Is Cuba safe? Yes, it is actually one of the safest countries in the world when measuring crime figures, however, living in Cuba is not easy. Some Cuban men and women make up their communist level pay with Cuba scams, which is frustrating when you’ve saved hard to take a trip of a lifetime. After quite literally spending three weeks, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 scams to avoid in Cuba. Follow these tips to help you keep some of that the CUC in your pockets while having a great time but also giving the lovely Cuban people a fair price for their services.
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! We’ve not heard of any Cuban airport scams but it does seem to be quite a popular search on Google. Have you experienced any?
How to avoid this scam
Smile, give pleasantries and move on. Although don’t be afraid to ask these guys if you need help with directions, finding a casas particulares (renting a room in a local home, very common in Cuba), want a car tour etc. Cubans work in connections. 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 neighbour’s house and we set up the hire for the next day. The lady 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.
Some tourists even find the chancers mentioned above charming! After three months of travel (we had arrived from South America) I certainly didn’t. If you do not feel comfortable arriving with no accommodation planned I recommend booking a hostel or hotel for the first two nights and then consider moving to casas afterwards.
Hotels in Cuba
Although casas are a great experience and should be considered for your trip to Cuba, I do understand that some holiday-makers will prefer the luxury of hotels. Some in Havana even have swimming pools and access to WiFi like the Seville. Unfortunately, we can’t book before we arrive via search engines and we can’t use American credit/debit cards to pay for our stay.
Hostels in Cuba
There are a few more options for hostels in Havana than there were when I arrived. You can expect to pay less than $10 for a dorm room bed, check out the best rates at Hostelworld. Solo travellers, I would highly recommend doing this so you can meet fellow travellers to backpack around the island with and/or discuss itineraries and public transport times. We’re a couple but still spent two out of the three weeks with a group. This made finding future casas at each stop pretty easy (since one of our new friends was fluent in Spanish!) and also cut the costs of taxi collectivos (taxis) which are expensive. Cuba is really not that cheap. Check out what we spent the three weeks in our budget guide. A final word on Havana hostels, check the images for dorm rooms, many of these ‘hostels’ advertised on Hostelworld are in fact casas, if you want a more social experience do a bit of digging first.
Airbnb in Cuba!
Airbnb has landed but to be honest Cubans have been running their own for an age! If you feel more comfortable looking at images and reviews of casas and having a booking in place use Airbnb for Cuba. 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!
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.
Avoid this scam
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 phrase book 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! Don’t buy them, the sealed box normally contains banana leaves. Only buy from plantations or shops, fakes and no duty paid will be confiscated at customs. There is even a great difference in price between authentic Cuban cigars. If you are budgeting, finest Cuban cigars were cheaper (three times!) in the official shop in Viñales than the official shop in Havana.
Find out more
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 think about what is actually needed like sanitary towels, toiletries like deodorant or facewash and toys for kids?
7. Bad Bus’ness
Casa owners are reluctant to share bus times and hide the truth about the frequency of buses to entice you into another night stay with them. If there really are no buses they will hook you up with a taxi collectivo (share taxi)…eventually. Print out all of the timetables you need from the Viazul website before you go. Even the station staff are at it. We asked the times of the buses at Trinidad for Havana and the security guard hooked us up with his friend for the same price! Cuba really is the country that you should invest in a travel guidebook for. I never and I regretted it, I felt powerless!
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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, once there the extensive menu and inclusive drinks suddenly become fish, pork and rice. Remember that some Cubans only live off rations. We suffered from this scam in Caleton (Bay of Pigs).
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. He became concerned when the cops were showing her as much interest as he was! The police do try to have your back so will question known pros if they are seen with gringos. There are countless Cuban marriage scams (scamsters being both male and female) online!
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 developing countries (especially this one which has suffered from embargos), there are people who try! This post has proved quite popular (and controversial!) Read the comments below for more scams in Cuba, and the rest of the world… If you have any to add, please comment below.
Incoming – we have a new one from a reader (don’t forget to check the comments below for additions, and tell us if you experience any!): overcharged internet cards. Don’t be fooled, read our post on how to get WiFi in Cuba.
Cuba Travel Further Reading
- Your Go-To Cuba Travel Guide
- Cuban Currency
- WiFi and Internet in Cuba
- Travel Budget for 3 Weeks in Cuba
- Are Havana Tours Worth It?
- Tricky Trinidad – Salsa and Cycling
- Diving in The Bay of Pigs
- Viñales – Mogotes, Caves and Tobacco