Known as one of the most rising travel destinations in 2016 and 2016 – Cuba is on everyone's lips. But how big does your travel budget for this dream destination actually have to be? Where's the best location to stay and what do you have to expect? I'll be focusing on all those questions and will get you Havana-ready in no time. Lean back, enjoy a Cuba libre and get prepared for your Caribbean adventure.
The best travel time
When is actually the best time to visit Cuba? Well, it depends on several facts you should consider. Cuba has a tropical climate and official dry season lasts from November till April, followed by rainy season from May till October. The island also lies in the hurricane area. Hurricane season in the Caribbean starts in June and ends at the beginning of November, so the safest time to visit Havana would probably lie between December and April but this would also mean that you're choosing the high season when accommodations are probably more expensive.
A friend of mine and I traveled to Cuba during August and the weather was simply perfect. Blue skies all day long, an average temperature of 99°F / 37°C and there was only one thunderstorm, far outside of Havana and one evening with fifteen minutes of rain in Varadero, other than that it was the Caribbean weather you'd expect.
So, if you want to be on the safe side relating to hurricane season, I'd say you should choose somewhere between February and April as your travel time, however not between Christmas and New Year's Eve but June to August is also an option I can only recommend.
Flying to Cuba is not as expensive as you think it is but it always depends on your starting point and your destination. Search for the cheapest dates to fly using the ITA Matrix (Learn all about the Matrix in my >>How to find the cheapest flight<< blog post) or Google Flights and book them afterwards with Skyscanner or Momondo. Cheapest time to fly to Cuba during off-season is June 2017. If you're starting from London, June 1st till June 15 would be your date. From either New York City or Los Angeles, June 19 till August 1st offers the cheapest flights.
- Option A: Havana roundtrip.
Both of your flights would arrive and leave at the international Airport in Havana. From London Heathrow, your roundtrip costs approx. 396£ / 461€, from New York JFK $273 / 254€ and starting in Los Angeles LAX it would be a $355 / 254€.*
- Option B: Varadero roundtrip.
If you choose the international Airport on the Hicacos peninsula, 75 miles / 120 km north of Havana, the only airport with a cheap flight would be LaGuardia in New York at a charge of $409 / 381€. It's way cheaper to fly to Havana from London and Los Angeles, for example.
*Flight rates may vary
Finding the right accommodation can get quite difficult in Cuba. You should tell government-funded and not-government-funded hotels apart and compare rates and reviews online. Government-funded hotels are usually offering rooms at a higher rate as necessary but can look more nicely since they're, well, funded. But there are also some gems among the not-funded ones.
Havana is a huge city, so first of all, you should find the right area to stay in. I can only recommend Old-Havana warmly to you. It's the historic city center which is also part of the UNESCO – World Heritage and its architecture is nothing to sneeze at.
It is a fascinating mix of splendid structures from the past and decay as you wouldn't find it in your hometown. The change is also noticeable. Houses and streets are getting renovated, life occurs equally in those partly heavily derelict buildings and on the city's streets. Music on every corner, classic car follows classic car. I promise, you'll be flabbergasted.
Me and my friend stayed at the hotel Mercure Sevilla Havane back then, right next to the Capitol.
Architecturally, it's one of the most beautiful buildings in this area. Baroque meets Colonial style, high walls, the love for the detail is even displayed in the floor of the lobby, the rooms are relatively plain but clean. Our room was located at the eight floor, which provided a breathtaking view across the city. There are also two restaurants in the hotel. One right next to the lobby, in the center of the building and in the open and the other one of the rooftop. Unfortunately, the rooftop-restaurant had been closed during our stay, so we couldn't enjoy this one. Music groups from the street played and danced every day and night at the restaurant near the lobby.
Sadly, the rates for the rooms have increased since our stay in 2015 and you have to calculate with $54 / 50€ p. p. for one night in a double room.
It's a good thing that AirBnB has arrived in Cuba by now ;)
You can find a whole apartment in Old-Havana for only $23 / 21€ per night (3 people max.) with superhost Carlos. If you don't want to deny yourself that stunning Colonial style, then you'll find shelter with superhost Olga. A private room with A/C, TV and washing machine will only cost you $39 / 36€ per night.
Finding an AirBnB in Varadero is a bit more difficult. In order for you to be able to enjoy the white sand beach and the unbelievably turquoise water, you should stay on the headland of Varadero. AirBnB-host Alain offers the best price with $77 / 72€ per night for an entire accommodation with two bedrooms and space for five people.
My friend and I stayed at the Meliá Marina, right at the tip of the peninsula and when I've seen the five stars at the German webpage Hotelreservierung.de back then, I was kinda put off.
A five star hotel.
I neither have the money nor the right attire for something fancy like this but things didn't turn out the way I expected them to. The Meliá Marina is a real gem. It's not too big, it's neat, it's nice and the staff is very friendly and welcoming. It's not your characteristic all-inclusive accommodation which targets the party raging community, no, quite the opposite. Serenity is ruling this place, the beach, which is reachable via a small bridge, is open to the public. So, you're blending in with the locals – no animation – and you will find yourself in the middle of a Caribbean paradise. Get lunch at a small and open-built restaurant right at the beach and soak it all in.
I haven't been as relaxed as in Varadero ever again.
Down to the present day, I cannot believe that one night in a double room is at a rate of only $37 / 34€ p. p. That implies that one week at the Meliá will only cost you $253 / 235€ per person.
I am really not a big fan of those all-inclusive hotel complexes but the Meliá Marina convinced me that sometimes there are exceptions.
What else is important?
- You won't find any supermarkets around Cuba, only corner shops which offer everything from rims up to groceries and sewing kits and if they run out of water for example, well, they have to wait until the next delivery shows up and nobody knows exactly when this will happen.
- The cheapest way to get around Havana are classic car cabs. It can get adventurous but you can make a deal with the drivers and negotiate a fixed price for the route.
- The nationwide bus system works perfectly fine and is extremely cheap ($10 / 9,32€ one-way to Varadero). So, if you want to safe some money, not renting a car, you can confidentially choose the bus to get across the country. But make sure to book your ticket in time online at Viazul, since they're sold out very quickly.
- There are two different currencies in Cuba. One for the tourists, called the CUC and one for the locals, the CUP. You won't get at the CUP and the CUC is at a exchange rate of 1:1 with the USD. Best is to exchange your dollars right at the airport after your arrival.
- You will need a tourist card as a visa. You can get it right at the Cuban embassy, with several airlines or online. Some travel agencies offer those cards online. They cost something between $38 / 35 € and $43 / 40€.
- You will need a travel insurance for Cuba. Best is to ask your insurance agency for a proof written in Spanish, so you can verify it once asked (Find out more about travel insurance >>here<<)
- Such as government-funded hotels, there are also government-funded and not-funded restaurants. If you want to go out for breakfast, lunch or dinner, you should always choose a not-government-funded restaurant. The food tastes way better there and it's cheaper. You can easily recognize the difference between those two kind of restaurants. The government-funded ones are the only ones with enough money to look like a real restaurant. Most not-funded restaurants represent themselves in a backyard, with a few tables and chairs and a small kitchen, mostly in a hut or something like that. It may look kinda deterrent at first sight but this is where you will find the best food.
- WiFi spots are few and far between. There is only one internet provider in Cuba and this is the state itself. Some hotels offer WiFi but you have to buy a card for one hour and log onto the internet. This may take some time and won't guarantee you access.
Cuba is a fascinating country which should definitely be on top of your bucket list. There are so many things and places to discover. Culture, architecture, classic cars – all of that will send you back in time.
And, as you have seen by now, it's also affordable at the cost of . So, what's holding you back?
Until then, happy traveling.