Technically, U.S. citizens cannot visit Cuba for tourism. Though, as the blockade has eased in recent years, travel has become much easier. There are now twelve exceptions that allow U.S. citizens to visit, ranging from educational activities to public performance.
The relevant text from the State Department guidelines:
Travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by statute. However, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued general licenses for 12 categories of travel. Individuals who meet the regulatory conditions of the general license they seek to travel under do not need to apply for an additional license from OFAC to travel to Cuba. The 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba are: family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials; and certain authorized export transactions.
The good news is that the categories are broadly defined so that you could almost certainly justify your trip under one of them. When I boarded my flight to Cuba the airline asked me to fill out a form checking a box for the category I qualified under then sign the document. They never checked beyond that though.
I qualified under ‘journalistic activities,’ but again, that is broadly defined. You can submit a guest post on this blog or any other and with some justification claim the trip included ‘journalistic activity.’
Cuba also claims to require travelers to obtain medical insurance for the duration of their trip. I read that this can be purchased ahead of time or at the airport and figured I would buy mine at the airport. Not only was I never asked for that documentation, but I never saw anywhere to buy it.
I was slightly apprehensive about traveling before I made my first trip in April and May of this year, but for no reason. All the still existing regulations and prohibitions essentially were condensed into checking a box on a form before boarding the plane. If you want to go to Cuba, it’s as easy as buying a plane ticket.
If you have US banks and cards, you still can’t use them in Cuba so you’ll need to bring enough cash to make it through your trip. There is a two-tiered system in Cuba; the Cuban peso, which is for locals and the CUC which is for foreigners and sometimes used for luxury items. You can change US Dollars at the airport or in any city throughout the nation, however, Cuba penalizes all conversions from the US Dollar 10%. This is in addition to the usual spread. The CUC is equal to the USD, though because of the penalty when you change 100 USD you’ll receive about 87 CUC. Likewise, if you change back 100 CUC becomes 87 USD. There is a black market where locals will change dollars for you at a better rate, usually between .9 and .95 as opposed to the official .87. Men often wait outside banks willing to change at a better rate though there is always the risk that the bills will be false or miscounted if you use an unofficial source you don’t know.
So how much does travel in Cuba cost? Well, the cheapest place to stay in inside someone’s house who has special permission from the government. These cost around 30 CUC in Habana, 15 CUC in more rural areas and somewhere in between for other large cities or more touristy locales. Transportation between cities is also expensive. There are Cuban only buses and also tourist only buses for travel between cities. The tourist buses can be expensive, between 10 CUC and 20 CUC for a short trip. Some Cubans also travel between cities in shared taxis and if you can get into one of those its often much cheaper than the tourist bus. A two-hour ride will probably be around 5 CUC in a shared taxi—though most drivers will try to get more and start out with a higher price for you initially.
You can eat in street-side takeaway places that cater to Cubans for very little money. A small pie of pizza may cost 7 pesos (28 cents) and an ice cream 1 peso (4 cents) at these places. The equivalent at a hotel or anywhere that caters to tourists will be about 10 CUC for pizza and 4 CUC for ice cream. The quality may be poor, but it is possible to eat very cheaply. At a minimum, you will likely need 30 CUC per day but that is just a base and does not include anything such as bike rentals, transportation to the beach and eating in Western style restaurants. A more realistic minimum required would be closer to 50 CUC and even there your activities will be limited.