On She Goes

Traveling to Cuba on the Cheap with Friends

My friends and I were interested in seeing if Havana could be friendly to travelers on a budget.

Paulana Lamonier
Paulana Lamonier
May 15, 2017
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Cuba, the small island country known to Americans for its premium cigars, vintage cars, and fraught diplomatic history with the U.S., has finally opened up to tourism. For more than 50 years, Cuba and the U.S. were closed off to one another, but they have reestablished a relationship so that we may learn more about the country’s culture and history. My friends and I were interested in seeing Havana’s vibrant city landscapes and rich culinary traditions and how it can be friendly to travelers on a budget—because who doesn’t love a great trip for a great price?

From Havana’s cobblestone streets—where you may find a salsa band playing or see santeros, those who practice the religion of Santeria, dressed in all white, basking in the sun, some with their tarot cards and others with their fans and cigars in hand—you’ll be able to soak in the emerging tourist scene. And what better way to enjoy Havana than with your fave people. Creating a travel itinerary for large groups (our friend group was 10 deep) can be hit or miss—but is guaranteed to be memorable. Yes, while one of the biggest detriments to traveling in large groups may be decision-making because everyone has their own agenda and taste, the upside will always be the memories and inside jokes you make that last a lifetime.

Read on and learn how my friends and I managed to have the time of our lives in Cuba within a budget and with each other.

On the Hunt for Luxurious (and Affordable) Homes Away from Home
Finding a place to stay is easier said than done—especially traveling with a group of 10! Whether your group is bigger or smaller, it’s crucial to know everyone’s budget and the best options available in different parts of Havana. For my group, we wanted to stay somewhere that was close to tourist hot spots but also where we could floss on our Instagram using our dope hashtag #ViewsFromCuba.

We searched hotels and home rental sites like Havana Casa Particular and Airbnb and found a beautiful Airbnb that was within our budget. We ended up paying $340 per person for our five-night stay. Some homeowners are open to negotiating depending on how long you’re staying at that particular villa or home. So, shoot your shot and put your negotiating skills to the test if you’re eyeing your dream villa. Another way to get more bang for your buck is booking with more people.

Prior to finding our dream villa, we considered staying at a hotel as a backup plan. Our plan B was at a hotel chain where some of us have a members’ rewards card, which would have allowed us to receive a discounted rate and get points. Though resorts are always a good idea, it wouldn’t have worked out for us because the majority of them were far from José Martí International Airport.

photo by Paulana Lamonier

Keep an Eye on Those Flight Deals
Ever since Cuba has opened up to tourism, most of the major airlines have offered great fares. Always compare airline prices to get the most for your coin. My friends and I found a great flight deal, and more keep coming up for Havana.

Want the lowdown on how to find cheap flights? A recent study reports that Sunday is the best day to buy airline tickets. Setting up alerts, using sites like Travel Pirates, and keeping tabs on those airline glitches are other great ways to book cheap flights.

Yes, while one of the biggest detriments to traveling in large groups may be decision-making because everyone has their own agenda and taste, the upside will always be the memories and inside jokes you make that last a lifetime.

How We Got Around
Uber and Lyft haven’t made their way to Cuba, so how do you find reliable transportation? We opted to hire a driver for a flat fee so we wouldn’t have to deal with fluctuating taxi rates, lack of GPS access to find what places to go to, and renting a car to drive ourselves. Our Airbnb hosts helped us arrange a driver for our five-night stay, where each person paid $100.

Our driver took us to a local club that played late 1990s/early 2000s R&B and an alleyway where they practiced voodoo or Santeria, and we made a pit stop at the Bridge of Bacunayagua, considered one of the seven wonders of Cuba. If you decide to go the taxi route, the charge is between 3–5 pesos depending on where you’re going.

With a nice walk, you can hit up local restaurants in La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and visit R. Orozco located in Taller Experimental de Gráfica arts center, where my friends and I had lunch. If you have transportation and a sweet tooth, make sure to try one of the best bakeries in town called Assukkar Cafe.

Having a driver was more than convenient for one reason: he knew where to go for food and the best places to go for activities, anticipating our needs.

photo by Paulana Lamonier

Fun Times without Breaking the Bank
One of the biggest pains that comes with traveling in large groups is finding activities that are not only affordable but also that everyone is interested in doing. For starters, we knew as a group we wanted to do three things: take a salsa class, experience Cuban nightlife, and hit the beach. We were also flexible in case we discovered new sites or things to do while we were there.

Our first activity was taking a tour of Havana in a classic car, which is imperative if you really want to experience the DNA of Cuba’s nostalgia. For just $15 USD, the tour took us to so many picturesque stops, including Cristo de la Habana, a statue of Jesus that oversees the bay in Havana.

We also visited an all-inclusive resort called IBEROSTAR Varadero in Varadero, Cuba. Varadero is known for having beautiful resorts. They charge between $80 USD and $85 USD for a day pass, so we stopped at three different hotels to find the best and most affordable resort that worked within our budget. Lucky for us, our day pass at IBEROSTAR was $75 USD, which included unlimited food and drinks, facials, and access to three pools and the crystal blue ocean—which, hands down, was a steal. While the amenities won our hard-earned coins, the activities that the employees had scheduled for us were a highlight. Offering midday aqua Zumba classes, dance contests, a two-floor water slide, and an open pool bar, there was never a dull moment.

photo by Paulana Lamonier

We put our footwork to the test by taking a salsa lesson at La Casa del Son. This was definitely one of our best experiences throughout the entire trip for a mere $20 an hour. My friends and I really got to experience the dynamics of salsa dancing and how to stay in rhythm with your partner, their swag, and some of the most rhythmic songs in Cuba’s music scene. At the end of class, we were separated into two groups by gender. We had a battle of the sexes where we tried to outshine one another. Before we knew it we were breaking a sweat and our hour was already up. Want to get your own two-step going? Start with “Dándome” by Harryson, featuring Frank Avana. It’ll get you learning the Cuban-style salsa in no time.

Trips are what you and your friends make them. From the inside jokes to endless selfies and using a dope hashtag to flex, you can create a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I always recommend traveling with the right group of people that will make it memorable. But also, let’s be real here, you still need to do advance planning. Be in constant communication with your group regarding budgeting and activities. There’s a lot you can’t turn a blind eye on. Winging your group trip to Cuba can lead to a wasted day and possibly a vacation down the drain.

Trips are what you and your friends make them.