It is becoming widely known that hotel rooms are becoming more scarce and expensive, especially in the Havana area. Some American travel companies have tried to reserve in advance as many rooms as possible. The big increase in visitors has made things a bit chaotic in the Cuba travel industry. Many independent travelers have contacted me, concerned that they would have no place to stay. The good news is that increasing numbers of casas particulares are becoming available. These bed-and-breakfast inns come in a variety of forms. You may simply rent a bedroom in a private home, sharing the bathroom. Others are separate or detached units with private entrances. You might stay in a triplex on the beach next to two other groups of foreign visitors. You can also rent a 6-bedroom luxury home with a pool.
You can see what types of casas that are available by going to AirBnB.com and entering a geographic area, such as “Old Havana, Cuba” or “Varadero, Cuba.” You will notice that some of them are new—there may only be a couple of reviews, and they’ll show a wide-open calendar. You can surf AirBnB and see what’s available during your specific time in Cuba—this should relieve some anxiety for those worried about having a place to stay.
There are a few variables to consider. Is the unit on street level, or is it up 3 staircases? Is there a kitchenette? Is email service available? Can you use the owner’s telephone and pay by the minute, even for expensive calls back to the U.S.? What would be the cost of a home-cooked dinner? When walking around on your own, checking out various places to stay (it’s fun and interesting), you should ask questions and be clear about costs and amenities. Is the rate for the unit per person, or is it the same for 1-2-3 guests? Is breakfast included (it often is). If not, what is the price? If your Spanish is not fluent (or the owner’s English is not too good), I suggest you print out on a piece of paper what you believe the terms to be. For example, “$45/night for 2 guests, including breakfast. Dinner tomorrow night for $7/person. Late check-out at 3pm on Thursday,” etc. When owners say 45 “dollars,” does he mean USD’s or CUC’s? (USDollars were used as the national currency from 1994 to 2004, so you will still hear the term “dollars” when Cubans mean CUC’s.) The owner may actually prefer payment in USD’s (especially if he has a trip planned to the U.S.). Be clear, and both of you should agree to terms. You don’t need to have a written contract; this is just to avoid disputes, which are not common, and usually arise out of a language miscommunication.
You can now actually reserve and pay for casas in Cuba through AirBnB with a credit card (up to now, processed through a third country). I suggest that you reserve a place to stay in advance before you arrive in Cuba. That way, you will have a specific address to go to after flying to Havana and going through customs, then catching a ride to town. But I also suggest you only reserve the first 2-3 nights. Then you will have time to decide if you like your current accommodations, if you want to extend, or to move on. By paying through AirBnB.com, you will pay a premium price, typically 20-30% more. For example, let’s assume you reserve a casa for your first 2 nights for two people. If you pay $60/night through AirBnB, you can probably extend on a day-to-day basis for $40-$50 a night if you pay cash directly to the owner. You might get an even better rate if you extend for several days in a row and pay cash up front. You can always negotiate any terms.
Casas listed in AirBnB or have a rental sign out front are legal casas. The owner will ask to see your passport and will write down the number. The owner has to pay taxes to the government, usually a flat rate per rental unit. If you have a dispute or are not satisfied with something, you can report (or threaten to report) the owner to the police. You can also post a bad review. This could negatively affect the owner’s income in a highly competitive industry. A valid complaint would be highly unusual and drastic. All casa owners I’ve met seemed to sincerely want me to enjoy my stay and wanted me to tell them about problems. They DO NOT want anything bad to happen to their guests, such as a stolen camera, disputed charges, etc.
There are also informal/illegal casas. There won’t be signs out front, and owners do not pay taxes (but may pay commissions (bribes) to the local police). You will generally get a better rate for similar accommodations. In general I think you should be cautious, but I have stayed in them without problems. If the police catch you staying in an illegal casa, nothing will happen to you, but the owner might get in trouble. In reality, however, the owner should be able to just pay a commission to the cop to get out of trouble. That’s just the way the local economy works.
You may meet local Cubans and become friends. They might invite you to stay in their homes. This is actually quite common. They may quote a price, or ask you to contribute for food. If they say you can stay for free, you can accept, but I would certainly leave a “donation” or gift or something to acknowledge their generosity. They may act like they don’t want to accept money from a friend, but they would certainly appreciate it.
In conclusion, I think staying in casas particulares are a wonderful way to save money and meet locals personally while traveling around Cuba. If you mention you are going to another city or town for a few days, the casa owner will probably know a friend or relative in that town to recommend (and he will probably receive a kick-back/commission). It might be a wonderful place, but possibly not. If this situation arises, you can always write down the name of the casa and go to a nearby hotel to use the internet to check out the place on AirBnB.
By the way, Americans still can not travel to Cuba as tourists. However, you can go as Professional Researchers. Maybe it’s time to visit Cuba and research bed-and-breakfast accommodations. This is not being deceptive–this is allowed under U.S. Department of the Treasury regulations. Have a wonderful trip!
For more information on AirBnB in Cuba, please click on: