Question: I have read that a tourist will get a better exchange rate using euros rather than U.S. dollars in Cuba. On a planned trip to Spain, I considered bringing home some euros to exchange for CUCs when I go to Cuba. There is always a fee for exchanging money, so I wondered whether it is financially worth it to do this.
Answer: When travel to Cuba was eased earlier this year, the Treasury Department announced, "Travelers will now be allowed to use U.S. credit and debit cards in Cuba."
Which would free us from the tyranny of carrying cash, but for this: Although it's true U.S. credit and debit cards can now be used in Cuba, saying it's so doesn't magically create an infrastructure and solve regulatory issues that make this happen.
For now, cash is king, as it often is, but it is not without complications in Cuba.
Cuba uses two currencies — the Cuban convertible peso, known as a CUC, and the Cuban peso, known as the CUP.
U.S. visitors need the CUC, which is 1:1 with the U.S. dollar. That sounds simple. Of course it's not, as Janet Moore, owner of Distant Horizons travel agency in Long Beach, explained in an email.
"When you change dollars in Cuba, the Cuban government levies a penalty of 10% just because you are changing dollars," said Moore, who has visited the island nation more than 100 times. "Then they levy a 3% financial transaction charge. So in total you are docked 13%."
That means you'll get 87 CUCs for every $100 you change.
Exchange euros and you don't get that financial slap on the hand, but you are subject to changing financial markets.
Moore said she took 88 euros, which she had obtained from a $100 exchange with a bank in L.A., and exchanged them for 96.70 CUCs in Havana in mid-May. She was, she said, money ahead. (As of early last week, the exchange rate for dollars/euros would have netted you about the same amount.)
As experienced travelers know, you generally won't get a favorable exchange rate for your U.S. dollars at an airport exchange, so don't wait until you're about to take off if you're planning to convert from U.S. dollars to euros and then to CUCs.
But Brian Kelly, who writes ThePointsGuy.com blog, said he recently had a good airport experience in Havana, although his experience may be the exception. "If you're in doubt about whether to change your money at the airport or your hotel, pick the airport," Kelly said. At the Havana airport, "we were given 90 CUCs per $100 U.S. — and thought we could do better at our hotel."
What he didn't factor in was the 3% fee he would pay at the hotel.
In the coming months, some of these issues will disappear. If you're traveling in Europe and run out of cash, a quick trip to an ATM will usually put money in your pocket (assuming you have money in your U.S. account). You'll be hard-pressed to do the same right now in Cuba.
The bigger question, albeit not a financial one, seems to be this: As the U.S. and Cuba address the issues that make travel to the island nation more complex than visiting most other foreign countries, will Cuba begin to lose the character that makes it so appealing? Or does the decreasing number of inconveniences enhance the experience?