August has arrived and that can only mean one thing here at Eccentrips, it’s time for a new country! So get your dancing shoes on and let those mojitos flow, as all this month we’re focussing on that most forbidden of travelling fruits, Cuba. From the idyllic landscapes of this island paradise to its vibrant city streets, Cuba is alive with colour and full of character. But its divisive politics and bureaucratic nature can be a minefield for us travellers to navigate. So whatever your politics, let us show you how to budget for everything this truly captivating country can throw at you.
When to go
First things first, for anyone thinking about packing it all in and booking a one way ticket to Cuba right away, it might be better to wait a while. The hurricane season runs from June-November, with the worst weather starting just about now. Hold off too long though, and you might get caught in another hurricane, one of tourists and higher prices in the December-March dry season. As always, go for the shoulder seasons of November-mid December and mid March-April. They offer some of the cheapest prices without getting caught in any hurricanes of any kind.
Okay, so this is a tricky one. Cuba has two currencies, with different exchange rates, so it’s important not to get the two mixed up! The official currency is the Cuban Peso (CUP), which is locked by the Cuban government at 26.50 CUP = $1/60 INR. Most of the time you’ll use the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), which is pegged to the US dollar at 1 CUC = $1. This is what you will exchange your foreign currency for at Cadeca exchange houses, and receive from ATMs. Try to get a commission free credit card or a Monzo account set up before you go, so you can withdraw CUC from ATMs without getting charged by your bank. Most credit and debit cards will work in Cuba, but it’s better to confirm this before you go. Don’t even bother if you’re from the US, in which case you’ll have to rely solely on cash. And you better make sure that’s not the US dollar either, which incurs a 10% charge, on top of the 3% charge for all currency conversions. Told you it was a tricky one!
Where to begin? Cuba has certainly had its fair share of troubled history. The revolutionary spirit that swept the island in the 1950s has all but gone, leaving in its place an outdated, bureaucratic and oppressive Communist state. Between the government’s policies and the US embargo it has consequently weathered for decades, the economy has suffered, paying citizens an average salary of just $20 per month. In spite of all this, Cuba has retained its magic, and the fire that drives so much else on the island is slowly working its way into the economy. This has resulted in a confusing system for travellers to negotiate, caught between clunky government owned enterprises and a burgeoning private sector, both of which exploit the tourist industry. Read on a bit further to find out the impact of this on your daily expenses.
Before you go
Right, time to get some wings! For the full low down on how to get the cheapest flights every time you travel, check out the example featured in our last budget article on Kenya. Using the same combination of Skyscanner, Google Flights and Momondo, the cheapest deal I could find was a return flight from New Delhi to Havana, on 07/11-6/12, with Aeroflot for $920/45,000 INR. A 25 CUC Cuban airport tax should be included in the price of the flight, but if not you’ll have to pay this when you arrive. You could also try splitting your journey by searching for two lots of flights. If you find a better deal this way let everyone know in the comments section!
The cheapest flights often involve awkward layovers, with this route including a full day and overnight stop in Moscow on the outward leg, before continuing early the next day. Now you can either view that as an inconvenience and additional expense, or you could make the most of it and add a new dimension to your trip. If you’ve been following us lately, you’ll know just how tempting Russia can be. So why not get yourself a Transit Visa for $60/3800 INR, and spend a full day exploring Moscow?
Early morning flights often mean wasted accommodation costs. After all, you’re going to be sleeping on the plane anyway. So if you’re looking to cut costs as much as possible, there’s nothing stopping you from finding a good spot to catch some rest at the airport itself. Sleeping in Airports is a great resource for finding the best spots to sleep in almost every airport in the world. It even has info on where to find free showers, wifi, charging points and many other essentials. Once you travel enough, you see everyone else doing it all the time, so why not give it a go yourself and save some mojito money!
All visitors to Cuba will need a tarjeta de turista (tourist card), available in advance from travel agencies, airlines and even on arrival. It can cost anywhere between $30-$85/1900-5400 INR, and an extra $25/1600 INR to extend or replace. As of September, the Trump administration is placing more restrictive control over US travel to Cuba. The policy hits independent budget travellers hardest, so if you’re reading this in the States, be sure to do your research before going.
Government vaccination programmes differ around the world, so it is always best to check with a doctor before you travel anywhere, and budget accordingly. You should always have travel and medical insurance for any trip, but for Cuba it is mandatory. If you don’t have it already, it’s available to purchase on arrival for 3 CUC/180 INR per day.
A few things you’ll have to budget for in Cuba on top of all the usual stuff:
- Spanish phrasebook or app, as English is not widely spoken ($5-$10/300-600 INR)
- Worldwide travel adaptor compatible for types A/B/C/L ($10-$20/600-1200 INR)
- Prepaid local SIM card rental with Etecsa (3 CUC/180 INR per day + 10 CUC/600 INR credit)
- Nauta card internet access, providing up to 1 hour on wifi hotspots (2 CUC/120 INR per card)
- Money belt ($10-$20/600-1200 INR)
- Total = $55-$210/3500-13,300 INR
Get me to the awesome
There’s so much more to Cuba than the iconic pastel colour streets and classic cars. Its beauty and diversity will amaze you with every amazing experience you have. And there is certainly no shortage of these! Let’s take a look at budgeting for all that Cuba’s incredibly rich history, culture and landscape has to offer. Oh, and don’t forget to party too!
Live it up in La Habana
- In the bars… Havana’s streets come alive at night, and it can be a great way to meet fellow travellers and locals alike. La Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita are the iconic bars, but their fame comes at a price. Instead, head over to Bar Monserrate or Lluvia de Oro for cheaper drinks and better vibes. Mojitos are the drink of choice! Join the locals and dance the night away at just $2-$5/120-300 INR a glass.
- On the dance floor… Get those hips moving and tango long into the night at any one of Havana’s clubs like El Gato Tuerto, Casa de la Musica or Club 1830. Entry ranges from free to $5/300 INR.
- To the music… Jazz is still alive and kicking in Havana, at the famous La Zorra y El Cuervo and at the Association of Cuban Writers and Artists. Or you can bop along to other Cuban styles like son, trova and danzon that fill the streets all day and night at spots like Plaza de la Catedral. Entry ranges from free to $5/300 INR.
- Along the Malecón… Wherever you spend your night, end it with all the other revellers having fun along Havana’s arcing promenade. Average night out = $10-$20/600-1200 INR.
Discover the capital’s rich history
- Colonial architecture… Walking through Habana Vieja (Old Town) is like stepping back in time. Most of the buildings here are centuries old, offering a fascinating insight into the country’s origins as a Spanish settlement. Morro Castle, Fort San Salvador and Castillo de la Real Fuerza guard the city, while Plaza de San Francisco and the Plaza del Armas provide a grand setting to spend an afternoon relaxing. You can visit sites like the Cathedral of Saint Christopher, the Museum of Havana and many other such sites for around $1-$5/60-300 INR per entry.
- Revolutionary history… The Museum of the Revolution provides a detailed though obviously biased portrait of this turbulent period of Cuban history. It’s housed inside the presidential palace of former deposed dictator, Fulgencio Batista, and costs $5/300 INR.
- Vedado district… The Plaza de la Revolucion and its surrounding streets provide a much more genuine view of the Communist regime. Beyond the towering monuments to the heroes of the revolution, you’ll discover the city’s poverty and crumbling facades. Nevertheless, the people keep these streets alive, with artwork spilling out from every building along Callejon de Hamel and elsewhere at Fusterlandia, on display for everyone completely free of charge.
Explore Cuba’s other cities
- Santa Clara… It isn’t just Havana where you can discover Cuba’s revolutionary past. Santa Clara hosts an exhibit to the decisive battle that took place there in 1958, along with a monument, mausoleum and museum to Che Guevara ($5/300 INR).
- Trinidad… Frozen in time, this colonial city was once the sugar capital of the world, with streets still dominated by the plazas, churches and mansions from another era. Check out Manaca Iznaga tower for views across the sugar plantations of Valle de los Ingenious ($1/60 INR).
- Cienfuegos… The only Cuban city where they speak French, these streets are adorned with immaculate white marble buildings, at sites like the Parque Jose Marti and Palacio de Valle, with prices ranging from free to $5/300 INR per entry.
Catch some sun on the beach
The most convenient beach escapes to get to from Havana can be found at Matanzas and Varadero, but these are also the most expensive. Alternatives around the island include Playa Ancon, Casilda Bay and Rancho Luna, but with over 3,000 miles of coastline to choose from, why not find your own slice of paradise instead for free.
Experience Cuba’s wild heart
Away from the cities and beaches, Cuba continues to dazzle the visitor, inspiring all kinds of adventures with its unique wildlife and gorgeous scenery:
- Climb Cuba’s highest mountain, Pico Turquino, in the Gran Parque Sierra Maestra (Park entry, overnight accommodation and guide fees for the two day hike = 65 CUC/4300 INR).
- Go cycling around the Viñales valley, a beautiful agricultural region framed on all sides by giant limestone formations (1/10 CUC or 60/600 INR per hour/day).
- Go for a dip in Cueva de Saturno, a huge open cave, flooded with crystal clear blue waters. Admission = 5 CUC/300 INR, or extra if you plan on going snorkelling or scuba diving.
- Explore the abundant wildlife at Varahicos Ecological Reserve, a haven for Cuba’s native species. Located right next to Varadero’s beaches, it offers a convenient window into the wild heart of Cuba, without having to go too far out of your way (5 CUC/300 INR).
A day in the life
With so many experiences to have, you’re going to want to squeeze as much out of your budget as you possibly can. So it helps to know exactly how much you’re likely to need in a typical day. Cuba’s often bewildering combination of public and private enterprise makes planning for this all the more difficult, so we’ve done it for you!
Steer clear of government run hotels, as prices are at an all-time high. In fact, with a 30% rise in tourists since 2015, prices everywhere in the tourism industry are increasing. You can still find good deals in the growing private sector though, such as at Casas particulares (private homestays). Think Airbnb, but with a distinctively Cuban feel. With many hosts providing free cooking and dancing lessons, your stay is sure to be full of good memories, while learning about Cuban culture from the locals. While many of these Casas are listed on Airbnb, the best way to find a place anywhere in Cuba is through Homestay. However, at around $20-$35/1200-2200 INR per night, it’s still not the cheapest option. Hostelworld features some good deals for around $10-$15/600-900 INR per night. Even cheaper still, Couchsurfing is worth considering too, though with such restricted internet access in the country, this might be harder than usual to organise.
When it comes to getting around, now it’s time to use the public sector. A wide range of private taxis serve within Havana and other cities, but the fares many tourists are willing to pay has completely priced out most budget travellers. Instead, go for local buses within Havana as they’re virtually free, literally costing only 0.40 CUP/$0.01/1 INR per journey. To get around the country, Astro is the cheapest state-run bus company, but not very reliable. Viazul is by far the best, serving destinations all over the island on a regular daily schedule and costing only a little more (5 CUC/300INR per hour). For US citizens, things are a little more complicated. The Trump administration has recently introduced proposals to ban all American tourists from spending money with state-run enterprises, coming into effect in September. So again, if you’re from the States, be wary of this and don’t land yourself in jail just for a cheap ride!
Avoiding state-run enterprises won’t be too difficult for this one, as their food just sucks! While it is relatively cheap, the best street food you can hope to find is plain burgers and ham sandwiches. For a more authentic experience of Cuban cuisine, without spending too much, try going to a Paladares (private eatery). They are often harder to find and prices are a little higher, but for the most part they serve nothing but tasty, wholesome, and still pretty cheap food for you to enjoy! Here’s some of the best street food you can get your hands on and how much you’ll pay for it:
- Coppélia ice cream (1 CUP/$0.04/2.5 INR per scoop)
- Guava milkshake (3 CUP/$0.10/7 INR)
- Coconut pie (3 CUP/$0.10/7 INR)
- Tamale with meat/egg/fruit/cheese (15 CUP/$0.50/30 INR)
- Wide variety of sandwiches (35 CUP/$1.30/80 INR)
- Goat platter or any main meal (40-60 CUP/$1.50-$2.25/100-140 INR)
- Total for one day = 120 CUP/$4.50/300 INR
Okay, gimme the numbers
|Type of Expense||Average cost per day||Total cost (30 days)|
|Flights||$920 / 45,000 INR|
|Russian Transit Visa||$60 / 3800 INR|
|Visa||$50 / 3,000 INR|
|Health||$3 / 180 INR x 30 =||$90 / 5,400|
|Final preparations||$150 / 9,500 INR|
|Night out in Havana||$10 / 600 INR x 5 nights =||$50 / 3000 INR|
|Old Havana sites||$5 / 300 INR x 3 sites =||$15 / 900 INR|
|Cuba’s other cities||$5 / 300 INR x 6 sites =||$30 /1800 INR|
|Cuba’s wild adventures||$85 / 5600 INR||$85 / 5600 INR|
|Accommodation||$15 / 900 INR x 30 =||$450 / 27,000 INR|
|Transport||$5 / 300 INR x 30 =||$150 / 9,000 INR|
|Food||$5 / 300 INR x 30 =||$150 / 9,000 INR|
|Total = $2,200 / 140,000 INR|
Alex is a traveller, adventurer, and all round go-getter from the UK. Having navigated his way through 37 countries by the age of 23, he’s got a huge wealth of experience and loads of epic stories to share. Look out for more articles coming from him soon as he gets his blogging and travel writing under way.