Some people are under the impression that Cuba is an expensive country to travel, and it is, if you stay in fancy hotels and eat in your typical tourist taunts. But by implementing the following tips, I found Cuba to be amongst the top five cheapest countries I’ve ever travelled. Here’s some tricks on how to save money in Cuba without skimping on the fun or scavenging for the experience:
Learn the Language
Usually you can get by pretty easily without learning the local language. In most countries, you expend little energy before you stumble upon a tourist centre or find yourself swapping travel tales with your new hostel buddies. But Cuba is very different. There are only a few tourist centres in major towns, not much internet and no hostels at all. If you are cluey enough to source a casa particular to stay in, it’s very unlikely your hosts will speak much English at all. This makes Cuba very daunting for the vast majority of non-Spanish speaking visitors. To travel by economically you need to be able to converse with locals: to arrange daily activities, coordinate cheap transport, barter for rooms, and order your evening mojito. Hands down to the chipped Cuban pavement, my best recommendation is: do a 4-day Spanish course when you land in Cuba. Most hosts can organise this for you, or you can put a notice up on CouchSurfing (a lot of Cubans who speak English are on CS). Generally, a 1-hour Spanish lesson will cost about USD $5. It’s cheap and you will save much more in the long-run.
If you’re not travelling like a local (as in you’re taking taxis and tourist buses) this is going to be your biggest expense in Cuba. Firstly, do not just go by the Lonely Planet in regards to transport. It tends to list only the touristy options and Cubas transport is ever changing and depends on demand. Luckily, I buddied up with the stingiest Italian I’ve ever met who refused to take any tourist buses. Instead, we travelled Cuba using mostly public buses, camiones and taxi collectivos. A camione (‘truck’ in Spanish) is generally an open-backed truck which costs from 2 cents to $1 for a three hour trip. Taxi collectivos are shared taxis which can either be caught from the Omnibus Terminal or the side of the road and never exceeded $5 for three hours. Compare this with a Viazul tourist bus which costs about $15 for the same length of journey. Another great reason to take local transport is because Viazul usually only have one bus per day, meaning you’re restricted to travelling by their timetable. For places that were really difficult to get to, such as Maria la Gorda, I found that sharing a taxi with three other people, having the taxi wait for us then drive us home again was nearly half the price of the Viazul bus. There was no public transport for this option so I’m very glad I compared the prices. L to R: A camione truck and a taxi collectivo
Accommodation will be another huge expense, but there are ways to keep the costs down. Stay with local Cuban families in casa particulares instead of the expensive hotels. Here’s a quick comparison of prices:
- To stay in moderately priced Hotel Club Amigo Costasur in Trinidad is $88 per night for 2 people
- To stay in a nice room in a casa particular is only $25 per night, and the price won’t rise if you have more than two people in the ‘habitación’
In Havana there are Hostel-style casas for only $5 per night! I stayed in Hamel Hostel and met a group of people travelling a similar route, so we all bunked up together and never paid more than $8 a night for a room. Another way we kept room costs down was by having our casa particular hosts call their friends in the next town to secure a room for us at the same or cheaper price. It also meant it was easier for our group to all find each other after splitting up and going to different towns. Make sure you only stay in casa particulares with this logo; ones without are illegal and the person could loose their house if they are caught hosting.
Food in Cuba can be ridiculously cheap if you know where to find it. There are “muy barato” street pizza shops and cafés everywhere that serve black coffee for 5 cents, bread with an assortment of fillings (pan con xxx) and sweet desserts for about 50 cents. Usually, the restaurants are a lot more expensive, especially the ones catering to tourists. There are, however, a select few state-run chain restaurants with very cheap prices. For example, there’s Pekin (in Havana, Matanzas and Santiago de Cuba), which serve delicious Chinese for about $1 a dish, or the El Rapido for cheap pizza and burgers. Other than these cheap places, eating at your casa particular is a tastier but slightly more expensive option at between $3-$5 per meal. Extra Awesome Tip: If you find yourself looking for a cheap restaurant, ask for the menu at the door. Once you’ve received it have a quick look and tell them that the food there is too expensive for you and do they have any cheaper food? A lot of the time they will tottle off, find another menu and come back with the “Cuban Prices” menu. L to R: The menu for a cheap café (1.00 = USD 25 cents) and fish in coconut sauce with sides for 4 CUC from our casa particular in Barcoa
Buying Stuff in Cuba
Definitely bring important hygiene products from home such as tampons, shampoo and moisturiser. Cuba has a huge problem with imported products making them either unavailable or expensive. Medicine is relatively cheap but be prepared to wait in long lines in the “Farmacia” to obtain them. When souvenir shopping I found that the cities were a bit cheaper than the small towns. For more interesting presents (rather than the usual communist hat, 1950s automobile artwork or Ché Guevara t-shirt) I found a cute hand-made art market on Calle Obispo in Havana. Hand-made, painted earrings for $1, yes please!
Partying and Drinking
Even though a Mojito in the average bar is only about $3, there are actually much cheaper options for drinking. Cuba’s rum (ron) is fine and tasty and seriously cheap! For $7 you can buy a 750ml bottle of Havana Club that is generally drunk on the rocks. Beer, unfortunately, isn’t such a bargain at about $1 a can from the supermarkets. Either buy from the stores and chill at your casa particlar drinking or buy whole bottles of rum with mixers cheap at the El Rapido. If you’re more craving for a cocktail then drinking them at the state-run restaurants is usually your cheapest option. The bestest and cheapest mojitos we found were at El Mandarin restaurant in Cienfuegos for 90 cents. When on a night out most of the popular salsa clubs will cost around $3 to enter, this is unavoidable. L to R: A $3 mojito with a free deck chair and view, and a drinking competition with our bar man in El Mandarin restaurant in Cienfuegos
Sometimes taking a tour is inescapable. But a lot of the time you can do it your own way by taking public transport or sharing taxis. Speaking a bit of Spanish in these situations is tremendously useful. Always ask more than one person about transport or tours and haggle, barter and debate over prices. If a place is difficult to get to, I often found that sharing a private taxi with a few people was much cheaper than taking a tour. Be careful of dishonest locals who may try to rip you off. In Baracoa we were told by a young Cuban guy that we needed him as a guide to climb the El Yunque table top mountain. He failed to tell us, until after we’d already paid, that a guide was actually included in the cover charge of the park, meaning we ended up paying for two guides for a trek that only needed one. Try to be aware of what you need to pay for and what you don’t, this will save you loads in the long run. Extra tip: The Tobacco farms in Viñales are free to tour and often the owner often won’t even ask you to buy anything! Cuba truly is a fascinating country and travelling in Cuba can be a bit like stepping back in time… L to R: Ché Guevara statue in Santa Marta, the bay and tabletop mountain in Baracoa, the square and church in Santiago de Cuba and a tobacco farmer in Viñales
How much I spent
The following daily expenditure was calculated from my travel in Cuba, which included sharing my room in casa particulares with 1-2 other people, taking mostly public transport but sometimes the Viazul bus, eating at a mixture of cafés, casa particulares and state-run restaurants, drinking bottles of rum bought from the supermarket, occasionally buying drinks out and sightseeing by the cheapest option. I didn’t buy any souvenirs, clothes or hygiene products.
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Cost of Cuba Daily Budget Breakdown:
|Place (per day)||Daily average in Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC)||Daily average in US Dollars (USD)|
|Average Daily Expenses for Cuba||28.51 CUC||$28.51|
|Playa Larga||17.88 CUC||$17.88|
|Santiago de Cuba||36.07 CUC||$36.07|
|Viazul bus from Baracoa to Havana||66 CUC||$66|
|Diving in Maria la Gorda||49 CUC||$49|