Friday, June 2, 2017

Navigating Cuban Currency

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.

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