Before I went to Cuba I spent a long time trying to answer one question: As a solo traveler, what would be the cost of travel in Cuba for 37 days?
The quick answer:
All amounts are in Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC), which are at par with the US dollar.
However, I don’t recommend taking US dollars to Cuba, because there is an extra 10% penalty when changing US Dollars in Cuba, plus the 3% exchange fee. It’s a much better idea to take British pounds, Euros, or Canadian Dollars.
Accommodation: 18.58 CUC
Food: 11.98 CUC
Drinks & water: 1.84 CUC
Transportation: 8.15 CUC
Admission and Activities: 5.18 CUC
Internet: 0.73 CUC
Miscellaneous (tips, charity, bathrooms, souvenirs): 0.84 CUC
Daily total: 47.30 CUC
For the official exchange rates for other currencies from the Banco Central de Cuba click here.
The pre-trip research:
I’ve never been good at budgeting for a trip. I usually find myself setting out with a good chunk of savings, and then just going until my bank account starts running dry, then finding a way to fill it up again. But this is not really a recommended approach.
I do usually go into a country with an idea of how much I think things should cost. Within the first few days average prices for the basics will become established in my head and then I try not to go too much above that.
But with Cuba I had no idea.
I saw estimates that ranged anywhere from 25 CUC per day right up to 80 CUC per day! (Yeah, my heart just about stopped when I saw that!) I figured I’d fall somewhere in the middle of those, but where?
The 25 CUC estimate was from a friend of mine who is fluent in Spanish and was traveling solo in May last year. May is low season, and also before the big tourism boom hit this year, so I think that helped keep things cheaper. He told me himself that speaking Spanish fluently would make an enormous difference in prices.
The 80 CUC estimate came from a blog I read, and of course now I can’t find it again. But I knew that being on my own I probably would not spend as much on drinks as they did and I tend to wander rather than spend lots of money on entertainment. I also knew that I would be going slowly, and not zipping around the country in my five weeks, and thus not buying an expensive Viazul bus ticket every day or two.
My actual Cuba travel costs:
My 37 days in Cuba cost me an average of 47.30 CUC per day. I’ll let you do the conversion to whatever currency you like – use the official rate page from the Banco Central de Cuba. The CUC is on par with the US dollar, but be aware that changing USD in Cuba is not a good idea, because they’ll charge you an automatic 10% fee on it in addition to the 3% exchange fee!
I thought this was a lot, compared to any traveling I’ve done in developing countries, but Cuba is a unique case and it’s hard to directly compare my complete budget to any place I’ve been before, developing or developed.
I was in Cuba in November-December, which was the start of the high season. This meant that any time I complained about prices being too high, the person give me a look that was half pity, half ‘well-what-did-you-expect-you-idiot’, cock their head to the side, and say “Well, it’s high season you know.”
I wrote down everything I spent in a little notebook while I was on the road, and finally entered it in a spreadsheet to add it all up. I may have missed a thing or two when I wrote it all down, but it wouldn’t be a lot.
How does it all break down?
I spent an average of 18.58 per night on accommodation. My first seven nights were in a four bed dorm in Havana, for 10CUC/night, and for a few nights I shared a room with a friend, which kept it to 12.50. Aside from those, my casa particular every night was either 20 or 25 CUC. Some of these included breakfast, some did not.
Eating cost me an average of 11.98 per day. This ranges all over the place, the cheapest day costing just 2.71, and the most expensive a whopping 27.60!
Sometimes breakfast was included with my room, other days it cost me 3, 4, or even 5 CUC, but breakfast was by far the best meal of the day. It was always huge, with tons of fruit, bread and jam, eggs, ham, cake or pastries, juice, and tea or coffee. In Baracoa I also got delicious hot chocolate! My average cost for breakfast was 2.24, but that doesn’t really include whatever extra I paid for accommodation where breakfast was included.
Because breakfast was so big and the weather was so hot, I often didn’t eat lunch, or just had a snack. Out of 37 days I have lunch costs written down for just 10 of them, and when I did eat it was often a Cuban pizza or a sandwich, which makes the average a very low 0.55.
Dinners had quite a range. They started off low-ish, but as my time there progressed and I got more and more sick of the food they got more expensive. Also, usually if I met people, I ate at pricier places, because it’s better to spend more and eat with company than it is to save a few bucks but eat alone! I also think a few of those higher dinner costs may include a mojito or two. The average came out at 8.58 for dinners.
Snacks were sometimes a substitute for lunch, and often consisted of ice cream. They averaged 0.60 per day but I feel like I may have missed a thing or two.
Drinks and water
Rum is king in Cuba, and it’s pretty hard to go through the country without having a few mojitos or piña coladas. I kept it pretty minimal and mostly drank water, so my cost for drinks was only 1.55 per day. That doesn’t count the ones that I may have had with my dinners, as I mentioned above.
I only spent 0.29 per day on water, but this is very low. Water is actually relatively expensive in Cuba, at 1.50 per 1.5 litre bottle and even up to 0.65 per 500ml if you can only find small bottles. And it’s sometimes hard to find any at all! I took purification tablets with me, which reduced my water costs immensely and made the pressure to find it a lot less. I highly recommend this approach!
Again, this varied from nothing up to a max of 38.08, on a day when I took a taxi with friends to a distant beach, then a máquina to a bigger city, then an overnight bus. But it doesn’t sound so bad when you consider that I also saved a night’s accommodation! The average was 8.15 per day, which to me seems quite high for anyone traveling on a budget and going slowly.
Admission & activities
This obviously varied wildly…from nothing at all on days I was just wandering in a city, up to 32 CUC for the trek to Comandancia de la Plata (including the 5 CUC camera fee). The average was 5.18/day.
It’s 2 CUC per hour if you buy the card from the ETECSA office, 3 CUC from a guy on the street. My internet costs amounted to 0.73 per day, but of course how much you want to spend totally depends on how badly you need to be connected.
Miscellaneous (souvenirs, tips, charity, and bathroom costs)
Again, this is totally up to you, although there are times when ‘tips’ feel more like an admission fee than any reward for good service. Bathrooms tend to cost 1 peso (CUP) and I’m pretty sure I missed some off my spreadsheet but it’s such a small amount it doesn’t really matter. I spent 0.84 per day.
So where could I have saved money?
I possibly could have saved here if I’d more actively sought out people to share with. But even when I got to Baracoa and a girl approached me at the bus station asking if I wanted to share, I didn’t. I’d booked ahead and the daughter of my hosts was there to pick me up, so I would’ve had to ditch her, and quite frankly by that time I was tired and worn down and just wanted my own space. So I didn’t. But you could, if you wanted to.
I got tired of the food in Cuba and decided that if I could eat something decent I didn’t care what it cost. So yes, I probably could have saved money here.
But the truth is that the only food that’s really cheap in Cuba is from the peso takeaway places, where you’ll eat crappy pizza, terrible pasta, boring sandwiches, or maybe a burger. These are fine once in a while but I couldn’t handle them all the time. Also, your choices can be very limited to what’s available that day, and I wanted variety as well as something healthier sometimes.
There are also peso paladares, but they can be hard to find and in my experience the food wasn’t great anyway. And in one case I did actually wait two hours to eat!
I mentioned above that I thought my transportation costs were quite high, and I definitely could have saved some money by trying to take public buses and trucks more than the Viazul buses. However, that would have taken a lot more time and effort on my part, and I definitely would have needed to pack lighter than I did!
Why didn’t I make an effort to spend less?
By the time I got to Cuba I’d been on the move for a long time, and I was exhausted. The bad food, the constant struggle through heat and sweat and dirt to find something decent to eat and keep hydrated, combined with the endless harassment, meant that Cuba kind of broke me down.
When I’m that worn out I often give in to the easy option; the taxi instead of the public bus, the Viazul instead of persisting in being able to take the public bus. It meant a private room instead of sharing, or the yummy pasta at the fancy hotel’s Italian restaurant instead of seeking out another crappy paladare meal.
So I spent what I needed to at the time, to make myself a comfortable and happy traveler.
Any questions? Just ask!
Have you been to Cuba? How much did you spend? Did you travel differently than I did?