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havana cuba classic carI returned last week from a trip to Havana, Cuba, where I discovered a country on the verge of potentially drastic changes. Since December, when President Obama announced his intention to begin normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba, it’s become easier for Americans to visit Cuba legally — and interest in travel to the Caribbean’s largest island has skyrocketed.

Fortunately, there are numerous tour operators offering opportunities to American travelers. I was part of a small group on a people-to-people itinerary arranged by New York-based smarTours. A spokesman for the company tells us that “online inquiries and phone calls have more than doubled since the historic announcement in December 2014, and we are almost sold out of spots for Cuba for 2015.”

With further political and economic maneuverings on the way, including the removal of Cuba from the U.S. state terrorism list, it’s clear that the country is on the brink of tremendous change (much of it welcomed by the Cuban people). If you’re one of the thousands of Americans planning a trip in the coming months to see the country as it is today, here are five things you need to know.

Bring plenty of cash.
MasterCard has said it will allow its credit cards to be used in Cuba, but that’s not a reality yet because the banking system simply isn’t in place. This means you can’t withdraw money from ATMs either — so you’ll want to bring more cash than you expect to spend during your trip to allow for emergencies. (As a guideline, Cuba isn’t a bargain for travelers the way Southeast Asia is, but it’s generally more affordable than traveling in the U.S. or Europe.)

If you can get a good exchange rate — or you have some left over from a previous trip — consider bringing euros, Canadian dollars or British pounds instead of U.S. dollars. When changing money from the greenback to the Cuban Convertible Peso (known locally as the CUC, which rhymes with “fluke”), you’ll have to pay an additional 10 percent fee that doesn’t apply to other currencies. The good news is that you don’t have to pay the fee when converting CUCs back to dollars at the end of your trip; if you turn in 40 CUCs, you’ll receive $40 in return.

And speaking of CUCs…

Keep an eye on your change.
The CUC is one of two currencies used in Cuba. The other one, the peso, is worth significantly less than the CUC, and the bills look similar. Someone in our group was given a three-peso note as change instead of a three-CUC note, which meant that she got only about 11 cents back instead of three dollars.

Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How

Prepare to be out of touch.
You won’t be able to call or text from an American phone in Cuba — though you can use Wi-Fi when it’s available. Internet is offered at some hotels, but it tends to be both slow and pricey. (I paid about $7 an hour at my hotel, Havana’s Melia Cohiba.)

Eat at paladares.
Cuba’s privately owned restaurants, known as paladares, tend to offer better food than those run by the government. Expect to see a lot of rice and beans, as well as fish, Caribbean lobster and ropa vieja (shredded flank steak). Vegetables and fruits vary based on what’s in season; due to the U.S. embargo, Cubans have trouble importing certain foods, so the menus won’t be as varied as those you might see back home.

Keep small change on hand.
If you want a photo with one of the colorfully costumed locals brandishing flowers or cigars in the major squares around Old Havana, prepare to hand over a CUC or two for the privilege. More importantly, you’ll also want to have anywhere from 25 cents to a CUC to give to the attendants at many bathrooms around the country. Yes, paying to pee can be annoying — and you won’t be barred from the restroom if you don’t offer a coin or two — but in a country that’s struggling economically, what seems like chump change to us can make a big difference to the locals.

Cuba Trip Reviews by Real Travelers

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

cormorant fisherman yangshuo china


Population: 1.4 billion

Currency: Yuan renminbi

Phrase to Know: Xie xie (thank you — pronounced “shi-eh shi-eh”)

Fun Fact: The fortune cookie was not actually invented in China; it’s believed to have been created in the early 20th century in California. In fact, Wonton Food attempted to establish a fortune cookie factory in China in the 1990s, but had to close it because the cookies were considered too American.

We Recommend: Cuddle a panda at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. There’s an extra fee and you’ll have to make reservations in advance, but the experience is one-of-a-kind.

12 Best China Experiences

Have you been to China? What was your favorite spot?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

trolle ljungby castle in sweden


Population: 9.7 million

Currency: Swedish krona

Phrase to Know: Pratar du engelska? (Do you speak English?)

Fun Fact: According to the country’s official website, Sweden.se, Stockholm collects more than two million pounds of food waste per month and turns it into fuel for the city’s buses and taxis.

We Recommend: Spend in a night in one of Sweden’s most unusual hotels, from modernist treehouses to an airplane-turned-hotel.

Photos: 11 Best Sweden Experiences

Have you been to Sweden? What was your favorite spot?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

This week’s travel puzzle is part of our ongoing Flag Friday series of challenges. Can you identify which nation the following flag belongs to?


Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, April 27, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Cayce L, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from Sri Lanka. Cayce has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Each month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!

crocodiles costa ricaIn this month’s featured review, reader Jill Weinlein travels with her husband and 10-year-old daughter to look for wildlife and waterfalls in Costa Rica. “We stopped at a local touristy spot, Tarcoles River, on our way to Quepos to enjoy a refreshing cold coconut and fresh juice smoothies,” Jill writes. “Along the center of the bridge, people gathered to see at least twenty enormous crocodiles basking in the sun along the river bank.”

Read the rest of Jill’s review here: 10 Destinations to Visit in Costa Rica. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review — you could win a $50 Amazon gift card! Just be sure to submit your trip review by May 21.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

12 apostles australia


Population: 22.5 million

Currency: Australian dollar

Phrase to Know: Good on ya (well done, good for you)

Fun Fact: Australia is home to the world’s oldest known fossils: cyanobacteria found in the Archaean rocks of Western Australia.

We Recommend: Stay overnight on a remote cattle station in the Outback, where you can participate in a cattle roundup, go for a horseback ride and more.

11 Best Australia Experiences

Have you been to Australia? What was your favorite spot?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Well, aren’t these the cutest first-class fliers you’ve ever seen?

qantas koala


Australian flag carrier Qantas recently flew four koalas called Paddle, Pellita, Chan and Idalia from Brisbane to Singapore, where they will live at the Singapore Zoo for the next six months, reports Travel Pulse. The loan is in honor of Singapore’s 50th anniversary of independence.

qantas koala


The airline shared a few photos on its Twitter account that capture the cuddly creatures in first class (#KoalaClass), being served a delicious snack of Schweppes and eucalyptus leaves by a flight attendant. Travel Pulse notes, however, that the koalas ultimately flew in the cargo hold (standard for transporting animals) in climate-controlled carriers stocked with eucalyptus trees. Qantas will fly fresh supplies of eucalyptus to Singapore every two weeks throughout the koalas’ stay abroad.

qantas koala


All together now: “Awwww.”

Need More Travel Cuteness?
Shetland Ponies in Sweaters
Puppies and Kittens Make Everything Better — Even Flying

– written by Sarah Schlichter

carole rosenblatHow would you like to crowdsource your next travel destination? That’s the premise of DropMeAnywhere.com, whose founder, Carole Rosenblat, puts each of her trips up to a reader vote to find out where she’ll go next. Recent stops have included India, Hungary and Germany. Up next: Who knows?

Rosenblat recently took some time between trips to answer a few questions for us about the hightlights — and challenges — of her project.

IndependentTraveler.com: How did you come up with the idea for Drop Me Anywhere?
Carole Rosenblat: It happened sort of organically. I’d left my job at Disney Cruise Line the year before and vowed not to accept anything I wasn’t passionate about. I was on a Twitter travel chat and the question posed was, “If you had a travel TV show, what would it be called and what would it be about?” I’d never thought of this before, and my fingers just started typing, “Mine’s called ‘Drop Me Anywhere’ and it’s about unplanned travel!” The response was overwhelming. People began telling me that I should make a pilot video and try a Kickstarter campaign. While I’d done many on-camera interviews, writing is my comfort zone. … and in the end, I went with the current blog format.

IT: What’s been the most rewarding aspect of Drop Me Anywhere so far?
CR: The support from friends and strangers alike has been overwhelming. I get emails from people I know and some I’ve never met telling me that I’m inspiring them to step outside their comfort zone and live their dreams. This inspires me to keep going.

Also, I’m not one to travel for monuments or to check countries off my list. I travel for the people. And the people I’ve met have made it worth it. My new friends in Germany, Mexico, St. John’s (Newfoundland), Ireland (the father of someone I met on the plane on the way to Limerick invited me to stay with them for a night and took me on a great tour of their town) and Hungary are among the highlights. I’ve met the most interesting people.

IT: What’s been the biggest challenge?
CR: Money. That’s the obvious one. I did the project for a year while living in Arizona and traveling back and forth. It only allowed for four trips the first year, and I knew there was a book in this. So in December of last year I rented out my house, sold my car, sold and gave away my furniture and most of my clothes, and went location independent. I left on 12/13/14 (it seemed like a good number). Money is a constant concern, as I’ve given up so much to do this and am using my savings. I also consider this an international job search — this is truly building my skill set — and hope to find a great position somewhere in the world when I complete the travel part of this project within the next five to seven months.

9 Creative Ways to Save for a Vacation

IT: Have you had to make adjustments to the project as you’ve gone along?
CR: I made a decision at the beginning of this that I would forgive myself for the mistakes I make as long as I learn from them. I’ve never done anything like this before (I don’t think anyone is doing anything like it). I’ve learned to pay an airport porter if my bags are heavy and possibly overweight, as they’ll sometimes help you avoid extra baggage fees. I’ve learned to research visa requirements before I put a country up for a vote. (The very first vote included Russia, which is difficult to do without a plan due to the visa requirements.)

I’ve also learned that my best experience tends to be when I stay in one area or city for a decent amount of time and don’t jump around. This way I see it well, and get to know the people better. Sometimes I even end up with a regular bar or restaurant.

IT: How do you decide on which locations to include in each vote — and are you secretly hoping for certain ones to win?
CR: As mentioned above, I do check out the visa requirements. Now that I’m location independent, I try not to fly back and forth across the world, as it’s tough on my body and my wallet. I now list the vote to stay on a specific continent for a couple of votes before I throw in other options to move me around.

Yes, sometimes I secretly root for destinations. But it’s not up to me. And I feel that wherever the readers decide, that’s where I’m meant to be.

IT: What role does volunteering play in your trips, and how do you find these opportunities?
CR: I’ve volunteered my whole life. My philanthropic site Rebel-with-a-Cause.org actually predates this project.

carole rosenblat kids mexicoSo far, I’ve helped raise money to preserve a historic building, worked at an organization that feeds the homeless with a restaurant-style model, played and read with kids at a library in Mexico (I spent five days with those kids — I fell in love with them), served on a film crew to promote Gay Pride Week in Limerick, Ireland (I volunteered with three drag queens), fed the hungry and homeless in Budapest, and taught English, math and science to refugee kids in Malaysia.

I find these opportunities by asking people I meet, as well as via Twitter and Facebook. I make it a priority.

IT: What’s one thing you’ve learned from Drop Me Anywhere that can benefit any traveler, even those of us who like to do a little more planning?
CR: One thing? Gosh, I’ve learned so much. Okay, maybe two:

House-sitting is a great way to save money. In Berlin I was a cat-sitter for a very strange cat named Siegfried for two weeks while its owner, an Australian opera conductor, was out of town. I stayed in a lovely flat and could do laundry and cook for myself. I hope to pet-sit again through a house-sitting site I belong to. It’s a great way to save money and get a few furry cuddles here and there.

It’s not really a lesson for me, but it’s one I’m trying to teach people: your best vacations can be the unplanned ones. When you plan every day, you don’t get to wander, and you resist opportunities that present themselves because they weren’t in the plan. Throw the plan out the window and try something different. Few things are fatal.

16 Signs You’re Addicted to Travel

– interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter

Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

waterfall chapada dos veadeiros national park brazil


Population: 202.7 million

Currency: Brazilian real

Phrase to Know: Como se chama? (What’s your name?)

Fun Fact: Brazil became the first country to prohibit the use of tanning beds back in 2009, after first banning them only for minors in 2003. (Guess you’ll just have to hit the beach in Rio if you want that golden, sun-kissed look!)

We Recommend: Head to Fernando de Noronha to watch baby sea turtles leave their nests and make their way toward the sea.

10 Best Brazil Experiences

Have you been to Brazil? What was your favorite spot?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

hot stone massageAre you the type of traveler that roughs it on every trip, camping or sleeping in budget hotels and making all your own meals instead of shelling out for a fancy restaurant dinner? Or are you inclined to pamper yourself a little with a spa treatment or an airline upgrade?

That’s the question we asked our readers recently on Facebook — and as it turns out, most of our readers do occasionally feel the urge to splurge.

YN Leung is willing to pay extra for more comfort on longer international flights, although it’s not just about indulgence: “It’s health, not pampering, but I do upgrade on planes.” (We can’t argue with that, especially if you find it impossible to sleep in those ultra-narrow economy seats.)

Lavida Rei agrees: “A seat that I like on the plane is important.”

Get the Best Airplane Seat

For Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief of our sister site, Cruise Critic, a hotel is the preferred place to treat oneself: “I’m very careful about choosing my hotel. Pampering to me is feeling safe, cozy, comfortable.”

The Digital Vagabond is also up for a little luxury, at least once in a while: “Sure, pampering is good to do periodically while on the road. Spending a little more for a high-end hotel or getting a massage — especially in countries where it’s only $15/hour. It’s all good!”

Meanwhile, Michael Cagle has upgraded his entire trip: “I have an Airstream. My days of roughing it are over.”

Johanna Kula brings up one common place to indulge: the dinner table. “Yummy food, wine, desserts … and if chocolate is involved … [of course], yes, chocolate!!!!!” she enthuses.

12 International Foods to Try Before You Die

There was one dissenting voice in the mix. Wynne Gavin says no to pampering herself while traveling because “the travel itself is pampering!”

My own top source of indulgence? Dessert — and lots of it!

How do you pamper yourself when you travel?

– written by Sarah Schlichter