Featured, Travel, Travel Stories

The Day I Ran Out of Money in Cuba

December 1, 2015
Cuba_nomoney

I’ll be honest and say I’m not the most conservative person when it comes to travel. I eat what I want, splurge on crazy excursions, and spend whatever I need to make memories on my trip. Besides, why would you come home from a trip with extra money leftover? To go to the mall when you get back? Girl, bye.

However, I quickly learned that Cuba ain’t the place to play with money. Credit cards connected to American banks aren’t accepted anywhere, and you can’t get money from an ATM. So you have to bring all the cash you need for the entire trip. A friend told me to bring more money than usual, but being unemployed at the time, I didn’t have much wiggle room. And besides, my trip with Spanning The Globe Tours was all-inclusive. How much could I possibly need in spending money?

Sooo…budgets (and responsibility in general) aren’t really my strength. So by the time I calculated my daily allowance, carried the one, and divided it by 5 days, I was all the way off. Below is the play-by-play of how it all went down my last 24 hours in Havana. It was by far the most nerve-wrecking day I’ve ever had while traveling, and further proof I need a chaperone (or a sugar daddy)!

1:00 PM | $119

My brilliant money-saving strategy was to fill up on our hotel’s free breakfast buffet so I wouldn’t have to buy food until dinner. But here’s the thing. Havana heat in September is straight up disrespectful. Like, “I’m coming home Elizabeth” hot. So not long after finally heading out for the day, I quickly found myself in desperate need of water. So I stopped in a small cafe, and saw that a live band was playing some fun salsa music. Free concert? Yes please!

I sat down, and enjoyed a nice glass of water on the rocks ($2) while a few couples nearby enjoyed mojitos. Within minutes I noticed the band was doing the absolute most. One guy serenaded me with the flute at my table, while another grabbed me to salsa dance in front of the crowd. They played at least 4 songs in like 5 minutes, and at the end (wait for it), passed the hat so we could buy a CD. I left a courtesy tip of $1 since they were really good, but put up the church finger real quick before they asked me for more money.

Next stop: The San Jose market.
Cuba_Market2

2:00 PM | $116

I walked into the market with my New York mean mug on 10. I didn’t have money for hustling, and had a strict list of family members to get gifts for. I mean yeah, I felt a little bad talking a woman down from $35 to $8 to get a Guayabera shirt for my Dad, but oh well. Next time I’ll make it rain for the cause. Today? 8 pesos, Mami. No mas.

4:00 PM | $86

As I walked home from the market, I noticed there were tons of small art galleries and outdoor murals I hadn’t noticed before. Art is everywhere in Cuba! The architecture is straight outta Easter, with pastel-colored buildings, bright window trimmings and a vintage vibe. I couldn’t stop taking pictures, and I was super happy I had included an extra day for wandering (because that’s when you find the gems in the cities you visit.)

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After window-shopping at a few galleries, I walked along the waterfront towards a small bar where I stopped for a beer.

IMG_0610“Tienes Cristal?” I said, pointing to the poster on the wall? As a local beer I figured it would be the cheapest.

“No mas. Only Bucanero,” he replied in Spanglish, clearly picking up that I wasn’t Cuban.

“How much?” I said, giving up on Spanish.

“$1.70”

Perfect! I got my beer (best canned beer I’ve ever had) and sat by the water to relax and enjoy the view.

5:30 PM | $83

On my way back I stopped at La Casa de Ron y Tobaco, which had the best-priced Cohiba cigars I had seen during my short stay in Havana. I purchased a little something for my brother-in-law, and a bottle of Havana Club rum for my sister (because new Moms need mojitos). Happy to have finally finished my gift shopping, I headed back to the hotel to get in a quick nap before dusk, and planned to treat myself to a nice Cuban dinner with the remainder of my money.

6:30 PM | $63

I woke up from my nap in an absolute frenzy. That carefree #yolo feeling had worn off, and I found my self trying to remember everything I needed for my flight the next morning. Do I need to pay a departure tax? Is $25 enough cab fare to the airport? What else could I possibly be forgetting?

I opened the orientation guide that STG Tours had provided, and lo and behold it hit me – baggage fees! I needed $20 to check my bag. Okay cool. I put away the baggage fee along with my airport cab fare ($25), which left $18 for dinner. Not the lavish 5-star dinner I wanted, but now wasn’t the time for bougie tendencies. I could totally make it happen. Or so I thought.

Cuba_meal

So this is where it got slightly embarrassing. I went to the same restaurant our group had visited our first night, and had my heart set on the paella, assuming it would be around $10 (it was included during our tour). It turned out to be $15.95, which left me no room for a drink (not even water) and I didn’t know how much tax would be. As the waiter offered me appetizers, drinks and pricier dishes, I kept repeating that I only had $18. He felt pity and gave me a bottle of water for free, and the bill came to just under $18. I left a very small tip, and vowed that I’d at least send them money by recommending the restaurant to my readers. It’s called Ivan Justo and it’s the best paella you’ll ever have!

10:00 AM | $28

The next morning I breathed a sign of relief as I reached the airport with $20 for my bag and a few Cuban coins. Unfortunately that feeling lasted only 10 minutes, before I found out the driver had dropped me at the wrong terminal. The correct one was like 2 miles away. I needed a cab.

!!!#$%%&!@#$$!! How far is it again? Maybe I can power walk. Nah, I might die in this heat. How much time do I have? Ugh, I am so ridiculous! How did I get myself into this mess. Maybe I can sweet talk the cab driver.  

My pocket change came up to $8, which was just enough to get me over to the correct terminal. Once in the check-in line, I heard a woman dropping f-bombs left and right about something frivolous, and have never been happier to be in the company of foul-mouthed Americans. Worst case scenario I could beg my rude brethren for a loan until we reached Miami. IMG_0622

12:30 PM | $20

To my surprise it turned out I didn’t need money to check my bag, and there was no departure tax! At this point I figured I had made it this far, why not push it even further? With 1 hour to go, I asked the gate attendant “Do I need any money to board this flight?” When she replied no, I walked right over to duty-free and got 2 more bottles of rum and some coffee for my Mom. I sat down at a table, ordered a drink with my last $2, and relaxed until it was time to board the flight.

1:00 PM | $0.15

As the door closed on the plane I finally released all the breath I had been holding for the past 24 hours. I looked up at the sky, and before I could even get out a thank you I started laughing. I could feel God looking down at me shaking his head, and I totally deserved it!

While my little adventure was quite entertaining, I share this story as an example of what NOT to do when traveling to Cuba in particular. Anything could have happened at the last minute, and money talks when you’re in any sort of sticky situation abroad. From a car accident to unexpected airport fees, I had zero wiggle room for the unexpected. If you’re headed to Cuba, bring more than you think you need, then add like 50% more. Remember these travel tips to keep your money safe, and pace your spending accordingly. I’m definitely going back to visit again, and when I do, I’ll definitely be rolling with more dough!

*****

Have you traveled to Cuba and run into the same issues with debit/credit cards? How much money do you budget for each day? Teach us your financially responsible ways in the comments below!

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11 Comments

  • Reply Richard Cantave December 1, 2015 at 6:41 pm

    Beautifully written article, very resourceful but i’m happy you made it ! would be interesting now to read ways people in-need made money during their travels or what YOU would have done if you ran out of money. (maybe the american interest section/now embassy could help )

    • Reply Tracey December 1, 2015 at 9:25 pm

      Thanks Richard! I’m happy I made it too LOL! The first place I would have gone is the local office that my tour operator was coordinating with (San Cristobal Tours I think) to see if they could help me get out of my mess. If that didn’t work the embassy was definitely next on my list. Never thought about trying to make money though!

  • Reply KC December 1, 2015 at 9:38 pm

    You are my vacation spirit. I would have done the same thing lol. Oh and yes, all of Jersey would have shown in the market. No mas. No mas. No mas. lol. I hope to journey to Cuba one day soon. Blessings.

  • Reply Rabie December 2, 2015 at 5:30 pm

    So I just got back from Cuba. I politely ran out of money as well. Them CUCs be goin sooooo quick! You never factor in how much money goes to TIPPING! The left that off on the “tips for travel” sheet they sent us. 1 CUC each day for the cleaning staff for your hotel room, 1CUC for the bands, pictures at museums, pictures of street performers, the random people who smile at you in the street! It was obscene how much tipping was expected. Lol! Also them 3 CUC drinks are a trap! Lol. They get you drunk and then you just spend all your lil monies! It was an amazing trip and I would go again, but definitely if you are going factor in a legit 10 CUCs a day for tipping.

  • Reply Travel Bites: Reward Changes, Boutique Finds, Fair Fees & More! | Parlour Magazine December 3, 2015 at 12:21 pm

    […] See Tracey? We told you to bring more money to Cuba. What happens when you run on our funds in a country where everyone can use an ATM…everyone but you. [BTA] […]

  • Reply Cest La Vibe December 3, 2015 at 7:07 pm

    This story reminds me of one of my friends who went to Cuba with practically no cash and only his American Express card!

  • Reply Chanel | Cultural Xplorer December 4, 2015 at 11:54 am

    What an adventure! I carried a ton of cash to Cuba when I went in July for fear of running out of money however I did not carry all of it on me everyday. One day I ran out while I was outside in the streets and tried to use an ATM that I saw Europeans using and my debit card was straight up denied (all three times). Luckily I was with a couple other travelers who happened to have a couple extra CUC to hold me over for the day.

  • Reply Courtney December 14, 2015 at 12:01 am

    I can totally relate! I went down to my last dime in Colombia this past August. Thankfully, I knew enough Spanish to beg and plead with the taxi driver that I only had 24mil pesos when I needed 28mil pesos. The good Lord was with my that day! Glad you were able to handle the situation with humor!

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  • Reply Anitrice January 11, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    I chuckled throughout the entire post!! Love the way you framed things up! I see now I need to restrategize my travel modis operandi when I go to Cuba which is on my list this year! I completely throw caution to the wind while traveling knowing I can go to the ATM or use any on my plastics (just left Côte d’Azur yesterday and didn’t think twice when my EUR got low). The struggle will be real trying to have myself strategize how much CUC I will need in Cuba lol! Great post!

  • Reply Tiffany January 31, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    I throughly enjoyed reading this! I practically held my breath until the end, waiting to see if you were going to make it home with any money to your name. Wow! This definitely will stick with me when I travel to Cuba for myself.

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