17 Important Travel Tips for Your First Cruise to Cuba

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What the cruise lines don’t always tell you.

I don’t feel that old, but I’ve waited nearly 40 years for this to happen.  When it looked like Cuba was going to be opened up to cruise ships from the U.S., I was ecstatic.  I had always dreamed of being on the first cruise to Cuba in the new millennium.  It didn’t happen.  Then two and one-half years later…

I’m finally going on a cruise to Cuba!

I did my research.  I studied the info on Royal Caribbean’s website.  Our little Majesty of the Seas would spend 22 hours in Havana, starting at 7 a.m.

I made one big mistake…I bought the ship’s full-day, seven-hour, panoramic, lunch-included shore excursion.

It wasn’t until I was back on board that night and chatted with a couple next to me in the Viking Crown Lounge.  I really wanted a do-over for this cruise.  Despite there not being a U.S. embassy on the island, Havana is a friendly and safe place with plenty of interesting ways to explore the city beside the guided ship tour.

And truthfully, looking back, I can think of only a few reasons why someone should book a full-day panoramic Havana shore excursion with their ship; if you’re elderly, have mobility issues or and some might argue with me…a woman traveling solo on her first cruise, hasn’t ever traveled outside of the U.S.  and it’s her first trip to Havana.

What to know for your first cruise to Cuba

Best time of year to cruise to Cuba

I found this out the hard way.  During the winter months, on a seven-hour tour that departs the cruise terminal at 11 a.m. or noon, the last one or two hours of your tour will be in the dark.  After driving around on the motor coach in the dark while the tour guide narrated points of interest outside our window, we could see nothing.  A total waste of time.  As a result, we revolted and told him just to go back to the ship.  There was nothing that we could see.

Cruise Maven Tip:  Cruise to Cuba when daylight extends until at least 6:00 p.m.

YOU CAN ARRANGE YOUR OWN SHORE EXCURSION!
I have this in capital letters because it can make or break your visit to Havana.  As I mentioned, as a solo traveler and first-timer to Cuba, I went with the $143 ship’s shore excursion – a 7 1/2-hour panoramic bus tour with lunch.

Keep in mind that if you choose to book your ship’s shore excursion, your tour guide is working for the government.  You’ll see and hear what the government wants you to see and hear.  It’s nothing awful, but after awhile the guide’s spiel got on my nerves.  Lunch was, in my opinion, awful and there wasn’t enough time to spend at the “good” places, like Hemingway’s House and the quirky and beautiful mosaic art at Fusterlandia.

How to arrange your own shore excursions

I learned this too late but now I know for next time.  Two companies that people mentioned quite a bit were Blexie Tours and Fernando Fer Tours.  Shore excursions can be arranged online before you leave home.
You can also, as I explain further down on this list, arrange for a taxi and driver as soon as you exit the cruise terminal.

If you’re lucky enough to overnight in Havana, I’d suggest a dinner and an authentic (and touristy) music and dance floorshow at the Buena Vista Social Club.  Admission is $30 per person (subject to change) plus tips and additional for drinks.  If you are feeling flush, pop for $200 per person and take in dinner and a show at the Tropicana Night Club.  Taxis are waiting at the port to take you there as well as for the return to your ship.

Before you go, stop at your bank for cash.

Despite what you might have heard, U.S. dollars are welcomed by the locals, but it’s still illegal for us to use them.  I’d suggest between $150 – $200 USD.

Passport and Visa

Of course you will need a Cuban visa and it is arranged through your cruise ship. You will have several pages of documents to complete and turn in at embarkation. You will have to sign for a $75 charge that will post to your onboard account and covers the cost of the Cuban Visa. You’ll receive the actual visa at embarkation.

Going ashore

You’ll most likely be assigned to a holding area on the ship while you wait for the ship to be cleared. Once the ship has been cleared, passengers leave according to their shore activity with the ship’s shore excursion people getting priority to leave. Be sure to bring your ship’s room card, your passport and your visa.  You’ll need it for the next step.

Clearing immigration 

Once you leave the ship, you’ll get in line for immigration.  Don’t be fooled by the old-timey appearance.  There’s high-tech gadgets everywhere.  When it’s your turn, you’ll show your passport and visa and the authorities will keep your visa.

Next step is security screening and the conveyor belt and walk-through scanner.  Gather your things and proceed to the next queue.

Changing currency 

The easiest place to exchange currency is right there at the port, right after security screening.  You’ll exchange your USD for Cuban Convertible Pesos, the money used by tourists, also called CUCs.  Locals use Cuban Pesos and has a different value, so I’m told.

How to know you’re getting the real CUC currency?  CUCs have monuments on them while Cuban Pesos have heads of state printed on them.  If you have Euros, you don’t have to go through the process of exchanging currency as Euros are accepted everywhere.  You can exchange your USD for Euro at your hometown bank and by-pass the currency exchange step.

ATM and credit cards

Credit cards are generally not accepted so plan on either CUC or Euro or Canadian cash.  Shipboard ATMs close before arriving into Havana so that won’t be an option for last-minute withdrawals.

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Mobile phones and internet 

USA mobile phone plans don’t have coverage in Cuba nor will you have internet access.  You might be able to pickup a roaming signal for CubaCel but don’t count on it.  Besides, it would be quite expensive for roaming charges.

Leaving the terminal

After you complete immigration, go through screening and exchange currency, it’s time to leave the terminal.  You have two choices; 44 steps down (there’s a handrail) or take the elevator.  You should note that the elevator doesn’t always work.  If that happens and the stairs are too difficult, there is a freight elevator.  You’ll have to ask someone at the terminal to help you with it.

Taxis 

As you descend the 44 steps from the terminal to street level, if you go straight ahead at the bottom of the stairs, that’s where the taxi stands are located.  Ship’s shore excursion passengers will turn right to head to the buses.

Exit straight ahead and you’ll find plenty of gorgeous, shiny vintage American cars and their driver just waiting for passengers.  Negotiate the rate for where you want to go, see and do before getting into the car.  The going rate seems to be around $35/hour plus a fee of about $35-$50 for the driver.  You can ask to go, for example, to any of the historic places, monuments, museums etc.

Dining

You can negotiate with your driver to wait while you enjoy an authentic Cuban meal at a Cuban family-owned and operated restaurant, called “paladars”.  Avoid the government-owned restaurants.  Of course, don’t drink the tap water…only sealed beverages.  At hotels and upscale restaurants and nightclubs, mixed drinks are okay.  Mojito anyone?

Bathrooms

When ya gotta go, ya gotta go.  Bring some tissues or toilet paper with you from the ship and keep in mind, not all toilets have toilet seats.  If you go to a restroom at a hotel or a museum, restaurant etc. there will be a bathroom attendant at the entrance.  This person, usually a woman, will hand you about eight squares of toilet paper in exchange for a few coins.

Souvenirs 

Not too many restrictions here. If cigars are on your shopping list, only buy from a reputable seller – not a street vendor. You can bring home up to 100 Cuban cigars with a total value not to exceed $200, per person.  If you buy more than 50 cigars, you will need a receipt.  You can bring home one liter of Cuban rum. Arts and crafts and touristy souvenirs are all fine.

Shopping at the Handicraft Market near the port 

Included on probably all ship shore excursions is a stop at this enormous handicrafts market.  Contained under what seemed like adjoining massive quonset huts is one of the largest local markets I’ve ever experienced.  You can find all sorts of knick-knacks, wood carvings, jewelry, art work and clothing.  The vendors are pretty aggressive so unless you plan to buy something, don’t make eye-contact.  There are some nice souvenirs for sale, and many of the stalls have identical merchandise.  It’s somewhat similar to the Craft Market in Ocho Rios or the Straw Market in Nassau…without the straw.  Some of the art work is worth trying to figure out how to cart it home.

Parting thoughts

Despite all that I learned and wouldn’t do again, a return cruise to Cuba is a must.  I’m surprised at myself for not figuring all of this out before I left home but that’s how it is sometimes.  I learned about currency, how to do my own shore excursions, where not to eat, and the best time of year to go.  That’s a hefty amount of take-away lessons.

Have a wonderful cruise to Cuba, especially to Havana and any other ports in Cuba that your ship might visit.

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