READ THIS before booking an AirBnB in Cuba
AirBnB in Cuba
AirBnB allows users to search hundreds of listings across Cuba, including everything from $10/night apartments in Guantanamo to $500/night waterfront villas in Havana. Users can scroll through pictures and read reviews from past guests and best of all, they can pay in advance using their credit card, eliminating the need to bring extra cash to Cuba.
Sounds great, doesn't it? There are many reasons to consider booking an AirBnB as your accommodation in Cuba. In fact, I'll go so far as to extend my $40 discount code to you if you are create a new account with AirBnB!
Cuban AirBnBs: Too Good to be True?
If it sounds too good to be true, then it's worth looking at more closely. I travel to Cuba several times per year and need to stay up to date on everything from What to Pack for Cuba to where to stay, including AirBnBs. Though some of the casas I work with also advertise on AirBnB, many do not. I’ve stayed at dozens of AirBnBs in eight provinces across Cuba and while many of these experiences were great, several were not. If you're curious, I've stayed in AirBnBs in Vinales (Pinar del Rio), Havana, Matanzas, Varadero, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Holguin, Bayamo, Santiago de Cuba, Guantanamo, and Baracoa.
On two occasions, the casa particular (private homestay) owner had double booked the room and moved me to a different home. In one case, I discovered the casa owner had the same home displayed in two separate listings, at two different prices. If both listings were booked, the guest would be moved to another home and simply told that either “AirBnB made a mistake” or that the person who manages the AirBnB account made a mistake.
One woman I met brought virtually no money with her to Cuba because she had pre-booked her entire stay on AirBnB. When she arrived at the casa particular in Havana, the owner said that the home did not rent rooms and he didn't know why travelers kept showing up claiming to have a reservation. She wound up staying at an awful casa very far from the city center since she spoke no Spanish, couldn't find wifi to ask for help, didn't have an international phone to call AirBnB, and didn't know what to do other than stay where her taxi driver dropped her off.
What Can Go Wrong with Cuban AirBnBs
As of this writing, several significant challenges exist with the AirBnB platform in Cuba that travelers should be aware of.
1. The AirBnB App Doesn’t Work Properly in Cuba
Though you can make reservations and pay with your credit card from your home country using the app, you cannot make new reservations on the app once you’re in Cuba. Many users don’t realize until they leave Cuba that they could have simply booked through the AirBnB website on their phone’s browser (though internet access is still spotty and unreliable). When this happened to me, AirBnB's customer service department told me to delete the app and download it again to fix the problem. This was terrible advice because Cuba doesn't allow you to download the app. I went two months without the app on my phone, making it more difficult to access previous reservations or make new ones. Fortunately, I work with cash owners across Cuba so most of my stays were at homes I've worked with for years and who do not advertise on AirBnB.
2. Slow technology results in double bookings
Many casa owners list their homes on multiple websites (AirBnB, TripAdvisor, Booking.com, and several Cuban-specific rental sites) and Cuba’s slow technology makes it difficult to impossible to update multiple listings in real time. This sometimes results in an AirBnB listing being double booked. Casa owners can typically find the guest another home but the home may not be as nice or well-located.
3. Cuba’s long-standing reservation system
Cuban casa owners have operated their own reservation and referral system that’s been around long before AirBnB was conceived. Traditionally, a traveler in Havana would call a casa in Trinidad, Cuba (usually through their host) to make a reservation. The traveler has never been to Trinidad and knows nothing about the house; they just know that they will have a place to stay when they arrive. If the casa particular in Trinidad receives an offer from travelers who will stay for a longer period (a more lucrative booking), the traveler in Havana will simply be moved to another house when he/she arrives to the casa. No harm has been done since the Havana traveler had no expectations for the casa in Trinidad.
This actually happened to me twice on the same reservation. I booked a reservation at a casa particular in Trinidad, Cuba that had a garden and roof access and when I arrived, I was told the previous guests wanted to stay longer and the casa owner told me she secured a reservation for me at another home. When I got to the second home, I was told that they had accepted another traveler that arrived before me so I was immediately moved again to a third home. I got bug bites all over my body at this third home (with no garden and no rooftop deck!), making the experience even worse.
Cuban casa owners have operated like this for over a decade, moving guests reservations around (typically without problems) so some still move AirBnB bookings to other casas, not out of maliciousness or greed, but simply because that is how casa reservations have always worked. Unfortunately, an AirBnB user may book a specific casa because they want that specific casa so it can be annoying (and perhaps insulting) to be told that you will actually be staying in a home other than the one you reserved online.
4. The Cuban AirBnB Map Function Doesn't Work
The way Cuban addresses are structured doesn't configure well with AirBnB's map feature so an AirBnB in Cuba will often show up in a different area than it actually is. In some cases, it's only a couple blocks. In other cases, it's several miles/kilometers, which is a huge difference.
During a recent bike tour through Cuba, I booked an AirBnB in Vinales specifically because the map showed it close to the city center. It was actually 2 kilometers from where the map showed it, up a massive hill, which was not appealing to me having already biked 70 kilometers of hills in the hot sun that day. Speaking of Vinales, have you seen my guest blog piece on 6 Things to Consider When Booking an AirBnB in Vinales, Cuba? The same happened to me when booking a Matanzas AirBnB. The home was lovely but it was several miles from where the map placed it, causing me to bike back and forth across town looking for it.
Casa owners often will send specific directions to their home but with limited access to the internet and unreliable signal strength, the directions sometimes take several days to arrive. Most travelers to Cuba don't have phone access and many don't speak Spanish, making it difficult to find the home if the directions sent are unclear and the map is unreliable.
5. Amenities aren't Guaranteed
Cuban AirBnBs list amenities provided, as do listings elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately, these amenities are often not guaranteed or are defined a bit differently than they would be in more developed countries.
"Laptop-friendly" is an amenity that many Cuban AirBnBs list but it doesn't really mean anything. Very few AirBnBs in Cuba have wifi and most that do provide wifi have a slow, unreliable signal. "Laptop-friendly" often simply means there is a table or desk that you can put your laptop on.
Modern clothing dryers just aren't a thing in Cuba. Literally, nobody has them. Even well-to-do homes hang-dry clothing outside after it's washed in a small, simple electric washing machine (many of which work only if water is manually poured into the machine). The few homes that list "dryer" as an amenity are referring to a no-heat "spin dryer" that spins more water out of the clothing than the washer does but the clothing still needs to be hung outside to dry. This shouldn't be a deal breaker, just don't book a home specifically because you're expecting to wash and dry clothing in two hours. This will not happen. Also, don't count on the washer or "dryer" to be working at all. I've stayed at more casas than I can count where the machines were broken or busy, resulting in me hand washing my clothing every other day for months on end.
Families that I've met traveling through Cuba told me that despite filtering for AirBnBs in Cuba that listed a crib as an amenity, most homes didn't actually have a crib, proving quite inconvenient for a couple and their newborn baby that I met in Havana in 2018. Cuban families make do without cribs, play pens, bouncy chairs, mobiles, and pretty much everything that is standard in American nurseries so be prepared to go without it or bring anything you feel you can't live without during the trip.
I was astounded to find an AirBnB in Cuba that advertised having a hot tub. AirBnB even highlighted the listing, pointing out that very few homes in the area had a hot tub. In fact, I booked the home 90% specifically because it had a hot tub. Guess what was broken indefinitely when I arrived. The hot tub, of course.
Many of the AirBnB accounts for Cuban homes are managed by people who do not live in Cuba. As internet access and electronic banking is not yet common in Cuba, many AirBnB accounts are run by friends, family, or semi-strangers in other countries who take a (sometimes very significant) cut of the earnings in exchange for maintaining the account. This has two negative consequences. First, the person maintaining the account doesn’t live in the home and may have never even visited the city so they may not be able to describe it accurately. Second, the person maintaining the account likely speaks far better English than the person who runs the casa. Many Cuban AirBnB accounts are listed in English and guests communicate with the profile administrator in English and it is not until the guest arrives at the home that they realize the host only speaks Spanish.
Most casa particulares are run by Cubans who speak little to no English and most are very accustomed to communicating with non-Spanish-speaking guests, but many Cuban AirBnB listings lead guests to believe they will be able to communicate in English, resulting in disappointment and miscommunication.
Having a good experience at an AirBnB in Cuba is absolutely possible if you take a few precautions. If you want to completely cover your bases, however, contact me to book a reservation with trusted, verified casa owners that I have worked with for several years. I can guarantee they are clean, well-located, provide good meals, will NOT move you to another house, and in some cases, have working wifi, or gardens/patios. Read on for tips on how to book a good AirBnB in Cuba.
How to Book the Best AirBnB in Cuba
Here are a few tips to help minimize your risk of booking a shady AirBnB that will cancel your reservation or shove you off to another house.
1. Always read the comments
This may seem like a no-brainer but you'd be surprised how many people book a reservation just off the house description or pictures. Reading the comments may show that the "Best AirBnB in Havana" may actually not look like the pictures, may not be well-located, may be extremely noisy, or have other problems.
2. Look at the dates of the comments
Just because an AirBnB in Havana has good reviews doesn't mean that the reviews are still accurate. If the most recent review was 6 months ago, there may be a problem. It's very unusual for a casa to not rent a room in a given month so if a casa hasn't had reservations in a while, it could be because there was a problem with the house, including: the house lost it's license, switched ownership, or is dealing with construction or pest control problems.
3. Confirm Amenities that are Important to You
If a crib, washing machine, or any other amenity listed is a deal breaker for you, triple check with the casa owner (or account administrator!) in writing to confirm they actually have one. It's still possible it won't be there when you arrive but NEVER assume a home has all the amenities listed in the profile.
4. Always Bring Extra Cash
Don't be like the girl above who brought virtually no cash to Cuba because she had pre-booked her casa on AirBnB, only to find out the casa didn't exist. ALWAYS bring extra cash with you. Very few hotels accept credit cards - no casas accept credit cards - and American credit cards and ATM cards don't work in Cuba anyway.
Related Articles about Cuba
See my previous blog posts to get a feel for the day-to-day life that few tourists encounter, what to pack, what to expect, and what to know.