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ASK JOURNEYS: Tips for Canadians going to Cuba

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As much as Cuban travel has become a Canadian winter past-time, in many ways the country is still an enigma.

Every winter there are questions about health insurance, currency conversion, power supply, the advisability of bringing gifts, and offering tips at the all-inclusives, plus with a series of other concerns.

In this column I will try to cover some of these inquiries as best as I can within the limitations of this column.

As expressed in a recent column, while I think it is very important to have supplementary travel health coverage wherever you go, from the Cuban government requirement, all you need is valid health coverage from any of our Canadian provincial jurisdictions.

While one of the best travel health providers in the world is Travel Guard, which is sold in many places in Manitoba, as a United States-based company its policies are not valid for Cuba because of the long-standing American policies against that country. You will need to find a Canadian-based provider.

From a currency standpoint, I advise the use of Canadian dollars, which you will have to exchange into Cuba's specially created convertible Cuban peso. It is usually pegged at the rate of a U.S. dollar.

Be sure to cash all your convertible pesos before returning home, because they cannot be exchanged anywhere outside the country.

In taking cash, smaller denomination bills are likely preferable so you don't have to cash more than you have to at any given time.

You can use credit cards and there are a few debit machines around. But make sure your credit cards are not cleared through American banks or you will have the same problem I identified with insurance.

Traveller's cheques are not likely an option for Manitobans since, to my knowledge, all travellers cheques are cleared through U.S. banks, even those from local credit unions and Canadian banks.

Power supply will depend upon the resort you are staying at since Cuba uses both 220v and 110v power at their resorts. There is no easy way of knowing which without asking your travel agent, or contacting the property if you booked online.

If it is a 220v-based property, you will need a converter and an adapter if you are going to use electrical appliances like hair dryers. Only an adapter may be required for camera chargers and computers since most of them have built in dual-voltage ability.

To better explain the difference, the 220v power means that not only is the power output different from ours, but they use a different-style plug in configuration than ours. As a result, the adapter will allow you to plug into the wall but it does not change the power.

Since Spanish is the language of the country, while the basics of food and beverage are well managed at most resorts, take along a translation booklet. Learn some of the terms that you may want to ask about, particularly at places off the resorts.

There are a number of excellent books and CDs on the market that makes it really easy to learn the basics quickly.

There has always been a question of tipping at all-inclusive resorts, and while the tour operators suggest all gratuities are included, Cuban hotels and resorts there, and in most of the countries we travel to during the sun season, do not really pay all that well.

As this awareness has grown, I see more and more people offering tips to bartenders and serving staffs, and many also leave a few dollars for the people who take care of the rooms.

If you do tip, use the convertible Cuban peso, as it is easier for them to use as well, although I have had mixed reports on that.

There was a time when the Cuban government was discouraging gifts of any kind to their nationals. That seems to have stopped; so leaving or giving gifts to people in a country whose imports are scarce is a charitable gesture.

The Internet in Cuba is not what it is in North America even at the best resorts. But it is available. At times it can be a frustrating experience.

While the chefs at the major resorts do their best to give guest the best food experience they can, the single complaint I occasionally receive is that the meals are often bland. I enjoyed the quality of cuisine there, but I realize that the same import restrictions that have affected them for decades likely also extend to the kitchen as well.

Chicken and pork are your best choices, while having beef cooked in the style and size we are accustomed is not easily found.

There is an excellent golf course in Veradero at the former Dupont Estate, but golf development has been much slower than in the rest of the Caribbean.

While Cuba may be one of the safest and least crime-riddled countries in the region, it is likely a good idea to leave expensive jewelry at home. In Havana, in particular, there is more crime today than there was a decade ago.

All in all, I recommend vacationing in Cuba without reservation. Friendly people, modern resorts and convenient flights make it one of the better options from Manitoba.

Forward your travel questions to askjourneys@journeystravel.com . Ron Pradinuk is president of Journeys Travel & Leisure SuperCentre and can be heard Sundays at noon on CJOB. Previous columns and tips can be found on www.journeystravelgear.com or read Ron's travel blog at www.thattravelguy.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2013 D9

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