For currency exchange and 5-star tourist service, Cuba is still a work in progress

As Cubans prepare for an influx of Americans, visitors should take cash and not expect five-star service.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Question: We are planning a trip to Cuba. Is there a particular bank you recommend to exchange euros?

Ricki Vancott

Los Angeles

Answer: No.

But sorry, readers. That’s not the end of this column.

In fact, it opens the door to many, many questions readers have about money in Cuba, which continues to be a hot destination.

In 2014, about 90,000 Americans visited the island nation; by the end of 2015, that number had jumped to 150,000, “CBS This Morning” reported last week, a 60% increase. And if travel restrictions are ultimately lifted, as many as 1.5 million people may visit, CBS reported, citing Reuters and Marriott.


So let us state the obvious: Cuba is hot, hot, hot.

But changes to the infrastructure tourists deal with? Not, not, not. At least, not thus far.

Much has changed since President Obama’s December 2014 announcement about normalizing relations with Cuba.

“Normalizing” is a bit of an overstatement. Yes, a U.S. Embassy has reopened after more than 50 years. Yes, travel to Cuba now requires only that it falls into one of 12 categories that make it allowable there. In Obama’s recent State of the Union message, he asked Congress to reconsider the half-century embargo against Cuba.

It seems likely that politics will get in the way of travel pleasures — at least in the short term. So for now, travel to Cuba is different, beginning with the proviso that we, as travelers, must not go there to lie on the beach but to learn about the culture. Not that “people to people” travel, one of the 12 categories, is a bad thing. Returning home with knowledge of the place you visited, and not just a new tan line, is a win-win.

But travel to Cuba is still quirky, beginning with money. First you will need to carry cash; credit cards are not yet widely accepted.

To Vancott’s question about euros, many travelers believe that you’ll get a better exchange rate if you convert European currency instead of U.S. dollars.

Doing so has “has become quite popular,” said Cecilia Utne, president and chief executive of Cross Cultural Journeys, which has been arranging trips to Cuba since 1998. “Check on the exchange rate on the day that you’re making the transaction and what your bank is charging,” she said. “If you’re sitting on a wad of euros or Canadian dollars, it might be a little more beneficial.”

But “might” is the operative word. Cuba, Utne noted, is not an inexpensive destination, and although you never want to waste money, the amount you save may be disproportionate to the effort to do so.

How much cash should you have? Unless you’re planning to buy an expensive piece of art, you can do just fine with about $100 a day, said Amanda Bradshaw, trip coordinator for Distant Horizons, a Long Beach travel agency that has led scores of trips to Cuba for nearly 20 years. That should cover lunches and dinners (breakfast is usually included at your hotel) and cab fares, depending, of course, on how far afield you’re going.

Don’t convert all your cash, she added. You’ll lose money when it’s time to convert it back, which you’ll do before you leave. Also, don’t walk around with large amounts of cash. If you lose it and don’t have a reserve stash, you’ll be up the proverbial creek, absent automated teller machines.

Cuba will continue to evolve as a travel destination, but probably not as quickly as we both fear and hope. The fear? Every corner will have a U.S. fast-food joint or a coffee purveyor. The hope? The accommodations, restaurants and other mainstays of serving tourists will improve.

One of Utne’s challenges, she said, is making sure the expectations of her well-educated clientele meet the reality of today’s Cuba. It’s not yet a five-star experience, she noted, and she works to help her travelers understand that Cuba is a work in progress.

The progress also means that to serve the expected influx of visitors — ferry service and regular (not charter) air service by U.S. carriers is expected this year — more and sometimes better hotels and restaurants are needed.

Cuba is not ready for prime time. In an interview in Havana, Janet Moore, owner of Distant Horizons, recently painted this picture for “CBS This Morning”: “If you came to me tonight and said, ‘Janet, I need a hotel room tonight,’ I’d have to say, ‘I can’t give you one.’”

Fifty years of isolation won’t disappear in the blink of an eye. Might Cuba become Caribbean Disneyland one day? Possibly. But even the Magic Kingdom wasn’t built in a day.

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