Our family traveled to Cuba to celebrate Aiden’s 6th birthday. When my son was born, I promised to show him the world, and made it a goal to gift him experiences instead of material things for his birthday. So, every year since after his first birthday, we’ve traveled to a new place to celebrate. He does get a small gift, and a cake with close family and friends when we get back because that is just as important. However, I also want to teach him to understand the importance of “experiences over material things” – which is sort of our family’s motto.
Planning A Trip To Cuba
Planning a trip to Cuba isn’t as complicated as it seems. There have been a lot of restrictions for American’s wanting to visit Cuba in the past. However, since President Obama’s visit to Cuba a few years back, it is much easier to plan a trip to Cuba. As an American, you’ll need a Cuba Tourist Card, Cuban money (CUC), and a plane ticket or cruise.
Our Experience: We planned our trip to Cuba in less than 24 hours. Although I’m known for planning last minute trips, I usually have Aiden’s birthday trip planned much in advance. This time I couldn’t find any good deals, like the $330 error fare to New Zealand last year for his 5th birthday. So I waited and waited, hopeful that something would pop up. While searching Skyscanner for the cheapest place to travel to from Los Angeles, I found tickets to Havana, Cuba on United Airlines for $320 each. My limit for tickets is $350 each per person, but because I was on a major budget, I was hesitant to pay so much. Then I remembered that I had a credit for $750 on United Airlines, so if I put that towards the tickets, I’ll only be paying $530 for 4 tickets. So, the day before we left, I went ahead and bought our tickets to Havana, Cuba. I was finally going to be able to answer the well known question “Can Americans travel to Cuba?”
As soon as I bought the tickets, I reached out to a few tour companies in Havana via email, and was connected with Dayami Interian immediately. She is a local Cuban who was able to arrange airport pickup, the casa we stayed in and all our tours for us, and this made the planning so much easier. Dayami speaks English so it was easy to communicate with her. I highly recommend reaching out to her if your heading to Havana. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How To Get A Cuba Tourist Card or Cuban Visa
Americans traveling to Cuba on vacation will need to obtain a Cuba Tourist Card, not a Cuban Visa. It is important to know the difference between both of them. The Cuba Tourist Card is valid for one single-entry in Cuba for 30 day stay, which can be extended for another 30 days. A Cuban Visa is for Americans who are traveling to Cuba for business purposes, to attend school or any other reason.
- Flying To Cuba
If you are flying to Cuba, you can get a Cuba Tourist Card at the airport from the airline prior to boarding your flight to Cuba. It’s as easy as that. When purchasing your ticket, a page will pop up asking you the reason why you are traveling to Cuba, don’t freak out, simply select the option that says “Support For The Cuban People.” By choosing this option you are agreeing to support the Cuban people by spending money at places that directly go to the Cuban people such as purchasing local crafts, eating at local restaurants and staying at places that the locals own.
- Cruising To Cuba
If you are cruising to Cuba, you can get a Cuba Tourist Card from the cruise line. Royal Caribbean, Oceania, Carnival, MSC and Norwegian are cruise lines that cruise to Cuba.
If you want to get your Cuba Tourist Card prior to your trip, you can also do so by applying for one through a travel agency, an authorized website or the Cuban embassy.
Read “How To Get A Cuban Tourist Card or Cuban Visa” for a more detailed post on the complete steps you need to follow to obtain a Cuba Tourist Card or Cuban Visa.
Our Experience: We flew to Havana, Cuba on United Airlines, from Los Angeles (LAX) to Jose Marti International Airport (HAV). We had a layover in Houston, and bought our Cuba Tourist Visa at the United counter prior to boarding our flight to Havana. The Cuba Tourist Card cost $75 per person ($50 for the Cuba Tourist Card and a $25 processing fee). We paid for this in cash.
Pro Tip: Do keep in mind that prices for a Cuba Tourist Card will vary by airline, cruise line and authorized travel agent that you get it from.
Best Time To Visit Cuba
Cuba has warm weather all year with a temperature range between 68-95 degrees Fahrenheit. November to April is the dry season in Cuba and the weather between December and March is not as hot. This makes it the best time to visit the city if you plan not to visit the beach. Hurricane season in Cuba runs from June to November but it doesn’t happen often.
Our Experience: We visited Cuba in the first week of February, as Aiden’s birthday is February 6th. The weather was amazing, warm and just perfect.
Cities To Visit In Cuba
Cuba is full of beautiful places and cities where you can stay and enjoy with your time with your family. A few of the very popular cities to visit in Cuba include the following:
Trinidad: It is the best-preserved colonial town of Cuba and is definitely worth a visit. Several historical structures and brightly colored homes are a must see.
Vinales: Vinales is located in the west of Cuba. It is filled with lots of outdoor activities perfect for families such as horseback riding, ziplining and visiting Cuban farms. The best part of Vinales is trying out Cuban cigars.
Varadero: Varadero is home to fascinating cave systems, natural and cultural attractions and most especially some of the best beaches in the world. It is a highly recommended place for families to visit as there are several amazing all-inclusive hotels here that families will enjoy.
Havana: Havana is surely a tourist’s delight with its historic streets, natural attractions, gigantic mansions, homes turned into museums and beautiful churches. Havana is divided into Old Havana, Central Havana and Vedado.
Our Experience: We visited Havana and took a day trip to Vinales which is about 2 hours away from Havana. We also visited a beach which was about 30 minutes away from Havana. We had such a great time in all three cities we visited. I’d definitely recommend spending at least a few days in each city to be able to do and see as much as you can.
Using Money In Cuba
There are two currencies used in Cuba; the CUC and CUP. When traveling to Cuba as a tourist, the currency you will need and use CUC. The CUP is used by Cubans only, so you won’t need or use it. Make sure to change your money to CUC before landing in Cuba. American credit and debit cards CANNOT be used in Cuba. Cuba is one of those countries were Cash is King!! When traveling to Cuba, you’ll need to travel with all the cash you need.
Changing Money To Cuban Currency
Make sure to change your money to Cuban CUC before landing in Cuba. American credit and debit cards as well as any other currency CANNOT be used in Cuba. Cuba is one of those countries were “Cash is King”!! When traveling to Cuba, you’ll need to travel with all the cash you need for your entire tip.
- You will get penalized when converting USD directly to CUC by being charged a 10% penalty fee because the US Dollar isn’t recognized in Cuba.
- It is recommended that you convert your USD first to Euro or to Canadian Dollars before converting it to CUC in order to avoid the penalty. Make sure to check the exchange rate before choosing whether to change your USD to Euro or Canadian Dollars.
- Cuban banks can and will accept US dollars, as long as you bring it with you from the states. If you have US Dollars that you need to change to CUC or CUP, then you can do at a Cuban bank.
- You can also convert your currency to CUC at the airport once you land into Cuba.
- You cannot take US Dollars at a bank or out of an ATM in Cuba.
Our Experience: I planned our trip so last minute that we didn’t get a chance to change our USD to CUC prior to traveling to Cuba. We took out money from the ATM at the airport in Houston and then when we got to Cuba we were able to convert it for $1 USD to 90 CUC at the airport. It usually is supposed to be $1 to $1CUC however, we were charged a 10% penalty.
We totally underestimated how much we would need and ran out money on our 4th day. We had to have a family member send us money through Western Union. Our tour guide whom I reached out to when planning our trip to Cuba was nice enough to receive the money for us and bring it to us. I am not sure what the stipulations are for receiving money in Cuba via western Union. So, keep this in mind and take as much money as you think you’ll need. Better safe than sorry!
How To Get Around Cuba
There are lots of transportation options in Cuba to choose from, such as bicycle rides, taxis, airport transfers, car rentals, and public buses. In Havana, the best option if you are travelling with kids is to use the bicycle rides and taxis. Both are easy to find around, especially in Old Havana and you can just flag them down. If you need to travel from city to another, you can buy a bus ticket or arrange for a taxi ride. Keep in mind that most taxis in Cuba are classic cars and do not have seat belts. If you have young children who are still in car seats, you’ll have to hold them on your lap. I highly suggest a baby / toddler carrier, I used Ergo Baby Carrier with Aiden until he was two years old and then switched to a Toddler Lenny Lamb until he was 5 years old.
Pro Tip: Make sure to discuss the rate prior to getting into a taxi so you know ahead of time how much you’ll be paying. You can also
Where To Stay In Cuba
There are plenty of affordable places to stay in Cuba. You can stay at a hotel or stay in casa particular which is a house owned by and rented to tourists by a Cuban. If you’re heading to Varadero, most people there choose to stay in all-inclusive resorts. If you’re staying in the Havana area, a few great neighborhoods are Havana Vieja (Old Havana),
Our Experience: We stayed in a small two-bedroom casa particular in Old Havana and absolutely loved how charming it was. It was also right in the middle of all the hustle and bustle. If you like action, then Old Havana is the place for you.
Food In Cuba
Before our trip to Cuba, all I heard was complaints about Cuban food being very bland. I read so many blogs were people complained about the food. I have no idea where they ate and what they are, but every single meal we had in Cuba was so good. I’d go back to Cuba just for the good food! This is why I always encourage people to experience places for themselves before forming an opinion about it based on what others have said. We also found the meals to be very kid friendly, so there’ll always be something for your kids to eat.
Wi-Fi In Cuba
If you’re heading to Cuba and plan to work most of your trip, don’t even waste your time. Cuba is an evolving nation and you may not find Wi-Fi beyond hotels and the public parks. With that being said, use this time to unplug and just enjoy your trip. Download, screenshot or print everything that you need prior to your trip so you’ll have it accessible if you need it. Also make sure to download all apps you’ll need; especially Galileo Offline Maps which will help you navigate without internet. Or else you’ll just have to ask people how to get around or use a paper map.
Our Experience: When we first got to Cuba I was a little bummed about the lack of internet. However I loved all the time we spent together as a family without social media, responding to calls, texts etc. It was so nice to unplug from the world.
On our second day at breakfast a few locals told us about a park were we could get internet access just a few steps from our casa particular. There are also several parks around, so make sure to inquire with the locals. Once you get to the park, someone will usually approach you to ask if you want to buy an internet card. This internet card has a scratch off code, that you can enter once you connect and it is usually valid for one hour. We paid 2CUC for an hour for internet access. Some people sell it for 3CUC so expect that as well.
In the evening we’d walk to the park, connect for an hour while the boys played with and made new friends. We actually enjoyed our time at this park.
Support For The Cuban People
When purchasing out tickets online to Cuba, this is the option that I chose. We fulfilled this option by staying in a casa particular (house) owned by a Cuban family, we ate at local restaurants, and shopped at the market, buying crafts and souvenirs that were handmade by the locals.
I want Aiden to know that a birthday is not only celebrated by receiving things, but also by giving. Soccer is a huge sport in Cuba, so we bought 5 soccer balls, deflated them and took them to Cuba. We were in Cuba for 5 days and he gave a child he played with a ball every single day. In the beginning he didn’t understand why he had to give away his soccer balls, but when we got there and he says some kids playing soccer with a bottle, he understood. It dawned on him that these kids did not have the money to buy a soccer ball, and that he was privileged, lucky and blessed for being able to buy five. So he was so excited to give his balls away to his new friends. It was such a great learning experience for him.
Cuba definitely has a lot to offer its visitors with ranging from its vibrant diverse culture to attractive and colorful architecture and its history of course. There are about millions of reasons to love and visit Cuba. Allowing you to maintain a balance between adventure and relaxation, it definitely is worth a visit.
Tips & Tricks For Booking An Affordable Family Vacation
Search for the cheapest flights using Skyscanner
Make sure to download the Free Skyscanner App which also has super deals!
Book very cheap all-inclusive resorts on BookVIP
Activities / Excursions
Find airport parking for your car on Airport Parking
Find the best deals on Cruise Direct
Purchase must have travel insurance through Allianz
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