There are loads and loads of websites dedicated to helping travellers going to Cuba prepare for their trip. They all mostly have the same type of advice and warnings and to be honest it was quite helpful when getting ready for this trip. However, quite a few things have changed and some of the advice given is no longer true.
Before even travelling, you will need a visa (you can actually see it on the photo below, behind the coffee cup). If you live in England, you’ll have to go to the embassy in London for this. When I was getting our visas, the information online was not updated – it stated the payment can be done only by cash or via postal order, the price was given around £17 per person if getting them directly at the embassy and about £34 if getting them online and delivered (something along those lines). You can buy a package online for about £3 with all the information and paperwork needed. Piece of advice, do not bother as the information is not updated at all. You can get all the papers at the embassy without speaking to anyone; you just have to go there and pick up the forms from the table in the waiting room. You will also find the most correct prices there and the currently accepted methods of payment.
When I arrived at the embassy, the prices were a bit higher and the payment could only be made via postal order. Also, if you are getting the visa for someone other than you and the person is not physically present, then the price is double just like it would be if the visa had been sent via post (this was never mentioned anywhere online so it must have been a new thing). Our expenses doubled just due to lack of information and the fact that when doing the postal order, you have to pay them a transaction fee. The visa, however, was done in about 20 minutes with no fuss. ***I just checked the embassy page and apparently since September 2017 you can only apply by post and it is 39 quid***
Everywhere I looked online, the best advice was to stay in casas particulares. I totally agree with this advice, casas particulares are an amazing way to meet the locals and experience Cuba. The other part of this advice is to book only the first night as you need to give an address for the visa; for the other nights it will be easy to find accommodation when you arrive there. PLEASE DO NOT LISTEN TO THE LAST ADVICE!! As Cuba opened its borders to American tourists and made it easier to travel, there is no low season anymore, especially in Havana and Varadero.
We booked the first night in Havana as advised and went to Varadero the next morning. We could not find any casa that had a free room and ended up having to book a hotel room for our first night in Varadero! We got sick of dragging our things and knocking on doors of casas we found on Cuba Junky (FYI, amazingly helpful app) as they were all full for the night and the only other option was a hotel. We managed to find a casa for the second night thanks to family connections of the owner of a fully booked one. Not wanting to have the same difficulties in our other destinations, we called the casas before and arranged rooms. Also note that Havana is full of tourists all year round now so definitely try to book a room there for the whole of your stay before even leaving for Cuba.
To rent a car or not to rent a car? We wanted to rent a car and then drive around the island to avoid the Viazul tourist bus but the rent a car prices were ridiculously high and in the end we took the bus. We did not prebook tickets, we just got to the bus station early enough to buy them before they sold out. The roads did seem to be quite dilapidated and the petrol stations scars. I’d say rent a car would be worth it if there are 4 people travelling and want to see as much of the island as possible.
When to go
Pick the period when you want to go so you don’t end up there during a rainy season. I don’t know if you have seen the news from several months back, but the streets of Havana were rivers during the hurricanes. When we arrived there was a big storm and some streets and main roads genuinely were flooded with at least 50 cm of water and more. As I mentioned, we went the third weekend of April to first weekend of May and apart from that one storm, the weather was perfect for a Caribbean holiday. Now that I am typing this it occurs to me that checking the weather should probably be the thing to do before booking the tickets 😀 Well if you already have the tickets and are just checking the weather now, at least you’ll know if you need to pack a dingy.
Learn about the dual monetary system so you don’t get confused (or swindled) when you get there. In short, colourful notes are CUCs (Cuban convertible pesos) and the “dull” coloured ones with their national heroes are pesos or moneda nacional. When we were there 1CUC (cca 80 pence in 2017) was 24 pesos nacional. However, their national pesos make for beautiful souvenirs ❤
Do not be discouraged, the trip to Cuba is worth every hassle and stress we went through. Just get yourself a guide book (check the local library for the latest one), sort your accommodation (Cuba Junky should help), make sure you have enough batteries and paracetamol/medicine, grab a basic Spanish dictionary if you do not speak Spanish (or Russian, Russian will be very helpful in some parts) and get ready for some imaginative conversations and situations. Cuba is an amazing country and its people friendly and helpful. Oh, and make sure you have enough money on you as the articles online stating Cuba is not as cheap as you think are all true.