Cuba on the cheap – Budget Cuba mini guide

It is almost time. You travel to Cuba to discover this fascinating Caribbean Island. Perhaps you have heard stories about how expensive Cuba can be. Which we can acknowledge too. But if you have a low budget it is possible to travel Cuba on the cheap.

We spent one month in Cuba and spent for two persons 880 USD, flights excluded. Including a one way ticket Cancun – Havana we come to a final sum of 1100,- USD. I have to confess we travel on the cheap and sometimes we exaggerate in our budget lifestyle. Budget is important to us but we will always eat tasty and we will never sleep in a public toilet. Yes we have met someone who does that. Instead we choose for a comfy bed. (We make an exception for airport sleeping; find out how we do that, and why). 

Money

Travel Cuba on the cheap means you need to understand the two different currencies. It is not difficult to learn. There are two currencies. You have the CUP (also called moneda nacional or pesos cubanos) and you have the CUC (the peso convertible). The difference between the two is that the CUP is 1/25th of a CUC.  1 CUC resembles 1 dollar and for 1 CUC you will get 25 CUP.

Most of the time you will be charged in CUC’s because this is the common currency in the tourism industry. So your bed in the casa particular, your hotel, your wining and dining, your souvenirs and more will be charged in CUC’s. Locals use CUC’s as well. They need CUC’s to buy themselves luxury products. Like for example a fridge, a flatscreen or a fan.

If you want to travel Cuba on the cheap you should pay as much in CUP’s as you can. This means taking local buses, eating at food stalls and small living room restaurants, going to local supermarkets for your daily fruits, travel with camiones (special custom built trucks) and drinking your coffee at a local place for only 1 CUP.

Travel Cuba on the cheap
CUP vs CUC – quite easy to see the difference once you know them

The two Cuban currencies and scams

The two currencies look a bit similar. Once you are used to them you start to see the differences but in the beginning it takes a little effort. Be aware that a common scam is to give back CUP’s when you pay with CUC’s. Keep in mind that the average wage for a Cuban is around 40 CUC per month so an extra CUC comes in handy. We didn’t experience this scam ourselves but have heard of the scam several times.

What we did experience is that someone ‘forgets’ to give back the right amount of change. If you say something about it you will get a big smile and a sorry in return. And some extra change of course. 

Changing money

The easiest way to obtain the local currency is by bringing in foreign cash and change your cash notes for Cuban ones. There is a 10% tax on American dollars, a more economical choice would be to bring Euro’s.

Our travel Cuba on the cheap tip concerning where and how to get your money is the following. Only change a bit of money with an office at the airport. The rates downtown are more in your advantage. Do yourself a favour and change at a Cadeca (Cuban name of the currency exchange offices) in the city for better rates. You can change CUC for CUP if you like. We highly recommend you to change CUC for CUP because it helps you to save money and spend money at local places.

Sleeping

If you want to travel cheap in Cuba always sleep at a Casa Particular. This is the Cuban Airbnb. Staying over in this kind of local places gives you a little sneak peek in Cuban family life. You will have your own room. Have your own bathroom and in many cases the room comes with a fridge, AC and a fan as well. The rooms are clean and nice.

An average price is 20 – 25 CUC. You pay for the room, it doesn’t matter with how many persons you are. Most of the rooms can accommodate three persons and some even four. If you bargain you will be able to get a lower price. We managed most of the time to bargain a room down to 15 or 20 CUC. Even in capital city Havana we paid 15 CUC! Only in beach resort town Varadero on the North coast it appeared impossible to pay 15 CUC. You might be more lucky.    

Search for your room on the spot once you have arrived

For the best room deal it is wise not to book ahead. If you book ahead you always pay too much. (Unless your previous casa particular owner makes a call and can promise you a certain price of course) This is a sort of golden budget travel rule. I understand the necessity to feel safe and secure. But if you stretch your comfort zone a little bit and try to fix a room when you arrive at your next destination you will get a better price. And don’t worry, there are plenty of room vacancies.

Make use of the local chain of commission seekers

Another trick to reduce costs is to let the system work for you. Everywhere there are men who tell you they know a good place. Tell them the price you want to pay per night  and let the chain of men work for you. Be stubborn on the price you want to pay because they will always try to win a bit more with the deal. They will ask their friends, make some calls and come back with a nice room. They are happy with their commission and you are happy with their service, effortless room and price.

Travel Cuba on the cheap
Casa Particulares (CP) in Havana with the blue CP sign

Did you know that approximately 80% of the Cuban people don’t pay rent for their home?

Transportation

A simple budget rule concerning transportation is: ‘The faster, the more luxurious and more efficient you travel the more expensive it will be.’ Read more tips in our blog Travel on a budget – 10 budget travel lessons we had to learn too.

Public transportation

One of the best things in Cuba is that you can travel by public transportation for as cheap as 70 CUP cents (the price of the local bus in Havana). That is 1/35th of a US dollar! That’s almost for free. Choosing this option really helps you to stay within a small budget. Learn why we are public transportation lovers and how to optimize your trip by public transport.

Going from the airport to downtown Havana in a very cheap way

One of the best kept secrets is that you can save yourself a lot of money if you are willing to put some effort in it. When you arrive at Havana airport, terminal de vuelos internacionales, most of the people will get a taxi to Havana centro. With a taxi this ride will cost you around the 30 CUC. There is a way cheaper option. You only need to walk for 30 minutes. If you do so you can travel to Havana centro for 70 CUP cents. Which is 750 times cheaper than your ride in a taxi. That is easy money!

Check out the spot to catch the local bus on the map below. Walk from terminal 3 to terminal 2 . After terminal 2 you need to go to the main road:  Avenida Rancho Boyeros. Cross the road and walk to the left and wait at the bus stop. This is approximately 200 meters further down the road. Wait for bus 12, pay 1 CUP and travel almost for free.

Not to forget before you take the bus

Don’t forget to obtain some CUP’s for the bus at the airport or ask a local to change 1 CUC for 24 or 25 CUP’s. Good luck and present yourself your first night in Havana for free.

Also don’t forget to download Maps.Me for your Smartphone. This app allows you to navigate with offline maps. Which is a must in ‘wifiless’ Cuba. Download the maps before you enter Cuba otherwise you won’t have offline maps. Curious what the best travel apps are? Read our blog about The 18 best travel apps that shouldn’t miss on your next trip.

Taxi Collectivo

There are a couple of ways to travel cheap in Cuba. First of all you can grap a taxi collectivo. You will share an old and very cool car with – if you are lucky – 9 people stuffed in it. Stuffed and crowded you pay 3 CUC for more or less 1,5 hours of cultural fun.

Camiones

When you choose to travel by camiones you are definitely gentle for your pocket. This is one of the best ways to travel Cuba on the cheap. For 3 hours you pay a maximum price of 1 or 2 CUC’s. A camion is the Spanish word for truck. This vehicle is a converted truck prepared for public transportation. In most cases the result is a metal box with carved out windows and if you are lucky wooden benches. It is not comfortable. We did it many times and loved it. If you are in Cuba take a camion for one of your best Cuba experiences.

Travel Cuba on the cheap
A red camion in Havana – he brought us from Vinales in the West all the way to Havana

Hitchhiking

The last cheap option for transportation in Cuba is trying to hitchhike. I say ‘try’ because in Cuba there is not such a thing as free hitchhiking. In Cuba you have to pay for (almost) every service or product. This also means that Cubans don’t offer free rides to fellow Cubans. You need to pay. If you want to wait in the sun for, in a worse case scenario, a couple of hours you won’t be rewarded with a free ride but with a cheap ride to your destination.

The best strategy for a fair hitchhiking price includes bargaining and willing to lose a ride if the price is just not right for you. In the end you will be rewarded for your struggle because it is so much fun and cool to get a ride in ‘hitchhikeless’ Cuba.

 

Travel Cuba on the cheap
Hitchhiking to Havana – we had to wait for two hours before we got a ride

 

Do you already know this hitchhike website with information about the best hitchhiking spots in all countries of the world? Even with a page about Cuba!

Viazul

Viazul is the tourist bus company in Cuba. It is expensive compared to other alternatives. But you can enjoy the advantages of booking ahead and therefor be able to plan and as a result travel efficiently. If you like to be in control of your time and don’t want to tease yourself with stretching your comfort zone then Viazul is your company to book your transportation with. It is not a “Cuba on the cheap’ way of travelling but it is convenient if you are on a tight schedule. You pay on average 10 CUC per hour to travel with Viazul. 

Food

If you want to eat cheap in Cuba you need to look for cafeterias. These home selling places offer you fresh juices (prepare for a sugar bomb), egg and bread and coffee. It depends what they have and how much they have per day.  Our favorite snacks were fried eggs with bread. We ate lots of them and they charged around the 7 CUP’s for it.

Travel Cuba on the cheap
A typical pizza menu at a local cafeteria

We love pizza’s so we ate lots of pizza’s in Cuba. It is probably not the pizza you have in mind but we loved it and it is cheap. They price for a pizza pina – pineapple -, one of our favourite pizza’s, 15 CUP. Which is a good budget deal. Travel Cuba on the cheap means eating as local as you can. Eating pizza’s will not lead to a balanced week menu but it reduces costs.

A few times there was a kitchen available in the apartment we rented. You can also ask your casa particular host whether you are allowed to use their kitchen. This means you can cook your own meals. You can buy all of your ingredients at local prices in local markets. It is one of the best ways to travel Cuba on the cheap. The best part is – it also stimulates your creativity. You will be cooking all kind of different fried rice dishes, using beans and tropical fruits.

In all cities and towns there are local living room restaurants situated. It is quite hard to find them but so worth it. Their menu is delicious and very Cuban: arroz morro (rice and beans), a piece of meat and a side salad; most of the time cole, tomato and cucumber. We paid around 20 CUP for this delicious and filling meal.

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The arroz moro we ate at a local family restaurant situated in Havana

Drinking

Drinking on the cheap in Cuba is very simple. Buy yourself rum in a local supermarket for 6 CUC and have fun. Rum in Cuba is very cheap compared to other drinks. It is even possible to buy rum for 2,5 CUC. A beer is approximately 1 or 2 CUC in a bar or restaurant. A cocktail costs around 2 or 3 CUC. It depends where you buy it obviously. We drank rum as pure as we could. This means no ice, no soda and no other combination with a sweet drink. Plain rum.  Our favourite is rum of the brand Cubay listening to the beautiful name “anejo”.

Commission

Although we are hardcore budget travelers for more than two years now we took this little scam bait. We were in Havana and were eager to have a drink some place nice. Obviously we looked like we needed something and out of nowhere a couple appeared. They could guide us to a nice bar and we followed. They brought us to a nice ‘foreigner’ place. Recognizable by the fact that a lot of tourist girls dance salsa with Cuban men. Our guide asked for a drink. At that point I thought [email protected]#*%k this is  why he is so friendly. He wants a drink and kept on insisting. A beer wasn’t good enough, he wanted more.

Later on a local explained Cuba is a commission based country. When I buy a drink for that guy the next morning he will get commission on all the drinks we ordered that night. Including his drink. 

Travel Cuba on the cheap means: ‘Think twice if someone comes over to you and offers his or her help.’ They will get a commission for that ‘help’. You will probably never notice. It is a smooth process. But you will not get a good price because your discount is in the other guys’ pocket.

Help for a restaurant. A taxi. A casa particular. A nice club. A good souvenir. Advise for anything ends up in you paying more than necessary.  

Travel Cuba on the cheap also means learning to negotiate

It is one of the first things you you should try to learn if you don’t have the skills yet. Learn to negotiate and save yourself a lot of money. Cubans know how their bargain. It is a common thing in their culture. Negotiate about the price on markets for your fruits and vegetables, for your souvenirs and for accommodation. There is no travel Cuba on the cheap without bargaining.

Always keep in mind that you are perceived as a money tree when you travel around as a foreigner. Be aware, learn and develop a sense for normal local prices as soon as possible. If you bargain don’t make the mistake to think for the other party. Don’t be influenced too much by the fear of getting nothing. First off all there are hundred chances elsewhere and probably you will get what you want when you are reasonable. Good luck!

Internet

In Cuba there is no such a thing as a nice coffee bar with relaxing background music and free wifi. In Cuba you are only able to use internet outside in the fresh air or in a hotel. When you see a crowd staring in their mobile devices than you know you found a wifi spot. You can buy an Etecsa internet card via a person on the street for 3 CUC for an hour or you can buy your card in advance at an official Etecsa selling point for half the price. This will save you a couple of CUCs. And bring you probably a long waiting time and a chance they are out of cards. Welcome in Cuba.

Travel Cuba on the cheap
Etecsa Wifi internet card

Go online, fill in the code in the Etecsa portal and you are good to go.

Travel Cuba on the cheap – our bonus secrets

Cuba on the cheap secret #1

We brought our own oats with us from Mexico. Most mornings we had the oats for breakfast with a tropical fruit topping. You cannot buy oats in Cuba. My point is: ‘Bring the stuff you want to use in Cuba with you from back home since your can’t probably buy them in Cuba. Or you must be interested in rum?

 

Travel Cuba on the cheap
Our oats with fruta bomba in Matanzas

Cuba on the cheap secret #2

You can sell luxury goods in Cuba pretty easily. Especially skin products. They don’t import these goods so the black market rewards you with very good prices for bringing them in. A friendly Cuban lady in the Viazul bus told us she had just bought lotion for her skin for 30 CUC. You do the math. This is easy money. Selling goods can give you a nice return on your travel expenses.

Cuba on the cheap secret #3

Water is a necessity to survive. In Cuba buying water sometimes can be a pain in the ass. Why? Because they charge 2 CUC for a big bottle of water. Which is an outrageous price for water. Our solution to travel Cuba on the cheap is to travel with your own water purifiers. Thanks to these simple and cheap pills (sold by every drug store) you don’t need to buy a bottle of water every day. The purifiers saved us 100 CUC for one month. That is 10% of our budget. Wow!

After reading this blog you definitely will be able to travel Cuba on the cheap. Have fun and let us know in case you have other Cuba on the cheap tips.

More budget travel reading

 

Are you going to Cuba soon? Or plans for another trip?

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2 Replies to “Cuba on the cheap – Budget Cuba mini guide”

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