On our recent expedition, a few of us found one smartphone APP particularly helpful. It can be downloaded for free from the website of our charter airline: CubaTravelServices.com. It is available for Apple and Android smartphones. There are a lot of other valuable details on this website, and the Mobile APP itself has good information which can be updated as necessary. I especially like the mapping function. You can access the maps (and other features) offline. So–as we were riding around the Cuban countryside, the pulsing GPS blue ball continually showed our map location, even though we were not connected to the internet or to local cell service. This feature is especially helpful in Cuba, because of limited internet access (it is rapidly improving) and the lack of many road signs.
This function was also helpful in Havana as we wandered around the narrow streets. We could zoom in and find our exact location, and locate nearby items such as bars, restaurants, or museums. This is just one more of many new techniques, policies, innovations, etc. that are rapidly making Cuba easier to visit. To locate this function, touch “Map” at the bottom of your smartphone screen. There is other information available on this APP. For some reason, there are very few hotels listed, and no casas particulares (bed and breakfast inns). Perhaps this will be included with future updates.
There is more information listed about hotels on another APP called CubaJunky.com. It is an English site based in the Netherlands, and it is especially good for independent travelers. (Download to smartphone for $10.) This APP provides an extensive list and details of hundreds of casas throughout Cuba. Phone numbers, addresses, and owner email addresses are listed, along with details about services and facilities at each place. You can contact the owner directly before you even leave for Cuba. NOTE: Prices listed for each casa seem to be about 20-25% less than the same places listed on AirBNB.com. The advantage to using AirBNB.com is that you can reserve and pay for them with an American credit card prior to departure.
If you are traveling independently and plan to stay mostly in casas, I suggest you only book your first 2-3 nights in a hotel or casa in Havana. After that you can usually extend if necessary, but I really like physically checking out various casas, especially new ones. Owners are usually happy to show them to you and give you their cards. Then you can choose where to stay next. Even during the busy winter season (when hotels are mostly full in Havana), you should always be able to find a casa or room for rent. Cuba is a great country to visit and be spontaneous about where you stay, but do your homework and know what you especially want to see. Otherwise, it is very easy to miss many wonderful sites and attractions. Be sure to spend your first few days in the area known as Old Havana.
You will see more attractions more efficiently and economically by going on a tour on your first trip to Cuba. You can also combine a tour with independent travel. I encourage first-time visitors to spend the first 7-10 days on a tour, then stay over an additional period on their own before returning home. Although it is not well-known, Americans can stay over up to 30 days total without requesting an extension. If somebody in the travel industry tells you otherwise, please contact me and I will explain how to do it legally.