Is Cuba safe to travel? Yes, it is actually one of the safest countries in the world when measuring crime figures. However, living in Cuba is not easy. Years of financial oppression has resulted in some crafty ways of making money which, unfortunately, is aimed at tourists. None of the following Cuba scams are made up. This guide does not intend to offend anyone. Yes, I am white and have a UK passport which makes me privileged. Travel is a privilege which I devote life to. I changed career so I could work in the travel industry. I see it as my duty to report the reality of travel so here are tips on how to avoid scams in Cuba. Please enjoy the humour too and feel free to leave comments below. It’s worth reading them too as others have shared their experiences.
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Cuba Travel Safety: Avoid These Scams in Cuba
Table of Contents
I rarely say that tourists need to buy travel guides but Cuba is definitely a country you would benefit from having one. Check out the options below.
1. When Did You Arrive, Sir?
If you answer “today” expect the response to be along the lines of…
What a great day to arrive, it’s the national day of – whatever black market goods/service he is selling – at an overinflated price, of course!
How To Avoid This Scam
Smile, give pleasantries and move on but don’t be afraid to ask if you need help.
Need directions, finding a casas particulares (renting a room in a local home, very common in Cuba), want a car tour etc?
Cubans work in groups. They can source what you need and then they receive some commission from the local.
For example, we hired bikes in Trinidad. We asked a taxi driver, he walked us to his friend’s house where we set up the hire for the next day.
The Cuban with the bikes was honest when we asked what the taxi driver got out of it, commission. It’s a clever way to make money while living in a country which has has been restricted by el bloqueo embargo.
When we arrived in Havana for the second time we just asked a tuk-tuk driver to take us to a casa. The first wasn’t available so he took us to another. We agreed on a price with the casa owner and stayed for a few nights. The same casa also helped us sort a taxi to the airport.
Somewhere down the line, the tuk-tuk driver will receive a commission for the accommodation sale and the casa owner will get a commission for the taxi sale. Clever eh?
If you do not feel comfortable arriving without planned accommodation I recommend booking a hostel or hotel for the first two nights and then consider moving into a casa the third night.
Alternatively, book online before you arrive. Casas now advertise on Booking.com and Airbnb. Just consider that the Airbnb app doesn’t work when you are in Cuba so you won’t be able to contact your host through it.
Examples of casas:
- Casa Colonial La Terraza: Affordable casa, friendly family-run with 5/5 rating on TripAdvisor
- La Villa Teresa: This is an actual palace with a pool. Oustanding reviews on TripAdvisor
New to Airbnb? We’ve used it all over the world, sign up using our referral link for money off your first stay and we will receive credit. Thank you!
2. Leche ‘Con!’
Spanish speakers will get my wordplay here.
We’ve met two clever guys who fell for this one as well as having it tried on us!
A jinetero (hustler) will plead with you to buy his baby some milk (leche.)
When you arrive at the supermarket the milk will be prepackaged in a bag ready to go and you’ll be charged $20-30!
Once you leave the shop, the milk is returned and shopkeeper and the tag team hustlers split their loot! Don’t cry over spilt milk – apologise and move on.
This seems to be more popular in Havana than other Cuba destinations.
Just be aware and have your wits about you. As soon as you are being led into a shop take your sympathetic ear away and your hand out of your wallet!
3. “Lo siento, no cambio”
Traders never seem to have change!
This is just a ploy so you have to buy more stuff.
We fell for this with the cocktail man in Trinidad (not just one of the Havana Cuba scams).
Learn from our mistake and keep your Cuban money close, tell them you’re going elsewhere for change and they miraculously find some!
Learn the language! We have survival Spanish but struggled, luckily for us we were travelling with a fluent Spanish speaker. Purchase a phrasebook at the very least.
4. $6 Coffee – What a Stir
Some shops sell overpriced coffee, please don’t be surprised when a local ‘kindly’ offers to buy it for you in local currency (CUP) at a fraction of the cost in exchange for a dollar. Another scam!
Coffee is about 50 cents – $1.
If you are particularly gullible this scam will be extended.
Your new friend will now wander through the streets with you sharing friendly local knowledge.
Do expect a bill for a private tour at the end. This happened to a mature couple we met.
Unsure about Cuban money? Read our Cuban Currency Guide.
5. Blowing Smoke
Everyone seems to sell cheap fake cigars!
Be wary of buying them on the street as the sealed box may contain banana leaves. Fakes and no duty paid will be confiscated at customs.
For the authentic cigars, buy from plantations or shops.
There is even a great difference in price between authentic Cuban cigars.
6. Casa Particular Prices
On average, Cuban government wages are $28 per month, some would say this wage is relative to local prices, others would say it’s not.
To bump up wages, many Cubans rent out second houses or extra rooms.
Guidebooks and websites recommend you budget $10-30 per night.
We quickly found that the rooms going for $30 were the same as rooms at $10.
We never paid more than $10 each (plus breakfast) after the first casa.
Everything you need to know about casas particulares here.
Should you buy gifts for locals?
Good question and one we get asked often.
We didn’t and were never asked for any.
My good friend, Laura, did feel that there was more of an assumption that tourists would have gifts in the south of the island or possibly because she was part of an organised tour and not travelling independently?
If you do want to bring items, pack items they may actually need like toiletries or toys for kids.
7. Bad Bus’ness
There are two bus companies that travel throughout Cuba, Viazul and Conectando. Viazul has a website where you can book seats making it more popular with tourists.
The journey times are also available on the site. I suggest that you take a screenshot of the trips you intend to make because no one ever knows the times of the buses.
The reason for this is unclear. It could be because regardless of schedules, buses run on ‘Cuba time’ anyway or possibly as casa owners would prefer you stay another night which is what they asked us to do in Caleton near Playa Larga at The Bay of Pigs. Another reason could be because there are taxi colectivos which do the same route and by selling a ride, commission is made.
Taxi colectivos are shared car rides. It is no uncommon for tourists to be asked to swap cars during long journeys so don’t be spooked if this happens!
8. Fawning You Off
Restaurants have everything, including deer! Well, until you get there.
PRs will promise you the world to get you into their place but once there, the extensive menu and inclusive drinks suddenly become the staple rice dishes which is fine, if that’s what you were sold.
We fell victim to this scam in Caleton (Bay of Pigs). The preference would be if PRs just told the truth about the menu. Visitors understand that Cuba has worked on a rations basis.
9. Sisters are Doing it for Themselves
If the police approach your date – run!
We met a young Irish high school teacher who set up a date with a waitress of the same age in Trinidad.
He became concerned when the cops were showing her as much interest as he was. Luckily, the cops were on his side and she fled.
10. Shop Shut!
This scam is not unique to Cuba but we did experience a good attempt to get us into a bar and away from The Revolution Museum.
An older couple told us that it was their anniversary! Congratulations, we rejoiced.
After a bit of chat, they asked where we were going… Alas, the museum is closed today but you should check out this bar!
We said our goodbyes and turned a corner to an open museum. They get a commission when you step through the bar door.
Now we are not saying Havana is ‘scam city’ but like many LEDCs, especially the ones who have suffered from embargos, there are people who try!
Be equipped, avoid these tourist scams in Cuba and have a fun trip.
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Any scams to add? Tell us in the comments below