero.
In the end, should we book it ourselves or go through a travel company?
If you consider yourselves even slightly adventurous, book it yourselves. Just keep in mind the tourism industry there is not a well-oiled machine, so things may not go as planned. If, however, you want the on-the-ground support or prefer having the people-to-people interactions set up in advance, consider booking through a travel company like the ones mentioned above.