With relaxed restrictions for American travelers to Cuba making headlines, our Deal Experts are champing at the bit to visit this Caribbean nation that's so close to the U.S., but has been out of reach for so long.
For advice, we tapped our colleagues in the Canada and UK offices -- after all, they've been visiting Cuba for years. (It's the No. 1 Caribbean search term for Travelzoo members in those countries).
While current regulations on the books still put restrictions on Americans visiting Cuba. In other words, you can't just book a flight and go -- yet. But with the climate warming to more open travel, here's the lowdown on visiting America's closest Caribbean neighbor.
Best times to go: The sunny tropical climate makes Cuba a winter favorite for snowbirds. Like the rest of the Caribbean, hurricane season runs from June to November, and it can be rainy May through October. Summer can be a popular time to visit; the annual Carnival in Santiago is held in late July.
Cuban pesos vs. convertible pesos: In Cuba, there are two currencies: Cuban pesos and Cuban convertible pesos. Most tourists will be using Cuban convertible pesos to pay for hotels, taxis and meals. Travelers can change money at a CADECA (exchange bureau); many hotels have one on site. Street foods and vendors typically only accept Cuban pesos, so it's good to convert to a few of those as well.
Visiting Varadero: Canadians and Brits flock to the all-inclusive resorts here: options range from upscale properties to more family-friendly or budget-friendly options. Resorts can vary widely and are best for people who really want to maximize their beach time. Daytrips to other spots can be planned, but most people visiting Varadero just want some much-needed R&R. Without traveling far off the resorts, visitors can find water sports marinas and boating spots, as well as natural landmarks, parks and gardens.
Must-make daytrip: Deal Expert Laura S. from London recommends visiting Trinidad, Cuba: "It's a bit of a trek off the Havana/Varadero track, but it was my favourite spot on the island and a UNESCO World Heritage site." She says, "There's Iguana Island (a small white-sand island filled with friendly iguana and big rat things), which is accessible via catamaran. You can also take a steam train to the Valley of the Sugar Mills."
The valley is actually three connected ones that were the center for sugar production in the 18th and 19th centuries. It's now a "living museum" of the sugar industry, with mills and facilities and summer mansions for touring.
According to Laura, "Most nights there's music and dancing on the steps outside Casa de la Musica (find yourself a spot and waiters from the surrounding bars will bring you mojitos). You can watch and soak in the atmosphere, or find a friendly Cuban to dance with (they will be better than you). Afterwards, you can head up the hill to Disco Ayala -- a nightclub in a cave."
How to make the most of a Havana visit: Matt G. from our Toronto office recommends a trip to Old Havana, which is now a striking mix of neoclassical and Baroque buildings with a vibrant city center. Other recommendations include the craft and souvenir market, the Hotel Inglaterra rooftop (it's the oldest hotel in Cuba) and El Floridita fish restaurant.
How to be a good guest: Although trade is opening up with the United States, some goods are hard to come by for Cubans, and it's a good gesture to leave these as tips for hotel staff members. "It's always been customary to leave the cleaning staff at the hotel some goods, like any items for kids, hair clips, cosmetics (unopened), new toothbrushes, toothpaste, etc. It was always a nice thing to do for them when you leave the resort you're staying at (along with a tip if you wish)," says Michelle B. from Toronto.