Travelling in Cuba is different. Americans need hard cash to buy everything there because U.S. embargo rules prevent U.S. banks from setting up credit card networks. American credit or debit cards are useless there.
Once in Cuba the fun of exchanging U.S. cash for Cuban currency begins. It’s a chore. The currency exchanges have irregular posted hours (which they rarely honor) and have such long lines that a policeman or doorman regulates traffic allowing only one person at a time to approach the counter.
Cuba has two currencies. One is the “convertible” currency, or CUC (Cuban convertible currency) meant for foreigners to use. The other is the Cuban peso. It’s hard to tell them apart, making it easy to get scammed if you’re not careful. Cubans operate and get paid in pesos. Americans can only change dollars into CUCs. If you want pesos to buy street food, for example, you must convert twice, once to CUCs, then from CUCs into pesos.
In retaliation for the US embargo on Cuba, currency exchanges from U.S. dollars have a 10% surcharge that is in addition to the standard exchange cost of 3%. So every U.S. dollar converts to just 87 cents in CUCs.
A most unfortunate friend on a recent trip to Cuba was required to check his luggage with Jet Blue in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but in the last-minute confusion forgot to remove his U.S. dollars first. Arriving in Cuba, he retrieved his baggage and immediately realized it had been opened. We cannot say if it occurred at Jet Blue, by a dishonest TSA agent, or on the Cuban side, but someone got an additional month’s salary in cash. My friends’s money needed for the entire trip was gone!
He called the U.S. Embassy which suggested he have money sent by Western Union. Simple enough, he thought, as the currency exchanges also operate as Western Union offices.
My friend struggled to make a call to a friend in the U.S. to send him money. American cell phones are not compatible with the Cuban system. WiFi is hard to find. Eventually he succeeded in finding a way to make a call.
He spent a day convincing his American friend, call her Ana, to advance him money. She was suspicious it was the popular “I’m stuck and my wallet’s been stolen” scam. Then my friend learned that Western Union places a hold on money coming into Cuba—too long to survive without. Besides my friend learned that only a Cuban can receive the money and must present his ID at Western Union to get it. I would have thought the clueless U.S. Embassy would have known about this wrinkle when it made the Western Union recommendation! Not to be deterred, my friend found a Cuban to accept his Western Union, but this heightened Ana’s suspicions about sending money to a name she did not know. She abandoned her efforts.
My friend began to head to the airport to fly home when a local tour company proposed the solution that saved the day. Its Costa Rican branch would run the credit card charge in Costa Rica and give him the money in CUCs, for a small fee. My friend wondered whether to alert Wells Fargo at home to accept the charge from Costa Rica…or would that just raise the bank’s suspicions even more? And would the credit card number be safe or was this another scam? With no good options, he took a gamble.
The credit card charge solution worked. My friend was able to continue his trip. Remember this simple tip: wherever you venture have your ducks in a row in advance for money, especially in Cuba! And always have a Plan B. Also, never assume the U.S. Embassy can or will be interested in helping you. In this case they got a grade of D or F.