If you want to experience some of the real Cuban life, the best places to stay are casas particulares, which are private houses licensed to offer accommodation to foreigners. A casa particular is essentially a private family establishment that provides paid accommodation, usually on a short-term basis. In other countries, this type of establishment is usually referred to as a “bed and breakfast” or “holiday rental”. Typically, this term includes flats and entire houses, rooms in private houses, mini-apartments or rooms with a separate entrance (studios or efficiency rooms). The business can be run as a main occupation or as a sideline and is often run by the owner(s) of the house and family members living there.
Casas particulares are cheaper than hotels (on average 20-30 CUC/room in high season; 10-15 in low season) and the food (breakfast 4-5 CUC, dinner 8-13 CUC) is almost always better than in a hotel. Casas particulares abound, even in small towns; they are slightly more expensive in Havana than elsewhere. Note that any services offered by a casa particular besides accommodation, such as driving you to the bus station, will be added to your bill, even if mentioned in advance. Items such as bottled water supplied with your meal will also be charged. Always talk to the owner about charges when you arrive to avoid unpleasant surprises later. These houses are subject to many government restrictions, so make sure you stay in a legal “casa”. A legal house will have a sticker on the front door (often a blue sign on a white background), you will notice them as you walk past the houses. When you arrive, the owner of the house must note your passport details and the length of your stay. Some Cubans offer illegal accommodation, which is cheaper, but the quality of food and service is usually inferior. If discovered, Cubans risk a heavy fine and it is best to avoid illegal casas altogether.
When travelling around the island, it is advisable to ask the owners of the casas if they have friends or family in the town you are visiting. There is a network of casas and the family will be happy to have their friends pick you up when you get off the bus at your next destination. As most casas particulares are small and can rarely accommodate more than 5 or 6 people, it is advisable for anyone wishing to stay in a guesthouse to book well in advance of their travel date. Many casas particulares are owned by associations, can be found on the internet and are described in various books and guidebooks. You can arrange your accommodation in advance, either by asking your host for a recommendation or by using an association of casas particulares (note, however, that the person making the recommendation almost always receives a commission, which you will end up paying as it is included in the price of the accommodation). Some allow you to book accommodation on the internet before you travel and will do their best to find you accommodation during your stay. You can make a reservation by calling ahead using the casa’s phone or a public phone. You can also use a website that specialises in holiday accommodation in Cuba, such as wildcaribe.com or BB InnVinales, which allows you to search for a house that suits your needs, check availability on the dates you want and confirm your booking. Since mid-2016, the US government has allowed Airbnb to list accommodation in Cuba.
To get the best prices, simply arrive at a place and knock on a door to see the room and ask for the price. If you don’t like one of them, go to the next door. Every town and village has far too many casas for the few tourists who come. Because of the taxes that casa owners have to pay to the government, the lowest price for a room is 15 CUC in high season and 10 CUC in low season. Some may ask you to have at least one meal in their casa to get a reduced price. If you arrive by bus, you will sometimes be greeted by casa owners at the bus station who will show you pictures of the room they are offering. They will most likely accept prices of 15 CUC for the room, or even 2 CUC for breakfast and 5 CUC for dinner. Agree on a price and stick to it, as all casas are of almost the same standard. But beware of jineteros (scammers) who try to lead you to a casa where they get a commission and you have to pay the extra. Make sure you speak to the owner of the casa.
Cubans who host foreigners for free are technically illegal and risk a hefty fine if caught. Some will bend the rules, but be careful if you decide to take up the offer (for example, don’t walk out the front door if you see a police car nearby, especially if you look obviously foreign).
In some Cuban cities and tourist resorts, such as Varadero, Playa Santa Lucia and Guardalavaca, local authorities have found that casas particulares pose a threat to the hotel industry and have passed laws imposing rules and limits on the industry and prohibiting the operation of these establishments.
Note that accommodation can indicate that they offer Wi-Fi, but an internet token must be purchased. See section “Getting connected”.
Most small and large towns have at least one public hotel, often in a restored colonial building. Prices range from about 25 to 100 CUC, depending on what you get. Havana’s resorts and high-end hotels can be considerably more expensive.