The US Embargo that isolated Cuba is dropping as fast as a chicken without a parachute. The country is going to change fast, which means tips like these below will probably have to be overhauled in the next 12 months. Still, over one million Canadians visit Cuba every year, making up 40% of all visitors to the country. We enjoy Cuba’s weather, its people, beaches, and some might argue, the break from our American neighbours. If you’re planning your winter holiday in Cuba, here are some handy tips.
1. The Dual Currency
Cuba’s dual currency is confusing for everyone. Tourists use the Convertible Peso (CUC), while locals use the Cuban peso (CUP), which is valued almost 25 times less. Tourists can’t buy in local stores at local rates, while locals are effectively frozen out of the tourist economy. US currency is subject to surcharges and lower rates, so only bring Canadian dollars. And watch out for the common scam of being charged in CUC, but given change in CUP.
2. Your convertible peso goes far
Locals working in tourism have a distinct economic advantage. Tipped in CUC, they’re effectively earning 25 times more on the peso. A few convertible pesos in tips are greatly appreciated, and often lead to significantly better service.
3. Save $25CUC for departure tax
Come back to Cuba, but before you leave, don’t forget to leave the entire country a nice tip with this $25CUC departure tax. Make sure you have cash as no credit or debit cards are accepted.
4. Close but no cigar
Cuba famously makes the best cigars in the world. They cost a fortune at home, and only less so in Cuba. Watch out for counterfeits, typically sold with the line of “my brother works in the factory.” Top brands – Montecristo, Cohiba, Romeo y Julietta – are expensive even at the source.
5. If you’re taking an informal tour, agree on price first
Tourist dollars are the prize. Separating you from them is the contest. Always agree on prices beforehand for sightseeing, boat and snorkelling trips or prepare for extreme gaps in what you thought you had to pay, and what you actually do.
6. Bring gifts for organizations
Many Canadians bring toys, stationery and clothing to give to locals. There is lots of controversy as to whether this does more harm than good. Best advice I got: tip for good service; give gifts to friends; donate to charities and organizations.
7. Internet is slow and not always available
For a country that prides itself on education, the lack of Internet access is disappointing. Some hotels have slow, expensive access. The Good News: the Cuban government has set up 118 internet providers around the island. The Bad News: it will cost around $4.50 an hour - way beyond the financial reach of most locals, and wildly expensive for tourists too. This is all likely change dramatically as Cuba opens up in the coming year.
8. Tip according to local standards
Here’s a guide to how much to tip:
Taxi drivers: 15-20% of the fare in CUC
Porters: CUC 1.00 or more if you have lots of bags
Chambermaids: CUC 1.00 per day
Guides: CUC 1.50 per day per person (if you’re with a group)
9. Eat in somebody else’s home
Part of Cuba’s economic reform has been the opening of private restaurants, known as “paladares.” With tables set up in living rooms, patios and gardens, local chefs and homely service are wowing tourists in Havana. Cuba Absolutely has compiled an excellent list of paladares in Havana.
10. Don’t take any local money home with you
Unless you want the money as a souvenir, or plan on going back in the future, try not to leave the country with any Convertible Pesos. The currency is not accepted outside of Cuba, and no bank will change it for you.
Check out Here is Havana, an outstanding blog from US-expat and Havana local journalist Connor Gory.
Every year, a research organization named Skytrax surveys millions of passengers around the world to come up with the definitive list of the World’s Top Airports. It’s ranking looks at 39 different airport services, based on reviews from over 11 million people travelling through 240 airports. There’s dozens of categories for Most Improved, Low Cost, Continents, Shopping etc, but no Worst Airport, so I added that myself.
Changi Airport, Singapore
Clearly, Singapore understands that passengers want more from their airport experience than being herded into gates like cattle, frisked like terrorists, and fed stale overpriced sandwiches stuffed with mystery meat. Changi’s free amenities (free being a defining factor) include internet, massage chairs, and a cinema to help pass the time during unexpected delays. Pleasing aesthetics come in the form of waterfalls, green spaces, even a butterfly garden. Clean, and efficient, Changi is currently rated the world’s best airport.
Incheon International Airport, South Korea
South Korea has been competing with and often outpacing their Japanese neighbour’s economy, automobile industry, and airports too. Incheon runs like a finely tuned, well oiled machine. Surgically clean and easy to navigate, survey respondents made special mention of the friendly and helpful service, along with amenities like showers, where passengers can rent towels for just $2. There’s an affordable transit hotel located in the airport itself too, and of course free internet, something most major US airports feel need to charge/fleece you for. The survey awards points for immigration and customs, and Incheon leaps ahead here too, with line-ups whizzing through
Munich Airport, Germany
Munich tops the list of Europe’s Best Airport, ranking 3rd overall in 2014. Survey respondents enjoyed contrasting it to Frankfurt, which falls further down the list, although one would assume smaller airports are easier to manage. How about free coffee or tea and a newspaper with your Bavarian sausage? A nice touch appreciated by passengers travelling in economy. The airport’s modern interior is elegant yet functional, good signage, with all the efficiency you’d expect from a German airport.
Hong Kong International Airport, Hong Kong
Hong Kong is one of only three 5-star rated airports, the other being Changi Singapore and Incheon in South Korea. Is there a coincidence that the three highest rated airports are in Asia? In the movie Up in the Air, George Clooney makes a stereotype that one should always get in lines with Asian passengers, who are efficient and move quickly through the system. No surprise then that Hong Kong is praised for its efficiency through the gate, check-in counters, even security. It also got full marks for having views of the runways and planes, a great selection of food options, public transport, cleanliness and, being Hong Kong, excellent Duty Free shopping.
Leave it to the Swiss to make everything run like clockwork. Zurich is prized for ambience and views, service, information and public transport to and from the airport. Yes, apparently you can set your watch to the train schedules. The self-service check in machines offer 15 languages, the toilets are spotless. Bare in mind, when the signs say it will take you 12 minutes to walk to your gate, they mean it.
Vancouver International Airport, Canada
YVR proudly remains the Best Airport in North America, cracking the Skytrax Top 10 list dominated by Asian and European terminals. I personally believe it belongs in the Top 3, but that might have something to do with the fact that YVR is my home airport, and is always a pleasure to return to. Renovations for the Winter Olympics helped create a spectacular bright space, complete with First Nations Art, water ponds, and new, reasonably priced restaurants. I feel a great deal of pride watching passengers ogle at the giant fish tank, with its luminous floating jellyfish, or the landmark Bill Reid sculpture in the Departures Hall. Free internet all around, and massive kudos for free baggage carts, in contrast to other major North American airports that feel compelled to nickel and dime passengers at every opportunity.
My Worst Airport Experiences
Africa’s three best airports are located in South Africa, still benefitting from renovations for the World Cup in 2010. My least fond airport memories lie elsewhere on the continent. In Addis Ababa, I waited two hours for my bags to show up, with no food, rank washrooms, and nobody knowing anything about nothing. The worst check-in chaos I’ve experienced was in Dubai, where Nigerian passengers overloaded with commercial goods practically stampeded anyone in their way. In Europe, I recall the hot Slovenian transfer shuttle that waited until the bus was jammed with passengers from the plane, and then drove ten metres across the maintenance road to the entrance gate. Ten metres! Security flagged me in Cairo for some reason, twice, and how could I forget Houston’s ridiculously long-winded double screening process, under the shadow of posters depicting the Twin Towers in flames?
Travel is stressful enough folks. Give us somewhere clean to eat, freshen up, relax, and check our email without taking out a mortgage. Is that too much to ask?
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.