After traveling and organizing trips across sixty-nine different countries, Cuba has been the worst to plan :). Low frequency and expensive flights, complicated transportation and inexistent (or very limited) connectivity are a bad combination. Let me explain you why.
Travelling as a group in Cuba
First of all, we were five people – me, my boyfriend, his parents and brother. Being five is a little complicated when it comes to book rooms and a car. Note that five people with big luggage for 2 weeks don´t fit in one normal car.
We didn’t want to book an all-inclusive trip since we wanted to see the country and experience the “real” Cuba. We decided then to book everything seperate. In April last year we searched for flights and found a good option with Meridian Air, a charter airline that advertised new direct flights Germany -> Cuba starting in May 2016. The price was good, especially for high season in Christmas. We paid 600€ return / person.
We chose flying to Havana from Hamburg on 24.12.16 and coming back from Havana to Berlin on 08.01.17. The website of Meridian Air didn´t look really professional. It was also hard also to get someone on the phone. My boyfriend was sceptical and he was right as it turned out later. After booking the tickets we had some troubles when receiving the e-tickets (they showed an error in the name). The communication was really slow and confusing (they mixed up reference numbers and send the tickets wrong again). My boyfriend’s parents and brother live in Spain, so they booked the route Valencia-Madrid-Havana with Iberia.
Four months later, I googled about how the first Meridian flights were going to make sure all was fine, but unfortunately it was not! I found some articles with people saying that no flight has ever left from Germany to Cuba. Furthermore I read that there was a legal fight between Meridian Air and the Portugese Airline they were supposed to have an agreement with. Of course, I never received any information from Meridian Air about this situation.
We all got very nervous and wrote a long E-Mail to Meridian Air explaining that we have to be sure that the plane is going because we already booked places to sleep and we had the parents and brother of my boyfriend arriving from Spain. Not flying in December was not an option for us anymore, and we didn’t trust Meridian Air will actually ever fly.
After some E-Mail exchange with Meridian Air we decided to cancel the tickets because the risk was too high due to the circumstances. Meridian Air confirmed that our tickets were cancelled and we would receive the money back before end of September. In October, “surprisingly” we still did not receive anything, so we decided to take a lawyer and file a lawsuit. This is still ongoing and will probably take a loooooong time and it´s also not guaranteed that we will ever get our money back.
In the end, we booked new tickets, a lot more expensive (920€ return / person) and with long and tricky connections (Berlin-Vienna-Toronto-Havana and Havana-Panama-Frankfurt-Berlin). Lesson learned -> never fly Meridian Air.
A car or a driver?
After reading the lonely planet and asking friends I kind of had the route clear, and we needed a car for seven days. The challenge was only to decide wether to rent a car or to take a driver. What sounds simple was the hardest part. It´s not easy to rent a car in Cuba. There are only a few websites that offer car rental (and mostly in Spanish). Prices are very high (1000€ for one week or more) and in our case no cars were available after requesting on the websites.
I asked my boyfriends father to help with the search since he speaks Spanish. He checked a lot and asked people that travelled to Cuba. Additionally he found some Spanish travel agencies that offer car rental but nothing was available or crazily expensive (up to 300€ per day!). Because of friends of him that had family in Cuba he finally found a driver two days before flying. What a relief!
During our trip we heard from the locals that we were extremely lucky because no taxis or drivers were available at that moment in whole Cuba. We even were told that some tourists had to sleep in the public squares because they got stranded.
Juanito, our driver, was very nice and we were really happy with him. In case you are searching for a driver, I advise to contact him (firstname.lastname@example.org, +5353305870). He is really reliable (always on time or before – German Style 🙂 and really fun to be with him on tour. He doesn’t speak much English, so better if you speak Spanish.
We paid 1050€ (gas and driver’s costs inc.) for the 7 days, no matter the route. Compared to the car rental price it was even cheaper, plus we had someone born and raised in Cuba travelling with us. Note streets are not in the best shape. Finding your way around without GPS/Internet can become a big issue. The car was a beautiful Chevrolet from the 60ies and we could fit easily all of us plus luggage. In Cuba, luggage is normally stored on the roof of the cars, and there are 3 seats in the front, so 2 (not very big) people can fit next to the driver. Juanito organized his own food and accommodation. In any case, we spent some meals together, including New Year´s Eve 🙂
Hotel or Casa Particular?
Hotels in Cuba are very expensive. I have heard some stories from travelers and friends that hotels, even 4*, are not in a good condition at all. We wanted to try Casas Particulares (private houses in Spanish), which means sleeping in Cuban families’ houses (normally with separate rooms and bathroom). Prices are a lot cheaper and also you get to know real Cuban people, which was one of the best experiences of the trip.
The Casas’ serve breakfast and some offer dinner as well. The prices for the meals are fixed from the government, breakfast is always 5 CUC and dinner 10 CUC plus drinks.
Now, how can you find or book the Casas? Airbnb operates only since 1 year in Cuba. You wonder how airbnb works in Cuba if people don´t have internet (I have wondered too)? When you send your request in airbnb the owner of the casa will receive an SMS. To confim and reply the host needs to go to a wifi area (normally the main sqaure of the city).
I have booked almost all the Casas through airbnb and it worked well. Interesting is the fact that airbnb doesn’t send the money to the Casa’s owner via bank transfer but it is a person who actually goes to the Casa to give the money to the host. Many people in Cuba don´t have a bank account or don´t trust airbnb (remember airbnb is a US company!) so they feel more comfortable this way.
I have also used the webpage mycasaparticular.com. You need to be patient because it takes normally up to 24 hours until you get an availability reply, especially for Varadero. I was a little skeptical to trust mycasaparticular.com. The payment process didn’t look really secure to me (and remember the Meridian experience). Luckily, all went fine. The only negative aspect is that you need to pay 20% booking fee. In case you speak Spanish I assume it is a better option to call the Casas and book directly. Every host we had was very professional. You shouldn´t be scared to relay on the host’s word.
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