After a few months in Central America, we thought we had being thrifty travellers down and considering the locals manage to scrape by on very little, we thought travelling Cuba on a budget would be a piece of cake.
Oh how wrong we were.
Cuba is a world away from Central America in terms of price. While we managed to stick to our budget, it was not always easy and was incredibly frustrating at times. Not being able to cook our own meals, fixed accommodation costs, the lack of potable tap water and struggling to find adequate supplies to self-cater were some of our biggest budget breakers.
What saved us? The joys of the peso pizza, making meals in our casa particular – breakfast and dinner – a sometimes thing rather than an everyday thing and getting around as much as possible on foot.
Here are some other tips to help you cut down your costs and travel Cuba on a budget.
Our first few days in Cuba we became experts at overspending. We were in a new exotic place, somewhere we had been looking forward to going all year, we were excited and there were mojitos… lots and lots of mojitos.
Normally on the road we just try to live as cheap as possible while still doing everything that we really want to do. So far this has not stopped us having a great time but we soon realised that in Cuba we would need to be a bit more restrained.
We settled on a budget of 35 CUC each (the CUC is fixed to the USD). This was tight but manageable. We just needed to be a little more creative with our choices. With the help of our Expense Tracker App we were able to keep a close eye on exactly where our money was going day to day and where we were able to cut down. It became the source of many an afternoon discussion, but really helped us to keep on track.
Remember, the most important part of deciding on a budget is to be realistic about what kind of holiday you expect to have and set a budget to match that.
If you don’t ask, there is no telling what you will be charged.
In our first week in Havana we had settled into a comfortable rhythm of mojitos being 2 CUC. Night after night we continued to ask and get confirmation that the mojitos were in fact 2 CUC. Perfect!
But one evening, we had spent a busy day exploring the city on foot. It was a warm night, we were feeling lazy, and after settling into a cosy bar we just didn’t bother to ask. It’ll be the same as everywhere else we thought. Then the hand written bill came – no prices, just a total circled at the bottom.
It was more than double what we had been expecting. When we asked the waiter he wrote down the price of the food (which had been stated on the menu) and then with the remaining amount (still half the bill) he just mumbled that this covered the mojitos (now 4 CUC) and service charge (a very generous 30% tip). WHAT!
Needless to say we learnt our lesson.
Cuba has two currencies: the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and Cuban Peso or Moneda National (CUP or MN). Confusingly, both are often denoted by the dollar sign. As a tourist CUC is used for most things – bus tickets, accommodation and food in tourist restaurants. CUP can be used in local restaurants and street food snack stands.
It is a good idea to carry both with you.
You will soon find that places that charge in CUP are a fraction of the price of anywhere else and great to pick up super cheap snacks. Churros for 5 CUP ($0.20) and cheese pizza for 10 CUP ($0.50). Can’t go wrong with that!
If you don’t have CUP, people may also try to convince you that the listed price is actually in CUC – 25 times the actual price.
Food in Cuba seemed to be a never ending conundrum where often quality, quantity and price were in no way associated with each other.
There were incredibly cheap restaurants that looked so fancy we nearly didn’t ask to see their menu. Places with proper table clothes topped with origami serviettes and a full set of cutlery where we were served platters of delicious food (including lobster) for just 3 CUC. Then there were restaurants with wobbly, bare metal tables and plastic chairs where it cost 10 CUC for a tiny piece of chicken. Where is the logic?
For us, finding cheap, local restaurants was often the biggest and most confusing challenge of all. We knew they were there, we just couldn’t always find them. In cities like Havana and Trinidad where so many restaurants are aimed at tourists, they were especially difficult to find.
In trying intently to stick to our budget, without sacrificing decent food altogether we really mixed it up. We started the trip with breakfast at the casa particular everyday for 4 to 5 CUC which fast became our favourite meal. We were served up a feast of fresh fruit, fruit juices, bread, eggs, cheese and pastries and it was often so big that it would carry us through lunch. But later in the trip we swapped this for the odd egg role at a peso cafeteria. Lunch and dinner revolved around finding local restaurants, a peso pizza or two and the odd casa meal thrown in as well.
Peso cafeterias, selling everything from pizza and pasta, to sandwiches and custard, are without a doubt the cheapest places to eat in Cuba. Sure, the quality wasn’t always great but with everything costing around 20 cents, we weren’t complaining.
Meals provided at your casa particular are by no means the cheapest but you are almost guaranteed a huge portion of tasty food. With a soup to start, chicken, pork or seafood as a main, potato and salad side dishes and a small dessert for 6 to 12 CUC.
Drinking the tap water in Cuba is not recommended, but it is hot and humid and you need to stay hydrated. This leaves you with two options: buying endless bottles of water or purifying it yourself. We did a little of both but bottled water still ended up being one of our biggest expenses of the trip.
Once our purification tablets ran out we found buying a 5 litre bottle of water and decanting it into 1.5 litre bottles to use during the day was the most economical option – although unfortunately a huge waste of plastic. Prices are fixed country wide at 1.90 CUC for a 5 litre bottle and 0.70 CUC for a 1.5 litre bottle (although some places try to charge a little more).
If you bring a water filtration system or purification tablets with you, this will of course mean free water for you and you won’t be contributing a huge amount of plastic waste.
In Cuba, it is definitely a case of ‘the more the merrier’ when it comes to accommodation. Room prices at casa particulares are generally set whether you are alone or a group of four. This meant we paid 25 CUC for a room with 4 beds. As a lone traveller this would quickly add up, but sharing it between a group of three or four would leave a whole lot more cash for enjoying those ice-cold mojitos.
Without easy access to the internet, our guidebook pretty much became our bible in Cuba. Unfortunately, we realised it was everybody else’s as well. Every second person had the all-knowing book stowed under their arm, neatly bookmarked with colour coded post-it notes.
If it is recommended in a guidebook – any guidebook – it will obviously garner more attention. No surprises there. But given the rapid changes that have happened in the last few years when the book was most likely already going to press, we discovered there were a lot of things where it completely missed the mark. Restaurant prices had tripled, impossible to reach places now had new bus routes and nature reserves that were touted as tranquil and undiscovered were now swarming with tourists.
We learned to take everything listed with a pinch of salt.
Use the book as a general source of information but check things with tour operators, your casa hosts or other travellers. They found us buses that were not even listed on the board at the bus station, excellent and cheap restaurants down small alleys we never would have found without their guidance and steered us away from a waterfall visit that, as the tour operator put it, we would definitely not be enjoying alone.
Cuba has several international airports so don’t feel that Havana will always be your best bet. For example Varadero, only a few hours from Havana, often has excellent deals catering to the European and Canadian resort-goers. Many flights don’t go everyday so do a thorough search before booking.
For most routes in Cuba, you will be confined to the expensive Viazul buses. In high season some routes sell out days in advance, particularly out of Havana. Book in advance if possible or you may be stuck taking an expensive taxi.
Having said this though, taxi fares on return trips can sometimes work out far cheaper than the bus. When we were travelling from Baracoa to Santiago de Cuba a driver had just offloaded a group of tourists and was looking for passengers to take back. After some hard bargaining we managed to get a ride for about half the price of the bus.
Technically foreigners are not allowed to take the local long-distance transport: the local buses and the trucks. Although we didn’t end up using them, you can often bargain your way onto the trucks which go between some destinations for a very low fare. Hitch-hiking, which is an organised system in Cuba, is also incredibly cheap (not entirely free) but can be a pretty slow process.
Internet cards for your smart phone or laptop cost 2 CUC an hour from the Etecsa offices in each city. Most parks have a wifi signal you can connect to. Just look for the groups of young Cubans on their phones or chatting loudly on Skype.
If you visit a hotel or restaurant that offers internet, prices can get up to an incomprehensible 12 CUC an hour.
But, honestly if you have done a little prior research, have a guidebook and speak enough Spanish to communicate with the locals, you really don’t need to use the internet. Taking a break from it is surprisingly liberating. Instagram will still be there when you get home.
Admittedly, this was probably our biggest mistake in visiting Cuba. Not only were things at their most expensive, several bus routes were booked out and many cities were so crowded with tourists that it really detracted from our experience.
Peak tourist season is from December to March. This is considered the dry season when temperatures are at their coolest (although it is still very hot). We visited at the end of March and the crowds were still out in full force.
The best time to visit is either side of the peak season when prices drop, although temperatures and rainfall are higher. Also be aware that hurricane season is from June to November when weather can be extreme.
Withdrawing money from an ATM or bank teller anywhere in Cuba immediately adds a 3% to 4% charge – on top of any fees your own bank may charge. Bring all or part of your money in hard cash to cut out these excess costs. The best currencies to exchange are the Euro or Pound. American Dollars carry an additional 10% surcharge.
In Havana buses cover a pretty wide network across the city, are easy to navigate and run on regular schedules. Plus at just 1 CUP ($0.04) for any journey, they cost next to nothing and are a fraction of the price of a taxi.
Otherwise there is no better way to soak up the culture and get amongst the people than by getting around town on foot. You will discover tiny market places, see old ladies chatting in the streets and hear the music echoing from hidden alleyways.
If you do take a taxi be sure to bargain hard before getting in and check whether the price covers a return journey.
The snacks and drinks provided in the fridge at your casa particular are very convenient. They are also 2 to 3 times more expensive than if you were to buy them from the shop down the road. If you want to contribute more to your host family rather enjoy a home cooked meal with them which they get pride out of seeing you enjoy.
You’re in Cuba. CUBA. Don’t get so caught up in not spending money that you miss out on the whole experience. If you want to splurge on a nice meal on the waterfront, do it! If you want to go scuba diving for a week, do it! If you want to spend your days poolside with an endless flow of mojitos, that’s fine too. As long as you feel that every penny spent will be worth it.
Obviously if you are trying to travel Cuba on a budget, you can’t do everything, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything. Take opportunities as they come and don’t go home with regrets.