Many Washingtonians are surprised Cuba isn’t a cheap paradise even though they believe they’ve visually taken a trip back in time. Several area residents who’ve recently traveled to Cuba thought the prices would be more of what they’ve experienced traveling to Central and South America; but the most important message they gave me is: cash is king! I was told to remember to take enough cash because there are every few ATMs which take US debit and credit cards, and those that do – the rate is outrageous. Now you know you’ll need cash for your trip, so how much and what kind to take are two things to figure out.
The Nation of Cuba uses two currencies: the Cuban convertible peso (the CUC), and the Cuban peso (the CUP). The CUC is what tourists generally use, and the CUP is what locals use. For every CUC it takes 24 CUP. You can carry both currencies if you want because the CUP is what people generally use to pay for street food, buy public bus tickets, purchasing items in local shops, taking taxis, and other general things.
You can take US dollars if you want, but be aware there’s a 3% currency exchange fee and a 10% penalty charged when exchanging USA dollars cash, so, for every USD you’re converting, you’re only getting .87 centavos CUC. The 10% penalty comes from the Cuban government as it levies people simply wanting to convert US dollars. Because of this, most economists recommend getting Euros for the trip rather than greenbacks. You might not get that slap on the hand for exchanging US dollars, but you do subject yourself to changing financial markets. Washingtonian Beatrice Jefferies said she exchanged 88 Euros from a $100 exchange with her local bank, and was able to exchange them for 96.70 CUCs during a weekend in Havana, Cuba. Sadly, getting a great exchange rate won’t happen, but there’s still more to love on the Cuban island. You can only get Cuban currency once you arrive to Cuba. Currencies that are most commonly exchangeable are: British pounds, Canadian dollars, Euros, Japanese yen, Mexican pesos, Swiss francs, and and the good ol’ US dollar.
Brian Kelly, who writes writes ThePointsGuy.com blog went to Cuba, and basically got lucky. Kelly said they got a good covetable rate. “At the airport in Havana, we were given 90 CUCs per $100 US,” he said, “and thought we could do better at our hotel.”
Once you know what currency to take, the next question is generally, Where do I go to exchange my cash? The simple answer is make your way to the nearest CADECA (change bureau) or to a Cuban BFI Bank. The exchange rates are all the same since they are government-owned. You can even try the airport facilities. Simply, make sure you check out the various currency exchange sites. But sites like coinmill.com, xe.com, oanda.com, and x-rates.com are pretty much useless because they only provide mid-market rates and ignore the buy/sell costs at the Bank of Cadeca in Cuba. Most use http://www.bc.gob.cu/Espanol/tipo_cambio_METROPOLITANO.asp to get the exact exchange rates.
I’ll be sure to take some Euros and British pounds, but I’ll also take Uncle Sam currency, because, well heck…I am an American, and that’s what we do.