Now, when I say shoestring budget I don’t mean going there completely broke – even though Cuba has two national currencies, magic beans are definitely not one of them. What I mean is that, while every vacation costs money, Cuba gives you an opportunity to really squeeze that nickel until the buffalo poops, so to speak.
For all you non-Americans, this means that your money can go a really long way in Cuba but only if you know what you’re doing!
The important thing is that you do your research and always budget a little extra than what you’re anticipating to spend. Unexpected situations do happen sometimes and you don’t want to be caught unprepared. Opportunities to save money will mostly crystalize when you’re already in Cuba – cheap but delicious meals on the street, rides with local taxis, accommodation in an illegal housing; you can’t really make a bulletproof plan for all that so err on the side of financial caution.
Before I move on, I’d like to say a few words about the currency in Cuba. There are two – the National Peso and the Cuban Convertible peso. Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is pegged 1:1 to the US dollar and it’s the currency you will mostly use while staying in Cuba. CUC is used to pay for luxury items – accommodation, bottled water, meals in restaurants, the internet, car rentals, and so on. The national peso (CUP) is poor man’s money – it’s what most locals are paid in. One CUC will get you 24 CUP and with CUP you can buy from street vendors, on the market, and ride in jam-packed inter-city buses.
For a complete breakdown on Cuban currencies and other forms of payment in Cuba, check out this article – you will also find out why you’re going to get ripped off when you try to exchange US dollars for CUC in Cuba.
Let’s move on to HOW you can immerse yourself in Cuban culture without breaking the bank. I’ll give you a complete breakdown of your accommodation, transportation, food, and activities options and several options that you can choose from for each.
Sleeping in Cuba
Let’s do away with the hotels immediately – they are expensive and most of them are run down. I swear that the Cubans are using a different star system than the rest of the world – a 5-star hotel is 4 stars at best anywhere else in the world and 2-star places should have a minus sign added in front of the stars. Still, you’re not coming to Cuba to lounge around in your hotel, right?
However, if you’re dead set on it, budget around 30 CUC for a horrible night at a flea-infested room and around 400-600 CUC for what passes for 5 stars in Havana.
This is much more up my alley and I’m sure it’s going to be appealing to you as well. Casas Particulares are very popular in Cuba, being their (much more colorful) versions of BnBs. Prices for the night range from 20 to 205 CUC – the later are very exclusive accommodations in popular beach destinations or smack bang in the middle of Havana’s most desirable neighborhoods. The owners will usually charge you per night and not per person so the cost can be divided among several people if you’re willing to sleep like sardines. Use GenCuba to book your dream Casa without any hitches.
Hostels are a recent addition to Cuba’s tourist offer. Smart owners of some Casas Particulares realized that they could make a lot more money if they cram several beds into one room and advertise their casa as a hostel. Word of warning – these hostels are not as maintained as proper Casas Particulares and they will most likely be crowded.
Still, if you’re looking for budget accommodation there’s no beating this price (legally, I mean) – you’ll pay anywhere from 4 to 8 CUC, depending on the location. Hostels Club is your best bet for finding this type of accommodation in Cuba.
Adventurers and backpackers will love this. Campisimos are…well, they are sort of camping grounds scattered all over the island. Some of them have small cabins that you can rent out for the night. However, they are not easy to find and are even more difficult to come to. They are usually located in the middle of nowhere and public transport won’t get you even close to them. However, these ‘roughing it’ prices can be amazing – anywhere from 2 to 8 CUC for a night. Reservations – non-existent. Simply show up and hope there’s a front desk somewhere. You will find a list of campisimos on Cuba Junky.
As everywhere else, you can stay in illegal housing in Cuba as well. Basically, there are plenty of people who are willing to rent you a room for a night or two, but under the radar. They don’t have a license to do it and in doing so they are avoiding rather substantial government taxes.
The risk for you as a tenant is minimal – you can get thrown out by the police in the middle of the night but that’s about it. Your host, on the other hand, risks plenty – the fines are pretty high and people have lost their houses in the past thanks to this sort of behavior. However, this is pretty common practice there – if your Cuban host is willing to risk it you can get a room for anywhere from 3 to 8 CUC, depending on the city.
Most prices here are negotiable, except the ones in campisimos and hotels, but even there you can probably make a dent in pricing if you’re good at haggling so haggle often and mercilessly. Still, budget at least 15 CUC for every night, even if you plan to stay in illegal housing and campisimos for the entire duration of your stay. You never know when you’re going to have to stay in a hotel due to unforeseen circumstances.
Budget for Transport in Cuba
How you travel around Cuba is going to depend on what you’re planning to visit. Getting around cities is relatively easy – your options are a taxi, local bus, and various rentals; cars, bikes, or motorcycles. However, things get complicated when traveling over the entire island. If you know a couple of tricks, you will be able to save a pretty penny.
Renting a car with a driver
If you want to relax and simply enjoy the views without worrying about driving, renting a car with a driver is the way to go. Keep in mind that this isn’t cheap – there aren’t that many drivers willing to make longer trips (let’s say 500 km) and they will try to skin you. Ask at your casa particular (or anywhere else you’re staying) for a contact of a reliable driver. You will probably pay around 10-20 CUC more this way because of a deal drivers have with people who send tourists their way but that’s fine – take the driver’s number and negotiate all your future fares with him directly. The quotes you’ll get at first are outrageous; 300 CUC for a 500 km trip is way too much. Drive a hard bargain and you will be able to bring the price down to 100-150 CUC.
There are several different types of taxi services in Cuba – tourist taxis, taxis particulares, and communal taxis (almendrones). Tourist taxis are government-sanctioned to transport tourists and you’re told that they are your only option here in Cuba. That’s not true. They are expensive and the fares can range anywhere from 0.5 to 1 CUC per kilometer. I’m told that if you’re taking a longer round-trip you might be able to bring them down to 0.4 CUC per kilometer if you have a silver tongue (I never managed to go under 0.55 CUC so I refuse to believe in this urban myth). Taxis particulares function pretty much the same except they’re not owned by the government.
Getting around Cuba will be a lot cheaper if you get the hang of using communal taxis. They drive predetermined routes that cost from 10 to 20 CUP. If the driver can tell you’re a tourist you’re going to get charged in CUC so it pays to know a bit of Spanish.
Getting around Cuba in a taxi can be an adventure all of its own because you will be going around with someone knowledgeable. Drive a hard bargain so your budget trip doesn’t end up costing you an arm and a leg!
Bici and Coco Taxis
These small taxis litter Havana –they are a bit of an attraction, at least for me. Bicitaxis are bikes fitted with one to two seats and they usually cost the same as regular car taxis. However, you can drive down the price to 0.5 CUC per kilometer if you’re a regular customer.
Coco Taxis are…well, I don’t know what they are, really but they are an attraction. They resemble large egg and are pulled by mopeds. CoCo’s are priced at 0.5 CUC per kilometer but you run the risk that the driver asks you to step out and help push if the climb is too steep. Still, they are a great way to experience Havana.
Trains in Cuba are run down and grubby – there are no sleeping cars, only seats and they tend to be crowded. The timetable is almost non-existent; trains run every 2, 3, or 4 days, pretty much as the mood strikes them I guess. I wouldn’t rely on them too much but they are relatively cheap. For foreigners, a one-way ticket from Havana to Santiago de Cuba comes to about 30 CUC.
All I can say is: avoid them if you want to save a buck. The fares are very expensive and a flight from Havana to Santiago de Cuba will set you back for about $300. Flights are pretty much always late so you can’t even count on them to get you somewhere in time.
If you don’t want to fly and you don’t want to rent a car, your best option, in that case, is Viazul. Viazul is a bus company that caters mostly to tourists and the buses are pretty nice – air-conditioned, well maintained, and, most importantly, reliable and punctual. There are several other bus options, but in my experience, Viazul is the best. The image below will give you an idea of Viazul costs and routes.
Again, bargain hard with taxi drivers and rentals if you want to get a good deal. There’s little that you can do about bus fares but they are reasonable in any case.
Eating Like a Pauper or a King
The choice, my friend, is entirely up to you. One thing’s for sure: you won’t do much cooking in Cuba. You won’t have a kitchen most likely and you won’t feel like it either. Still, there are ways to save money and still stay reasonably fed.
If you’re staying in a casa make sure to opt for breakfast: platefuls of fresh fruit, bread, eggs, and buns, with freshly squeezed juice and coffee for around 3 to 5 CUC. This should give you enough stamina to go through the day.
And you’re going to need it. Cuba is hot and you’re going to be drinking a lot of water. Most stores will sell 1.5-liter bottles for around 2 CUC but do a bit of searching. You can find corner stores selling 5-liter bottles for less than that. Keep in mind that tap water isn’t drinkable so this is one expense you shouldn’t cut corners on.
Try to avoid local restaurants if you’re hungry during the day – all of them are pretty hit and miss and you never know what you’re going to get. Some paladares – privately owned small restaurants – offer good food but make sure to get a recommendation or read online reviews. Prices can vary; from 10 CUC for pasta meals to 200 CUC for more elaborate luncheon experiences.
You will soon realize that breakfast is pretty much all you need to get through most of the day if you’re staying hydrated. If you get a bit peckish but don’t want to sit down for lunch, grab a pizza or a hot dog from street vendors – it’s not the best meal in the world but it’s going to keep you going and it costs a couple of CUP.
When it comes to dinner, there’s a lot of variety – inexpensive restaurants will cost you around 5 CUC per person and mid-range restaurants usually charge around 15 – 20 CUC for a three-course meal for 2 people. Again, you can definitely spend up to 200 CUC in fancier places but I don’t recommend it – it’s not worth the money. Dinners at casas particulares range from 8 to 15 CUC, depending on what you’re eating.
As you can see, it’s possible to get through the day with only 5 CUC to your name and a bottle of water. However, you will be eating only hot dogs and pizzas for the duration of your stay. I usually budget around 20 CUC and spend around 15 and I never go hungry – I advise you to do the same.
Partying and Activities
Here’s one area where you can spend thousands – depending on your proclivities. I’m going to assume that we all enjoy an occasional beer or a rum and coke now and then so I’ll be focusing on that. You’re on your own for any of the more…illegal activities.
Tourist beer (notice how there’s pretty much ‘tourist everything in Cuba?) is around 1 CUC in decent establishments. The price is going to go up in classier ones or at places around the beach – expect to pay around 3 CUC in that case. That’s for imported beer. Local beer is cheaper and usually costs around 0.5 CUC – if you can stomach it, go for it!
Prices of rum vary significantly: from 5 CUC for a run of the mill rum to around 20 for a bottle of Anejo. Prices of any rum-based cocktails are from 1 CUC and up, depending on the establishment.
Partying Cuban style, however, means that you won’t be frequenting bars that much at all. You will hang out at the Malecon (sea wall where locals chat, drink, and listen to music) or in the La Rampa – area close to the Malecon that is bursting with life on Fridays and Saturdays.
Things are getting better re-Internet in Cuba but they’re still far from ideal. To access the Internet you’re going to have to know Wi-Fi hotspots that are available in every town/city. Wi-Fi hotspots are pretty common in Havana but scarce on the rest of the island.
To save up on the Internet make a list of things you absolutely have to do and write your messages offline before you connect. For more tips, check out this page.
Yep, you’re going to have to pay up to leave the country! Cuba charges a 25 CUC fee at the airport when you leave the country and there really isn’t any way to get around that. My advice to you is that you put 25 CUC in your passport once you get into the country and save them for the fee – most airports won’t take other currencies or credit cards and you will be forced to leave the queue and exchange your money.
Is The Bare Minimum a Smart Thing to Budget For?
Not really. Let’s tally everything up – accommodation, transport, food, and activities – and see how much money you need to get by. If we assume that you will be spending on the low end for everything you can probably scrape by with 25 CUC per day (that’s with illegal housing and without inter-city travel –you can even throw in a couple of beers and still be near that amount).
However, you will probably move around a lot and you won’t want to live on street corner pizzas and hot dogs the whole time you’re there. Remember, you will be getting what you pay for in this case – bad food, bad accommodation, and even worst beer.
Budget at least around 60 CUC per day (accommodation and everything included) and try to monitor your spending. If you’re frugal and careful you will spend less – even if you spend that much it still won’t break the bank and you will have a great time!