FAQ’s: Top “Hits,” Runs & Errors

by Paul Raymond on July 31, 2015

1.  How much money do I need to take with me?

This question comes up all the time.  Invariably, one or more guys end up not taking enough, borrowing from others, and sometimes friction is created.  Recently we had one guy who ran out of money, and failed to tip the guide and driver with the standard gratuity.  So here’s some reminders:

•  Most of your meals (all breakfasts and some lunches and dinners) are included in the trip price.  Those that aren’t run $10-$25 a meal, lunch and dinner.  Lunches and Dinners which are “on your own” are frequently better quality at local restaurants or paladars, than the tourista places that are pre-paid. So figure $25-$35 a day for meals (lunch and dinner), maybe a bit more if you have lots of alcohol.

• Souvenirs, cigars, are extra.  Here it depends on what you want to spend.  Remember you’re allowed to bring back up to $100 in value, of tobacco and alcohol.  Per OFAC, “[I]n addition, travelers are authorized to acquire in Cuba and import as accompanied baggage into the United States merchandise with a value not to exceed $400 per person, provided that no more than $100 of the merchandise consists of alcohol or tobacco products and the merchandise is imported for personal use only.”

• Other: Alcohol, tobacco, water, snacks, entertainment, tips to maids, tips to driver and guide, and miscellaneous.

• $25 CUC departure fee at the airport.  This was required but I now understand that we pre-pay this through our travel agency.  Remember to keep some Cuban money (CUCs) for food, snacks, at airport.  Possible overweight charge on return to Miami (not strictly enforced), around $50.  According to Cuba regulations, you’re technically not allowed to leave with any Cuban currency: “It is not allowed to export the called peso convertible (CUC), in any denomination and quantity.”

•  Bottom line:  $150-$200 a day should be plenty.   Other heavy spenders should increase it. My policy is that it’s better to have some money left over, than nothing.  Also, you may want some cash if you have to spend the night at the Miami airport if our return flight is late and you cannot make connections home.

2.  Euros, Canadian dollars, U.S. dollars – what is best to take?

This question comes up all the time as well.  Historically, the Euro has done better when converting into CUC’s, the Cuban convertible peso used by tourists.  The U.S. dollar, used to be a 1-for-1 conversion to the CUC, but now it is roughly .87 cents to .90 cents on the dollar; sometimes more, depending upon where you convert the funds.  In Cuba, you can exchange your money at banks and at Cadecas (short for Casa de Cambio).  In fact, there’s a Cadeca at every airport. The rates are usually the same.  Rates at hotels are the worst, but sometimes you need to have some cash.

To check exchange rates, go the the Banco Central de Cuba

Cadecas and Banks change foreign currencies into pesos convertibles (CUCs) and from those, you can get “pesos cubanos” (CUPs).  The fixed exchange is 1 CUC:24 CUP.  The CUPs are what the Cubans use; the touristas use the CUCs.  Nevertheless, you can purchase some things in CUPs.

3.  What about purchasing Cuban Cigars – how do I spot the fakes, how much do they cost and most important – – is it legal to purchase them and how many can I bring back to the USA?

See our post entitled: Cuban Cigars – Everything you wanted to know but didn’t ask

For how many cigars you can bring back:  it used to be illegal to import tobacco and alcohol.  In early 2015, the law changed and you were permitted to bring merchandise, as accompanied baggage acquired in Cuba, not to exceed $400 in value, including no more than $100 in alcohol and tobacco products. Then, in October 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that it has removed the previous limits on bringing Cuban cigars and Cuban rum back into the United States from any country in the world, Cuba or otherwise. This means the $100 limit instituted two years ago is no more.

This means that the number of personal cigars is technically unlimited, but there is still an amount of duty that will have to be paid after a certain quantity is exceeded. OFAC’s website points to an $800 exemption of duty every 31 days, and stresses duty-free limits of 100 cigars. According to OFAC’s website: “A traveler may include up to 100 cigars and 200 cigarettes in the $800 exemption from duty… Additional cigars and cigarettes may be brought into the country, but they will be subject to duty and Federal excise taxes.” Excess amounts are subject to a 4 percent flat rate of duty.

But remember that upon leaving Cuba, Aduana (Cuba Customs) requires that you declare the amount of cigars you have in your possession and according to Aduana’s website you can take:

  • Up to twenty (20) units of bulk cigars, without submitting any document.
  • Up to fifty (50) units of cigars, but they must be in their original package, unopened, sealed and with the established official hologram. The export is not authorized without meeting these requirements; and
  • For more than fifty (50) units of cigars, which cannot exceed the amount of 5,000.00 CUC, passengers should produce the formal sale invoice issued by the store chains authorized to sell Cuban cigars, corresponding to all cigars they intend to export which must be in the original package, unopened, sealed and with the established official hologram.

The quantity of cigars exceeding fifty (50) units not declared by travellers and any quantity exceeding the quantity declared, or that having been declared its legal purchase is not backed up by the formal sale invoice, or the packages do not have the attributes and the other requeriments identifying them as Cuban cigars, will be seized.

4.  How soon should I start planning, preparing and packing for the trip?

See our post entitled: Trip Planning and Packing For Cuba – some “do’s” some “don’ts” and some “maybes”

5.  Trip Day to Cuba – I’m excited to go – what do I need to know?

See our post entitled: The Big Day Arrives – Trip Day to Cuba – What to Expect, What to Do, How to Be Ready

6.  Do I need a passport to travel to Cuba?

Almost hesitate to put this in the FAQ, but invariably, somebody does not have a passport.  So the answer is: Yes. Any American traveling to Cuba will need a valid passport. It’s necessary that your passport be valid for at least six months after traveling to Cuba.  Please be sure to check the expiration date of your passport, and if need be, renew your passport if it is nearing expiration. You will need at least 6 months remaining after entering Cuba.  Click here to apply for your passport and click here to renew your passport.

7.  Do I need a Visa to travel to Cuba?

A Cuban visa, which is referred to as a “tourist card,” is required for all visitors traveling to Cuba. Your Cuban visa is included in your flight package and will be received with your other flight documents at the airport in Miami upon check-in.  The visa is a two-part card, where Cuban immigration officials will take one half upon arrival in country, and the other half upon departure. It might be “stamped” by Customs upon request, instead of stamping your passport.  Don’t lose it or you’ll have to pay extra to depart Cuba.

 – Special Visas

If you are a reporter or journalist traveling for journalism purposes, please note you will need a special press visa to enter the island as a U.S. correspondent.

 – Cuban American Travelers

If you are a Cuban American born in Cuba, you may need a special visa.

Your visa is valid for a period of 90 days + 90 day renewal for Canadians whereas ALL other Nationalities are 30 days with a maximum 30 day renewal. It is always smart to apply, within Cuba, for renewal of your tourist card a few days prior to the expiration of the first period. Note that many have reported that the second period commences as day 1 on the date of the renewal. So the total stay allowable will be less than 180 days (in the case of Canadians) or less than 60 days in the case of all other nationalities.

Prior to renewal of your tourist card it is necessary to obtain from a bank stamps to the value of 25 CUCs. Take both the stamps and the bank receipt to the immigration office in any city.

8.  What travel documents do I need for Cuba?

In order to travel to Cuba, you must have a passport that is valid for at least six-months after your trip to Cuba.

When you check in for your charter flight to Cuba you will receive your flight package inclusive of the following documents:

Plane Tickets for your round-trip Miami-Cuba charter flight
Cuban Visa (Tourist Card)
Copy of Marzul Charters’ Forms – Application

 9.  Will my passport be “stamped” by Cuba aduana (immigration)?  

Historically, it has often been the policy of Cuban immigration not to stamp U.S. passports when entering Cuba. This changed in late 2013, when there was some issues with the processing of Cuban Visas and the Department of Human Interests in Havana, Cuba.  New Cuban policy stipulates that U.S. citizens traveling on an approved U.S. Department of the Treasury OFAC license will receive the normal Cuban immigration stamp in their passport. Many times, however, the immigration folks will not stamp your passport upon request.  They will stamp the Visa.  Passengers traveling with either a general license or specific license are traveling to Cuba legally and should not be concerned about having their passport stamped by Cuban immigration.

10.  What happens if our baseball game gets cancelled, or nobody shows up?

You’ll hear me and the veterans say it time and time again – – just “get on the bus.”  One year, in Havana, the other team failed to show, so we just got on the bus, cruised to some venues, and found a group of 18-23 year olds, playing baseball under the watchful eye of their manager and coaches.  We played them, then split up the teams a bit, gave away some of our gear as we do at every game, and had a great time. Most of the players were headed to their “big leagues.”   Another time, we practiced with the local pro team, the Industriales.  Another time we ended up playing the women’s National Team, which became a somewhat annual event.

11.  Will I get sick?

Not if you use bottled water for drinking and brushing your teeth.   At a restaurant, they should open it in front of you so you can hear the seal being opened.  If not, refuse it.  I avoid “street food” so I’ve never been sick.  At times the “langosta” has not agreed with my rather sensitive side (i.e., stomach), but I’ve never had the bathroom blues – – and in all seriousness, I do have a weak stomach.  Just use common sense.  In most of the hotels, and restaurants catering to tourists, the water is boiled so having “ice” in your Cuba Libre drink will not be a problem.  I also eat peeled fruit and lettuce while there – no problema.

Street food is also found at a “peso stall” – a fast food restaurant run out of someone’s window. They put up a signage with a list of items and prices. When the items run out or are unavailable, they take the sign down. Keep in mind peso stall prices are always in Cuban Pesos (CUP) or moneda nacional (MN).

That being said, I do confess to an addiction to “helaldos” – ice cream.  I love the fact that in Cuba, every Cuban loves ice cream and it’s always a good “time” to have ice cream.  There are several places to get ice cream.  If you are feeling adventurous, try a Bocadito de Helado, which is a traditional Cuban ice cream sandwich, which you’ll find in pesos stalls and will set up back roughly 10 CUP, about 37 cents USD.

Coppelia is the main institution of ice cream in Cuba, and they’re all over.  If you are paying in CUCs there’s never a line.  Otherwise, it can take hours.

Remember, there is no McDonald’s yet, in Cuba.

11.  Can I get ripped off? What exactly is a jinitero?

Couple of things here.  You will be approached by many Cubans, offering you an opportunity to go to a restaurant or paladar, and steer you from your intended destination by claiming that your intended restaurant is “closed,” or the food is “bad” and they have a better choice.  They do this so they can get a commission from the restaurant.  Avoid the “impulse” to follow – you will be disappointed.  You really can’t blame the Cubans – – this is their only opportunity to make some money, but after awhile, you’ll grow weary of hearing people say “you are my fren” – – when they really mean, what can you do for me so I can make some money off you.

Once at the restaurant or paladar, always remember to check your “menu” and “bill” from the restaurant.  Here’s why: sometimes the restaurant will add 10% as a service charge. They’ll tell you that is mandatory and exclusive of the “tip.”  No, it is not mandatory; and no, if they do charge you, that is the tip.  Most menus will not state there is a service charge.  Some do.  Sometimes, the restaurant will say that the “service charge”  is for the bathroom “bano” attendants (wrong – there’s a change dish outside the bathrooms, just like in Europe) or it includes the parking (wrong again – if you drove there, in a rental car, you pay the guy in the red vest who watches your car, 1 CUC).

The other scam or jinietero, is the “yuma” treatment of foreigners and Cubans.  Yuma is slang for tourist, usually American, usually dumb American.  True story – on the first night a few guys went to our favorite place for pizza in the Miramar area; we got the usual menu.  The next night we took a couple Industriales baseball players with us and a coach.  Lo and behold we got the “Yuma” menu, meaning the inflated prices.  After we explained it was the wrong menu, the waiter reluctantly brought out the regular one.  The waiter was the same one we had the previous night!!

Here’s the deal and what happened – – – If you listen closely to Cubans, they’ll say something to one another “Tu sabes como es” which means “you know how it is.”  The theory is that your Cuban friends/invitees will be told by the Cuban waiter, in our example, that they should go along with the scam since all Americans are rich (compared to Cubans) and can afford it.  They are right, of course, in that comparison, but there are so many ways they reach the same result without the jinitero/scam.  Just be nice, smile, don’t lie, and the Americans will tip like crazy.

 12.  Is it safe?

I feel safe in Cuba.  I’m not aware of any of our trips having a problem.  Then again, I would not venture down dark alleys at 2:00 a.m., drunk, alone, holding my money.  Use common sense and you’ll be fine.  I’ve always believed that Cuba imposes extremely strict rules and sanctions on their citizens not to harm a hair on a tourist’s head, particularly an American.  It makes for good propoganda when Americans return to the USA and shout, “beautiful country, wonderful people, 98% literacy, no jobs/opportunity for growth, lift the embargo!!!”

13.  What can I take into Cuba?

According to Aduana, lots of things.

Personal Belongings

Personal belongings are those which, for their nature and quantity, can be reasonably used by the passenger during the trip, taking into account the duration, circumstances and purpose of the trip, as well as the passenger’s profession, activity and characteristics; excluding goods which, for their features, quantity and value, may have a business character or purpose.

Generally speaking, personal belongings may be:
Jewelery and items for personal use.
Garments, shoes, items for personal hygiene and toiletries, provided they come in quantities that imply personal use.
A mobile phone, eg. a cell phone.
A camera or a portable video camera and accesories.
A Portable TV set
A Personal computer
Article for transportation, entertainment, food and childcare, acording to age
A portable device for recording or reproducing sounds, images, data, or mixed, commonly known as MP3, MP4 or the like, together with their respective set of portable headphones and accessories.
Up to an amount not exceeding 400 cigarettes, 500 grams of pipe tobacco, 50 cigars and 2,500 cubic centimeters of alcoholic beverages per adult.
Medicines in necessary quantities for passengers’ personal use only and according to the relevant medical prescription, as well as a device to measure blood pressure or blood glucose, and other similar portable devices for medical tests and reagents.
Books and leaflets as well as newspapers, printed matter, magazines and music compositions.

For children under 10, who can only carry their personal belongings, the following are also consider personal belongings:
Toys: 2 items.
Games, electrical or electronic devices for personal use: 2 items.
In the case of babies, items for their carrying, cleaning and entertainment are also included, together with accesories, such as:
A chair,
A portable crib,
A stroller,
A walker,

In the case of foreign tourists, the following are also considered personal belongings:
A portable compact disc player (CD) and / or DVD player or the like, together with their respective set of portable headphones and accessories.
Binoculars for personal use.
A portable television receiver, a laptop for personal use.
A portable typewriter, a tent and camping gear.
Sports items (a set of fishing tackle; a non-motor assisted bicycle; a canoe or kayak with less than 5.50 meters long; a pair of skis; two rackets, and other similar items).
A pair of walkie-talkies

In any case, if more quantities of items than those listed above are imported, the extra items will not be considered personal belongings and shall be subjected to the provisions for items imported on permanent basis.

When using the weight/value method to calculate the customs value of imported goods by a traveler, 25 kgs of them are considered as personal effects and they are free of customs duties. Check weight / value method page and the examples

 14.  But I don’t speak Spanish, will that be a problem?

This will not be problem.  Most of the places we’ll be going to have English speaking Cubans.  I encourage you to purchase one or more of the Apps or dictionaries I’ve identified in the Cuba Links.  I’ve also attached an English-Spanish baseball directory.

 15.  Will my Phone Work in Cuba – should I get another phone?  How do I call home? What about the Internet to check e-mails?  See our Cuba Links on this topic, but briefly, here’s what you need to know:

Let’s deal with the internet first.  There is no easy access to the Internet, no roaming Wi-Fi, and only a few hotels have Wi-Fi.  Here is a list. That being said, you can use a hotel prepaid card to access the internet.  There are other options.  The next best thing is to go to Cuba’s telephone and “cable” service, Etecsa where you can access the internet.

Mobal International Cell Phones.  You purchase this phone or SIM card now, before you leave on your trip. Works in Cuba. You can buy a SIM card or a phone that connects on the Cuban cell network, aptly named “Cubacell.” You can also purchase a separate data SIM card plan for internet use on Cubacell. You can also text. But beware, this is very expensive; $2.75 a minute for outgoing calls from Cuba to U.S. and $2.50 a minute for incoming calls.

How To Call Abroad.com
One of the most asked FAQs I hear is – “Pablo, how do I call home and how does home call me?” Very easy to do.

For calls from Cuba to U.S. it looks like this: dial (that’s old school lingo for “input”) “119 – 1- area code – phone number.” You don’t need to input the “+” or spaces; just input the number.

And to call from the U.S. to your phone in Cuba, it would be: 011-country code – number. Mobal is a UK phone so it is 011-44-number.

And to call “in Cuba” to another phone in Cuba: input “0 – phone number.”  Click here for further info.

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