Viva Cuba! Part 3 – The Basics: Cash Planning

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Emily:  When I learned about America’s more relaxed policy towards travel to Cuba, I jumped at the opportunity!

Cuba has a lot to offer.  My friends and I were drawn to the classic cars, the Art Deco architecture, and, of course, the friendly people!  We also love music and dance, which is one of Cuba’s specialties! Rick Steves recently produced an excellent video on Cuba that’s fun and informative.

The US and Cuba reached an agreement for direct flights.  Flight availability to Cuba from various US airports and search engines is ALWAYS changing, so be sure to try multiple search engines and cities, if possible.  Readers have reported that some flights to Cuba from the US may be opening up.  When I went to Cuba in December 2015, flights were not scheduled yet. My friends and I flew via Cancun, and continued our journey to Havana.

Note:  Regulations surrounding US travel to Cuba are always changing, so make sure you check the current rules before planning your trip.  There are limited opportunities to use miles & points, but you can save some money.  I’ll show you how later in this series!

Viva Cuba Part 3 The Basics Cash Planning

These Kids Were Happy to Smile for the Camera!

Note:  Regulations surrounding US travel to Cuba are always changing, so make sure you check the current rules before planning your trip.  There are limited opportunities to use miles & points, but you can save some money.  I’ll show you how later in this series!

My travel partners included many of the same friends who accompanied me to Croatia!

Robbie (pink hair) is a professional dance instructor who teaches salsa, kizomba, and bachata.  Sarita is also a dance teacher, as well as a graphic designer.  Gissell teaches fitness classes and loves rock climbing.

On this trip, I went with 3 new friends – Diana, a local art teacher, Chelsea, who manages a hostel, and Antonio, who works in IT design.  Traveling as a group of 7 was fun, but definitely challenging at times!  We had a great time together, and can’t wait to return!

Viva Cuba Part 3 The Basics Cash Planning

I Found Lots of Things in Cuba I Couldn’t Live Without, Like The Unbelievably Gorgeous Streets!

Viva Cuba! Trip Report Index:

The Basics – Cash

Technically, it is only legal to spend money in Cuba if you fit into 1 of 12 categories below.  But no one asked if we had visas or seemed to care that we were Americans coming into Cuba.

  • Family visits
  • Official business of the US 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
  • Certain authorized export transactions
Viva Cuba Part 3 The Basics Cash Planning

There Are Quite a Few Conditions You’ll Have to Meet If You Want to Visit Cuba. But It’s Worth It!

Withdraw Money Before You Leave!

Cuba currently does not currently accept American credit and debit cards.  So you will need to bring all the cash you need up front!

This can seem frightening to carry a lot of cash with you, but it was not a problem.  When I booked my casa particular, or home stay, a staff member named Leo informed me that only Visa and MasterCard credit cards NOT issued by a US bank will work in Cuba.

Viva Cuba Part 3 The Basics Cash Planning

Having a Legitimate Reason for Cuban Travel Gives You the Right to Spend Money in Cuba. But You Still Can’t Use US Credit!

This rule may change soon, but I advise bringing cash for the next couple of years anyway.  It’s always better to have cash and not need it than the other way around!

Leo also sent me here for the current exchange rates, and recommended bringing euros, Canadian Dollars, or British Pounds instead of US Dollars.  Once you get to the airport you can change any currency into pesos convertibles, or the Cuban tourist currency called Convertible Pesos (CUC).

I went to my local Chase bank and requested 1,500 euros.  I was advised to bring at least ~$100 a day, but I wanted to bring extra cash in case my friends needed to use me as a bank! 🙂  I’d rather have TOO MUCH money and not need it than the alternative, since I couldn’t use debit or credit cards!  This was a great decision, because I ended up loaning my friends $600 to make it through their last week in Cuba.

The next day, I picked up my euros and carefully packed them into 2 separate compartments in my hand luggage.  That way I would be less likely to have ALL my money stolen at once!

Convert Your Money at the Airport Money Exchange Counter

Right outside the Havana airport is a currency exchange counter.  My friends and I exchanged only half our money up front.  Because we didn’t know how much we’d end up spending.

Viva Cuba Part 3 The Basics Cash Planning

First Order of Business in Cuba – Exchanging Our Euros for Pesos

Carrying Lots of Cash Felt Safe in Cuba

Cuba loves having tourists because they spend a lot of money!  And because Cubans are a very relationship oriented culture.  And more money & relationship building means economic growth.  My friends and I stored our cash and important documents in safes located in the closets of our casa particular.

Viva Cuba Part 3 The Basics Cash Planning

One of Our Safes Mounted on the Wall in the Closet

The safes were easy to use, and we trusted our host family.  Nothing was ever stolen from us, despite the large amounts we were carrying.  We always felt safe on the streets, too!

Convert Your Money at Local Currency Exchange Counters

Halfway through our trip, we needed to exchange more money for Cuban pesos.  We asked our host family where we could go, and they gave us directions to a little shop located behind the local farmer’s market.

Viva Cuba Part 3 The Basics Cash Planning

Fresh Produce From the Farmer’s Market!

The location was great, because it was just a few blocks from our casa particular.  The farmer’s market had a lot of fresh produce, and we bought some exotic fruit and homemade candy to try at the house.

Viva Cuba Part 3 The Basics Cash Planning

Gissell and Robbie Happy for Some More Cuban Pesos

Money exchanging was easy, and gave us another chance to practice our Spanish.

Viva Cuba Part 3 The Basics Cash Planning

My Friend Antonio Exchanging Money

Always count your money to double check the amounts!  You will be given a receipt to show what you paid.  Most hotels also have currency conversion counters.

Viva Cuba Part 3 The Basics Cash Planning

I Exchanged 760 Euros for 800 Cuban Convertible Pesos

Cuba Has Two Currencies

Cuba uses 2 currencies – 1 for locals, and 1 for tourists.  And their values are very different!

The tourist currency is called Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC), and is worth ~$1.  The local currency is called Cuban Pesos (CUP), and is only worth ~4 cents!  Don’t worry though, because if you look and talk like a tourist, they will only deal with you in CUCs.

Viva Cuba Part 3 The Basics Cash Planning

The Exchange Rate of US Dollars to CUC Is ~1:1. But the Exchange Rate to CUP Is ~1:25!

If you’re fluent in Spanish, it might be possible for you to save MORE money by using the local currency, Cuban Pesos.  But you will have to convince the locals that you aren’t a tourist!  You can get Cuban Pesos at a currency exchange location, or by asking locals.  The benefit of using CUPs versus CUCs is that food and transportation priced in CUPs is much cheaper.

Viva Cuba Part 3 The Basics Cash Planning

Cuban Pesos (Left) and Cuban Convertible Pesos (Right)

Bottom Line

You’ll have to bring enough cash for your entire stay into Cuba because the country does not accept American credit or debit cards.  It was easy for my friends and I to convert our cash at the airport, and again at the local currency exchange counter.  But it’s recommended to exchange bills other than US dollars.

Cuba has 2 currencies – 1 for locals, and 1 for tourists.  If you’re really keen on saving money, it might be possible to use the locals’ currency.  To do this successfully, it helps to speak fluent Spanish and look like a local.  I was just fine using CUCs, though!

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4 responses to “Viva Cuba! Part 3 – The Basics: Cash Planning

  1. Hi, thanks for sharing all this wonderful information. May I ask why you didn’t bring any US$? Leo’s link seems to indicate that US$ are accepted in Cuba because it provides an exchange rate.


  2. Actually, let me rephrase my question. Now that you’ve visited, do you think Leo’s advice not to bring US$ is a good one? Was US$ widely accepted at the money changers?

    Thanks again

  3. @Sam I believe there is an additional fee to convert USD (13%) hence the recommendation to come with Euros. You would have to do the math to decide what’s best for you.

  4. @ Sam A.- Glad you find it helpful! Here’s a post that discusses more of the money situation. USD is widely accepted, but there is an extra conversion fee. I brought euros, but like Nina said, do the math to see what works best for you.

    @ Nina- You are correct! There’s a 10% penalty fee and a 3% conversion fee.

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