Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
[Note: I’m sorry if you’re a leisure traveler who Googled “How to Pack for Cuba” or “packing for Cuba” or “what to pack for a trip to Cuba” and you stumbled upon this post. It’s not likely to help you much, as I’m packing not for a vacation, but for a visit to the in-laws, and that’s a whole other ball of wax.]
This will be my eighth, ninth, or tenth trip to Cuba; I don’t remember exactly. I’ve been going since 2003, as an envoy to my in-laws, and packing for this trip never gets easier. If you’re just marrying into a Cuban family (and I use “marrying” as loosely or as literally as you’d like- there are lots of variations)– then perhaps you’ll find the following insights and tips useful.
The more things stay the same, the more things change. As both US and Cuban policies related to travel between the two countries have, overall, become more relaxed since I first started visiting Cuba a decade ago, there are some key areas of Cuba travel policies that have become increasingly onerous.
First: maximum weight permitted. These days, you’ve got 44 pounds per passenger to work with. (If you’re reading this even a month from now, check with the airline with which you’re booked to travel for current weight limits). That goes fast–really fast–when you’re not just packing for yourself, and when you’re traveling to Cuba, you are never packing for yourself. You’re also packing gifts for family. You’ll also be packing gifts for friends of friends and family of friends; Yuma contacts of Cubans always end up muling for one another. Don’t say no when they ask you to carry money or vitamins or photos. As long as it’s legit, take on what you can; you’ll probably need them to return the favor in the future.
You will inevitably accumulate a pile of goods that have been special requested by your Cuban family, and another pile of items you’ve bought that you think are practical. Over the years, my suitcases have included: underwear in five sizes and at least as many styles (from granny panties to “tangas”– g-strings); bottles of Vitamin E, fish oil, Motrin, and multivitamins; tomato paste and sun-dried tomatoes; dried beans of all types; rice; dried meats and packets of tuna fish; chocolate (powdered and in bar and candy forms); jewelry; perfume; soap; backpacks; purses; make-up; dozens of shoes; house dresses and pajamas; winter coats (three on this trip); make-up and nail polish; particular brands of deodorant, hair spray, hair gel, and shampoo; knife sets and cutting boards; laptops, cameras, and cell phones; bed sheets and towels; books, magazines, pens, and school supplies, and dozens of other things I’ve forgotten or put out of my mind.
You will do your best to distribute these items among the pieces of luggage you’re taking, so that none exceeds the weight limit. If you go with the Cuban flow, you’ll spend $30 and up to have these wrapped in plastic at the airport (I’ve never done this). And speaking of flow and airport, once you hit the airport, get ready for your cash to flow. Charter flights are now charging $20 per carry-on item (regardless of whether your other luggage is under the weight limit). From there, it’s all downhill. Cuba introduced new customs tariffs in the summer of 2012; they’re way too complicated to explain here, but you can read all about them in English or in Spanish. And don’t forget to set aside your exit fee, which you’ll pay at the airport upon your departure.
The good news is, you’ll return home much lighter than you arrived. You may even return without a bag at all; that’s happened to me several times. Cubans know that suitcases are wonderful makeshift closets, and they will happily relieve you of the burden of taking home your now-empty suitcase.