Cuba's accommodations for tourists range from top-class historic hotels to budget, basic uniform blocks in the cities. These are complemented by casas particulares, a system of excellent value Cuban guesthouses where Cubans can rent out a few of their rooms to guests. At beach resorts, hotels range from top-class luxury to above-basic facilities at slightly inflated prices, with a few very good exceptions at the more reasonable/lower end of the market. In most areas, casas particulares are not permitted right on the beach, due to government restrictions. In rural areas, there is a mix of high-end to moderately priced attractive accommodations as well as some unattractive government hotels.
Hotels are either owned or run by the Cuban state or are run as joint ventures with foreign companies. There are no 100% foreign-owned hotels in Cuba.
Most hotel options in Cuba have been divvied up among a few large state-run chains: Islazul (www.islazul.cu), Gaviota (www.gaviota-grupo.com), Cubanacán (www.hotelescubanacan.com), Gran Caribe (www.gran-caribe.com), and Habaguanex (www.habaguanexhotels.com). These chains generally stake out distinct territories. Habaguanex has near monopoly control over the hotel scene in La Habana Vieja in Havana. Their properties tend to be midrange to upper end, and most are in beautifully restored colonial buildings. Gaviota, Cubanacán, and Gran Caribe divvy up the remainder of the midrange to upper-end hotels around the country. Islazul runs the most economical hotels, although it has begun refurbishing some real gems in the colonial heart of some of Cuba's more interesting cities. Cubanacán is also upgrading properties with its Hoteles Encanto brand.
These large state-run companies have signed management contracts with international hotel chains, usually resulting in improved service and hospitality. While the international Barceló (www.barcelo.com), NH Hoteles (www.nh-hotels.com), Iberostar (www.iberostar.com), Accor (www.accor.com), and Occidental (www.occidental-hoteles.com) chains run a few hotels each, predominantly in Havana and Varadero, the major player is the Spanish Sol Meliá chain (www.solmeliacuba.com), which manages 24 midrange to high-end properties in Cuba.
Be prepared for some pitfalls when booking directly through hotel websites in Cuba. Many of the state-run chains -- Gaviota, Habaguanex, and Cubanacán -- have primitive or poorly maintained websites, and their online booking mechanisms can be cumbersome and inconsistent. You'll definitely do better with the larger international chains like Sol Meliá (www.solmeliacuba.com), Occidental (www.occidentalhotels.com), and Barceló (www.barcelo.com).
There are consistently competitive live availability deals offered on www.cubahotelreservation.com, and hotels honor these reservations with good rooms.
Aside from official hotels and resorts, the other principal lodging option in Cuba is a casa particular, or private house. To meet demand and inject just a bit of economic relief (and nascent capitalism) into the system, the government has authorized certain households to rent out a maximum of two rooms. Note: In September 2010, the government announced plans that would allow casa owners to rent out their entire home as an independent rental property, and open a paladar in addition to running a casa. By November 2010, new punitive tax codes for these changes had been published but new licenses had not been issued. An official casa particular should display a small plaque or sticker declaring it to be a government sanctioned casa. The symbol is a blue capital "H" set on its side, with slightly bent horizontal lines, and the top horizontal line longer than the bottom one. (It also looks like an anchor.) It should also say Arrendador Divisa. This means the owner of the house is allowed to rent rooms for divisa (hard currency). Houses with red symbols can only rent to Cubans for moneda nacional.
Casas charge from CUC$15 to CUC$25 in the low season and CUC$20 to CUC$35 in the high season. The most expensive rooms are in houses in Vedado and Miramar in Havana. In addition to the season, price variations depend on the number of guests, the length of stay, your status (students often receive discounts), the location of the house in the country (for example, the more remote or less touristy the area, the cheaper it could be), and the amount of tax that owners pay on the room (this is dictated by the number of rooms they rent, the square meterage of their house that tourists use, and the location of their house). Those with impressive colonial homes often charge more.
During low season, do negotiate for a lower nightly rate and always try to negotiate a lower rate for a long stay. Note that it is very difficult to get a discount for single travelers. Pairs/couples and families with children under 18 who share the same room enjoy the most value.
On arrival, casa owners must ask for your passport and enter the information into a registration book that must be taken to the immigration office within 24 hours of your arrival. You will be asked to sign next to your information in this book. If you are not asked to sign or are not asked for your passport, your casa may not be legal. Casas particulares can have no more than two rooms for rent. Each room can only hold up to three adults and children under 18. The owners must pay a tax of between CUC$100 and CUC$250 per room per month, plus the now obligatory monthly gastronomic tax. At the end of the year, a further tax of between 10% and 30% is paid on the total annual earnings.
Most houses are quite modest -- you are basically living with a Cuban family. Rooms for rent will either have their own private bathroom or a bathroom shared with other tourists, not with the family. Your room will most likely have air-conditioning. If there is no air-conditioning, you should pay less. The minimum facilities you will receive are clean sheets, towels, and toilet paper, probably a bedside lamp, a wardrobe closet, and a sideboard. Some casas now have security boxes, TVs, and stocked fridges. Most houses will provide locked rooms with a key. You may or may not be given the keys to the house depending on the rules of the owners. Some casas have independent entrances, which appeal to some travelers. Most colonial houses that often make the most attractive casas do not have en suite bathrooms due to the configuration of the houses.
Most casas particulares serve huge, varied, and tasty meals (breakfasts and dinners) at very reasonable prices, especially since the optional gastronomic tax of CUC$30 a month has become obligatory. The biggest advantage of staying in a casa is that it is a great way to meet and interact with Cubans, something you cannot really do at "official" hotels and resorts. Most owners will also bend over backwards to assist you with your plans -- whether that means answering your questions, arranging transport, or making phone calls for you.
If you have a reservation for your casa, your hosts should honor it. Similarly, if you make a reservation, you must turn up; losing CUC$25 on a no- show is a small fortune to a Cuban. Please respect this system because those who don't are forcing some Cubans not to respect reservations. If you just turn up without a reservation and the house is full, the owner will farm you out to a friend or relative at a nearby house. You are not under any obligation to take these places, but they could save you a lot of hassle -- just be prepared to pay a commission. Make sure they are legal houses, though. Even with a reservation, it is wise to make a follow-up confirmation by e-mail or by phone. Casa owners are happy to phone ahead to your next casa to tell the future host you are on your way.
Be aware that if you show up at a casa particular on the recommendation of a taxi driver or jinetero, either of them will expect a commission of between CUC$1 and CUC$5, which invariably is added onto the bill at your casa particular.
Warning: Be wary of jineteros (hustlers), who may try to dupe you into staying in a casa that they recommend so that they earn a commission. Sometimes jineteros will just tell you that the casa you have a reservation in is full; others will take you to the door, put the key in and pretend it's locked, saying that the owner is away; others will tell you the owner of the casa you have a reservation in has moved, died, or gone abroad and they can take you to a similar house nearby (from which they'll receive a commission). In this desperate economic climate, jineteros will stop at nothing until they collect a commission. Be on guard, and do not be deterred by these scams. If you have a reservation, be confident and insistent that you stay at the casa particular where you have a room reserved.
Frommer's has received reports of the occasional theft from casas particulares. This is an extremely rare occurrence, since renting rooms to tourists is the main source of hard currency for Cubans. Putting this at risk is, quite frankly, idiotic in Cuba's economic climate.
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.