Essential Havana Travel Tips

McCabe David / March 06, 2021

Casa particulares are essentially bed and breakfasts in Cuba. The experience of staying in a casa particular is SO much better than that of staying in a hotel in Havana. For one, many of the hotels in Havana are on the US State Department’s restricted list because they are military owned or operated. Doing business with them directly hurts Cuban citizens and private business owners. You can find a full list of those hotels here on the State Department website. For another thing, staying at a casa particular will give you a more nuanced view of Cuban life and culture. I stayed in this amazing casa particular in the Vedado neighborhood that I found.
I usually like to stop at a grocery store or corner store when I arrive in a new destination and stock up on snacks. However in Cuba, this was difficult to do, because the few grocery stores around where I stayed were actually government food ration stores that only accepted ration booklets and there were no “corner stores” to speak of. The only imported snack foods I found (Snickers bars and Pringles) were in the overpriced Hotel Nacional gift shop. So I didn’t have any snacks and spent a lot of time wishing I had brought some food from home like granola bars, chips, fruit leather, candy, etc. to snack on throughout the day.
One of the best things I did in Havana was take a walking tour through Free Walking Tour Havana. The guide was very knowledgeable and gave us an honest look at life in Cuba. These tours are free but you pay what you think it was worth in a tip to your guide. Our guide was great and this tour was MUCH better than a typical paid package tour.
Cuba is not like some other Spanish-speaking countries where many people speak English, especially in the tourism/hospitality industry. A lot of Cubans speak only Spanish. For example, the host at our casa particular did not speak a word of English. Luckily, I got to practice my Spanish with him and others that I met, but if I didn’t speak Spanish I would have felt more difficult traveling in Cuba. I recommend learning at least basic Spanish phrases before you visit Havana so you can get around and communicate with people more easily. You can use a free app like Duolingo to help you learn.
Since Internet is so expensive in Cuba and so few Cubans have access to it, you will want to arrange any tours before you arrive. I booked the free walking tour and a vintage car tour about a week in advance of my trip. Most people in Cuba boil their water before drinking it because it is not safe to drink. So make sure to stock up on bottled water or better yet, bring a water purifying bottle with you!
The majority of Cubans are employed by the state and earn $30 a month on average. This is obviously not enough to survive on, and many Cubans rely on food rations, money sent from relatives abroad, and (heavily restricted) self-employment to make ends meet. Tipping your tour guides, restaurant servers, cab drivers, etc. helps support small businesses and Cuban individuals rather than the government. I always show up to the airport way too early and end up having a lot of extra time before my flight. Not this time! Getting to the José Martí Airport super early ended up being an absolute necessity. I would not have made it onto the flight if I had shown up only 1.5 or even two hours in advance. I recommend getting to the airport three hours before your flight just to be safe.