First-time leaving U.S. for Cuba, but need detailed advice on gettin there!
Replies: 17 - Last Post: Sep 28, 2012 1:42 PM Last Post By: cuidate
Sep 26, 2012 10:57 AM
First-time leaving U.S. for Cuba, but need detailed advice on gettin there!Hi,
I am a New Yorker leaving U.S. soil for the first time this October to go to Cuba, homeland of my grandfather. I am leaving NYC on an Amtrak for Montreal this October, then flying to Cuba. But travel restrictions have raised all kinds of questions that diligent Internet (and Thorn Tree travel forum) searching has not answered.
Here are some concerns and questions I have about getting to Cuba and back to Montreal. Any advice would be welcome
- Buying tickets to Cuba from Montreal
Since I live in NYC and have a U.S. credit card and bank account, I figured I would have to buy airplane tickets to Cuba in Montreal with Canadian dollars.
How is this accomplished? Can I walk into a brick-and-mortar travel agency and buy roundtrip tickets there? If so, what are some reputable travel agencies in Montreal?
What are alternatives? Can I go to the Montreal airport and hit up a Cubana Air counter to buy the tickets in Canadian dollars?
Are there restrictions or red flags raised when using a U.S. debit card that deducts from a checking account?
I also read there are websites that let one buy tickets from Canada to Cuba with U.S. currency without raising suspicion. Is this something to be avoided or has any U.S. citizen here used one to travel to Cuba?
- Communicating with the U.S.
This is my first trip out of the U.S. and communication is important. I am not taking my cell phone-- after all, there's a good chance I'd lose it or it will be stolen. I also read that Internet is unreliable and can be hard to find.
Is there a way to call the U.S., say, getting a pre-paid cell phone and a phone card to make calls to a U.S. cell phone? Or am I resigned to hunting for email access at hotels?
- Money to get around/security at casa particulares
Since my plastic money is all U.S. based, what are recommendations for carrying money around? Between the CUP and CUC, is there one currency that tourists should stick with while traveling in Cuba, or should I get a combination of both?
I'm looking for cut costs where I can, so I will be staying at casa particulares, renting a bike, eating street food, etc. What is an average amount for a tourist to spend, per day?
As for pocket money, can I get buy with taking U.S. cash to Cuba then exchanging it in Cuban banks? Or should I first convert the cash to Canadian dollars and take that to Cuba?
Speaking of cash, I'd normally try to avoid carrying a wad of it all day, but I'll do what I got to do. Is the security in casa particulares good for tourists? That is, will there be safes to stash important items/money so I can just take what I need for the day? Any other advice on carrying/spending money in Cuba is welcome.
If there is any other useful information travelers want to offer, please do. Also, if I missed entries that address these questions, feel free to drop a link.
I look forward to your advice. Thanks!
**UPDATE: I'll add any links/tips to the original post, underneath the questions/topics.
Edited by: edmurrow
Sep 26, 2012 11:42 AM
1Where in Cuba ? You will find it easy to find somewhere to connect to the internet in Havana (though the internet is slow), much less easy if in small towns.
You will certainly need to use CUC - you may get to use some CUP, but not a great deal.
Converting USD incurs a 10% penalty.
Do a google search for Al Dieste's article on living in Havana on $50 a day - it is a few years old now, but gives some useful ideas.
I'll be back later to add more.
Sep 26, 2012 2:05 PM
2If you still have some time before you go, you should hear from Cuidate about Carabbean Transfer debit card. Their office is in Montreal and you can put money on a debit card, your money, that you can withdraw at any bank or Cadeca in Cuba. Living in Havana can be double the cost of more remote towns. Cost of casas is from $25 to $40 per day, meals $4 to $7 for breakfast, $7 to $10 for dinner. Internet access around $6 cucs per hour and it can very slow. You can buy phone cards in Cuba from their telephone offices, Etecsa. Expensive about $1.50 per minute to call North America.
If you want to be sure when you buy your tickets to Cuba in Montreal, if you pay cash they can't trace your credit card. If the travel agency is an independent Canadian business, not an American chain, it won't be sharing info with US Hpmeland Security, at least I think not.
IMHO casas are quite secure. You should consider buying a small steel mesh bag called pac safe to lock up your valuables in your room. No need to carry a wod of cash. When I go out for the day or night, I take only the cash I am willing to spend for the day, a foto copy of my passport and the business card of the casa where I'm staying. No credit cards, nothing that would be hard to replace if lost or stolen. Don't forget to photo copy all of your cards, drivers license, etc and keep those in a safe place.
Sep 26, 2012 2:49 PM
3Good advice above. You can also buy tickets from a travel agency such as Nash Travel (they have been great for me, others will have other opinions) and pick up the tickets at the airport in Montreal. Cubana Airlines can also sell them directly to you, talk to the Rep. in Montreal and bring cash.....
Sep 26, 2012 3:09 PM
1)I personally would not wait to arrive in Canada to buy tickets to cuba,especially if you wont be spending much time in Montreal and youre not looking to pay top price for a last minute flight to cuba. I highly suggest you book online which should be no problem whatsoever when booking with Canadian Travel agencies. Your bank will have no way of knowing you bought a flight to cuba. All that shows up is the name of the Travel agency and the price of your flight. Cubana Airline tickets could only be bought with US Credit Cards if bought via a Travel agency,if you want to purchase at airport youll have to do so with Cash or Non US Card.
The agencies I like the most are
all of these sell you E-tickets with immediate confirmation to your email or if you dont want to do it online all of these also have toll free numbers you can use
Something to keep in mind.Often times flights from Canada will cost you the same or sometimes even more than buying a flight/hotel package with tourist card and hotel transfer included...so you might look into that even if you dont plan to stay in the hotel the whole time. Flights/packages are usually cheapest To Varadero which is a 2 hour bus ride from Havana
2. While internet in Cuba is slow,it works just fine to write normal emails. Most major hotels have internet service which cost varies from 3 cuc to 15 cuc per hour. Calling the USA is pretty simple and can be done from certain payphones, Etecsa phone offices or Hotel service. Dont expect it to be cheap though. I believe currently the cheapest option would be to buy an international calling card and calls to the USA cost sometime like a $1.50 per minute at certain times. Im not sure about this so you should confirm before.
3. As Far as money goes...everyone has their own way of doing it...but I would suggest once in Canada...go to an ATM and withdrawl money from your US Bank card and upon arrival in Cuba change it at the airport exchange place. The reason I suggest Canadian Dollars versus other currencies is because the US dollar and Canadian are pretty much close to 1 to 1 so no confustion and i Cuba the Canadian dollar will give you a better exchange rate to the Cuban CUC. Save a couple of Hundred US dollars for emergencies. Its always better to have extra money and not use it rather than running out and not being able to easily get it.
As far as securing your money...I would spread it out between moneybelt,Luggage,Backpack or if youre staying in a place with a Safety box use that. I highly suggest you dont carry all your money in one place or leave it laying out in the open in your room
Overall I find Cuba to be quite safe and most Casas particulares/Hotel rooms fairly safe...but no need to test your luck
Sep 26, 2012 5:43 PM
5Just a little more about internet. The state-owned communication enterprise, Etecsa, sells internet at 6 CUC/hour, the same rate everywhere. Hotels can and do charge more. As Cyrrus says, it is slow but it is reliable; the only difficulty you will face is if there are more people wanting to use computers than there are computers available. I generally take a book.
Just be careful with the internet cards - hotel cards are not interchangeable with Etecsa cards. Since I am a penny-pincher I stick to Etecsa and put up with minor inconveniences along the way.
I agree with posh that casas are quite secure - as well as exciting and different and a heck of a lot more interesting than hotels, especially for your first trip abroad, and especially since your grandad shares the patrimony. You will be made very welcome.
Relax, soak it all up, have a ball.
Sep 26, 2012 7:51 PM
6Good advise from all. Cuba is not cheap. When are you going? I will be there in October and know the place pretty well.
Sep 27, 2012 8:15 AM
7You know that you will not be able to use your credit card in Cuba if it was issued in the US. Take Canadian money with you. As someone said already, you pay a 10% fee on the exchange of US dollars. (No penalty for Loonies.) You'll be exchanging for CUCs.
Have a great trip.
Sep 27, 2012 1:54 PM
8Here are the FAQs about US citizens and dealing with our unique money issues in visiting Cuba.
There are essentially four options available to Americans re handling their money:
Bringing Cash in the form of American Dollars (USD). That's almost the worst option. If you end up with $870 CUC for every $1000 USD, you will have done very well. You will also now have a wad of cash in your hand which, if lost or stolen, cannot be replaced.
Exchanging USD for CAD or EUR in the US, bringing that to Cuba and exchanging it for CUC. There are so many variables in this process that any exact figure is impossible to quote, but something in the range of $900-940 CUC per $1000 USD is about right. As with #1 above, you will now have a wad of cash in your hand which, if lost or stolen, cannot be replaced.
The Caribbean Transfers debit card. This is a debit card issued by a Canadian Company which permits you to open a free debit card account and to deposit USD into with Cashiers Checks, Int'l Money Orders or Credit Cards. The Credit Card deposit being more costly than the first two options. For other than Credit Card deposits, you will receive about $917 CUC for each $1000 USD. The card is picked up at the airport when you arrive, and can be used in over 8000 locations all over Cuba, including ATMs, with no additional fees ever being charged. This website will provide you with the exchange rates for both Credit Card deposits and those using Cashiers Checks and Money Orders.
Sophie Communications Same as Caribbean Transfers
Perhaps the single most important aspect of the CT Card is that it is the ONLY way you can get additional money while in Cuba. No one plans to get robbed or to underbudget, but it happens nonetheless. Even if you never use the card, to not get a free card that can save your vacation is just not a smart thing to do, imo.
American Express Travelers Checks. They return a very respectable $931 CUC per $1000 but there are a few important caveats regarding their use.....
1. They can be redeemed in Cuba but not nearly as readily as one can use the CT card. The further you get from any tourist center, e.g. Havana, the harder it is to find places that will accept them. Tourist Hotels are more likely to cash them than most banks.
2. You may be asked for the original receipt for their purchase with you if you want to cash them. Keep the receipt separate from the TCs until you are ready to redeem them. That way, if they go missing no one else will be able to redeem them and you will have the numbers of the checks to insure you can get your money back when you get back to the US.
3. If the Amec TCs are lost or stolen, you will not be able to get a refund for them until after you return to the US. As far as your vacation in Cuba goes, their theft is equivalent to having your cash stolen.
I recommend you put about as much money into your CT account as you think you will need and perhaps exchange some USD for CAD or EUR. Use up the CUCs in the CT account and then fall back on the cash. That eliminates the possibility of having any unusable CUCs left over. Whatever extra cash you have can be easily exchanged when you get back to the US.
Sep 27, 2012 4:57 PM
Sep 27, 2012 5:24 PM
Good advise from all. Cuba is not cheap. When are you going? I will be there in October and know the place pretty well.
I'm going to be in Cuba early October, likely from the week of the 7th.
Sep 27, 2012 6:18 PM
Sep 27, 2012 6:34 PM
12am I resigned to hunting for email access at hotels?
Pretty much and don't even count on that being functional. I'm not sure what your "communication" needs are Cuba to USA, but it ranges between costly and extremely costly. If you have a cloud-based email address/connection, e.g. gmail or yahoo, that's perhaps the best/economical way to stay in touch, just don't plan on transferring large files, e.g. graphics or video. Email w/o attachments only.
Cuba has the worst internet connectivity of any country in the world. No, really, it's true. They put a cable in place almost a year ago to increase it by 3,000 times but, for a lot of reasons, they have decided against releasing it to the masses. More private 33K connections but nothing even vaguely representing the potential of the cable.
Many see a trip to Cuba as an opportunity to disconnect from the hyper-connected world the rest of us live in. That's certainly a "ride the horse in the direction it's traveling" philosophy, but I'd like to have both.......................jejeje
Sep 27, 2012 7:00 PM
13I recently spent six months in Santiago, where the best internet access in the centre of town is Etecsa.
Gmail is the email of choice, it loads faster than yahoo or hotmail, which is a factor if you need frequent access. I use the internet most days, and as I said, I put up with the minor inconveniences. You can send and receive attachments, can download onto flash drives if you need to. People write blogs from Cuba. With photos, but I did try a video once and it sure didn't work.
Sep 27, 2012 9:18 PM
14That's an interesting note re gmail, sayeh. That's our inexact sense of the options as well, having tried the others. Good to hear it confirmed.
A few other "tests" we have done may help others
If you can keep your filesize under 100K it has a far greater likelihood of getting through. In either direction.
A free photo management program (irfanview) that is just spectacular can easily enable you to reduce the giant file sizes today's cameras initially create to manageable file sizes, e.g. 640X480. We have found that several sub 100K photos can be successfully be transmitted in a single email, whereas a single file at even a slightly higher resolution would not go through. I am not suggesting that a 100K file size is an exact parameter, and would love to hear from those with the time to evaluate it in greater detail.
Irfanview is a terrific program program and internationally raved about. It does everything I might imagine most of us might need in terms of image preservation and manipulation, and it's free! Best freeware I am aware of.
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