Review: Friendly Planet Authentic Havana tour

Because I’m a USA citizen, I unfortunately can’t just buy a plane ticket and fly to Cuba to hang out for a weekend without having a bunch of restrictions on what I can and can’t do while I’m there.  Our country is unique in that we can only visit under certain specific requirements, which are listed here.

The easiest way to visit Cuba as an American is to join an organized people-to-people tour.  This requires minimal effort, because all you need to do is pay your money and show up.  The tour company takes care of everything including your visa, mandatory health insurance, and daily itinerary to ensure that you don’t inadvertently break the rules while you’re over there.  From the little I’ve seen, I’m pretty confident Cuba is a not a place you want to get detained, so adhering to the guidelines is important.

The basics:

The first recommendation I’ll make is that if you’re a citizen of any country except the US, then go on your own instead of with a tour.  It will be significantly less expensive, and you can always sign up for local day tours when you get there depending on which activities interest you.  Friendly Planet’s Authentic Havana tour was by far one of the lowest priced tours of Havana I found in my research, but we still probably overpaid by at least 4 times by doing it this way versus showing up with a guidebook and doing the same activities on our own.  As Americans, this is fine, but if you’re from anywhere else, there’s absolutely no need to spend all this big money.  You can do exactly the same thing for a literal fraction of the price.

Authentic Havana is a short 4 night tour with 3 full days of activities.  Since we went over the New Year holiday, our group’s itinerary was different than the usual one since several establishments were closed.  New Years is a family holiday in Cuba; kind of like Thanksgiving in the US.  We didn’t know this until we got there.  We still ended up having a good time on New Year’s Eve, but if you go to Havana expecting a massive party in the city you’ll be disappointed.

Our tour group had 13 people plus 2 guides:  a local Cuban guide who did almost all the visible work, and Friendly Planet’s American tour guide who filed all our paperwork on the first day and did more of the behind-the-scenes stuff.  So it was a small group which was nice and manageable.

Getting there:

Flights are included in the total package price, but the departure is only from Miami International Airport.  You’re responsible for getting to Miami from wherever you’re at.  There is an option to decline the included flight and get some of your money back, which is what I ended up doing.  It was much less expensive for me to arrange my own flight to Havana from our local airport than it was for me to buy a separate round trip ticket to Miami and then take the pre-arranged flight to Havana.  If you’re looking for value and flexibility, I’d suggest going this route.

Once you arrive in Cuba, someone from Friendly Planet will be waiting at the airport to pick you up and take you to the hotel.  The cost for the airport shuttle is included in the package price.

Don’t bother getting any money at the airport.  The lines are long, it’s slow, and the money exchange apparatus is the one of the most dreadful and unnecessarily complex machines I’ve ever used in my life.  Exchange rates to get CUC (the local money used by tourists) are the same everywhere, so it’s much easier and quicker to change your money at the hotel.

More details on money later in the post.

The outside of our hotel
Our room. Basic and comfortable.

What we did:

Each day of our tour, we started our morning around 8-9 AM.  Breakfast is included each day and consisted of an assortment of breads, boiled eggs, omelets, cheese & processed meats (like a deli tray), fruit, and coffee/juice.  Sightseeing goes until around 3 or 4 PM with a break for lunch (also included each day) around noon.

Some of the things we did & saw during our 3 full days:

  • Extensive walking tour of Old Havana & its many squares
  • Visit to an organic farm
  • Ferry ride across the water to the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla church
  • Ernest Hemingway’s room in Hotel Ambos Mundos
  • Muraleando – a community art gallery
  • Colon Cemetery
  • Lunch at a local farm-to-table food establishment
  • The National Hotel
  • Fort San Salvador & cigar rolling demo.  This was the replacement activity for a visit to a cigar factory, all of which were closed due to the new year holidays.
  • New Year’s Eve celebration on the rooftop of our hotel with the staff and their families

There are a few minor sights that I’m leaving out, but they’re nothing too remarkable.  Also, I didn’t specifically mention all the cool old cars because we saw them everywhere.  It’s not part of the tour, but if you want to pay extra you can hire someone to drive you around for an hour in his classic car.

Our itinerary was a bit different from the usual tour because our dates overlapped the holidays, so be aware that if you go any other time of the year, you’ll probably see more stuff than we did.

Money:

There are 2 currencies.  The locals use pesos (CUP) and tourists use convertible pesos (CUC).  As a visitor, you’ll only be using CUC, which is 1:1 to the US dollar.

Cuba is one of the rare places I’ve visited where transactions are all in cash, so you’ll need to take enough with you to make sure you don’t run out of funds mid-trip.  The good thing about this tour is that everything is included except for 2 dinners, tips for the tour guides and bus driver, and any extra alcoholic beverages.  Between Mrs Lite and me, we only spent around 350 CUC for the entire trip.  150 of that was for tips, so we each spent only 100 CUC a piece, averaging around 25 CUC per person per day.  Not too bad.  So take plenty of US cash, but don’t exchange all of it at once.  A 13% fee applies to any US cash you exchange, so do it in small increments as needed.

Friendly Planet advised taking $100 to $150 per person per day.  I took around $1200 for both Mrs Lite and me and ended up bringing most of it back.  Our expenses were way lower than that.

If you buy cigars, rum, or other souvenirs, obviously you’ll spend more than I did.  I stopped buying souvenirs many years ago, so I don’t need to budget for those anymore.  I don’t smoke cigars – they make me deathly ill – but many people in our group bought a box or two to take back to the states.

If you do have any leftover CUC, you can exchange it back to your local currency at the airport.  Cuban money is useless everywhere outside Cuba, so definitely change your money back.  There are two small booths near the gates after you pass through security, and they only charge a 1% fee instead of the 13% you paid on the way in.  At least they don’t jack you on the way out like they do at Costa Rica’s international departure terminal (home of the $20 airport hamburger.  Sons of bitches.).

Safety:

No issues.  I felt safe the entire time, even while walking the streets back to our hotel in the middle of the night.  The crime rate is low, and Cubans aren’t allowed to own guns.  I felt safer in Havana than I would in many parts of town back home.  We were told to watch out for pickpockets, but that’s about it.

The biggest potential health issue is the water.  Don’t drink it or even brush your teeth with it or you risk getting ill.  Bottles of water were provided for us daily in plentiful amounts, so we never had to buy any water during our time in Cuba.  I did take a bottle of antibiotics with me but ended up not needing to take any.

Other:

The Cuban public toilets can be atrocious.  Many bathrooms, including the ones in the airport of all places, do not have toilet seats.  This is definitely a country where you’ll want to travel with some tissue packets and hand sanitizer.

The best bathroom we used our entire stay. Surprisingly, it was on the farm out in the middle of nowhere.

Overall impressions:

I’m glad we did this tour and had a good time.  As mentioned earlier, the tour is overpriced for what you get, so if you’re not American you should arrange your own travel and save a lot of money in the process.  If you are American and want to check out Havana for a few days, Friendly Planet’s Authentic Havana is a decent option.  However – maybe it’s because I’ve already traveled to many places in the Caribbean – but Havana just did not have much of a unique wow factor to it.  The people are very friendly, but from a sightseeing perspective it looks similar to many other countries in that geographic area.

Here are some more photos from my trip if you missed it earlier.

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