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Cuba Travel Tips: 8 More Things to Know Before You Go

©istockphoto/Nikada

©istockphoto/Nikada

Planning a trip to Cuba? For the first time in 50 years, Americans who meet certain exceptions can now travel to the once forbidden island. It’s an exciting new frontier for Americans, but because Cuba is a communist country, it can present some travel challenges. Here are 8 things to know before you go:

Take cash, but not necessarily U.S. dollars.
Although MasterCard has permission to operate in Cuba, it’s nearly impossible to find a retailer who can accept credit cards. You’ll need to carry cash. Remember: although the U.S. dollar is accepted, there is a whopping 10% surcharge for using American cash. The most economical option is to exchange your Benjamins for small denomination euros or Canadian dollars before you leave the States.

Negotiate transportation costs up front.
Cuba is famous for beautiful fleets of well-preserved 1960s cars. Cars are expensive to own and maintain, so taxi rides are the biggest expense you’ll encounter. Negotiate the price before you hop in, and don’t expect change. To save money, consider taking a motor scooter ride, it’s less expensive and more fun.

Brush up on Spanish.
Little to no English is spoken in Cuba, especially outside of Havana. Learn social basics such as “hello”, “please”, “thank you”, “excuse me”, “I’m sorry”, and commerce basics such as “how much?”. If you have a medical condition, have a Spanish speaker write any important details in Spanish on an index card and carry it with you. The more Spanish you learn, the more you’ll be able to interact with locals, and the richer your experience will be.

Prepare to tip.
Cuba is a communist country and Cubans are creative about making ends meet. For example, locals won’t panhandle, but most are happy to strike a great pose for a photo. Be prepared with a tip and you’ll find these interactions are enjoyable for both of you.

Dress up to go out.
Cubans are proud and love to dress up. Although Cuba is hot most of the year, shorts are not acceptable in the evening. Men will want to wear long, lightweight pants and short-sleeved shirts, and women will want to wear a sundress or skirt and blouse. Flat shoes are a must – uneven Cuban streets and sidewalks are not high-heel friendly.

Carry your own TP.
You won’t find unlimited rolls of toilet paper in restrooms—actually, you won’t find any at all! Carry your own toilet paper and wet wipes wherever you go. Just push the cardboard tube out of a roll of toilet tissue to flatten the roll and carry it with you in a Ziploc baggie.

Carry your own toiletries and first aid.
Whatever toiletries and first aid products you think you’ll need, take plenty with you. From sunscreen to bug spray, aspirin, and tampons, bring an extra supply and carry a stash in your day bag. There are no stores that sell what we consider basic needs. Then, whatever you don’t use, leave with a local. Some items we take for granted, such as reliable feminine hygiene products, are impossible to get in Cuba.

Don’t judge restaurants by their exteriors.
Cuba has amazing architecture, but it’s all crumbling. However, once you step inside a building, everything changes. What looks run-down on the outside can be a fantastic, color, funky world on the inside. Cuba is safe and friendly. Keep an open mind and be adventurous.

If you’re not quite ready yet, read on for some more helpful tips.

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