Thinking of renting a car in Cuba? For a few brief years during the Obama administration, Cuba travel restrictions eased for Americans. But the Trump administration reinstated many restrictions in April 2019. While it’s still possible for Americans to travel to Cuba, it’s much more complicated. Here’s what you should consider.
How to Travel to Cuba
American leisure travelers can no longer travel to Cuba on a cruise. Travel must fall under a category sanctioned by the U.S. government, such as family visits, official government business, journalistic activity, educational activities, religious activities or support for the Cuban people. You must be able to prove that your journey fits into one of these categories. Most Americans traveling for leisure will book through a tour provider that has designed an itinerary full of activities that fulfill the requirements.
Essential Tips for Renting a Car in Cuba
It can be illegal to rent a car from the wrong place.
Americans are forbidden from spending money on services that benefit the business arm of the Cuban military, which runs many hotels, restaurants, marinas and other types of travel-related businesses. (See the full list of disallowed military-run businesses here.)
Unfortunately, AutoSlash can’t help you book a rental car in Cuba. Save yourself a massive headache and book through a service with English-speaking agents. Choose an agent with an on-the-ground presence, such as Cuba Travel Network. It will reserve your car with a company not owned by the military. And it will troubleshoot if your paperwork gets misplaced or you run into trouble on the road.
You may not really want a rental car.
There are several means of getting around in Cuba and rental cars are just one option. Roads and driver practices vary between the two countries, and roadways in Cuba are statistically far more dangerous than in the United States. Like Mexico, Cuba is also one of the “cause an injury accident, stay in jail” nations and the U.S. Department of State offers some valid discouragement on driving in Cuba.
Road Conditions and Safety: Road accidents, many involving pedestrians and bicyclists, are now Cuba’s leading cause of death. Cuban authorities may prohibit drivers from leaving the country until claims associated with an accident are settled. Drivers found responsible for accidents resulting in serious injury or death may receive long prison sentences. U.S. citizen drivers are often found at fault for accidents they are involved in.
Drive with extreme care. Major streets are generally well-maintained, but secondary streets are not. Avoid driving at night as many roads are unlit. Emergency lights or signals are rare making it virtually impossible to detect hazards after dark. Street signage is insufficient and confusing. Many Cuban cars are old, in poor condition, and lack reliable safety equipment.
The principal Cuban east-west highway is in good condition but extends only part of the way from Havana to the eastern end of the island. Hazards—including unfenced livestock and farm vehicles—are common.
You must carry an International Driving Permit.
It’s inexpensive and easy to get an International Driving Permit, but you need to apply before you leave on your trip.
It’s smart to inspect the car before you drive away.
When you pick up your car, be sure to document all imperfections with your phone’s camera and have the rental agent take note, or you run a substantial risk of being charged for them when you return the car. You will also be charged for any new nicks caused by flying stones on some of Cuba’s poorer roads.
You’ll need a paper map.
There is no Wi-Fi infrastructure in Cuba, so GPS service is not reliable. You’re taking a risk if you try navigating without GPS or a map.
You’ll stand out as a tourist.
You’ll get a rental car with a visible “T” on the license plate, designating you as a tourist. That can make your car an easy mark. Be careful of where you park, and try to stick to well-lit lots with attendants. Cuba is a safe country but it has a lot of poverty, so car theft is common.