I recently sailed on Majesty of the Seas to Key West and Cuba on a 4-night cruise out of Tampa. I chose this itinerary simply for the fact that I wanted to see what Cuba was like, as it has been inaccessible to cruisers, and who knows how long this window will be open.
This post will help you know what to expect both before and during your time in Cuba. It is a port unlike any other in the Caribbean so there are some things you should be prepared for ahead of time.
Havana is rich in history and offers views of historic buildings and architecture dating back to the 1500’s. Even with an infrastructure that is dated and lacking in many ways, the people of Cuba seemed both friendly and happy. Most of the available tours focused on experiencing Cuban culture and cuisine along with some art exhibits and historic sites.
While you don’t have to book a tour with the cruise line if this is your first time to Havana, I recommend booking an excursion through the cruise line. If after your excursion you want to walk around the city a little, at least you will know a bit more about what to expect.
Remember Cuba is open for person to person contact. You won’t be able to visit the beaches while in port.
What Documentation You Will Need Before Your Cruise to Cuba
You will need a visa to visit Cuba, but usually the cruise line will help you take care of this. Royal Caribbean charged me $75 for my visa, and it was just added to my room bill. Be very careful when filling out your visa form, as you will have to spend another $75 if you make a mistake. This can all be taken care of at the cruise terminal.
You should also bring with you a filled-out affidavit. On Royal Caribbean’s website it is called a Travel Certification Form. You can get more copies of these at the cruise terminal as well, but it’s a simple form you can print off the cruise line’s website. It simply states your purpose in Cuba and what kind of activities you will be participating in once on the island. You will need to fill out two of these forms and keep one of them for at least 5 years.
Travel to Cuba for Americans is still somewhat of an exception to the rule, so remember that you can’t just show up in Cuba and walk around freely.
American travelers to Cuba must fall into one of the 12 categories of authorized travel to the country which are listed below.
- family visits
- official business of the U.S. 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 information materials
- certain authorized export transactions
There are 4 things you will need to take with you from the ship when you arrive in Cuba: your passport, cruise card, visa, and if you booked an excursion you will need your ticket. Be sure to keep the receipt from this excursion as well in case you need proof of what you did in Cuba later on.
What You Won’t Find in Cuba
Looking for a Coke or Starbucks coffee while on your vacation in Cuba? You won’t find any of the common US companies you are used to seeing in every other part of the world. And as far as I know there is only one US bank currently operating in Cuba. This means you won’t be able to just walk up to an ATM machine and draw out some money. You also won’t be able to use your US based credit and debit cards for purchases.
What You WILL Find in Cuba
Classic American cars are everywhere in Havana, Cuba. And while many classic car lovers find this a dream-land experience it’s also a reflection of the embargo that took place in 1960, making the only American cars in the country vehicles that were made before this date. There are cruise excursions you can do that involve getting a tour of Havana in a classic American car. They will set you back about $250 or more but it’s a fun, more intimate way to see the city.
There is also a lively nightlife in Havana. While my cruise left port at 8pm, there are some itineraries that keep the ship in port for a day-and-a-half, allowing cruisers to experience the nightlife of Havana with it’s vibrant music, dancing, and authentic cuisine.
Currency Exchange in Cuba
As soon as you walk through customs and the security checkpoint you will notice the currency exchange center. There you will be able to exchange your US dollars for the local currency. What you will actually need is the local currency used by foreigners. The local residents of Cuba use a different kind of currency and the way to tell the difference is that you will be using the currency with monuments on them not faces. These units of currency are called CUC which stands for Cuba Convertible Peso.
If you buy something with CUCs and your get your change back and it has faces on it, be sure to ask for CUCs instead. This currency is actually worth more than the local currency used.
$100 US dollars will give you $87 in CUC. The rate is determined by a fee imposed by the government which takes 13% for US currency transactions. Most other countries have a 3% fee.
Yes, some places will accept US cash in Cuba, but don’t expect to get change back in US dollars.
You CAN Buy Cigars and Rum in Cuba
Due to some recent changes in the rules, cruise passengers are allowed to buy and bring back no more than 100 Cuban cigars. On my tour of Havana a Cuban cigar shop was actually one of our stops, which was right next to Morro Castle. A lot of these shops also sell Cuban rum. You will have to pay a tax on these items when returning to the US. No more than 1 liter of alcohol per cruise passenger can be brought back to the ship.
The price of a cigar in Cuba can range from $5 to $200 for one, depending on the quality.
Gifts Not Donations
This was something pointed out to us by the cruise director on Majesty of the Seas. If you are going to bring some charitable donations to the people of Cuba you should not call them donations. Apparently that term is frowned upon. You should call them gifts instead.
Using the Facilities
I recommend using the bathroom on your tour bus or back at the ship, but if you need to go while touring Havana you might want to make sure you brought some toilet paper with you. According to our cruise director most public bathrooms don’t have toilet paper or you have to pay a lot of money for a few squares of this precious commodity. I had some extra TP stuffed in my bag just in case.
Extra Tips When Cruising to Cuba
- Plan your excursions ahead of time, but choose an excursion that allows you to walk around a little as well. Some tours are only on a bus and you will want to experience Havana on foot.
- Wear comfortable shoes. A lot of old Havana is cobblestone and there is a lot of uneven ground you will be walking on. Your feet will thank you for comfy shoes.
- Don’t exchange too much cash. There is a 10% fee for converting US cash to CUCs but when you change from CUC to US dollars there is an additional 10% fee. While there are some interesting shops around Cuba, don’t expect amazing deals as you might elsewhere in the Caribbean. You can’t exchange this cash back home, so make sure you get just enough for some souvenirs and trinkets.
- Tip your tour guide. The tour guides are local Cuban residents and they rely on these tips, so make sure you take care of them. My guide was a 60-year-old man who lived in Cuba all his life and hoped to one day visit the USA.
- Wake up early to see the ship pull in to Havana. You won’t want to miss the sights as your ship fist pulls into this port. It’s unlike any other cruise port. You will pass Morro Castle and see a large statue of Jesus. You will also see the capital building and all the industry around Havana.
- Don’t take pictures at the Havana terminal. The authorities don’t want you taking pictures and fiddling with your phone, so wait until after customs and security before you start documenting your trip.
- Bring a couple bottles of water. Most cruise lines will provide you with at least one bottle of water if you booked an excursion, but bring some water with you.
- Don’t forget the bug spray. The British left Cuba ages ago simply because of the mosquitoes. And trust me, those little bugs are still an issue today. Be prepared to fend off both mosquitoes and a harsh sun with some preventative lotion.
- If you must connect, do it on the ship. Wi-Fi hotspots are few and far between and extremely slow (not to mention very censored). And since using your phone signal is out, I recommend just connecting to the ship’s internet for any communications. And with Royal Caribbean you get blazing fast internet speeds anyway.
- Prepare for the heat. Most of the shops and restaurants don’t have AC. If you book an excursion your bus will have AC, but don’t expect the local buildings to have air conditioning.
- Keep documentation of what you did in Cuba. Especially if you went off on your own you will want to write down everywhere you went and what you did at each place in case you are questioned about it at a later date.
Check out this slideshow video of the different things we saw on the cruise to Havana, Cuba: