Money-handling might be tricky. I consider it a general rule. While many of us struggle dealing with money even at home, it naturally doesn’t become any easier on the road. Fluctuating conversion rates don’t help, especially when adding or removing a few zeroes is involved. But I can figure math (can’t I?). So what is that truly ties me up in knots? Haggling.
This is the skill we don’t really foster much in Europe. We generally like things to be predictable and cherish price-lists no matter how accurate they might or might not be. Regardless the actual expense, it protects us from a very uncomfortable feeling, namely: a sense of being ripped off. While haggling is mostly associated with the Middle East and isn’t considered much rooted in Cuba (at least according to my Lonely Planet), it’s absolutely way to go if you want to keep your expenses reasonable. But how to strike a fair price for a fair service? That is a delicate business.
First things first: figure out and accept Cuban double standards. If you’re not Cuban, you are just not. For better or for worse. Make yourself familiar with the two national currencies (see my last post: Lost in conversion) and realize that tourism is the main industry of the island. Meaning that, though seemingly isolated for years, Cubans aren’t new to the business and know very well how to wrap us around their little finger. That said, it doesn’t mean you’ll always be charged more than locals. Cubans do get ridiculously overcharged (especially in relation to the local income), mostly for imported goods. Actually, we thought that 35 CUC (equal to US$) for a taxi ride from the José Martí airport to Havana Vieja, which is the only way of transportation available there at all, was a complete scam till our Cuban relatives told us they’ve been charged the same. While for us it’s a standard price from back home, it’d be easily a full-month salary for an average Cubano. No wonder that taxi-driving or housekeeping is today among the most lucrative jobs on the island.
We were given the most insightful politics and economy analysis by an open-minded rickshaw driver, a male-nurse in the daytime, and stayed in a casa particular run by a lawyer, who left her profession, when the law loosened up a few years ago and enabled Cubans to own their own businesses. Other than that, you might be able to pay cheaply in Cuban Pesos in few places not used to receiving foreigners, like cinemas, local buses or random cafeterías off the beaten track. All the most likely if you speak fluent Spanish.
These distinctions add up to the confusion. It’s really hard to grasp the rules behind this incredibly complex economy. While you should treat paying more than Cubans as a rule of thumb, there’s still much room to try out your negotiating skills. Generally, resist to accept any first price you’re offered. That’s a good start.
With some patience and persistence, you can bargain practically everywhere, starting with colectivos (shared taxi service, which is possibly the best way to travel the island), through buying souvenirs up to discussing accommodation and food. To do it well, you’ll need some points of reference. Read up and talk to your fellow travelers. Take into account that the Cuban economy is going through a fundamental transition these days, thus pricing may fluctuate.
The best advice we’ve ever got about handling money in Cuba was from an elderly British couple with many miles behind: check the prices of Vía Azul, the state-run bus company operating in tourism, and this is the absolute maximum you’d like to pay for a colectivo-ride per person. This would seem to be against any trade logic. Why is that? The bus company is public, means the employees get steady, low salaries no matter what they do. The money doesn’t reach Cubans directly. Taxi-drivers can offer competitive prices, because they’re mostly self-employed and, though need to pay taxes and possibly some other fees, they’re first to be served in this money-chain. This tip has saved us quite a lot of money. We’ve actually met other travelers on our way that had paid 10 times more than us for the same ride. And we paid a tourist price as well. It’s also not uncommon that other passengers sitting next to you in a colectivo are charged differently, depending on how they handled the negotiation.
We’ve heard repeatedly that Cuba is an expensive country. I think it’s really subjective. It might get really expensive if you don’t question initial prices or don’t bother looking into side streets. It’s true that there’s almost no backpacking culture for the moment, so forget about cheap shared dorms or hitchhiking. Though you can easily get a comfortable double room at a casa particular for 20-35 CUC depending on the location, which is a really good price-value. We ended up spending up to 60$ per person per day, which is comparable to what we had spent in Yucatán in México weeks earlier. Of course, if you don’t travel on a budget you might not be bothered to beat prices down and happy to spend your money somewhere, where it is likely to go far. I don’t mind being charged as a foreigner either, but I do think every traveler is responsible to keep locals down to earth by paying a reasonable price. And a reasonable price must consider local values, resources and economy no matter where we, as foreigners, come from.
Below I’ve put together a list of our expenses while in Cuba in March 2016, which may serve you as a starting and orientation point. Bear in mind that though I’m a blonde-headed gringa, I do speak fluent Spanish and my partner is Spaniard, which naturally made things easier. Possibly you can spend less, you can definitely spend more – just try to strike your balance!
A double room in a central casa particular (Havana Vieja) – 35 CUC per night
A breakfast at the casa particular – 5 CUC each
A meal downtown – 10-15 CUC each
A colectivo ride from Havana to Viñales – 13 CUC each (initial price offered was 15 CUC each)
A double room in an independent hut in a side road – 25 CUC per night
A breakfast at the hut – 5 CUC each
A meal downtown – 10-20 CUC each
5-hour horseback trip with a visit to local tobacco fields and all that jazz – 15 CUC each (though we were offered same for 25 CUC at the hut)
A day trip to Cayo Jutías beach with a driver (and another 2 tourists) – 15 CUC each
A colectivo ride from Viñales to Pinar del Río – 2,50 CUC each (same driver that had taken us to the beach)
Pinar del Río
A double room in a central casa particular – 25 CUC
A breakfast at the casa particular – 3-4 CUC each
A colectivo ride from Pinar del Río to Havana – 4 CUC each (initial price offered was 5 CUC each)
A colectivo ride from Havana to Cienfuegos – 12,50 CUC each (initially we were offered up to 80 CUC each by a driver who claimed there was no cars down there!)
A double room in a central casa particular – 25 CUC per night
A ticket to a local cinema – 2 CUP (!) each
A breakfast at the casa particular – 5 CUC each
A meal downtown – 7-8 CUC each
A colectivo ride from Cienfuegos to Trinidad – 4 CUC each (initial price offered was 6 CUC each)
A double room in a central casa particular – 20 CUC per night (initially 25 CUC, but stayed 3 nights and got a better price)
A breakfast at the casa particular – 4 CUC each (initially 5 CUC each, but staying at the place longer got us cheaper meals)
Last but not least – a few hints for US citizens. Thanks to recent Obama’s and Castro’s efforts, the additional charge of 10% comission while exchanging US dollars was abolished in early 2016. Nevertheless, be on your guard against any conversion tricks. Equally, note that the symbol of Cuban Peso is really similar to this of the US$.