10 Tips for Your Cuban Vacation

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There’s no doubt that winter can be a long and especially sun-deprived season. As the magic of the Holiday fades (and it fades way too fast in my experience), the reality of the cold months ahead begin to weigh on the spirit. When it’s not glittering and whimsical, winter is a relentless beast!

I’m relieved to say that winter is finally easing up, but this doesn’t mean you can’t get a jump on summer by planning a little vacation down south! If the beach is calling your name, grab your swimwear out of the depths of your closet – behind the knitted sweaters and long underwear – and book yourself a getaway. Ah, sweet escape!

After a much needed, week-long vacation in Varadero, Cuba, I’ve put together a few practical tips for you to keep in mind when travelling south. Now go enjoy the sun!

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Packing


1. Pack Light (for goodness sake)!
You CAN pack for a week vacation in a carry-on, especially if you are going south. After packing for a two week holiday to France in a carry-on, I make it a point to NEVER bring more than I’ll actually use. Presumably by choosing to go south, you are trying to maximize your exposure to vitamin D, meaning most of your time will be spent in a swimsuit. If you bring two of anything (excluding underwear of course!) make it a second swimsuit.

2. Miniaturize Everything
DO NOT bring full-sized bottles of anything. Miniature is the way to go! Look for travel size containers and fill them with your most needed products. But remember, resorts usually have some essentials like soap and shampoo. Plus, unwashed, beachy, windswept hair looks amazing. Once you’ve narrowed down your can’t-live-without products, save yourself the hassle at airport security by having liquids pre-packed together in a Ziploc bag. Make sure the Ziploc is easily accessible so you’re not sheepishly rummaging through your bag should security need to inspect anything.

3. Bring a First-Aid Kit (really)
I wish I could say that resorts are the safety bubble of vacations, but alas they are not! On our recent trip to Cuba, our party of six decided to rent scooters to drive to a nearby market. My husband and I doubled up and we had a rough fall when we pulled a U-turn, hit the curb (then a palm tree), and fell over. Ouch. Unfortunately this was near the beginning of our trip, so was I ever grateful that my mom (who is always prepared – bless her), had packed a first-aid kit. Based on my unfortunate experience, I recommend including the following in your kit:

– Band-Aids of various sizes
– Non-stick gauze patches and a small roll of tear-friendly tape
– Advil, Imodium, Pepto-Bismol (you’ll be glad you did)
– After-sun lotion
– Ear plugs and nose strips (not first-aid, but essential if you travel with someone who snores!)

Note: Where possible, take the above items out of their boxes to reduce bulk. I like to bundle items together with their respective instructions and tie with an elastic. Then throw everything into a Ziploc bag.

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During Your Stay


4. Seriously Unplug
“I will survive without my smartphone”. Somedays it’s hard to believe this is possible, but it is! I try to make this my mantra when I go on vacation, especially if I plan to stay at a resort where I don’t need access to itineraries or maps. The temptation to be on a mobile device is so real that I won’t even use my phone as a camera or an e-reader. After a few days you get the hang of it, and boy does it feel good. My phone has been on silent since I got home, and I changed my notification settings so I can extend the bliss of not being interrupted. Ahhh…

5. Bring Your Own Cup
No one will deny that on an all-inclusive vacation by the beach, you will be drinking a lot, wether you’re into cervesas, mojitos (my fave), or simple H2O. Drinks are usually served in small plastic cups, and this creates a ton of waste! If you’ve got the room, pack a reusable cup. I’m not talking Bubba Keg, there are plenty of nice options, such as the Starbucks Frappuccino tumblers. Bonus – they come with a straw! Just be sure to rinse it out with bottled/filtered water to avoid an upset stomach.

6. Trade vs. Buy
I almost never bring cash to the beach; too many chances I will either loose it in the sand, or spend time worrying about it being stolen. This can be inconvenient when there are a multitude of vendors who walk the beach with pretty things to sell. I have learned however, that many vendors are willing to trade their goods for clothing, which can be expensive for locals. While packing, see if you can make room for a few new or lightly worn items that could suite the Cuban climate. An exchange could be mutually beneficial.

7. BUT Do Bring Enough Cash
That said, you are going to need money. We made the mistake of not brining enough cash, because we assumed we could simply use our debit cards in a bank machine. Not so. Luckily we had friends who could spot us (thanks guys)! It may be scary to travel with a few hundred dollars on-hand, but know you should be able to request a safe in your room.

Alternatively you can try this nifty trick with your credit card: Before your trip, overpay your credit card bill by a few hundred dollars. This will result in a positive balance. Then when you take a cash advance using that credit card you will be drawing from the positive balance, thus avoiding interest fees (we’re talking 20% people)! Be sure to double check this with your own credit card company, as each will have it’s own policies. In my opinion, it’s still easier to just bring cash.

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Going Home


8. You Must Pay to Leave
Ok, although it may be tempting to stay in Cuba forever, you will probably (eventually) want to leave the country and return home. It is very important that you keep 25 cuc per person, in order to pay your exit tax at the Cuban airport. No payment – no flight home. I recommend putting this money aside as soon as you get to your room. To be super safe, stick this cash in an envelope marked “Exit Strategy”.

9. Know What to Leave Behind
Lighten your load for the journey home by leaving certain items behind. If you’ve finished reading any books or magazines leave these in your room, or in the lounge for someone else to enjoy. The same goes for any clothing or shoes you might not wear back home. In my experience, staff are happy to pass items along.

10. Give Back
Over the years my parents (who head south every year) have made really good Cuban friends whose hospitality and kindness have made their vacations so very special! Why not reciprocate the love? Our small gestures of gratitude go a long way, whether you give tips, leave simple Thank You notes, or you feel comfortable bringing gifts. Items such as clothing and toiletries are always welcome, and can be shared with family and friends in need.


The grand rule-of-thumb when travelling is to leave a place better than when you arrived. So take care of the land, foster the friendships, and be sure to leave people smiling!

Happy vacationing!

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