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After spending five days in Havana, one thing is crystal clear; cash is king in communist Cuba. Before I left for my trip, I knew that cash would be the primary way to pay for things, but I figured I would at least try to use my credit cards at some of the nicer restaurants and in the more well-known hotels. But to my dismay, I never once was able to use any of my American-issed credit cards in Cuba. Even at the iconic Hotel Nacional, we weren’t able to pay for our mojitos with plastic.
As I mentioned in my last post, I preemptively withdrew Euros instead of USD to exchange into the Cuban tourist currency, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). When exchanging USD for CUC you get hit with a 10% penalty tax that isn’t imposed on any other currency. The USD to Euros to CUC method proved to be a great decision and helped save a nice chunk of money. When I told other American tourists about my strategy, they were disappointed for not considering the same strategy. I’ve read that Canadian dollars can be a good choice as well for this little trick.
How Much Cash Should I Bring to Cuba?
When traveling to Cuba, it’s a good idea to be a little liberal with how much cash you bring since it can be tough to find a working ATM. Cuba is still a relatively cheap destination to visit, but how much cash you’ll need to bring will obviously depend on things like the length of your stay, souvenirs you want to bring home and how much you like to eat and drink. For reference, our meals were typically around $7 per person, and the drinks were dirt cheap compared to American prices.
My wife and I took an hour-long ride around Havana in a beautiful 1951 Chevy Convertible for only $30 and picked up two small pieces of art from a street vendor for $2 each. But just like any tourist destination, if you’re not careful, you can easily end up overpaying for cheap souvenirs, taxi rides or fake cigars.
What If I Run Out of Cash?
You can exchange currencies at many of the large hotels, and at various “Casa de Cambios” throughout the city. Some things you should be aware of are that hotels might charge an additional 3% fee, and you’ll need your passport to exchange currency at a Casa de Cambio. Also, if you try to exchange your left over CUC back into Euros or USD, you’ll pretty much be ripped off with the exchange rate. The best practice is to exchange half of the cash you bring at the airport when you arrive, and then when you’re running low, estimate how much you’ll need for the rest of the trip and exchange accordingly at a hotel or Casa de Cambio.
The Bottom Line
I had a few credit cards in my wallet during my trip to Cuba to use while I was still on American soil, but once on the island, I found my credit cards were pretty much useless. However, the nature of traveling to Cuba is changing very rapidly. Before long, there will be numerous direct flights from the United States, and hopefully plastic will soon become a more viable option to use for purchases made in Cuba. Until then, cash is king.