Ins and outs of chang­ing cur­rency in Cuba

Los Angeles Times - - TRAVEL - Judy Gould New­port Beach Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We re­gretwe can­not an­swer ev­ery in­quiry.

Ques­tion: I have read that a tourist will get a bet­ter ex­change rate us­ing eu­ros rather than U.S. dol­lars in Cuba. On a planned trip to Spain, I con­sid­ered bring­ing home some eu­ros to ex­change for CUCs when I go to Cuba. There is al­ways a fee for ex­chang­ing money, so I won­dered whether it is fi­nan­cially worth it to do this.

An­swer: When travel to Cuba was eased ear­lier this year, the Trea­sury Depart­ment an­nounced, “Trav­el­ers will now be al­lowed to use U.S. credit and debit cards in Cuba.”

Which would free us from the tyranny of car­ry­ing cash, but for this: Although it’s true U.S. credit and debit cards can now be used in Cuba, say­ing it’s so doesn’t mag­i­cally cre­ate an in­fra­struc­ture and solve reg­u­la­tory is­sues that make this hap­pen.

For now, cash is king, as it of­ten is, but it is not with­out com­pli­ca­tions in Cuba.

Cuba uses two cur­ren­cies — the Cuban con­vert­ible peso, known as a CUC, and the Cuban peso, known as the CUP.

U.S. visi­tors need the CUC, which is 1:1 with the U.S. dol­lar. That sounds sim­ple. Of course it’s not, as Janet Moore, owner of Dis­tant Hori­zons travel agency in Long Beach, ex­plained in an email.

“When you change dol­lars in Cuba, the Cuban gov­ern­ment levies a penalty of 10% just be­cause you are chang­ing dol­lars,” said Moore, who has vis­ited the is­land na­tion more than 100 times. “Then they levy a 3% fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tion charge. So in to­tal you are docked13%.”

That means you’ll get 87 CUCs for ev­ery $100 you change.

Ex­change eu­ros and you don’t get that fi­nan­cial slap on the hand, but you are sub­ject to chang­ing fi­nan­cial mar­kets.

Moore said she took 88 eu­ros, which she had ob­tained from a $100 ex­change with a bank in L.A., and ex­changed them for 96.70 CUCs in Ha­vana in mid- May. She­was, she said, money ahead. (As of early last week, the ex­change rate for dol­lars/eu­ros would have net­ted you about the same amount.)

As ex­pe­ri­enced trav­el­ers know, you gen­er­ally won’t get a fa­vor­able ex­change rate for your U.S. dol­lars at an air­port ex­change, so don’t wait un­til you’re about to take off if you’re plan­ning to con­vert from U.S. dol­lars to eu­ros and then to CUCs.

But Brian Kelly, who writes ThePointsGuy.com blog, said he re­cently had a good air­port ex­pe­ri­ence in Ha­vana, although his ex­pe­ri­ence maybe the ex­cep­tion. “If you’re in doubt about whether to change your money at the air­port or your ho­tel, pick the air­port,” Kelly said. At the Ha­vana air­port, “we were given 90 CUCs per $100 U.S. — and thought we could do bet­ter at our ho­tel.”

What he didn’t fac­tor in was the 3% fee he would pay at the ho­tel.

In the com­ing months, some of these is­sues will dis­ap­pear. If you’re trav­el­ing in Europe and run out of cash, a quick trip to an ATM will usu­ally put money in your pocket (as­sum­ing you have mon­eyin your U.S. ac­count). You’ll be hard-pressed to do the same right now in Cuba.

The big­ger ques­tion, al­beit not a fi­nan­cial one, seems to be this: As the U.S. and Cuba ad­dress the is­sues that make travel to the is­land na­tion more com­plex than vis­it­ing most other for­eign coun­tries, will Cuba be­gin to lose the char­ac­ter that makes it so ap­peal­ing? Or does the de­creas­ing num­ber of in­con­ve­niences en­hance the ex­pe­ri­ence?

Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

BE AWARE that ho­tels can charge fees for ex­chang­ing cur­rency. Above, the Ho­tel Saratoga in Ha­vana.

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