Smorgasbord Posts from Your Archives – Travel – Navigating Cuban Currency by Sharon Marchisello

Delighted to welcome back author and financial expert Sharon Marchisello with a post for the travel archive series. This week, if you are heading off to Cuba or stopping off when on a cruise, how to navigate Cuban currency.

Navigating Cuban Currency by Sharon Marchisello

I returned last week from a cruise to Cuba, and I wish I had done more research on that country’s currency system before I left.

I knew businesses in Cuba don’t accept credit cards drawn on U.S. banks. And certainly not American Express. So I was prepared to pay in cash for anything I bought. Because we were visiting the country on a cruise ship, taking excursions organized by the cruise line, I didn’t expect to have to buy much. Maybe just a few beverages and a souvenir or two.

And tips. Cubans expect tips for everything. Including using their bathrooms. Once we got on board, the cruise line provided us with a wallet-sized tipping guide.

Friends who had visited Cuba reported that dollars were widely accepted. Yes, at the currency exchange.

Although the cruise line told us we must exchange our money because Cubans are not allowed to accept foreign currency—even for tips—I’m not sure this was entirely accurate. Plenty of cab drivers and vendors approached us and offered their services in exchange for U.S. dollars. But I imagine the cruise line, calling on Cuban ports at the permission of the government, was obligated to communicate official policy.

Cuba has a dual currency system, and neither currency is traded internationally. That means you can’t buy Cuban pesos until you arrive in the country, and you can’t get rid of them when you get home—or on board the cruise ship. (Technically, you’re not even supposed to transport Cuban pesos out of the country.)

The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), with a 1:1 exchange rate pegged to the U.S. dollar, is the legal tender given to tourists at banks and currency exchange kiosks. A passport is required to exchange money. The CUC is approximately 25 times more valuable than the Cuban Peso (CUP), the currency used by locals at ration stores. Most state shops, especially those catering to tourists, post prices in both currencies.

There is a 3% service charge on foreign currency exchange. Plus, there is a 10% surcharge/penalty on U.S. dollars. So for my $60 cash, I received only 52 CUCs. My husband flies to Europe frequently and always has euros; too bad we didn’t know to bring them with us to Cuba, as we could have exchanged those and avoided the 10% penalty.

We were warned about a common tourist scam where a vendor will accept payment in CUCs and then when returning change, will substitute lower-value CUPs for CUCs. An easy way to distinguish between the two currencies is that CUPs have faces of people on the bills, and CUCs have pictures of monuments. Fortunately, no one we talked to had fallen victim to this scam.

The closest we came was when we were heading back to the ship in our last port, having spent our last CUC, and a young man greeted us. “I’m a teacher,” he said. “And I’m trying to meet tourists.” He asked us our names and where we were from. “I have a gift for you,” he said, and presented me with one CUP. “A souvenir from my country.” I thanked him and started to walk away. “Wait,” he called. “You can give me a CUC for that.” When we told him we didn’t have any more CUCs, he wanted his “gift” back.

To summarize, here are my suggestions if you plan to visit Cuba:

• Bring adequate cash, as you won’t be able to rely on credit cards or ATMs.
• If you have euros, Canadian dollars, British pounds, or most any currency besides USD, exchange that instead, in order to avoid the 10% fee.
• Exchange as you go, and get only as much local currency as you think you’ll need. (But plan for gratuities.) Our ship ended up skipping one of our planned ports, and many passengers had to wait in line for hours to exchange their Cuban money back into dollars, paying another 3% service charge.
• Learn to distinguish between CUCs and CUPs, and watch your change.

What tips do you have about exchanging currency abroad? I’d love to hear your comments.

Sharon is the author of Live Cheaply, Be Happy, Grow Wealthy.

About the book

Live Cheaply, Be Happy, Grow Wealthy is Personal Finance 101, a commonsense guide to shrinking your financial footprint. Sharon Marchisello compares managing your financial life to reaching and maintaining a healthy weight, and in ten easy-to-follow steps, she shows ordinary people how to build wealth by living within their means without compromising their values.

The books is available from Smashwords: Live Cheaply, Be Happy, Grow Wealthy

About Sharon Marchisello

Sharon Marchisello is the author of “The Ghost on Timber Way,” part of a short story anthology entitled Mystery, Atlanta Style, featuring fellow Sisters in Crime members. She has published a personal finance e-book entitled Live Cheaply, Be Happy, Grow Wealthy, as well as numerous travel articles, book reviews, and corporate training manuals.

Sharon grew up in Tyler, Texas, and earned her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Houston in French and English. She studied for a year in Tours, France, on a Rotary scholarship and then moved to Los Angeles to pursue her Masters in Professional Writing at the University of Southern California. Now she lives in Peachtree City, Georgia, with her husband and cat.

Retired from a 27-year career with Delta Air Lines, she does volunteer work for the Fayette Humane Society. Going Home is her first published novel. The murder mystery was inspired by her mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s, which prompted her to wonder what it would be like to interview a witness or a suspect who could not rely on her memory.

About Going Home

Michelle DePalma expected to jet into Two Wells, Texas, check on her elderly mother, and hurry back to her orderly life in Atlanta, where she has a happy marriage and satisfying career. Instead, she finds her mother, Lola Hanson, hovered over the bludgeoned body of her caregiver, Brittany Landers.

Since the events of 9/11, one month earlier, Lola’s memory loss has amplified, and the family suspects Alzheimer’s. Now Lola can’t tell anyone what happened to Brittany.

The agency that provides home care for Lola promptly withdraws its services. Michelle is stuck in her home town longer than planned as she cares for a mother with whom she has never been close and tries to prove her innocence. The police officers who investigate the crime are old antagonists from grade school.

A secret thought to be long buried—that Michelle bore a son out of wedlock and gave him up for adoption—surfaces when a surprise daughter-in-law and granddaughter show up, distracting Michelle from her quest to solve the murder. And then she stumbles upon a motive which makes Lola look even more guilty.

“Going Home” was inspired by the author’s mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s and explores the challenge of solving a murder mystery when a potential witness cannot rely on her memory. Written from the prospective of a baby boomer forced to reverse roles with her parents, it crosses into the mainstream genre of women’s fiction and touches increasingly common issues such as elder abuse and end-of-life decisions.

One of the reviews for the book

Very Good By Don S and TeamGolfwell on December 4, 2017

I really liked “Going Home” by Sharon Marchisello, and found it to be an excellent and exciting mystery. I am familiar with the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s Disease and the author wrote an excellent mystery with many interesting characters. Ms. Marchisello has a lot of talent as a writer and I enjoyed it very much.

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Thank you for dropping in today and Sharon would love to have your feedback and questions. Thanks Sally