Packing for Cuba in a carry-on

Havana Cuba

Discover what to pack on your trip to Cuba and learn what you should not travel without. Travel light to save money (avoid checked baggage fees) and time (no need to wait around at baggage claim)! Having smaller and fewer bags makes traveling around the country more convenient (the old school cars you’ll be traveling in typically have limited trunk space!).

Shared taxi in Havana
Traveling in a taxi colectivo from Havana to Viñales (we had to travel with our backpacks on our laps)

I spent 10 days in Cuba with only carry-on luggage. I’m sharing how I did it, so you can do it too!

The climate in Cuba is warm year round, so you won’t need bulky or heavy layers, making packing in a carry-on even easier. I’ll provide my guide for essentials below (no matter what time of year, a rain jacket is always a must!).

Carry on for Cuba
I packed only a carry on for 10 days in Cuba

I also went to London after for four days after, which was a whole set of different warmer clothes – but that’s a different story, so packing just for Cuba should be even easier for you.

If you’re an American traveling to Cuba in 2019, you’ll want to check out this blog post too that covers everything from visas to currency to WiFi to lodging.

Luggage

Backpack and rolling carry-on hard shell luggage
My carry-on luggage for my trip to Cuba

Carry-on luggage: SWISSGEAR 7272 Energie Hardside Spinner in 19″ in gold – As SWISSGEAR’s 2018 Travel Ambassador, they sent me an abundance of luggage last year and this was my favorite that I continue to use as my main piece of carry-on luggage. I love that this bag has a built in lock (I would frequently store my valuables in this bag when I left for the day as an extra safety precaution). I made full use of the expander and when it is expanded, I can still get it to slide in airline’s measuring baskets (with a little jiggle and force) due to the hard exterior. It also has a built in charger portal (the charger is not included, but you can attach your own, like the BioLite Charge 20). Of course I love how cute and stylish the gold is (“go 4 the gold!”). 😉

Backpack: SWISSGEAR 5358 ScanSmart Backpack – I received over a dozen backpacks as SWISSGEAR’s Travel Ambassador and this is my favorite travel backpack because it can hold SO much stuff! It has so many pockets and sections that provide for maximum storage and easy organization. I love the no-crush sunglasses section and separate laptop zipped section. The only downside of having so many pockets/sections is you can lose things in your bag if you forget where you put them haha.

Camera Bag: Think Tank Photo Mirrorless Mover 20 Camera Bag – I traveled with this camera bag around the globe and highly recommend it. It fits my camera, battery charger & extra battery, ND filter, USB cords, and GoPro, among other things. While traveling from place to place, I store my camera bag inside my backpack, but when I’m out and about exploring, this bag typically serves as my main bag/purse. It isn’t flashy and I typically carried it in front of me across my body. It also always holds my hand sanitizer, chapstick, and occasionally my iPhone or wallet.

Small crossbody bag: I packed a small crossbody bag to take to dinner and evenings out. I wouldn’t suggest anything flashy or with designer labels, as that could be a more enticing target for pickpockets. I brought a simple black one (it was a graduation gift from my mom years ago so I wasn’t able to find it online to link here).C

Toiletry Bag: SWISSGEAR 2375 Dopp Kit – I have had a lot of toiletry bags and this one is my favorite. It has lots of compartments so I was able to store my jewelry (I use the top mesh zipped section for jewelry) and I can still throw my little makeup bag in the main compartment. I put all of my air travel size approved liquids in a quart-size Ziplock bag (that I reuse for for all of my trips) so it easy to grab if needed for airport security (they somehow never seem to ask to take out liquids at SeaTac Airport, just electronics). The side pockets held medicines, bandaids, and tampons – apparently tampons are hard to come by in Cuba), the front pocket held my contacts, back pocket had a comb and hair ties.

Packing Cubes: I swear by packing cubes! They save so much space and keeps all of your clothes organized, I won’t travel without them now! For this trip I used two SWISSGEAR Packing Cubes, but my favorite packing cubes that held up for my trip around the world are by eBags. I also reuse small plastic Ziplock bags to store and organize my underwear and socks.

Essentials

Cuban visa for American citizens
Cuban visa for American citizens (ordered online through Cuba Visa Services via American Airlines)

Passport: This is obviously the most important thing to bring, as you won’t be let in the country without it. Make sure it is valid for at least six months from your travel dates.

Visa (if purchased ahead of time): This is necessary for American citizens. You can read more on how to get your visa (either ahead of time or at the airport) on my blog post here.

Cash money: This is specific to U.S. citizens. Even if you have a travel friendly credit or debit card, you will NOT be able to use it in Cuba if it has any affiliation to the United States. This means all the money you need/want to spend in Cuba you need to carry in as cash and convert it to Cuban currency while on Cuban soil. Figure out how much money to bring on my blog post here.

U.S. dollars are taxed at 10% so it is best to bring in another currency, like Canadian dollars, Euros, or British pounds (check the conversion rate at your time of travel – I went with Canadian dollars). You can order this foreign currency from your bank in advance, make sure you allow at least a few business days before your flight to receive your foreign currency.

Wallet: You’ll need something to carry your cash in.

Physical copies of passport, accommodation reservations, flight information: I know what you’re thinking, I have all of this on my phone, why would I need paper copies? WiFi is limited in Cuba. When you don’t have access to WiFi, paper copies are convenient and it’s also helpful to have them in case of emergency, like if your phone is lost or stolen (my friend’s iPhone was stolen at a nightclub in Cuba, which could happen in many places in the world).

Travel Necessities

Transportation in Cuba
Traveling with a bandana to minimize intake of Diesel fumes, a water bottle to stay hydrated, and locks for my luggage as it was stowed underneath the crowded bus

Water bottle: Do not drink the tap water in Cuba. Bring your own water bottle and fill it with bottled water, purchase water as often as you have the opportunity (and the largest ones you can find) because they can be less common to find than you might expect. While most people recommend water filters, my friend brought a water filter, but she ended up getting sick for roughly 24 hours after drinking the “filtered water” so I am reluctant to recommend one.

Bandana: I would recommend packing a bandana to wear around your nose/mouth while in colectivo taxis/buses on travel days to minimize your intake of diesel fumes. The fumes can cause headaches. When my friend blew her nose after our first ride (from Havana to Viñales), she noticed her mucous was grey and black. We wore our bandanas on our next ride (Viñales to Trinidad) and the nose blow test proved to be clear/normal color mucus.

Sunglasses: Protect your eyes from sun and dust! I packed two pairs because a girl needs options 😉

Inflatable Travel Pillow: I’m obsessed with my inflatable travel pillow, it successfully traveled around the globe with me and I brought it to Cuba. It is super compact and lightweight and can be easily stored (it comes in a little travel pouch). It was perfect on my red-eye flight (from Seattle to Miami before flying to Cuba) and also on the long bus journey from Viñales to Trinidad.

Combination Lock: You can never be too safe, lock up your valuables! I packed four SWISSGEAR combination locks, which are also TSA approved for air travel.

Protein bars: Pack protein bars to keep you from getting hangry on travel days (or really whenever). While you pick up snacks/food at rest stops, I found the lines to be long and it’s great to have something already available that you know exactly what you’re eating!

Eye Mask: Bring an eye mask for the plane (especially helpful if you have a red-eye) or for bright mornings at your casa particular.

Ear Plugs: Most people likely use ear plugs for sleeping (a great concept) or plane rides, I use mine for nights out. My ears are very sensitive (thanks to a visit to Ibiza in my college days). To protect my ears, I wear ear plugs out and the loud music in Cuba made very me grateful I brought a few pairs with me.

Electronics/Gear

Electronics to bring to Cuba
The electronics I packed for my trip to Cuba

Camera: PANASONIC LUMIX G7 4K Mirrorless Camera, with 14-140mm Lens. You’ll need something to document how beautiful Cuba is and to share your memories. I traveled with my camera, battery charger, extra battery & ND filter. I traveled with my Lumix around the world and love it (see a full post on all my travel camera gear here).

Tripod: BONFOTO Lightweight Camera Travel Tripod. Traveling with a tripod is a great way to get photos framed how you want with your travel partner or of yourself if you are traveling solo (so your photos aren’t all selfies/groupies!). A tripod is also mandatory for time lapses, and epic long-exposure waterfall and night shots, among other cool photography features. A tripod isn’t necessary unless you are really into photography, but I brought mine to Cuba.

Action camera: GoPro Hero 6. I highly recommend traveling with a waterproof action camera for the beach and waterfall adventures. The GoPro also has a great wide angle lens so if you don’t have one for your camera, the GoPro comes in clutch! I also packed my GoPro dome, which is used to take photos both over and under water (how I got this shot in Varadero). This obviously isn’t mandatory and does take up a bit of space, but if you’re looking to get a shot over/underwater, it’s worth packing.

Mobile Phone: iPhone 6. I brought my iPhone 6 and mainly used the offline Maps app Maps.me to help navigate through Cuba. I also took some photos and short videos on my phone to capture memories and for future Instagram stories. I purchased WiFi in Cuba a few times to update my family and friends on my trip and safety. Learn more about WiFi in Cuba in my blog post here. My friend traveled with her new iPhone 8 and it was pickpocketed out of her purse at a nightclub on a Saturday night (Disco Ayala in Trinidad). I would not recommend bringing a new phone out to a nightclub and always be very mindful of your valuables.

Phone charger: It is obvious to bring the charger for your phone but if you’ve lost/broken your charging cable, I recommend the 6ft Anker lightning cable as a great replacement. The cord is super long, which can come in handy with oddly placed power outlets.

Headphones: Likely another obvious item but bring headphones to listen to music while traveling. I use the headphones my iPhone came with.

Laptop: MacBook Pro 13″. I debated bringing my new MacBook Pro to Cuba but afterwards was glad that I did so I could back up my photos. As I’ve mentioned, I was traveling directly to London after and needed to do some work on my laptop there (and wanted to start working on my Cuba guide blog on my long plane rides), which was another motivator for me to bring my laptop. If you have the new MacBook, you’ll notice it does not have USB outlets or a SIM card reader, so I had to bring a USB hub to connect my camera and phone to my laptop.

Portable charger: BioLite Charge 20. A portable charger came in clutch on travel days (the trip from Viñales to Trindad is 8 hours!) to keep my phone from dying.

Solar charger: BioLite Solar Panel 5+. As I’ve mentioned before, the sun is so strong in Cuba, so why not use it to charge your gear? This came in handy in the countryside and on the beach. The solar panel so light and thin that it slides into my backpack and I would forget that it was in there. It was awesome to charge my phone via the sun, so we could listen to music while laying out on the beach in Varadero.

Headlamp: BioLite Headlamp. I read about power outages that occur often in Havana and around Cuba. Thankfully I did not experience any, but I brought my headlamp just in case. I used the headlamp to get to the beach for sunrise yoga, and then it doubled as a holder to keep my iPhone propped up on a cinder block to take a time-lapse of the sunrise yoga action.

What NOT to bring to Cuba (electronics)

DJI Mavi Pro Drone
DJI Mavi Pro Drone

Drone: While I normally travel with my drone, I did not bring it with me to Cuba as it is illegal to bring one or fly one there. Leave your drone at home. If you are traveling from elsewhere and already have your drone with you, I’ve heard you can store your drone at the airport and will get it back when you return to the airport to depart from Cuba. This apparently costs a hefty fee and can be very time consuming – avoid this if possible.

Power outlet adapter: If you are from North America, Cuba uses the same power outlets that are found in the United States, Canada, and Mexico (among other locations) so you do not need to pack power outlet adapters. Although if you’re from elsewhere in the world (Europe, South America Asia, Africa), you will need one (or two or three).

Clothing

Cuba has a semitropical and warm climate, where the average low temperature is 70° F (21° C) and the average high temperature is 81° F (27° C). Clothing that is lightweight with quick drying materials will be the most practical.

Below you’ll find a list of the clothing I packed for Cuba for 10 days:

  • Socks (6)
  • Underwear (10)
  • Bras (3 total = 1 bra, 1 bralette, 1 sports bra)
  • Tank tops (2)
  • Athletic tank tops (2)
  • T-shirts (2)
  • Lightweight long sleeve sweater (1)
  • Shorts (3 total = 1 denim, 1 floral, 1 soft to sleep in)
  • Dresses/Rompers (8 total = 4 sleeveless dresses, 1 maxi dress, 2 rompers, 1 two-piece)
  • Jeans (1 pair)
  • Yoga pants (2 cropped pairs)
  • Harem pants (1)
  • Cover up (1)
  • Swimsuits (7 total = 5 bikinis, 2 one pieces) – I have a bit of a swimwear addiction

You could definitely get by with less (I also hand washed a few small items during my trip) but I’m providing an all-inclusive list of what was in my carry-on bag. I also packed a lot of dresses specifically #forthegram. The items above were rolled and stored in packing cubes (clothes) and ziplock bags (underwear & socks) to save space. I also traveled with a friend and we often traded clothes.

I packed a few additional things (2 sweaters, long yoga pants and a long dress) because I was traveling directly to London afterwards for a long weekend, but these items are not included in the list because I didn’t pack them for Cuba.

Outerwear (2 jackets)

Rain flooded street in Viñales, Cuba
I learned that the rain jacket I packed was NOT waterproof after getting caught in torrential rain in Viñales (as I got soaked through the jacket)
  • Waterproof rain coat: Even if there is no rain in the forecast for your stay, throw in a waterproof rain jacket! It didn’t show rain in the forecast before I went to Cuba, but I was caught in the rain twice, once in a torrential downpour! Rainy season is from June to November, but even if you are visiting in the dry season from December to May (I visited in February), you may still experience rain. Make sure your rain jacket is waterproof (I found out the hard way the one I packed wasn’t, as my white tank top was drenched underneath after, making it looked like I participated in a wet t-shirt contest). A poncho works as a great alternative, my friend brought one and it kept her dry during the downpour.
  • Light jacket: I brought a jean jacket that I wore for air travel (I also left Seattle during a snow storm so having a jacket was necessary, despite not needing it much in Cuba). You could also pack a hoody. You do not need a heavy down jacket.

Shoes (2 pairs)

  • Sneakers (1 pair): I wore mine on the plane and on travel days so I didn’t have to pack them. I love my Vessi sneakers, that are also waterproof! Make sure your sneakers are comfortable as you will be doing a lot of walking.
  • Sandals (1 pair) – Again, comfort is key! I have an old pair of sandals from Target and I wore them essentially everyday everywhere, aside from hiking and traveling.

Toiletries

Toiletry bag
My toiletry bag that held all my personal care items, makeup, jewelry, and first aid items

When traveling with just carry-on luggage, you’ll need to make sure all of your liquids are approved for air travel (3.3oz or 100mL). I stored the liquids in a quart-sized ziplock bag in the main compartment of my toiletry bag and all pills/medications unboxed together in another small ziplock bag in one of the side pockets.

Sunscreen: The sun is strong in Cuba, make sure to wear sunscreen to avoid sunburns! My friend and I realized that our small containers of sunscreen likely wouldn’t be enough for our snow white winter Seattle skin, so we got around the 3.3oz rule by buying a full size sunscreen at the airport in Miami during our layover. It was obviously overpriced but it was worth not getting sunburnt.

Bug repellant wipes: There are many mosquitoes all around Cuba (I was surprised that I got most of my bug bites in Havana, as I was only expecting mosquitoes in the countryside in Viñales). Buying wipes prevents you from traveling with too many liquids.

Anti-itch cream: In case you miss a spot with bug spray (or forget to put it on at times or if they still get you anyway!), anti itch cream will save you from discomfort. I forgot to pack this and I regretted it after I got bug bites. I used toothpaste as a backup but it wasn’t as effective as

*Body wash/soap: I packed this but I didn’t actually use it and don’t think it’s mandatory. All of the Airbnbs (casa particulares) I stayed in provided new bars of soap so you likely don’t even need to pack soap and most provided shampoo/conditioner. You can check this on your Airbnb listing beforehand.P

Tampons: Ladies, pack tampons, these are apparently hard to come by in Cuba and expensive. I had a friend visit Cuba on a family vacation who got her period unexpectedly and her brother went out to get tampons for her (what a sweetheart) but it was a whole big event as he wasn’t allowed to buy them with the tourist currency he had and eventually a local had to get some for him but he came back with giant pads. Granted there were a lot of factors involved (he is a guy and doesn’t speak much Spanish) but this story inspired me to bring plenty of my own, just in case.

  • Toothbrush: I travel with a foldable one to save space
  • Toothpaste
  • Comb/Brush
  • Hair ties
  • Shampoo/Conditioner
  • Body lotion
  • Razor
  • Contacts
  • Glasses
  • Makeup
  • Makeup remover wipes
  • Band aids
  • Hand sanitizer
  • TUMS: Save your tummy
  • Pepto Bismal: Save your tummy part 2
  • Pain reliever pills: Advil or Ibuprofen or Tylenol, whatever pain reliever you prefer in the event of head aches or hangovers. 😉
  • Daily medications: I brought allergy medicine and iron pills (I have an iron deficiency)

If you aren’t traveling with just a carry-on and have checked bags, I have read that Cubans appreciate extra toiletries because they are very expensive and limited to them in Cuba, so it’s a nice gesture to bring extras like toothpaste and shampoo to your hosts. I messages my hosts beforehand to see if there was anything they wanted me to bring but they all politely declined my offer.

Things to pick up in Cuba:

Cuban hat stall in Trinidad
Hats for sale on the street in Trindad, Cuba

Save space in your luggage and pick up these things in Cuba

Hat: You can definitely bring your own hat (as in a baseball or sun hat – you will need one for sun protection) but to save space, I’d recommend picking one up from a local market stall in Cuba. You can accept the first price, which is typically inflated and might be as high as 10 CUC (often 7 CUC depending on the size), but if you are low on cash and comfortable bargaining you can likely get one for 5 CUC ($5 USD).

Toilet Paper: While you can pack your own from home, if you’re short on space (or if you forget to pack it from home like I did), you can always grab a few handfuls from your Airbnb to put in your purse or backpack when you head out to explore. Don’t leave your Airbnb without it – not all public restrooms, rest stops, restaurants, or bars will have toilet paper and if they do, they will often charge you for it, so it’s useful to carry some with you.

Jewelry: I bought earrings at truck stop in Cuba for $1! Yes, 1 CUC ($1 USD). I did bring a pair (that I wore to Cuba) but you can bet I bought a few pairs in Cuba (and several pairs as gifts).

Havana market
Market in Old Havana

Are you heading to Cuba? Let me know how long you’ll be there and what you’re packing in the comments!

Carry-on bag in old cab car trunk in Havana
Cab back to the airport to depart from Cuba

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9 thoughts on “Packing for Cuba in a carry-on

  1. You are a pro packer! I can’t imagine ever squeezing all of those clothes into a carry-on bag, even with the help of packing cubes! (Not to mention the fact that I’d probably need a full liter of sunscreen for ten days in Cuba!)

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  2. I want to go to Cuba SO bad and I just have to figure out when to go. I loved how detailed this list was and it sounds perfect for a tropical climate. It also looks like you had a lot of fun.

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  3. I always admire people who can take carry-on only!! But it’s clearly possible thanks to your helpful list and I encourage anyone to go visit this awesome country – I absolutely loved my solo travels there!!

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  4. Wow, I always admire people who manage to put everything in a carry-on for traveling more than lets say 3 days! Packing cubes seem to be the way to go! Love all the images ❤

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  5. I’m quite impressed on how you pack. That’s pretty amazing and I hope to one day travel baggage free (carry on only). Visiting Cuba is a dream for me and you’ve done a great job outlining what to bring/how to pack. Love your comment about bringing two pairs of sunglasses…I think the same way…a girl must have choices 🙂

    Like

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