One Month In Cuba For Less Than $1500
Cuba, a small island in the heart of the Carribean and one of the top travel destinations in 2017. Classic cars and salsa music fill the streets as travelers from all over the world try to glimpse into the past before it disappears. I spent one month in Cuba for less than $1500, including flights and so can you.
I created this budget guide in hopes of spreading the word that it is possible to travel to Cuba long term on a budget. I will show you how to navigate your way through the two separate currencies, find accommodations, get cheap transportation, how to avoid the most common scams, and have a blast exploring a country thawing in time.
Disclaimer – The most economical way to visit Cuba is to split the costs with a friend or family member. My friend Burger and I teamed up for the trip, and it is how I was able to spend less than $1500 traveling around Cuba for a month.
From the moment your plane touches down you should start preparing your math and negotiation skills. The José Martí International Airport in Havana is small, so it is not hard to navigate but be prepared to wait a little longer than usual to get through immigration and customs. Waiting is something you should get used to. You will be doing a lot of it.
Just outside the front doors, you will find a few counters where you can change your money to the local currencies. Here is where it gets a little tricky.
Don’t get ripped off tip #1 – The exchange fee for US dollars is 10% a horrendous rate, so please don’t try to convert from USD. If you can, try to change to Euros, pounds, Canadian, or Mexican Pesos before leaving your home country. Also, US credit cards do not work in Cuba so you will need to bring enough in cash for the entire trip.
In Cuba, there are two separate currencies CUC (Cuban Convertable peso) and CUP (Cuban National Peso).
Know Your Currencies
25 CUP = 1 CUC
1 CUC = 1 US Dollar
CUP (Cuban National Peso)
The currency the locals are paid in and identifiable by prominent figures in Cuban history printed on the backs. Worth much less than CUC, the CUP can be used for things like street food vendors called Cubanitas or restaurants mainly frequented by locals. You can catch a ride on an inner city bus or a Colectivo taxi out of town. Most of the supermarkets also accept CUP. Here are some examples of what you can get with CUP.
– Inner city bus ride 1 CUP or $.04 USD.
– Ham sandwich or a small pizza 5 – 10 CUP or $.20 – $.40 USD.
– The local Colectivos 1 CUP or $.04 USD.
– Soda in supermarket 16.50 CUP or $.50 USD.
CUC (Cuban Convertable Peso)
The tourist currency, easily identifiable by historic landmarks in Cuba printed on the backs. Worth one for one with the US dollar. It is what you will use most of the time traveling around Cuba. It Is used for restaurants, any alcoholic drinks, regular taxis, accommodations, and pretty much anything you want to do. Here are some examples of what you can get with CUC.
– Meal at a sit-down restaurant 4 – 40+ CUC
– Taxi in town 2 – 10 CUC
– Beer from the corner store 1 – 2 CUC.
– Bottle of water .70 – 1.50 CUC.
To make things easy, from here on all dollar amounts will be in USD.
Don’t get ripped off tip #2 – Make sure you know exactly how much you are giving the teller and how much it is worth in the currency you want. They will ask and if you don’t know you might get ripped off. It happened to more than a few people I know.
So What Now?
You will be standing there in front of the airport holding a wad of cash that the taxi drivers and a hundred other locals just watched you pull out and it sure feels like they set it up that way on purpose.
Now you need a taxi to downtown Havana, and there are only a few taxi companies. This is where you throw out your negotiation skills. There are hundreds of travelers flush with cash needing taxis downtown, and the taxi drivers know it. If you try to lower the price, they will just leave you standing there all day. The taxi should cost between $25 and $30.
So you’re now in downtown Havana, and your next step will depend on your level of preparation before arriving in Cuba.
You need accommodations right?
Will you be getting out of the taxi at the front door of your Casa or sitting in a park wondering where you’re going to sleep for the night?
In Cuba, you have a few different options for accommodations. There are locals homes called Casa Particulars, of course, an abundant amount of hotels and swanky all-inclusive resorts
Helpful Hint – Booking in advance through HostelsClub.com, one of the only booking sites for Cuba, can reduce the stress of finding a place last minute. You can search for the best reviews and cheapest places in town. I highly recommend this for Havana so that you can show up at your first Casa with no worries.
Home Cook’n In Trinidad
Cost: $20 – $35 per night
Heavily used by backpackers and budget travelers alike. Casa Particulars allow you to see the real side of Cuban life except for Havana which has Cuba’s only pay per bed hostels. You pay for a room with a double bed or two twins depending on the Casa. You can often have laundry done from $3 – $7 and they usually offer breakfast from $3 – $5.
Cost: $30 – $200+ per night
For the mid-range traveler, hotels are a great option for a trip to Cuba. They are usually centrally located and offer great tour packages to all of the local attractions. I can see the appeal of getting on and off a bus with a tour guide who speaks your language and not having to hassle with transportation or food costs.
All Inclusive Resorts
Cost: $120 – $1,000+ per night
Traveling around Cuba can be tough and stressful. Taking a few days to relax and enjoy an all-inclusive resort is a nice way to recharge your batteries and take a peek behind the curtain at the finer side of life.
Burger and I found a good deal on a cabana in Cayo Guillermo. It was much costlier than my usual digs. However, it was totally worth it. The price was $87 per person and named Club Cayo Guillermo.
Club Cayo Guillermo Resort
Our Luxury Cabana
So now that you have an idea of where you’ll lay your head at night, the next task is to figure out how you’re going to get around.
Cuba is one of the top travel destination for 2017, so you can imagine that there are a lot of tourists trying to make their way between each city and small town on the island. This makes travel a little tricky, even more so than a few years ago.
Viazul Bus Line
Cost: Prices vary by destination. You can look them up here.
The Viazul bus line is the main form of long-distance transportation in Cuba for tourists. Just within the past couple of years, the locals have been allowed to use the Viazul service while tourists are still not allowed to use local bus company Omnibus Nacional. It is one of the many times that you really feel the system that is set up to separate locals and tourists.
Every time we used Viazul the bus was completely full and people trying to buy a ticket for the same day were being turned away. It is a necessity to book your seats a day if not days in advance.
Taxi’s + Colectivos
Cost: Anywhere from $4 – $8 in the city or $40 – $70 for the car to another city.
Quite possibly the most aggravating part of our trip was trying to work out a fair price for a taxi. There are so many tourists traveling to Cuba, and the taxi drivers know that they have you by the short hairs.
The most interesting occurrence of this was when we tried to get a taxi to Cayo Guillermo on the North end of the island. We knew the price should have been $25 and the taxi driver wanted $150. We politely declined, so he commenced to telling all of the other taxi drivers that we were greedy assholes. So that meant a couple of extra hours finding a horse and buggy to the train station and hitching a ride from there.
Don’t get ripped off tip #3 – Never accept the first offer you get for a taxi as they are usually overpriced. Also look out for the taxi drivers with nice clothes and lots of gold jewelry. There’s a reason they can afford those things when everyone else can’t.
The best thing to do in this case and any case in Cuba is to make friends. It can turn a budget-busting $60 taxi into a $15 joy ride. You can also talk to the taxi drivers a day before you plan to leave and ask them to organize a Colectivo. They will even pick you up from your Casa.
Cool Classic Cars
Cool Classic Cars
Cost: $40 per hour in or out of the city.
The best classic cars Cuba has to offer. What separates them from the regular 50’s taxis is the cleanliness as well as being the fancier sportier models. I would recommend finding one with a drop top. There is nothing else like hitting the open road, top down with the wind blowing through your hair.
Cost: $3 – $6 in the city
Little two-seat benches welded onto the back of a bicycle lugged around by a muscular legged man sweating his ass off in the tropical heat. We used them a couple of times not by choice. Our Casa arranged a pick-up from the bus station. We felt terrible loading our packs and ourselves on the back as the drivers sighed over the task ahead.
Connecting To The Internet
Cost: $1.50 – $3 depending on where you buy.
The internet in Cuba is painfully slow and only available in parks and certain hotels. The Company is ETECSA and the cards cost $1.50 per hour in the official stores and $2 – $3 on the street. My advice is to take some time off from the hectic world we live in and completely immerse yourself in the trip.
Everybody Needs To Eat
Food in Cuba has its ups and downs. Sometimes you will go to a restaurant, and they will have pretty decent food for cheap, but many times you will walk into a place and find that only two things on the vast menu are available.
I was told that the government provides restaurants with monthly food rations and the owners take the best ingredients home for their families, leaving only the basics for the customer.
Completa Bistek de Cerdo
For the traveler who doesn’t mind eating the same three dishes for an entire month, here are some examples of what you can get for very little money.
– Personal Pizza $.40
– Spaghetti with cheese $.61
– Ham and cheese sandwich $.32
– Cup of soda $.08
– Ice cream $.08
Meals at this level still consist of the same few dishes but start to branch out into actual healthy meals with tomatoes and rice. Here are a few examples.
– Large Pizza $2.50
– Tastier spaghetti with ham and cheese $3.50
– Pork steak with rice and tomatoes $3.50
– A can of soda pop $1
– Chicken of any variety $3
Now That’s Classy
Meals of this caliber are usually found in fancy restaurants and very touristic street corners. They also cost about the same as a meal in the US, Canada, and Europe. Here are a few dishes.
– Lobster with a side of veggies $8 – $10
– Steak with veggies and a potato $15 – $40
– Breakfast at a Casa Particular $3 – $5
– Alcoholic Cocktail $2 – $7
– Italian prepared pasta with side dish $5 – $10
Now you know the difference between currencies, where and how to find accommodations, transportation, and food. So, when does the fun stuff start?
Exploring the city, watching a local game of baseball, or walking through a national park are why you came to Cuba, right?
Getting To Know Cuba
There is so much to see when you are trying to ingest the culture and landscape of an entire country. So much variety to be had based on what you are into.
Walk the centuries-old city streets with Spanish, English and American influences. Explore national parks and learn all that you can about the revolution and its effects on Cuban life today.
Walking the city streets of Cuba is an experience unlike any other. The steady beat of reggaeton, a latin pop music, fills the air along with smoke from the rich burning 50’s engines.
Almost everyone on the street has business in tourism so be prepared to say “no gracias” at least a hundred times in a day. I know all of this might sound bad and it does seem that way at first, but it is all part of the charm that is Cuba.
Check out my favorite offline maps so that you can walk wherever you want without getting lost.
The City of Trinidad
Most downtown areas have well-lit centers with parks and benches to do some amazing people watching. Careful though, they will watch you right back. Cities like Trinidad, Cienfuegos, and Santiago de Cuba are rife with cobblestone streets and live music at all times during the day.
Cities are only a small portion of what you can see in Cuba. All over the island, there are amazing landscapes and vistas that will fill that need you have to get back to nature.
Getting Back To Nature
One of my favorite things to do is wake up really early in the morning and go out exploring when I am close to nature. Watching the sun rise over the mountains onto Lago Presa el Salto with only the trees and a family of pigs was the most memorable part of my trip.
Lago Presa El Salto
On the West end of the island, there is a place called Viñales. Giant karsks rise high above the rich red soil and tobacco fields.
Viñales along with the rest of Cuba has gotten very touristy in the past couple of years. Almost every homeowner has converted into a Casa Particular and restaurants serve tourist priced food. Even with all of the booming tourism, it is still very easy to strap on your boots and hit the trail through the national park free of charge.
Valle de la Guasasa
I highly recommend spending some time in Viñales after Havana. It will give your mind time to rest and reset for the remainder of your trip.
Back To The Future
Evidence of communism and the revolution are everywhere in Cuba. Signs displaying “Viva Fidel” and “Me Gusta Che” are on almost every street and T.V. ad. Getting to know the history of Cuba I believe is the best way to understand the Cuba we see today.
Mausoleo de Che Guevara in Santa Clara
Many of the monuments in Cuba were erected after the revolution in the 1960’s. Large grandiose figures of top military and political leaders stand strong as if looking over the country, or keeping and eye on you.
Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca
Stories of the revolution are almost all that we here in school and the news. Long forgotten to time and the media are the crazy events like the Spanish taking over the island from the indigenous during the conquest and enacting colonial rule. Remnants of this time can be found on the coasts in cities like Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos, and many others. Massive ocean-front castles and forts guard Cuban ports from would-be invaders. Like pirates!
Finish It Off Right
Certain things around the world never change. One of which is people’s love of watching the sunset. Sitting there mesmerized by the dying light can really put things in perspective.
You know you like them.
Royal Docks in Cienfuegos
After the sun goes down and the temperature starts to cool, it is nice to go out to the beach if you happen to be near one. Sure going out at night to see the salsa and live bands is great, but if you want to mix it up a little bit, you can take some great night time photography.
Night Time Beach Photography
Walking on a sandbar 100 feet out into the ocean with perfectly clear water at your feet and a full moon lighting up the night sky is a pretty surreal experience.
So How Did You Do It Grant?
Well.. I’m glad you ask because I am just now figuring that out.
To be perfectly honest I was freaking out about my budget nearly the entire trip. I don’t know if it was because of traveling in Mexico for five months before Cuba or that all of the blogs and books I had read about Cuba were a bit out of date.
Tourism in Cuba is growing rapidly, and so are the prices. Everything was usually a couple more CUC than I had planned for, which is not much but when you add a few more to everything that you buy, it can add up very quickly.
The Grand Plan
We were in Cuba for 33 days in total, and we covered a significant portion of the island. Since the bills were split two ways on expenses like transportation and accommodations as well as Burger and I not sharing the same bank account, my average daily budget was $37.92.
Warning! – The tourist visa in Cuba allows you 30 days in the country. The process to extend that visa is an absolute nightmare. Don’t be like me and accidentally make your trip 33 days in total. It will cost you an extra $25 and countless hours arguing over the validity of your proof of health insurance.
Warning #2 – Officially, proof of health insurance is required to enter Cuba. It usually goes unchecked, but if you get caught without it, you may have to cut your trip short or pay for Cuban insurance. I recommend checking out travel insurance from World Nomads. It will cost roughly $150 for a month, and it will cover your luggage, a missed flight, and medical expenses should something happen.
I tried to plan an inexpensive trip without planning too much and destroying the luster of Cuba. Even with planning, traveling in Cuba can be expensive or cheap depending on your luck. Let’s say the Viazul bus that cost only $9 is booked up for the next three days and you need to leave tomorrow. Well, now you’re stuck with a taxi that costs $20 per person. Not exactly budget friendly.
Disclaimer – My flight was from Cancun, Mexico, in very close proximity to Cuba. I realize that most people will have to travel farther. That is why used the amount of $1500 instead of my actual total $1,365. It allows room for pricier airfare.
On a Personal Note
I say this with much reservation, but there were many times during my trip to Cuba that I was absolutely miserable. I was brought up on the belief that a smile can make someone’s day. No matter their appearance or temperament. I can be traveling in a complete dump without even the basics like a shower or transportation. As long as the locals are friendly and smile back, I am in paradise.
I was in Cuba for over four weeks and met a total of five people outside of other tourists, who smiled back at me. It ruined my trip.
Cuba is a very different and interesting place. The half communist half socialist way of life is not my cup of tea, but in the end, it was what I appreciated the most.
I had never been so far away from the way that I thought the world worked.
Thanks For Reading!!
Are you planning a trip to Cuba in the near future?
If so I hope this guide helps, and if you have any extra question, feel free to leave a comment below.
I really enjoyed your article about your trip to Cuba – very informative. What really struck me was your comments about the lack of returned smiles. I spend a lot of time in Mexico and am always surprised at how easily a smile is returned. To me, Mexicans, for the most part, seem so friendly and polite – always eager to help. Just wondering how you would compare Mexicans and Cubans in that regard. Also, how would you compare costs between these two countries from your perspective?
I’m not a big fan of generalizing. My experience was not that great, but that could have been just my problem. The blonde hair and blue eyes don’t always blend in. As far as the cost of travel goes, Mexico is by far cheaper. Mexico also has not had an embargo put in place for the last 50 years. It is pretty evident that any country in the world that is shunned by the United States has a difficult time keeping up with the world. Very unfortunate.
Very well written, and extremely informative. It sounds like an experience that will not soon be forgotten.
We live in Mexico as well with our four kids. I want to visit Cuba too and I appreciate all this info. Great read. Thx!
I’m glad you enjoyed it Tina!
I was backpacking in Cuba in mid 90s. At that time we were issued paper money called “divisas” (looked like monopoly money). The people were desperate for money and used all kinds of rues to get it, such as feeding people in their homes, renting rooms, making arrangements for transportation to other cities, all of which was illegal. The people seemed very fearful of being found out and it was illegal for them to mix in any way with tourists. The store shelves were bare and we were taken to a hidden market in the jungle where we were able to buy food for a meal that we wanted to make for some cuban friends. Once in a restaurant some young cubans asked us in hushed tones if we had any Levis or tennis shoes we could give them in exchange for some fancy bixes of Cuban cigars (obviously stolen). A few Cubans xpressed that Fidel was their savior but most obviously despised him but would not dare say so. There was lots of fear and desperation. There was much we loved about Cuba but sighed in relief when our plane touched down in Mexico where we were welcomed by the friendly Mexicans. There is so much more to tell including how we.spent the night in a.Cuban jail (a.long story).
Wow Pamela, just Wow! That sounds like a crazy adventure compared to the way it is now. I also kissed the ground upon landing in Mexico.
Hi! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be okay.
I’m definitely enjoying your blog and look forward to new updates. https://goo.gl/maps/RLPFGxUQTms
Looking forward to my trip after lockdown