For independent travelers, staying in casas particulares (literally, “private houses”) is an excellent way to gain insight into Cuba and its citizens. If you are traveling with a tour which has pre-booked you into hotels, there is always the opportunity to stay over a few days past the tour end date. (I think this would be a better option than arriving several days early, because after 7-10 days on a well-planned tour, you will have much more insight into where you would want to stay and what type of accommodations you would like.) You should check with your tour operator about the logistics of doing so. If you are told it “can’t be done,” contact me. If you are traveling to Cuba independently, and not an American, you can go to one of several websites and reserve with a credit card. If you are a U.S. citizen, you will probably have to be in-country already and pay with cash. You might consider booking your first few days in a hotel. After that, you can have fun researching and previewing your future accommodations.
Many casas are located in old mansions and have been remodeled exquisitely. In some cases the outside of the building may seem to be falling apart, while the inside is clean and spotless. For examples and more information, you can check out: www.Cubaccomodation.com and www.Cuba-Junky.com and click on accommodations in Old Havana. (That reminds me—if this is your first time in Havana, try to stay in or very near HabanaVieja—Old Havana. This is roughly the area from Central Park eastward to the harbor.)
There are legal and illegal casas particulares. I suggest you stick with the legal ones. If you are found in an illegal casa, nothing will happen to you, but your host will have some explaining to do. He or she will probably have to pay a fine, unless he can arrange payment to the individual agent who discovered the infraction. A legal casa will be listed on combined websites, or it may have its own website. I have stayed at many, and I always felt that my belongings were safe and secure. The last thing that casa owners want is to have a tourist complaining to officials that something is missing from a backpack.
Here some things to keep in mind and ask about when selecting a Cuban casa particular: Will you have a private entrance? Will you have your own key, or will you be “locked out” and “locked in” at night? Is breakfast included in the stated rate? (It usually is.) Is dinner available? Would you have the option to extend on a day-to-day basis? Will you have cooking utensils and a fridge?
As I mentioned, U.S. Citizens can’t reserve a casa particular with an American credit card, so there’s no point in trying ahead of time to reserve a particular one (no pun intended). However, Cuba is maximally socially-networked OFFLINE, so if you locate a place that is not immediately available, the owners can refer you to another nearby casa. They can also tell you about a friend’s or relative’s place in other cities or at the beach.
Casas particulars are wonderful alternatives to Cuban hotels. If your first visit is on a tour, your second trip may likely include staying at various casas for extended periods.