Booked a flight to Cuba and figured out where to stay? It may seem like the toughest part of planning your vacation is over, but the biggest challenge is yet to come: understanding and planning how you'll handle money. Here's what you need to know.Are credit cards accepted?
Credit and debit cards are still not in use on the island, despite U.S. credit card companies' efforts to facilitate transactions there. It'll likely take some time for most businesses -- especially those outside Havana -- to get online, since card acceptance requires hardware and software that simply aren't common in Cuba (yet).
How about travelers' checks?
U.S.-issued travelers' checks aren't accepted either. And Americans won't find a familiar bank branch where they can make a withdrawal from an ATM, so it's best to bring enough cash to last through the vacation. Either that, or find a willing family member or friend from home to wire money through Western Union in a pinch.
If cash is king, where do you get it?
Once travelers land in Cuba, they can change their money at an official currency exchange booth, or casa de cambio, called a CADECA. These are available at the airport, where you'll want to exchange at least a portion of your U.S. dollars. There are also CADECAs available throughout Havana and outside the capital. (See this list of CADECAs in Havana, or, to search for CADECAs outside Havana, click on the name of the city on the left-hand side of the Infotur home page and choose the “Canje de monedas” link from the box at the top of the page.) When at the CADECA, be sure to request small bill denominations -- you'll find it difficult to break big bills. Don't give in to the temptation to change your money with a street hustler who purports to offer more favorable rates.
Which currency should you use?
Cuba has a dual currency system: what's often referred to as the "convertible," or CUC, and the Cuban peso, or CUP. There are inaccurate perceptions that CUC is “tourist money” and that the Cuban peso is only for locals, but neither are true. While tourists are typically charged in the higher-value CUC, they're not prevented from using the peso nacional. Similarly, Cubans tend to be charged and pay for transactions with pesos but aren't prohibited from using CUC.
It's possible that the dual currency will soon become a moot point; the Cuban government has been assessing the possibility of eliminating the two-currency system. It's hinted that it might do so by the end of 2015, though it's yet to announce a firm date. In the meantime, the takeaway is to make sure that you don't get swindled and over-pay by using CUC for peso prices -- 1 CUC (equivalent to 1 USD) is currently approximately worth 26 peso. Most transactions, especially at places intended to serve tourists, will be denominated in CUC, but confirm which currency is being used to avoid confusion.
A good research:
Cuba's national bank (Banco Nacional de Cuba) has a surprisingly useful and comprehensive site in English, where you can familiarize yourself with Cuban peso bills and coins as well as CUC bills and coins. If you've visited Cuba previously and you're confident you know the difference, it's still worth taking a second look; the Banco Nacional issued some new bills in February 2015.
Considering a trip Cuba? Check out the rest of our 5-part in-depth guide, which includes:
An overview of what you really need to think about
How to book a flight to Cuba
How to find a place to stay in Cuba
How to get around, get on the internet, and other logistics for once you're in Cuba