Travel tips

Classes
Most of our classes will be held in public areas in and around Havana. Be aware that museums and some stores require visitors to check purses and backpacks. You’ll have an easier time getting around if you travel light during the day.

Collegiality
We are a diverse group and will be traveling in close quarters for 12 days. Please be respectful toward everyone in the group.

42-068-IMG_1008-1-1Cultural sensitivity
Please be sensitive to the customs and culture of people in Cuba. Watch and observe. Listen and learn. Withhold judgment and try to understand and appreciate those who may different customs and views than you do.
Remember that you are a guest of the country of Cuba. Show Cubans that not all Americans are “ugly” when traveling abroad.

Currency
The U.S. dollar is not accepted in commercial transactions in Cuba. You must go a bank, hotel or exchange house and trade your dollars for Cuban convertible pesos, or CUCs. As of March 2016, the exchange rate was .89 CUCs per $1 U.S. That means that if you have $100, you will get only 89 CUCs in return.
CUCs are the preferred currency at hotels and restaurants that cater to foreigners. They are also used at the so-called “dollar stores,” which sell imported goods. Much of the merchandise is imported from China and marked up by a standard rate of 240 percent. So what might cost you $1 at a dollar store in St. Augustine will cost you $2.40 in Cuba.
Another currency is also used in Cuba. It is the Cuban national peso (not the convertible peso) and is worth roughly 25 pesos per CUC.
Avoid changing money on the streets. Hustlers sometimes try to trick foreigners, giving them lower-valued national pesos instead of CUCs.

A scene from the countryside

Diseases
Use insect repellent when traveling in areas where the mosquitos are biting. Dengue fever is spread by mosquito in Cuba and the country reported its first case of the Zika virus in March 2016.
Cholera is also present in Cuba. It is spread mostly through contaminated food and water.

Dress
Shorts and casual clothes are permitted in most areas. Cubans dress casually for most occasions while going out during the day. Many Cubans dress up if going out dancing or to a club. Wear light clothes. Be prepared to sweat. Jeans may be hot and sticky for some travelers.

Drugs
Don’t even think about using marijuana, cocaine or any other illegal drug. Cuban authorities punish drug users severely. Two Cuban military officers with suspected ties to Colombia’s Medellín drug cartel were executed by firing squad in 1989. Now it’s not as if Cuban authorities are out there killing pot smokers, but you should take the hint: Do not carry, buy or sell illegal drugs in Cuba.

Electronics
Be sure to bring all the cables, batteries and other accessories you need to operate cameras, mobile phones, tablets and other items. Electronic accessories – even such things as AA batteries – are difficult and at times impossible to find in Cuba. Note that it is illegal to import satellite phones and walkie-talkies into Cuba without government permission.
The power supply in Cuba is mostly 110 volts. You may also find 220 volt power outlets. Most outlets accept flat two-prong plugs just like we have in the U.S., but in some hotels you may find round two-prong plugs. Adapters are needed to connect to those.

Cuban flags in front of the American embassy in Havana

Emergencies
Before leaving for Cuba, we will establish a communication network aimed at ensuring communication with students’ families, the Study Abroad Office and Flagler College administrators.
At least two of the program leaders and translators will be traveling with mobile phones activated for use in Cuba.
American officials may be of only limited help if you should get into trouble in Cuba. The U.S. Embassy in Havana is located on Calzada Avenue between L and M Streets. The telephone number is (537) 839-4100. In an emergency after hours, students may dial the same number, then press 1 to speak to an operator.

Faculty advisers
Tracey Eaton, assistant professor in the Communication Department, is the program leader of Cuba Study Abroad. Eaton can be reached at teaton@flagler.edu or maninhavana@yahoo.com.
Dr. Tracy Halcomb, a professor in the Communication Department, is the additional program leader. Contact information: HalcombT@flagler.edu or 904-819-6247.

Flights
As of March 2016, most Americans were traveling to Cuba on charter flights that went directly to the island or to Cuba via third countries such as Mexico and the Bahamas.
An Orlando-Havana charter flight operates on Wednesdays and Sundays. Regular commercial flights are expected to be running later in 2016. Airlines, routes, schedules and prices have not yet been published.
You will be responsible for your own transportation to the Orlando International Airport.

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Food
Cuba imports much of its food, including chicken from the United States. So that roasted chicken you eat in Havana just may be American-born.
Even so, some travelers to Cuba complain about the quality of food. Try to be flexible and realize that many of the items you normally eat in the U.S. won’t be available in Cuba. If it’s any consolation, you can be sure that you will eat better in Cuba than most Cubans.
The Cuban government rations some basic commodities such as rice and beans. As part of the rationing system, Cubans are allowed to buy the commodities at subsidized prices. Many Cubans complain that the monthly rations only last about 10 days. As a result, some households suffer food shortages.
Private restaurants in Cuba are known as paladares (the singular form of the word is paladar). These sometimes offer better service and higher quality food than state-run operations.

Foot traffic
Wear comfortable shoes or sandals because we will be walking all over Havana. Be prepared for rigorous exercise. That includes climbing hotel stairs when there is no electricity for the elevator, and walking on streets and sidewalks that may contain potholes, stray electrical cables and other hazards. Rumor has it that we may also take a salsa dancing lesson.

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Health
Cuba has free universal healthcare, but foreigners must pay for medicine and doctor’s office visits.
Many medicines are difficult or impossible to find in Cuba, so if you take any prescribed medicines then you should bring them to Cuba in their original containers.
There is not a wide variety of over-the-counter medicines and some are expensive. Bring your preferred remedies for headache and stomach troubles. Diarrhea is common among travelers.
Stay hydrated while in Cuba. We’ll keep a stock of bottled water while traveling in Havana and other cities.

Insurance
Health insurance is included as part of the cost of the charter plane ticket. Trip cost will also include supplemental insurance.

Internet
Internet use is not widespread in Cuba. Most Cubans have no Internet access at home. For many years, the Internet connection rate in Cuba was comparable to nations in Africa. In 2015, the Cuban government began expanding access, setting up WiFi hotspots in Havana and other cities. You must have a scratch-off card containing a user name and password to use these WiFi hotspots. You can stand in line to buy the cards at phone company offices.
Cards cost 2 CUCs – or a little more than $2 U.S. – per hour of Internet use. Rather than wait in line to buy cards, it is easier and faster to buy them on the street from Cuban resellers. The cost is only a bit more: 2 1/2 or 3 CUCs per hour. Internet use in hotels is more expensive: roughly $6 to $12 per hour.

A vendor reads Granma, the newspaper of Cuba's Communist Party

Laptops
Consider leaving your laptop at home. We will not be connected to the Internet during much of the trip, so you won’t need your laptop for that. Nor will laptops be required for any in-country assignments. You will be able to connect to the Internet using your phone or tablet at public WiFi hotspots.

Packing tips
Travel light. Bring one checked bag, one carry-on and personal item such as a purse or daypack.
As of March 2016, the weight limit for passengers leaving the U.S. on charter flights was 44 pounds. Airlines were charging $1 to $2 per pound for excess pounds. Suitcases weighing more than 50 pounds total were not permitted. In addition, customs officials in Cuba were charging fees to passengers carrying more than 50 pounds of luggage. Once regular commercial flights are established, these rules may change.

Many Cubans use bicycles to get around town

Passports and visas
You must have a valid U.S. passport for travel to Cuba. The airline will supply the necessary visa to enter Cuba.

Personal hygiene
Cuba is an underdeveloped nation. The infrastructure is in poor shape in parts of the country and many buildings are poorly maintained.
Germophobes may find it particularly challenging. The streets are full of dust, grime and diesel fumes. Some buildings, including homes and hotels, are infested with mildew, bad odor and insects.
Many restaurants, gas stations and other facilities are BYOP – bring your own paper. Toilet paper, that is. Thankfully, some bathrooms are staffed by attendants who will surrender a few meager squares of toilet paper in exchange for a coin – 10 or 25 cents usually sufficient.

Phones
As of March 2016, U.S. mobile phone carriers did not have agreements allowing them to operate in Cuba. That means you will not be able to use your U.S.-based phone to call home. However, you will be able to buy WiFi cards that will allow you to use phones or tablets to connect to the Internet.

A photograph of Fidel Castro

Photography
Use discretion when taking photos on the streets. It is illegal in Cuba to photograph military, police and prison installations. Police may also question you if you are seen taking photos of such strategic targets as railways, airports and harbors. It is technically illegal to take photos of police officers. Some officers don’t mind being photographed. Others object to it and may question or stop you for taking photos of them.

Plastic
In 2015, the U.S. government authorized American banks to allow use of credit cards in Cuba. However, travelers report only limited success in use of credit cards and a scarcity of ATMs. The best advice is to bring cash, not credit cards. Cuban banks prefer crisp $100 bills, not smaller denominations. Banks will often reject torn or defaced bills.

Politics
Use caution if you should encounter a street protest. Cuban authorities have questioned, detained and sometimes jailed foreigners who are suspected of engaging in activities that are perceived to threaten state security.
This is how the State Department describes Cuba:

Cuba is an authoritarian state that routinely employs repressive methods against internal dissent and monitors and responds to perceived threats to authority. These methods may include physical and electronic surveillance, as well as detention and interrogation of both Cuban citizens and foreign visitors. Human rights conditions in Cuba remain poor, as the Cuban government limits fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. U.S. citizens visiting Cuba should be aware that any on-island activities may be subject to surveillance, and their contact with Cuban citizens monitored closely.

62-262-IMG_5174-1-1Cuba generally welcomes U.S. citizen travelers. In the past, U.S. credit or debit cards, personal checks, and travelers’ checks could not be used in Cuba. Currently, travelers are advised to check with their financial institution before traveling to determine whether the institution has established the necessary mechanisms for its issued credit and debit cards to be used in Cuba. The United States government provides consular and other services through the U.S. Embassy in Havana that is staffed by U.S. diplomats and locally-employed Cuban nationals in addition to eligible family members and third country nationals, but most U.S. diplomats are not allowed to travel freely outside the capital and may be prevented from providing assistance outside Havana.

Purchases
You are allowed to bring up to $400 in Cuban-origin goods for your personal use. Only $100 of that may be for alcohol and tobacco products. Artwork, CDs and information materials are exempt from the $400 limit.

Rum
Rum is cheap and plentiful in Cuba. If you decide to drink, please do not overindulge. Cuban beer is potent. Alcohol content ranges from 4 percent to 5.4 percent. Be responsible and don’t forget that you must follow the Flagler College Code of Conduct while in Cuba.

A worker tosses a case of beer to another worker.

Shortages
You will find that many Cubans endure extreme material shortages. They are in need of just about everything, from pens and USB drives to T-shirts and shoes. If you have some clothes that you were going to drop off at the Goodwill, consider bringing them to Cuba, wearing them and then giving them away. It’s a great way to make new friends.

Security
Cuba is a very safe country as compared to other nations in Latin America and the Caribbean. There is a strong police and military presence across the country. This includes highway checkpoints where travelers are subject to random searches.
Violent crime is rare, but petty theft has risen in recent years. Be sure to keep track of your belongings, especially your passport. Do not leave cash, credit cards or electronics out in the open at hotels, the beach or other locations. Thefts have been reported at markets, beaches and other spots.
Avoid carrying purses, bags or backpacks loosely over your shoulder. Don’t wear flashy jewelry or display large amounts of cash.
The Cuban and U.S. governments have been at odds for more than five decades, but the Cuban people welcome Americans and are generally warm and hospitable. However, you may encounter “jineteros” or hustlers on the street who specialize in separating foreigners from their cash and other valuables. They often portray themselves as tour guides or translators, but sometimes resort to crime.
Don’t walk around alone at night. Look out for each other. Know the names of the places where we will be staying. Carry a copy of the itinerary and emergency phone numbers with you.

An old American car near the Habana Libre hotel in Havana

Transportation
Public buses in Cuba are known as “guaguas.” They are often crowded and unreliable. They are not suitable for group travel.
Many Cubans get around in old American cars that are used as shared taxis. They are known in Cuba as “máquinas” or “almendrones.”
You are not allowed to rent your own vehicle, moped or motorcycle while in Cuba. Cuban authorities sometimes prevent travelers from leaving the country if they get into an accident while driving a rented vehicle.
We’ll get around as a group in rented vehicles driven by Cubans.
You will see many Cubans hitchhiking, but please refrain from doing so yourself for security reasons.

U.S. regulations
We are not going to Cuba as tourists. U.S. law bans tourist travel to Cuba. However, we will be traveling to the island as part of a legal educational program, which is included among the 12 categories of permitted travel to Cuba.

Cuban women enjoy a concert from the swimming pool of the Hotel Copacabana in Havana

Weather
We’ll be in Cuba in June and July when temperatures range from 72 to 90 degrees. The average temperature is 81 degrees. Expect intense heat and high humidity.
June is a rainy month. Heavy afternoon storms sometimes trigger flash floods in Havana.
Havana also experiences flooding due to waves and rising sea levels. The water sometimes cascades over the Malecón, Havana’s famed sea wall, and rushes inland for many blocks. Do not wade into fast-moving waters because you could fall and be injured.
But it’s usually sunny, so don’t forget to pack sunscreen lotion!

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