Let’s not beat about the bush; Cuba is NOT a cheap destination for foreigners. It seems that the Cuban government are very savvy about the revenue they gain from tourism, and although crime is rare & foreigners are officially very well looked after, it can be hard not to feel like a walking wallet, especially in Havana. After spending almost a month backpacking Cuba solo, I was tired of the constant battle, so I decided to put together some helpful tips for how to travel cheaply in Cuba, and how to enjoy backpacking in Cuba on a budget!
How to Backpack Cuba on a Budget
It surprised me how much things actually cost in Cuba for tourists. Tourists use a different currency to local people, so while Cuba can be cheap, the tourist currency makes everything a lot more expensive for visitors. I don’t mind paying more than the locals, but it was quite a lot more!
Here are some tips for visiting Cuba on a budget, without missing out on those Cuba bucketlist experiences you’ve been dreaming about:
Cheap Accommodation in Cuba
By far the best way to reduce accommodation costs is to find travel buddies. If you are travelling with a friend or as a couple you will split the costs, so for anyone backpacking Cuba solo, making friends early on can save you a great deal of cash.
Casa Particulares Vs Hotels
Do yourself a favour, and stay away from the resorts in Cuba. Casas Particulares are much more authentic than hotels and resorts, as you stay with a Cuban family in their home, and experience a more authentic Cuba.
The price of a room in a casa ranges from $15 to $30 in general, or over $50 for more luxurious ones. Many casas will have a double bed and a single bed in the rooms, meaning they can sleep up to 3 people if you don’t mind sharing beds.
Some may have 2 double beds although this was much less common in my experience. Check with the casa before you book to confirm how many people can stay in each room.
I didn’t book any casas in advance, but in peak times you may have to. Booking online on CubaCasa or Airbnb means you are guaranteed a reservation but would mean you miss out on the cheapest deals which are through word of mouth.
Hostels in Havana Cuba
Hostels in Cuba are not very common, as most people rent out rooms instead of dorm-style beds. There are some hostels in Havana, and attitudes are gradually changing so do check Hostelworld for any new hostels that open. Some of the listings on Hostelword are for entire rooms at cheaper prices than you’re likely to find on Airbnb.
The cheapest place to stay in Havana is the Casa de Magnolia Hostel, also known as Hamel Hostel. You can book here online through Hostelworld. The hostel has 12 beds, in two rooms, although to reach the second room you have to walk through the first. I got a night here for $5.20, and paid $1 CUC for breakfast, of bread & butter, fruit, omelette, juice and coffee.
Hamel Hostel is a great place to meet fellow travellers who are also backpacking Cuba, and to enter into Magnolia’s network of cheap hostels in Trinidad, Cienfuegos and throughout the country. She has a shoebox filled with cards from other Casas Particulares in most destinations in Cuba, where she can call and make a reservation for you.
Many casas will offer a room for $15 CUC, which if you are travelling with someone can be split as needed. Magnolia connected me with a casa in Viñales where on the first night I paid $15 for a room on my own, then the following night another traveller from Magnolia’s arrived and we shared the room for $8 CUC each.
However, there are some destinations like Varadero where it is practically impossible to find rooms for less than $25 CUC – so you can look at alternatives in nearby towns, such as Matanzas in the case of Varadero, or see if you can join with another person or two to split the price and save on your budget.
- Leave valuables at home and don't keep all your money and credit cards in one place. I love hidden pocket clothing like this travel scarf for stashing my cash and passport or a belt with a hidden pocket. Read more about how to hide money while travelling.
- Bring a water bottle with a built-in filter so you can safely drink water from any fresh water source while saving money and reducing plastic use.
- Unfortunately, things can and do go wrong when you travel. I never leave home without travel insurance, so consider getting insurance for your trip to cover things like adventure sports and activities as well as emergency medical, lost luggage, stolen items, trip cancellation and more.
- Get a quote for your trip from World Nomads or SafetyWing which both provide travel insurance for backpackers and long-term travellers, or use a comparison site like Travel Insurance Master to find the best cover for you.
Couchsurfing in Cuba
Couchsurfing, and other internet-based social or volunteering websites like Workaway are still in their infancy in Cuba – I believe it is still illegal to host foreigners in your home without an official license so people are extremely wary about letting you stay in their home without one.
Perhaps if the internet becomes more widely available & reduces in cost then these will become more popular, depending on the legality, but it’s still worth checking out to see if anything new has popped up. There are some Couchsurfing events in Cuba, that are a great way to meet other travellers, and locals, if you’re not staying in a hostel or if you are travelling alone just want some company.
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Camping in Cuba
From what I could find out, a lot of campsites in Cuba are only for Cuban’s use. Some are for a mix, but you will need your own camping gear and tent. I also read a variety of opinions on whether wild camping is legal or not, and honest,ly I’m not sure! I didn’t visit any campsites but this seems to be a good resource for camping in Cuba.
Backpacking in Cuba on a Budget: Bargaining and haggling
I often felt like people involved in tourism, i.e. taxi drivers, tour guides and salesmen were trying to squeeze the last penny out of me. This isn’t because they are bad people, but because they have very little, even if they get a few extra dollars a day out of a couple of tourists it makes a huge difference for them.
The downside is though that they think every tourist is rich, and unfortunately for budget travellers this can cause an issue as we have to be very careful about what we spend when backpacking Cuba. Somehow you can find a middle ground where hopefully you’re happy and they are too!
That said, there are very few things in Cuba who’s price is non-negotiable. Usually, if you look & behave like you have a lot of money you will be charged more, as it looks like you can afford it. Make it clear from the start that you are a backpacker or a student and don’t have much money to spend while backpacking Cuba.
Remember though, it isn’t about driving down the price so low that they earn nothing, it’s about finding a win-win for you both. Cubans are a resourceful bunch, and, in my experience, they still manage to make more money from tourists than I am sure they declare to the government.
Of course, this isn’t the only country where this happens – in South America my friend & I named this the Gringo Tax. I don’t mind paying more than a local would, but when it gets to double or even 3, 4, or 5 times the price I don’t like being ripped off! Bargain hard with taxi drivers, bici-taxis and tour guides, who are no doubt charging you way more than they would a Cuban.
If you are backpacking in Cuba alone, you will have better luck reducing prices if you join forces with other travellers and bargain for ‘bulk’ buys for two or more people instead of just one.
Backpacking in Cuba on a Budget: Food in Cuba
I had low expectations of Cuban food, but was pleasantly surprised. You can get cheap and tasty meals such as fried chicken or pork and rice, spaghetti and sauce or pizza for $2 CUC and under, although if you can stretch your budget further you can dine well for $5-$8 CUC.
From my experience, once you hit the $10 CUC mark, the food and portion size doesn’t improve, so there is no need to stretch your budget beyond $10 CUC for dinner. The exception to this could be lobster – relatively expensive by Cuban standards but stupidly cheap compared to American and European prices.
You can dine on lobster in many restaurants for $12-$15 CUC if you have a special celebration or if you get tired of spaghetti! I chose to have lobster in my casa in Viñales, and wasn’t disappointed! Dining in your casa can also be a great budget dinner option too, I paid $10 for my lobster feast at the casa.
Street Food in Cuba
Street food isn’t as common in Cuba as it is in other countries, due to the government restrictions on personal businesses. However, you may find carts selling fruit & vegetables, I even saw a churros stand in Trinidad.
More likely though are people on bicycles selling ice-creams, empanadas and other snacks, and men wandering the streets with cloves of garlic around their necks, conjuring up images of France more than Cuba! Peanuts (Mani) are a common snack, and are served in a cone of rolled paper, and are frequently sold for a few CUP.
What you will find in every town though are ‘hole in the wall’ cafés offering snack food such as pizzas for as little as $.25 cents CUC, soft drinks and beers. These are take-away joints and are the cheapest places to eat in Cuba, although if you can afford to spend a little more to sample more complex dishes such as ropa vieja, it is well worth it!
Cheap Food in Cuba: Markets
Markets will sell fruit and vegetables for next to nothing, and you can pick up rice, eggs and meat too – but not all casas will let you use their kitchen for cooking, so ask them in advance if you are relying on that. You could bring a camping stove and rustle up basic meals that way if you prefer, but part of the fun of any destination for me is trying the local food, so I usually prefer to eat out if I can, even if I am backpacking on a budget.
Backpacking Cuba: Drinking in Cuba
By far the biggest money saver for buying water is to purchase a Water-to-Go water bottle with an in-built filter. It isn’t recommended to drink the tap water in Cuba, and buying bottled water can set you back several CUC per day. With the Water-to-Go bottle you can fill up your bottle from any tap, even rivers or streams, safe in the knowledge it will filter out any unpleasant bugs which play havoc with your stomach.
Usually in a restaurant you can get beers and soft drinks for $1-2 CUC, so if you can do without then that can save you plenty of money too – just take your Water-to-Go bottle & slurp a drink when you need it.
Beer and rum are the alcoholic drinks of choice in Cuba, and for good reason. The two beer brands (Cristal and Bucanero) are brewed by the same government run brewery, and are found in almost every casa, hole in the wall café, restaurant and supermarket. Buying a bottle of rum in a supermarket is the cheapest way to get a taste of Cuba, with a litre bottle of Havana Club 3 Years costing around $5 CUC.
In a bar too it will often work out cheaper to buy a bottle of rum to share with your friends than buying individual cocktails like mojitos. The cheapest mojito I found was in Trinidad, for $1.50 CUC, but it really wasn’t very good. $2-$3 CUC is a usual price for a mojito or cuba libre in restaurants, bars and clubs.
Backpacking Cuba on a Budget: Cheap Transportation in Cuba
I found travelling around Cuba to be quite expensive. The transport designed for tourists is Viazul buses, which are relatively comfortable and air-conditioned. However, the bus stations themselves are often located outside of the city centre, and can cost you several CUC just to get there. The Viazul terminal in Havana is especially inconvenient.
It is a good idea to check the prices and times of the buses online before you plan your travel, their website www.viazul.com is quick and easy to use to check the timetables. I didn’t purchase any tickets online though, as you had to do so at least 7 days in advance and I prefer to be more flexible.
During peak season it is advisable to book tickets in advance as the buses sell out, which unfortunately requires a visit to the bus station a day or two before your trip. During the quieter times though you should be fine to just turn up at the bus station an hour or so before your bus to buy a ticket.
Between many towns there are colectivos available, often matching the price of Viazul, and taking much less time. For example, between Cienfuegos & Trinidad I shared a large colectivo car with 7 others and paid $5 CUC instead of Viazul’s $6 CUC. Again, haggling is vital here, as you will pay much more than the locals anyway, so try to get as fair a price as you can.
Don’t bother with hiring an expensive private car to drive around Havana if you’ll be travelling outside the city. A lot of taxis and collectivos are old ‘classic’ cars too so somewhere along the way you’ll get your photo opportunities! Although some of the taxis we took were also sh*tbox ladas too, so you can’t win em all!
Transport in Cuba for Cubans
There is plenty of transportion in Cuba for Cuban people, which is obviously very cheap. Trucks, camiones, and gua-guas (pronounced wah-wahs) bump along the roads with dodgy brakes and basic benches for seats, I took one of these for a 2 hour journey from Cienfuegos to Santa Clara and did not want to repeat the experience!
It was more like being in a cattle truck than a bus, but you can’t beat the price. Foreigners aren’t really allowed to take these, and you may have varying degrees of success, depending on the route and your level of Spanish – and how gringo you look.
If you can pass as a Cuban you have much more chance of being accepted on these cheap forms of transport. Many times they will let tourists on, but will often charge a higher price than the locals.
READ MORE: Getting Around Cuba
The only transport I am aware of that foreigners definitely can’t take is the Omnibus, as you need a national id card to board. Ask at your casa for the cheapest options, although they will often talk you out of taking the train, and other cheap but uncomfortable forms of transport like camion buses.
Make it clear from the very start that you are on a tight budget & backpacking Cuba, and they will do their best to help you out where they can.
Taking the train can be a very cheap way to get around between major cities, but they are notoriously slow, frequently delayed and apparently very uncomfortable. Every time I mentioned taking the train to a casa owner they fervently told me not to bother!
Backpacking Cuba: Cheap Things to do in Cuba
There is no shortage of things to do in Cuba, although some may cost more than you expect. Official tours arranged by government bodies like Cubanacan and Infotur generally have set prices and can’t be negotiated. It is always worth trying though, especially if you are travelling in a group.
Privately organised tours and excursions like horseback riding are worth haggling hard on, but make sure you agree on exactly what is included, as some may fail to mention additional entrance fees to national parks, or other extra charges along the way.
You will find plenty of free entertainment on the streets of Cuba, from live music and spontaneous salsa dancing to catching a game of dominoes and simply watching the world go by in a shady plaza. They say the best things in life are free, and some of my most memorable experiences from 3 weeks backpacking in Cuba didn’t cost a penny. That said, a little cash can go a long way, and sometimes it is worth the money to visit harder-to-reach places.
Overall, Cuba isn’t a cheap destination, but with careful negotiation and savvy decisions, you can avoid spending too much. I hope these tips will help you to enjoy backpacking in Cuba on a budget!
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44 thoughts on “Backpacking in Cuba on a Budget”
I’m sure it is very frustrating for you, and all Americans who want to travel to Cuba. It seemed that a growing partnership was so close yet now it seems so far away. I hope things change for you, and that you get to go to Cuba soon! It is an amazing country, if challenging at times!
Love your thoughts on Cuba. I just wish it were easier for me to get there. There was so much promise when Obama rolled back restrictions. Now, it’s harder again. I should have gone when it was easier. However, I am bookmarking this for a day when maybe it will be easier for Americans to get there.
There are some great tips here. I will link to this from my Havana guide. The only thing I would say is take precautions when getting in random collectivos; as you’ll not be insured ‘if’ anything happens. I did the same from Havana to Cienfuegos.
Nice tips, there’s sometimes not a lot of choices to travel on a budget. But staying close to locals is the best way to save some money and make real connections to real discover Cuba !
I am always surprised everytime I see a non-Cuban write an accurate article about Cuba, and this is definitely one of those. Nice read!
You are totally right to think that we Cubans use to think that every tourist is rich. Actually, as I read I was wondering whether it was worth it for a tourist to sleep on a 6 people room, even for such a cheap price. But I am no one to judge, so I guess that is a valid tip for many tourists visiting Cuba.
Also, camiones allow tourist to jump in because they are owned by private people, not the state. The state would always prefer you to pick one of the options suited especially for toursists, like the Viazul bus, or Cubataxi, or else.
As of the collectivo taxis, yes, you can pick some collectivos outside the Viazul stations in each city, but these are mostly old cars than are filled up with a lot of people, and like you mentioned, just arriving at the station could cost.
Finally, I believe that you knowing to speak Spanish is something that makes the difference. To be able to do all the you recommend here, is very difficult if you can’t ask people where you can do these things etc. (ex. where can I pick up a camion, or is this restaurant for Cubans?). Many of the cheap things you recommend are originally designed for Cubans, and you don’t find many people who speak English in that side.
Oh, and I loved your very first tip: by far the best way to reduce accommodation costs is to find travel buddies. I definitely believe that too!
great place to visit
That is definitely true, there is an element of luck for sure! I was only stuck due to a breakdown once, but a lot of the old cars break down frequently, obviously! I’m glad I got to experience both sides, I think a lot of people don’t realise what it’s really like when they just rent a shiny car round Havan for the day!
Regarding Cheap Transport for Cubans, I had always been allowed to board camiones, and gua-guas but as you mentioned, there are very crowded and you do not want to repeat the experience. As state run buses and trains are not reliable, there are only two chooses, either suffer and go cheap by using transport for Cubans, or agree on overprices taxi rides. I have met Germans that traveled by taxi, paid several dollars only to be stuck as the suspension has broken down. Traveling in Cuba is a matter of luck, and this is what locals say with smile. “para conocer Cuba tienes que vivir en Cuba” quote for a Cuban song.
Oops, thanks for letting me know about my mistake, I’ve updated it now 🙂
Been once and going again. Great insight even so. What I didn’t under stand is for you to go to all that trouble of writing a lengthy blog post to end with “Prepare for your trip to Mexico City with these top picks from Amazon:”
This article is so thorough! Do you have any tips for saving money on souvineers? I hear that they can be very expensive and I don’t want to blow my budget! Thanks!
Most do, the more expensive ones should do but the cheaper ones might not – it’s best to check in advance to be sure
Do these hotels have Air Conditioning? I’m traveling there soon.
Wow, I didn’t know that Cuba has all this beautiful Gem. This is such a well written write up like as if I’m travelling with you on a budget. Anyway, I’ll surely bear all these good things about Cuba for a future reference. Thank you so much for sharing!
Nicely written and useful, I always travel in a place with a budget friendly which I can also enjoy and this article of yours gives me a lot of ideas thanks.
I have been searching for this!
I have heard so many different things about prices… I have no idea how to plan for it. What would you say the overall cost of your 3 week trip came to? I’m looking to go for 2 weeks later in the year 🙂
Thanks so much Aubrie! Cheap food is mainly in places for Cubans – and require some ballsy choices, staying away from hotel-recommended places & going where there are local people. I didn’t go to Veradero which I understand is more expensive, but in Havana, Vinales & other cities there is always somewhere to eat cheaply, even if its just fried chicken & rice 🙂
Budget is really hard to say – it depends on your choice of food, accommodation & activities. For a budget stay maybe $30 a day minimum, but if you’re staying in casas alone & eating in more expensive places it’ll easily be over $50 a day.
Ahh fingers crossed you’ll make it there!
Resort experiences are of course very different to travelling around independently – I highly recommend to go back & explore more if you can!!
You’re right, I think prices have increased a lot now there is more freedom for Cubans to make their own businesses – and with it being such a popular destination now, they know they can charge whatever they want and people will still pay it!
It will be interesting to see how US/Cuban relations progress now, I’m lucky I’m English so can come and go much more easily!
Yes, I speak Spanish – but I think either way the prices would have been similar. Sometimes it helps to chat to local people to get an idea of prices first – that’s where Spanish comes in handy, but most people who deal with tourists can speak at least some English so it shouldn’t be an issue.
Thanks Megan – yes I was surprised at how expensive it was, after travelling in South America everything seemed to cost so much more here!
Well I don’t have the budget for luxury – but honestly even if I did I would prefer to stay in casas. 5* hotels are very lovely of course, but you lose the real essence of a place, which is the most important part for me 🙂
Agreed, the casas are owned by normal families, not business people or governments. Its great to be able to chat to them and see what they really think!
OMG yes they lobster is awesome! And the salsa of course!
Yeah, sometimes you can’t avoid getting over charged – just hopefully not too much!!
El Nicho was great! Take a bottle of rum & let it chill in the water – best rum I’ve ever tasted!!
Thanks so much! Thanks for reading 🙂
This is such a lovely blog! So informative. Cuba has been on my bucket list for quite some time, but I know there are definitely some things one should consider before they go. You summed it up perfectly. 🙂
Cuba is a place I’ve been dying to go for some times. I’m really happy to see all of the budget options, since that’s typically how I travel! I’m so excited that I’m finally going to be able to (legally) visit Cuba and I’m definitely going to make a trip to El Nicho – looks incredible!
Great tips for food and transportation. I know many places that charge a Gringo tax, and you offer some goos tips for a win-win.
Great tips! I was on a tour when I visited Cuba, but we stayed in the Casas Particulares and I would totally recommend these to all travellers. I enjoyed indulging in free salsa in the street and some cheap lobster in Trinidad!
Another advantage to staying in a casa is it does tend to feel more authentic I think. Love the chance to ride in a classic taxi too. That’s definitely better than hiring a private car and paying a load of dosh!
I’m very interested to learn that you can travel around Cuba on a tight budget. $5.20 a night for accomodation is as low as you can get! If you had to do it again would you opt for a luxury trip?
Some fabulous tips – it’s funny because the impression is that Cuba should be a cheap country to travel to but in fact it’s really not. our favorite cost saving tip is the Casas Vs Hotels … offers a much more immersive experience as well as being more budget friednly.
And great tip on the LifeStraw … bottled water is an expense which caught us off guard too … and it adds up fast!!
We just bought our tickets to Cuba and we are super excited. We don’t speak any Spanish and you mentioned that you have to do a lot of negotiating…do you speak Spanish?
I have been wanting to visit Cuba since US citizens were able to start traveling there again! I have to be honest, I really didn’t know much about actually traveling there until I read this post! It was extremely helpful, I also love the idea of staying in a casa!
Cuba is so very high up on my bucket list! Years ago I heard Cuba was quite cheap to visit, but that must have changed a lot in the last years where more and more visitors are coming to the place. Good to know that it’s cheaper to just buy a bottle of rum at the bar!
What fabulous tips. I visited Cuba years ago but was in a resort so never really experienced much of this but based on my experiences of similiar places I’m not surprised. I totally agree with you though that it is very annoying to feel totally ripped off.
Loving this post! This is going to really come in handy for me. I’ve been dying to go to Cuba and hopefully I can make plans this Spring!
Great info. I hadn’t really thought about Cuba being expensive.. or inexpensive… I guess I just hadn’t thought about it. I do hope to go there someday though. So in total then, how much do you think you’d budget per day there?
I have to say I absolutely love this post. I am definitely going to book mark it because I would love to visit Cuba. First off, I love your writing style! Secondly, this is one of the most informative posts on Cuba I’ve seen. I’d like to know where you were able to find food for so cheap? I have recently been reading people that are in Cuba are having a hard time finding meals for under $20. Again, thank you for this post, I really loved it!