Cubana (tel. 7/838-1039; www.cubana.cu) is the principal national and international carrier for Cuba. It is code-shared with Aerocaribbean (www.fly-aerocaribbean.com). There's a full schedule of commuter flights connecting Havana and Varadero with the destination cities of Baracoa, Bayamo, Camagüey, Ciego de Avila, Manzanillo, Nueva Gerona (Isla de la Juventud), Guantánamo, Holguín, Santiago de Cuba, Las Tunas, Cayo Largo, and Cayo Coco. If you know you'll need an internal flight, try to have your travel agent or tour operator book it in advance. If not, you can easily book flights from almost any local tour operator.
Driving a rental car is an excellent way to travel around Cuba. (The legal age requirement is 21.) It gives you great flexibility and allows you to access beautiful off-the-beaten-track places. Many roads are in acceptable condition, while many are severely substandard. And, while there's very little traffic, you'll have to keep a sharp eye out for small and large chasms in the road, horse-drawn carriages, slow-moving tractors, scores of bicyclists, wandering dogs and fowl, and pedestrians taking over major roadways.
It is completely inadvisable to drive at night. It is very unsafe because there is no lighting on highways. Animal-drawn transport, some lorries, bicycles, and pedestrians are also not illuminated, giving rise to highly dangerous driving situations.
The speed limit for cars is 50kmph (31 mph) in the cities, 90kmph (56 mph) on the carretera, and 100kmph (62 mph) on the Autopista.
In all cities, there are parqueos where you can leave your vehicle attended for 24 hours. This costs from CUC$1 to CUC$2 a night. It may be unwise to leave the vehicle unattended in cities, as theft of wheels and wipers is not unknown.
There is a handful of state-run car-rental companies, with a large, modern fleet of rental cars to choose from. Prices and selection are rather standard, with an abundance of small, economy Japanese and Korean cars. A standard rental car should cost you between CUC$45 and CUC$85 per day, including insurance and unlimited mileage, depending on the model and the season. Low-season (temporada baja) prices are, obviously, cheaper. Some agencies start you off with a full tank of gas for which they charge you -- in addition to the rental fee -- then give no credit for any gas left in the tank upon the return of the car. Discounts are available for multiday rentals. It's always a good idea to have a reservation in advance, especially during peak periods, when cars can get a little scarce. However, there's a Catch-22 here, in that many of the state-run agencies don't have a trustworthy international reservations system. As is the case with rampant overbooking of hotel rooms, when demand outstrips supply, the car-rental agencies will often not honor your supposedly confirmed reservation.
Cubans may now drive rental cars and can be included on your insurance for an additional cost, as can a second foreign driver. Insurance is voided if an accident is shown to be caused by a driver under the influence of alcohol.
Some of the major car rental agencies in Cuba are Cubacar (tel. 7/273-2277), Havanautos (tel. 7/207-9898), Micar (tel. 7/204-7777), Rex (tel. 7/835-6830; www.rex.cu), Transtur (tel. 7/862-2686; www.transtur.cu), and Vía Rent a Car (tel. 7/861-4465; www.gaviota-grupo.com). All car rental agencies have desks at the Havana airport and at a host of major hotels around Havana and the rest of the country. If you book your car online, the best deals are usually found at the rental-car company websites, although all the major online travel agencies also offer rental-car reservation services. It may be cheaper to book your rental car before you arrive in Cuba.
All car-rental agencies in Cuba, except Transtur, offer insurance coverage for between CUC$10 and CUC$20 per day which must be paid in cash separately. Transtur, which runs Cubacar and Rex, charges a minimum CUC$15 for coverage for rentals that start in Havana. Most agencies carry a deductible of CUC$200 to CUC$1,000. Transtur's deductible is a minimum of CUC$350 on rentals that start in Havana. Some companies charge extra for picking a car up at an airport. Additional drivers will be charged between CUC$3 and CUC$10 per day. If you drop the car off in a different city than you picked it from, there will be a charge. Some companies do not cover theft, but this is a very minor problem in Cuba. If you hold a private auto insurance policy, you may be covered abroad for loss or damage to the car, and liability in case a passenger is injured. The credit card you use to rent the car also may provide some coverage. However, be sure to check whether or not your insurance company or credit card coverage excludes rental cars in Cuba. Moreover, this type of coverage probably does not cover liability if you caused the accident. Check your own auto insurance policy, the rental company policy, and your credit card coverage for the extent of coverage. Note that the daily insurance charge, if you pay it, is only payable in cash and never appears to be documented on official literature.
Be very thorough when checking out your car, and make sure that all accoutrements (like a spare tire, jack, and radio) are present and accounted for. Moreover, be sure to have the agent note every little nick and scratch, or you run a great risk of being charged for them upon your car's return. You will also be charged for small nicks caused by flying stones on some of Cuba's poorer roads. Gasoline costs about CUC$1.30 especial per liter (por litro), or CUC$1.15 regular per liter. Diesel is CUC$1.10 per liter. Gone are the gas shortages of several years ago. Service stations are plentiful and conveniently located on the major highways and on the outskirts of all major centers, as well as in major towns and cities. Tourist cars should use gasolina especial. Service stations are digitized.
Every car-rental agency will provide you with a basic road map. Alternately, you can try to get a copy of the International Travel Map: Cuba (ITMB Publishing; www.itmb.com) before arriving. The best road map is the Guia de Carreteras, but it is not widely available.
While driving is generally easy and stress free, there are a couple of concerns for most foreign drivers here. First (and most annoying) is the fact that there are very, very few road signs and directional aids. This means that getting lost will happen. If you don't speak Spanish you will need a dictionary, phrases, paper and pen, and patience. Secondly, there's the issue of hitchhikers. Cuba's public transportation network is grossly overburdened and hitchhiking is a way of life. The highways sometimes seem like one long line, with periodic swellings, of people asking for a lift, or botella. While this is not dangerous, you should still be careful about whom you pick up as theft of belongings has been reported. It is not advisable to pick up hitchhikers after dark. However, the biggest hassle of offering rides is twofold: When you stop, you are likely to be swarmed by supplicants, who will want to stuff your car to the brink of its carrying capacity; and most hitchhikers are looking for relatively short hops, so once you pick up a load, you might find yourself suddenly making constant stops to let your passengers off -- at which point there will almost certainly be a new rider immediately vying to snag the just-emptied seat. (You can, however, stop at an official botella point, identified by the mustard-yellow uniformed official with a clipboard.) However, that said, you will be providing the public-transport-starved Cubans with a much-needed ride.
Instead of driving your own rental car, an alternative option could be to hire a Cuban driver. In September 2010, the Cuban government announced plans that would allow Cubans to legally chauffeur tourists in their old American cars. At press time, the punitive tax codes for these new forms of self-employment had been announced, but no licenses had been issued
Note: Stop at all railroad crossings! It's the law, and it's also an important safety measure. Cuba's railroad network crisscrosses its highway system at numerous points. Trains rarely slow down and even rarer still are protective crossbars or warning lights. Police often hang out at railroad crossings, both to warn drivers when a train is coming and to dole out tickets to those who don't come to a stop.
One final note: If you have a minor accident you must go to a police station and get a signed report saying what happened and stating that you are not responsible for the damage (if that's the case). If the report does not state you are not responsible, you will be liable. If you are involved in a serious accident, whether or not you are to blame, you may be detained. If someone is killed, call your embassy for assistance and get a translator immediately.
The state-run train agency, Ferrocuba (tel. 7/861-4259), has offices in each train station. Havana is connected to Pinar del Río in the west, and Santiago de Cuba in the east by rail traffic. There are usually one or two trains a day heading west, and a half dozen or so heading east. Intermediate cities with regular service include Matanzas, Santa Clara, Ciego de Avila, Camagüey, Las Tunas, and Holguín. The principal train station, or Estación Central, is located in Havana at Calle Egido and Calle Arsenal, La Habana Vieja (tel. 7/861-4259).
Unlike the state-run bus service, there are usually seats available on most trains. However, most trains are in rather bad shape, with uncomfortable seats and limited amenities. Be sure to bring along some food and something to drink. Even if there's a cafeteria car onboard, which isn't always the case, you might not find any of the offerings particularly appealing, and they might just run out of food somewhere along the line. Moreover, train travel in Cuba is notoriously erratic, with frequent schedule changes and delays lasting up to 3 days. It is always best to check current schedules and conditions before buying a ticket and undertaking a train journey. If you are short on time and not looking for this kind of adventure, it would be wise to avoid all trains.
The most attractive rail option for travelers is the 12-hour express train to Santiago de Cuba, leaving Havana each evening at 6:05pm; the fare is CUC$50 to CUC$62. This train only makes stops in Santa Clara and Camagüey, and is the most modern and comfortable train in the whole national system.
For all intents and purposes, the only buses tourists will ride in Cuba are those run by Víazul (tel. 7/881-1413; www.viazul.com). (Note: This website is not updated. Although the timetable and prices are incorrect, they are not hugely off the mark. If you plan a trip using the displayed timetable, your trip won't be completely thrown off kilter.) Víazul buses are modern and comfortable with lavatories on board. Now that many Cubans are using the service, it's more important to reserve at least several days in advance in high season. Víazul travels to most major tourist destinations in Cuba. The main Víazul station is located in Nuevo Vedado, Havana, across from the metropolitan zoo. However, some of its routes, including the popular Viñales and Pinar del Río route, can be booked and boarded at the main bus terminal near the Plaza de la Revolución. Children aged 5-12 pay half price; children 4 and under who do not occupy a seat travel for free.
You can also book Víazul tickets in the international airport in Havana and at Infotur offices around the country. Many tour agencies across the country are also now selling Víazul tickets at no extra cost to the purchaser. This is a great service, especially when many bus stations are a big sprint out of town. This also means travelers do not have to turn up early in order to purchase tickets before the bus departure. Note that in high season in some places, such as Baracoa, tickets are booked up well in advance and travelers are known to have been stuck for a few days; if you have a tight schedule, buy your return ticket for this route in Santiago de Cuba.
Note that it may not be possible to buy advanced tickets on some routes, for example Bayamo to Santiago. This is because the reservation system is not mechanized and the staff does not know if there is availability until the bus arrives. However, this likely will not be a problem.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.