Category Archives: Travel Tips

Cuba: Mystery Solved

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Havana was amazing.  A very vibrant atmosphere to fulfill all of your adventure needs. But there are quite a few things that need to be considered. While doing research for my trip, I found it extremely difficult to find specific information. Once you got passed the fluff of the gazillion blogs out there, I was starting to realize the lack of important “need to know” information available. Basically, I REALLY had to dig to find it. Hopefully, me posting what all I found out will make it easier for you.

First things first. Let’s get those expectations in order, shall we? Cuba is NOT the Dominican Republic. It is NOT Puerto Rico. It is NOT like any other Caribbean island out there. You have to understand that not everything is as plentiful and readily available there like you would find elsewhere. If you’re the type that likes to be catered to or have everything lined out for you, don’t go. No, seriously. And knowing basic phrases in Spanish will make your life that much easier.

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Authorized Categories for Travel into Cuba

Keep in mind that tourism in Cuba is still prohibited. You have to fall into one of the 12 categories of authorized travel set by the US government in order to book a plane ticket. Most airlines have a message that automatically pops up and asks you this when booking travel anywhere in Cuba online. As long as you fall under one of the 12 categories, you don’t need prior approval from the government. It is based on good faith. They include:

  1. Family visits
  2. Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
  3. Journalistic activity
  4. Professional research
  5. Educational activities
    • People to people interactions
  6. Religious activities
  7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
  8. Support for the Cuban people
  9. Humanitarian efforts
  10. Private foundations or research institutes
  11. Exportation and importation of information materials
  12. Special export transactions

So which one did I select? Educational activities. The people to people clause allows for you to make individual trips to Cuba by planning your own schedule of activities, without having to go through a private company ( which used to be the only way to go under the educational category and needed prior approval from the government).  Be sure to keep a detailed itinerary listing all the things you did. It has to be enough to cover a full day, so maybe 3-4 activities. Its suggested that you keep itineraries for your records for at least 5 years. Also keep in mind that you want activities that center around interaction with the Cuban people. I find it extremely difficult to go to Cuba and not have an educational, people to people type of experience.

Visa Requirements

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Here comes the fun part! I only say this because there is a wealth of conflicting information out there on this topic and it will literally make your head spin.

The Cuban government requires a visa for entry into the country. As a U.S. Citizen, you will need to apply for what the Cuban government refers to as a tourist card ( I know, weird because tourism is prohibited by our government… but hey, thats what the visa is called). Here’s where it can get confusing. There are multiple ways to obtain a visa. It all just depends on a) your level of patience in playing the waiting game and b) how much you are willing to spend. There are 3 ways in which you can obtain a visa:

  1. From the Cuban Consular office in Washington D.C.
  • Cost: $50 for Visa + $20 if request made by mail= $70
  • Must be paid with money orders, one for each fee
  • Legible copy of valid passport and stamped self addressed envelope are required.
  • Embassy of Cuba (Ref: Tourist Visa), 2630 16th St NW Washington DC 20009
  • I couldn’t get an exact estimate of processing time, but I would allow for 4 weeks. Government processes aren’t known for being the fastest.  Also, you can get the process going in person, but it will still take a few days for you to actually receive the visa. Its not necessarily same day pick up.

2. From a Third Party

  • There are a number of third party companies that can help obtain a visa for you. The most common one I heard about was Cuba Visa Services , which is who I used. I prefer convenience over everything. And with convenience often comes a premium. It was a seamless process though. You fill out the form online and pay the fee.
  • Cost: $50 for Visa + $35 processing fee+ $25 shipping via FedEx= $110.
  • I received it 4 days later after I submitted my order

3. Through the Airline

Now this one can vary a lot because prices and processes are not uniform across airlines. For instance, Southwest charges $50 while Spirit charges $100. Also, some airlines send you an email about 30 days out from your trip directing you to a third party they have contracted to provide the visa service. Others let you buy the visa over the phone and let you pick up at the check in counter. Or purchase the visa same day at the check in counter. Bottom line… if you’re going the airline route, CALL the airline and verify directly with them.

If you opt for a non-US carrier, you may be able to purchase the visa on a layover. For example, I flew Aeromexico with a layover in Mexico City. Some of the ladies I went with purchased their visas on our layover at the customer service desk for a whopping $20 (this is by far the cheapest option). I believe it is the same flying Copa Airlines with a layover in Panama City for around the same price. One note of caution in going this route: Make sure you have a long enough layover where you can comfortably do this. We were on a 2 hour layover in Mexico City and had plenty of time to spare. However, it wasn’t a busy time when we arrived so customs and immigration were a breeze. I’ve been on a layover in Mexico City with immigration lines double wrapped around the corner and the entire process took an hour. So just be mindful of connection times.

It is important that you fill the visa out correctly or you will have to purchase a new one!

Travel Medical Insurance

Cuba requires all U.S. citizens entering the country to have travel medical insurance. Most U.S. medical insurance policies through your employer will not cover Cuba. Also, some travel insurance policies won’t either. I purchased basic travel insurance through the airline, then purchased medical insurance through another 3rd party for like $12. InsureMyTrip is an excellent resource for comparing policies (select the “medical coverage only” option when doing comparisons). Also, you can purchase insurance at the Havana airport but its more expensive than getting it before you go. Some people will say that they weren’t asked about insurance when they arrived at the airport. When I arrived at the Havana airport, I was definitely asked to show proof of  it. So its always better to be safe than sorry.

Accommodations

Lodging depends on your level of comfort as well as your budget. We chose an Air BnB in the neighborhood of Vedado. We paid $366 for 4 nights in an apartment that slept 6. I would highly recommend you use the “Instant Book” option with Air BnB. There were quite a few instances of hosts canceling requests extremely close to travel dates. While Instant Book isn’t a guarantee your reservation won’t be cancelled, the likelihood of that happening is slim. Air BnB is still fairly new to Cuba, so there are still a few kinks to work out.  You also have the option of staying in a Casa Particular. A simple google search will yield plenty of mediums for booking. You can sometimes book one when you land in some cases. They are literally everywhere throughout the city. They are distinguished by a particular sign, which sort of resembles an anchor. Of course, there is always the option of a hotel. But given the influx of American tourism, the costs have increased. Like I said, lodging depends on your level of comfort as well as your budget. I will say that most of the people I know who traveled to Havana went the Air BnB/ Casa route.

You can see the symbol for the Casa Particular above the door way.
You can see the symbol for the Casa Particular above the door way.

Money Matters

PLEASE keep in mind that you can not use your credit/debit cards in Cuba. They will not work. Which means you need to pay for everything in cash. Which also means you need to budget your trip accordingly. I would say you would do fine on $100 per day. Whatever that total comes to, add another $200-300 to that just to be safe. I brought $1,000 total. I only spent half in 4 days. About $250 on food, $80-100 on transportation, $40 on our group activity with the remainder on miscellaneous items ( Cigars aren’t cheap! Budget accordingly).

I would advise you to exchange your USD to Euros first, then exchange the Euros to CUC when you arrive in Havana. Why? Because there is an extra 10% fee tacked on to the 3% conversion fee for USD due to the embargo. So basically:

  • For every $100 you exchange you get back 87 CUC. The conversion rate is 1 USD= 1 CUC
  • 460 Euros got me 466 CUC

I didn’t exchange the other $500 I had. I never exchange the full amount of cash I bring because of the fees associated with selling and buying currency. Don’t want to lose money on the cash you don’t use.

Other Miscellaneous “Need to Know” Tips

  • Wifi is limited. Be prepared to be disconnected. You can buy a wifi card from some of the hotels. I bought mine from  the Melia-Cohiba hotel. $10 for 1 hour. But the hotel was like 4 blocks from our apartment. Whenever you see a gathering of people on their phones, its a wifi spot.
  • Taxi rides from the airport should run you about $30. Negotiate prices and agree on them before you get in.
  • Bring LOTS of sanitizer and wet wipes. Sometimes there was no soap, running water or toilet paper in the restrooms at the places we were at.
  • Bottled water ONLY.
  • Trips to the beach in an official taxi (the yellow ones) will run you $50 round trip. You can try your negotiation skills with a local taxi though. Most definitely will come out cheaper.
  • If you have a sensitive stomach, start taking those probiotics!
  • Pack your allergy meds. The exhaust from the cars had mine going haywire at first.
  • When giving addresses for your casa/Air BnB to taxi drivers, make sure to include the street, intersection and house number. For example:
    • 6 calzada y 5, 115 means between 6th and 5th streets, number 115. Air BnB doesn’t always have the addresses accurately posted.
  • Google Translate is an awesome tool for the not so fluent Spanish speaker. But it translates English to proper Spanish. Some of the phrases you put in might not translate as smoothly to the everyday Spanish that Cubans use. So try to ask basic, yes or no questions.
  • I would strongly advise you to do carry-on only. Wait times from baggage claim can be at least 2 hours in most cases. They simply don’t have the personnel to handle the influx of tourism. Save yourself the trouble. If you’re buying cigars and alcohol, check it on the way back.

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If there is anything you would like to know that I may have left out, or you have a specific question, please feel free to contact me! Happy planning!

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A Curly Conundrum: Natural Hair Maintenance while Traveling

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A self-proclaimed curly girl, I’ve been wearing my hair in its natural state for about 7 years. I cut it all off to start over after years of chemical processing. Best decision I ever made. Since I began seriously traveling about 5 years ago, I’ve learned what works for my hair (and what doesn’t) when I’m in a new place braving new elements.

Sometimes Humidity is Your Friend

I know you read that and thought “since when?”. I’m here to tell you, my best curls were on a trip to Miami. That Florida humidity whipped my curls right into shape. I only had to do water rinses and a light moisturizer and let nature do the rest. I usually co-wash every other day but that can cause build up.  Obviously, straightened hair in Florida is a resounding NO for me when visiting. Because then, me and the weather wouldn’t get along too much.

Hard Water Setbacks 

When I was preparing for my trip to Mexico, I knew the water wasn’t going to be all that great. So I planned for it by putting twists in my hair to prep for a twist out and packed my favorite moisture rich conditioner (Garnier Fructise). My twist out lasted me the first 2 days. I had also made a mixture of my favorite moisturizer diluted with a little water  and a light oil (I prefer grape seed or almond) and put in a spray bottle to create somewhat of a leave in conditioner. It worked wonders!

Windswept Days

For extremely windy days, I usually wore my hair pulled back. I would love to be able to whip my hair through the wind. However, the detangling process would be a nightmare. French braids and twists have helped me get through many windy days so that I could focus on my adventures ahead.

Dry and Dull

Drier climates I may opt to straighten my hair, depending on where I’m going. Both times I’ve visited Napa Valley, I’ve always worn my hair straight. No wind + No humidity= A great hair day. While visiting the Texas Hill country, it was a very dry heat. I wore my curls but kept a spray bottle with water handy to spritz when needed.

Some people skip the maintenance and opt for protective styles like weaves or braids. I’ve personally only wore weave in my hair once and it only lasted 3 days. The constant feeling of having a helmet on my head wasn’t appealing at all. This also makes swimming difficult, so it wouldn’t work for me since I like to swim under water.  A trick I learned for dealing with swimming pools and ocean water is to throw some conditioner on my hair before going swimming or simply wetting my hair before diving in. It helps alleviate the dryness that comes from salt water and chlorine.

I’m all for keeping it simple. The last thing I want to be worried about is being miles away from home suffering from bad hair days.

Going the Distance: How I Plan My Trips

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You can’t avoid the itch that comes from being bitten by the travel bug. My way of scratching that itch is planning my next travel destination. As I’ve stated before, I’m not one of those types that can pack up and leave at a moment’s notice, with me having a career and all. But I do try to plan as thoroughly as possible, while still leaving room for some spontaneity.

Adventurer vs Beach Bum

The biggest question I ask myself when considering a trip, is “what type of trip am I trying to take?”. Will this be a lazy trip, where I do absolutely nothing but sip mojitos by the beach. Or am I looking to venture out and be active? Knowing what level of activity you plan to partake in will help determine what kind of budget to plan for your trip. You also need to know what type of atmosphere you feel comfortable in. I’ve been some places that made me feel a little out-of-place at times. Especially being a solo traveler in a place that may be deemed a romantic getaway by some. Turks and Caicos was very laid back and beachy by day. But turned extremely romantic and intimate by night. Naturally, I did start to feel a little like a third wheel. So I opted for a seat at the bar, and chatted it up with the locals. But no two beach destinations are alike! My trip to Tulum was the exact opposite. I mean at times you saw many couples. But I ran into so many back packers and solo travelers. I knew these things before I chose both places as my destinations. I knew that Turks and Caicos was one of the more expensive islands with nothing more to do than frolic the beach, so most of my money would go towards food. I also knew that Tulum didn’t cost nearly as much and that there were tons of places to visit and sites to see. This made planning my budget way easier.

Navigating Pricing with Seasons

Understanding the seasons and their relation to accommodation and flight prices will save you a headache and money! For example, while high season for the Caribbean is between December- April, those periods are actually low season for places like Bermuda. This because Bermuda sits in the Atlantic and the weather is more aligned with that of the South East coast of the U.S. Know beforehand what type of weather you would be ok with. I’m not a cold person, so traveling to Chicago in February or March is a no go. I’ll just have to save up to go in the summer! I still always try to travel in the off or low seasons, for obvious reasons. I went to TCI the first week of June, the start of hurricane season. As a native Texan growing up on the Gulf Coast, anyone will tell you that June is still relatively early in the season, so a hurricane off the bat, while possible, is not likely to happen. Record high temps for June were in the mid 90’s (I’m from Texas after all. I’m no stranger to 3 digit temps). So June was perfect for me. Absolutely no crowds whatsoever and I got a really good deal on the hotel.  My trips to Napa Valley are always in the fall. It’s the start of low season. The weather is amazing with not a cloud in sight. And the fall foliage is simply breathtaking. AND the accommodations are dirt cheap! The only way you will ever catch me there in the summer would be during a group trip where the costs could be split.

Flights and Accommodations

I always try to be as flexible with my flight dates as well. Departing on a Saturday and returning on a Tuesday has yielded cheaper results than flying out on a Thursday and coming back on a Sunday. Signing up for flight alerts are a must as well (my fave is the Fare Deal. Be prepared to have the money on hand to purchase, as most deals only last 2 days). And depending on the duration and type of trip, I try to be flexible with my hotel bookings as well. What do I mean? If I know this will be a short weekend getaway, I use sites like Hotwire for the cheapest deal. The catch is, in order to get the cheapest price, you don’t find out the hotel until after you book. The trick is, at least for me, to never book anything less than 3 stars. It’s not completely fool-proof, mind you. But I’ve done it enough to know what kind of hotel to expect. For longer or out of the country stays, I prefer Booking. com or booking directly through the hotel if they offer specials.  I ALWAYS use Trip Advisor as a guide (Not law. Some reviews are just down right petty). So far, it hasn’t steered me wrong.

Lavish Foodie or Minimalist 

Food while on vacation is kind of big deal. Some places, the food prices may be outrageous. In those situations, I always try to book accommodations in walkable areas ( or easily accessible by car) near local food marts or grocery stores. I can purchase snacks and breakfast items, which would allow me to splurge on lunch and dinner. Or, you could book accommodations where breakfast is included. I stray away from all-inclusive because I’m all for culture immersion. Plus,  it’s a wonderful way to get out and be a local for a day or two.  However, if I know that I am going to a foodie mecca, I try to skimp as much as I can on flights and accommodations.

If nothing at all, I try my hardest to keep everything simple. This is a time for you  to relax or focus on getting out and seeing. The last thing you want to do is overcomplicate things. Do you have any ideas or things of note that help you plan for your trips?

7 Basic Travel Tips for Beginners

Planning your first trip and trying to figure out pre-trip precautions? There’s nothing better than feeling fully prepared for a trip. Things happen, which is why its good to be as surprise proof as possible. Here are some of my basic travel preparation tips I’ve gathered along the way. For anyone just starting out with travel, whether it be domestic or international.

1. Call all banks and inform them of travel plans.

This is to make sure that your credit/debit cards have full functionality while you’re traveling. Most people do this when they travel internationally, but I have had my transaction denied while attempting to pay for gas in California. Highly inconvenient.

2. Write down all contact phone numbers of credit/debit cards in case of loss or theft.

This way you will be able to contact the institutions immediately if you suspect your cards have been lost or stolen. I try to keep a physical copy or store in my phone.

3. Send all trip itineraries and hotel information to a family member or friend.

I always send my flight and hotel information to my mom. If I’m going on a highly adventurous trip, I try to send her a round about summary of activities I plan to do, along with the times and days I plan to do them. Of course, this more so applies to short trips rather than extended stays.

4. Scan copies of driver’s license/passport.

This really comes in handy in case of theft or losing your wallet. Passports are kind of a big deal, and it can be a headache getting them replaced. So having a photocopy will give you a head start on the process. I either send the copies to my mom or save it somewhere I know I can have easy access to (Dropbox is cool because of the verification process in retrieving documents).

5. Purchase reusable toiletry containers.

This mainly applies if you only plan to use carry on luggage. Because I have naturally curly hair and because most of the products I use don’t come in travel sizes, this helps me maintain my mane. I simply pour my fave products into the containers and voila! Beats having to spend money on travel size toiletries.

6. Know before you go how much cash you’re going to withdraw.

This is why its a good idea to develop a trip budget! This mainly applies to foreign travel, just because of the international transaction fees charged by your bank. You don’t want to pay fees for multiple transactions because it adds up to a significant amount. So its good to take out money in one go, if possible. If you are traveling some place where most credit cards are accepted, keep in mind fares and tips for cab rides. Also, small local shops may not accept plastic.

7. Double-check hotel front desk hours.

The last thing you want is to have a delayed flight and show up to your hotel 3 hours later than planned, only to find out there is no one there to help you. Always check front desk hours and keep the hotel number handy to notify them in advance of any potential delays should you arrive after business hours.

Hopefully you find these tips helpful. Some I learned after the fact. But luckily you won’t have to worry about that:)

Working to Live: Juggling Debt and Travel Ambitions

My new journal. Because anything is possible. All you need is a little hope...
My new journal. Because anything is possible. All you need is a little hope…

Far too often we spend more time convincing ourselves why we can’t do something instead of planning for a way to make it happen. I’m totally guilty of this. I held myself back from satisfying my wanderlust with the usual ” you can’t afford it” or “in a year when you pay off ALL your debt”. And then one day, while scrolling through plane fares, a voice in my head said ” just buy the damn ticket!”. And so I did.

With two degrees under my belt, I love the fact that I am working in a career using the education that I worked so hard to obtain. And the reality is, I have bills, just like everyone else. Plus, I like the security of having health insurance (if you’ve never been without it, its the worst). I’ve lurked around travel blogs for years looking for answers on dealing with debt while maximizing travel and working full time, state-side. The only things that ever came up were:

a) Develop a skill that you could use in any country to earn a living.

b) Teach English in another country.

c) Work really hard to save and quit my job to travel the world.

These are all good choices, no doubt. I admire those people who can religiously pinch pennies to pay off all their debts or save up enough to quit their jobs and travel the world. I could get to that point, but I’m not there yet, nor do I want to be right now. Seriously, that takes a ton of will power, so kudos to them. I guess I fall somewhere in between.You see the thing that I have come to realize is this; I could spend all of my time and money on paying off every single debt I owed and die at any given moment during the process. There goes my travel wish list!

So I plan and set realistic goals. For example, I know that this year I want to pay off at least 1 credit card out of 2. I also know that given my vacation days and relevant monthly expenses, I can set a goal of 2-3 domestic trips (I take full advantage of 3 day weekends) and 2 international (Tulum in 2 weeks!!) for a total of 4-5 trips this year. This works for me. It satisfies my need for travel while not making me feel like a slacker in paying off my debt. It just goes back to what I’ve said in previous posts.You don’t have to be rich to travel. I’ve also noticed that some people don’t consider domestic travel real travel, which is definitely not true. I once priced a plane ticket to Bermuda and it was the same price for a ticket to Portland. So based on that, domestic travel IS travel. Travel is travel, period.

To those of you in a similar situation as me, I say, know your limits and whether or not you are comfortable with them. If not, come up with feasible goals and ways to change them. To reach my debt and travel goals, I find the money. What am I saying? I have a tax refund coming up. There goes the credit card I want paid off. Two months out of this year I’ll get an extra paycheck. There goes money towards my travel funds. Again, you know your situation better than I would. But don’t put off your passions for something that will still be there if you died tomorrow.

3 Reasons Why You Should Travel Solo At Least Once

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I wouldn’t call myself a travel expert by any means. But I’ve traveled enough to know and understand why I enjoy solo travel. It never fails, no matter where I go, when people realize that I am traveling alone they always say “Good for you!”.  I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t feel some sense of accomplishment from it.

The media and all of your aunts and uncles can put a damper on solo travel plans. Of course they mean well, but at the end of the day its your life. And here’s another word of unsolicited advice: The world isn’t as big and scary as they would have you believe. Not saying it is free from crime, obviously. Some of us hold on to this idea that we’re safer in America than anywhere else, which is false. This theory crashed and burned after my house was broken into AND I was living alone. Just because terrible things are happening in one part of a country, we start thinking it’s happening all over said country. Think about it. Would you not go to Denver because of crimes going on in certain parts of Chicago?  I mean they’re both in the United States. See where I’m going here? But now for the top 3.

1. See what its like to step out of your comfort zone.

Best part of doing so? No one will likely recognize you because you are in unfamiliar territory. When I was in Turks and Caicos, the front desk attendant at my hotel told me I should change my name for the rest of the week and do something I had never done before. I passed on the name change, but I did swim with a barracuda. This divorcee I met said her friends had challenged her to have a one night stand. A bit too rich for my blood, but I’m no judge! My point? Do what you want! Do a little jig looking at your reflection while window shopping. Dance on top of a table. Become the astronaut you said you would become as a kid. Well, I mean not literally. But the people you are meeting for the first time don’t know it isn’t true (unless you really like the new people you meet and intend to keep in touch, then be honest). You catch my drift?

2. You don’t have to wait on anyone else to make up their mind.

We all have that ONE friend. God love them, but they are one of the most indecisive creatures on the planet. From guided tours to dining options, they are super picky. But that’s one less thing you have to worry about with solo travel. Your time is YOUR time. If you want to lounge at the beach or go sight-seeing ALL day, you can. There’s no one there to give their input on what they would rather do. It’s all you baby!

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3. Get a chance to discover or re-discover yourself.

This is your alone time with you. Maybe you need to re-charge from the monotony of your everyday life. Now you can. Find a place and meditate. Enjoy the silence. Actually take time to thoroughly hear your thoughts without distraction. You may recognize answers you’ve been looking for. Enjoy these intimate moments with you. There’s only one of you and you deserve it. You may find that there are things you didn’t know you could appreciate about yourself. I never knew how sociable I was until I traveled by myself for the first time. Conversations with strangers came so easily to me. I opened up.

Quit hoarding away those vacation days. Stop relying on the crew to answer your emails about the payment plan for Jamaica. Go…. Just go. Trust me on this one, ok?