Cuba with Kids: How We Did it, Easy, Fun, and Legal

We took our two kids (then ages 14 and 10) to Cuba for Spring Break 2017, and while this was before the current administration moved to restrict travel, how we traveled remains legal.  We did both an organized tour and a few days on our own at an Airbnb, which was the perfect mix of a little hand-holding and the freedom to make up our own agenda. The current administration has issued a travel warning due to the lack of assistance for U.S. citizens in Cuba following the closure of the U.S. embassy, but not an outright ban. This is a political issue, and one with which we strongly disagree. We felt safer in Cuba than we have in other travels, including the U.S. With that said, these are the highlights of what we did. 
Getting There

This is improving all the time, even under the restrictions. We flew Jet Blue from SFO to Fort Lauderdale, then into Cuba. At the time, Alaska Airlines offered direct flights from LAX, but the timing did not work for us. The number of flights getting into Cuba is still relatively low, making early booking a good idea.

Booking the flight was easy, but then the weather got in the way. About an hour before we were to leave for our red eye flight, we got notice that our flight to Ft. Lauderdale was delayed and we would miss our connection. While the flight into Cuba from Florida is short, they are not plentiful. We were told it would be days until they could get us to Havana. I stopped breathing. We’d miss the tour and by the time we got there, Spring Break would be over.

It was a tense call, but Jet Blue found a way to get us on a flight into Santa Clara, Cuba, a few hours away from Havana. Once there, we were able to easily negotiate for a taxi to drive us to Havana.

Travel VISA
This was much easier than we expected, even in a chaotic airport terminal. Jet Blue has a desk set up for Cuban Visas that is obviously marked and easy to spot. We walked off our plane and saw the desk right away. Within 10 minutes, we each had our Visas. The cost was $50 per person.
Money
We took Euro instead of dollars to avoid the conversion tax put on dollars. Once we landed, we converted the money at the airport because we had to negotiate a taxi from Santa Clara to Havana. Our hotel could have converted the money, too.

Without the ability to use American credit cards in Cuba, we had been worried about running out of money. This is part of the reason that the tour and Airbnb appealed to us: we were able to prepay those before our trip using standard credit cards. With lodging and many meals covered, the $1K was enough to get us through.

The one unexpected cash cost was checking our bags home on Jet Blue. Jet Blue should allow people to prepay for their luggage because it was chaotic at the check in desk with people struggling to dig up cash or running to join the slow line to covert money because only CUC was accepted. The word while waiting to check luggage was that they would take American dollars, but with a fee. That would have been okay, but it wasn’t true.

Traveling with a large amount of money worried us before we left, but we felt entirely safe in Cuba. Both places we stayed had safes, and while we did put our cash in there when we went out, it didn’t feel like that level of safety was needed. We were careful with our money, but we never worried about pick pockets while walking around.

The Tour

Based on online reviews, we booked through Cuba Explorer. One of the major appeals is that they had a weekend tour (Friday night – Monday morning) that worked perfectly into our schedule.

Cuba Explorer was very helpful, making sure we had questions answered, our documents lined up, help with any other excursions, explained tipping, and they would have made the airport process easy, too. They told us what to say to immigration when we arrived, and they would have had someone there awaiting us with a sign…if only we had landed in Havana as planned. It turns out, when we arrived in Santa Clara, the customs and immigration people didn’t ask us any questions.

For our exit, a ride to the airport is included, but since we were staying on, as were the other two people in our tour, we didn’t need a ride on Monday morning.

Tour Activities
Performance by members of the Buena Vista Social Club at the Meliá Cohiba Hotel’s Habana Cafe
walking tour of Old Havana
Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s House
El Canonzao, the nightly 9 p.m. cannon firing
talk with a local professor
lunch and studio/neighborhood tour at Fusterland, home of muralist Jose Fuster
ride in 1950s convertibles on the way to dinner

All lunches and dinners were included on the tour, and breakfast was provided by our hotel. We ate at El Ajiaco, Nazdarovie, El Aljibe, and Cafe del Oriente.

Our tour guide was excellent. She spoke fluent English, was kind, and knowledgeable, and filled us in on Cuban life. We felt well cared for the entire time.

The tour wasn’t cheap compared to doing Cuba on your own, but it was easy and it made us feel secure as we got our bearings. It was nice to have things taken care of, especially including where to eat and how to get there.

Where We Stayed
Our hotel with the tour was the Hotel NH Capri, which is across the street from the famous Hotel Nacional de Cuba. It was modern, safe, and within a quick walk to the Malecon and other activities. The breakfast buffet is huge with fresh fruits, all kinds of meat, omelets, and more. A big breakfast seems to be the thing in Cuba, at least for tourists, as both our hotel and Airbnb hosts provided a massive breakfast spread.
Airbnb

We picked an Airbnb based on its solid rating, location (literally blocks from our hotel, allowing us to walk to the Airbnb after we checked out from the hotel), and that the reviews noted the hosts spoke some english and were very helpful. All of that was true and we felt so welcomed by our hosts.

The home was gorgeous, inside and out, with modern furnishings. Our hosts were so gracious, even teaching our kids how to make mojitos! We arranged for them to provide breakfast, and they helped connect us to someone to drive us to and from the beach.

We were able to take a taxi into Old Havana and walk around some more exploring and visiting Almacenes de Desposito San Jose, a large arts and crafts market. The kids still talk about the giant pineapple drinks we bought inside the market for a few dollars.

The Beach Near Havana

We spent most of our last two full days at the beach, both days at Playas de Este at the Santa Maria del Mar. I had wanted to spend one day at the more populated Santa Maria, and a second day at Playa Bacuranao or a more quiet beach, but our hosts encouraged us to stick with Santa Maria because it has amenities. There are chairs to rent, food and drink either ordered from your lounge chair or you can walk to the food stands near the street. We did both and the food was surprisingly excellent. Also, the hotels nearby will let you use the bathroom, generally for 1 CUC, which was helpful.

Playa Bacuranao appealed to me for privacy, but we wouldn’t have had the food, drink, and bathroom options. Not to mention, it was fun to be around Cuban families enjoying their own beach day.

Wifi
Lol.

Wifi is limited. Extremely limited. You can buy passes to get on wifi, but finding service isn’t easy. We had wifi in our hotel with a pass for an hour for each room. To get a connection, we had to sit in the lobby because the signal was so weak in our rooms. Honestly, once we were off, it was a nice break, but it would have been nice to have wifi to help navigate Havana when we were off on our own. Other than that, Instagram could wait.

Getting Around
Taxis are everywhere, from the old classic cars to old beat up cars. Some people rent cars, but staying in Havana, it was easier to walk and use taxis. When we went to the beach, we were able to hire a driver for each day with the help of our Airbnb hosts.

One tip is to write down your destination in case of a language issue. Late one night, I could not remember how to pronounce H in Spanish, which made getting a ride to H Street difficult until I pulled out my scrap paper. Not my finest moment.

Tipping
Below is what was suggested to us, but I’d say go with your heart because whenever we tipped, the recipient was always very grateful, which encouraged tipping more. We had a dinner at a corner pizza place where three personal sized pizzas, one pasta, two beers, one water, and a soda came to a shockingly low 13 CUC. We gave a 20, and when we explained that we did not want change, the young waiter was seriously overjoyed and profusely thankful.

Restaurants  – range from 1 CUC or 10% per person

Hotel porters – 1 CUC per person or more if a lot of bags
Hotel chambermaids – 1.50 CUC per day per person
Taxi drivers – 10% of fare
Tour guide – 5 CUC per day per person
Museum or other guides – 1 CUC
Musicians – 1 CUC
Safety
We felt remarkably safe in Cuba, even in alleyways, even when alone, even late at night, even when getting into taxis that were beat up. We didn’t bring our laptops because we knew there would be connection issues, but we did have iPads for the plane, not to mention our phones were always with us, as was my big camera, yet nothing felt at risk. We didn’t worry about terrorism, like we did the summer prior in Europe.

One of the guys on our tour went out to clubs each night and when he said that he walked back from one club to the hotel – which was quite a distance – the tour guide told him that he went through one of the worst parts of Havana. Being from Chicago, the guy asked what that meant, as we all listened in, expecting something really scary with guns or gangs. She said, no, that at worst, there would have been a fist fight. No guns, we asked? Nope. The worst case scenario felt a lot like West Side Story.

Wanting to Return
The tour itinerary ends with the airport and “missing Cuba so much already.” I’ll admit to an eye roll when I read that, but it was true. I could have stayed longer and I could have returned immediately. Just looking at the photos and the links for this post made me miss it intensely. We’ve found an excellent Cuba restaurant a few towns away and we eat there often to help fill the void. We want to go back and we will.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

California Pizza Kitchen is Back and Better Than Ever at Hillsdale
The Best Family Fun Activities at the Presidio
iFLY SF Bay: Easy, Super Fun Family Outing, Team Building, Party Spot
California Pizza Kitchen: New Place, New Items, We Tried ‘Em Both
The Best Family Fun Activities at the Presidio
Disney’s Food & Wine Festival Inspires Junior Chefs
Day Trip from Paris: Disneyland Paris
Five Days in Paris with Kids
Cuba with Kids: How We Did it, Easy, Fun, and Legal
Six Days in Nashville and Memphis with a Teenager
The Best Family Fun Activities at the Presidio
Three Days in Amsterdam with Kids