Money provokes a certain sense of confusion in Cuba as the dual-economy takes some getting used to. Two currencies circulate in Cuba: convertible pesos (CUC$) and Cuban pesos (referred to as moneda nacional, abbreviated MN). The currency situation is made more confusing since Cubans will refer to both CUCs and Moneda Nacional as Pesos.
For the average Cuban it will be obvious which they are referring to, but this may lead to confusion for tourists who consider that they are bargaining in local currency only to find that their counter-party expects payment in CUCs!
For most tourists moneda nacional has little relevance since most, if not all of their expenditure will be in CUCs. This includes accommodation, food in most restaurants, taxis, bus tickets, nightclub entrances, tips and so on.
Things, which can be paid for in local currency, include fruit and vegetables at the agricultural market, street food (such as pizza and peanuts) as well as local buses. Even at the agricultural market the prices are such that a pound of tomatoes may cost CUC 1 or 24 Cuban Pesos (i.e. the same). There are some restaurants and bars/cafes, which charge in Cuban Pesos although the quality is generally poor.
Try and avoid US dollars since you will be subject to a 10% special additional tax/commission.
The best currencies are Euros, Canadian Dollars, or Sterling since these are the most common and the exchange rates are generally quire reasonable. Bear in mind that the CUC is pegged to the US Dollar (at 1:1) so a stronger US Dollar means a stronger CUC (and hence less CUCs for your Euros/Sterling etc.). Other currencies, which are universally accepted at banks or Cadecas, include the Swiss Francs (CHF), Mexican Pesos (MXN) and Japanese Yen (JPY).
There is no outright commission charged on transactions in cash although the exchange rate will generally be 3% worse than you would be charged on your credit card (for which you pay a 3% processing fee) so net you receive the same CUCs for changing 100 Euros in cash or 100 Euros on your credit card.
The easiest place to change money is at a CADECA (change bureau) or at a Cuban *BFI Bank. The exchange rates in all CADECAS and all banks are identical so there is no need to shop around. Hotels often have CADECAS within their premises. If you change money at the hotel front desk you will generally receive a worse exchange rate then elsewhere.
Note: It is generally very easy to find the nearest CADECA and you should be aware that any Cuban who tries to persuade you that it is complicated or that he can provide you a better rate of exchange will probably be engaged in some sort of scam which is best avoided.
* There are 4 main banks in Cuba. BFI is the most reliable. You may be able to use other Cubans banks but these are less likely to be able to meet your needs since most operate mainly in Cuban Pesos. Always bring new bank notes, with no rips, tears or markings. All foreign coins are useless.
Make sure that you get a printed receipt when changing money
Cash is king in Cuba. Except in major hotels you should not count on paying for goods or services with a credit card anywhere in Cuba.
Cuba is many things—a tropical paradise full of passion, soul, warmth, music, good coffee, great cigars and fine rum. Shopping nirvana it is not, however and while you can get most basic stuff in Cuba typically it is overpriced and very poor quality. So bring what you need unless it is a Cuban specialty.
Cuba is a sub-tropical country so pack for summer. Bikinis, shorts, sandals, short-sleeved cotton dresses and shirts are the order of the day. But, bear in mind that Cuban men would never wear shorts in the City! A night out at Tropicana or La Guarida restaurant needs something smart if not overly formal.
If you are coming in the winter don’t assume that it will be hot all the time, especially in the evenings. Bring some warm clothing (long sleeves, a sweater or fleece), since there is nothing more frustrating then being frozen to death in a tropical country! Lightweight rain gear is suggested if you are coming in the summer.
Books & magazines
There are basically no magazines or books available in Cuba (excepting some Latin American literature.) Bring reading material or load up the Kindle/IPad. It can be a nice gesture to leave behind some gossip magazines for Cubans you meet along the way.
As in many countries a fully stocked medical kit should be packed as part of your travel luggage. This should include Anti diarrhea (Imodium) some form of antacid (Rolaids or Tums) for stomach problems. The Cuban health care system works pretty well but there is no harm in bringing more than you absolutely may need.
Bring insect repellent, sun tan cream, a wide brimmed hat, plug converter, spare batteries and anything else you need to function.
For specialized sport (cycling, climbing, fishing etc.) there are very few (if any) spare parts available so bring your own.
Generally Cuban electricity is 110V with the square American plug socket.
Some hotels have predominantly 220V and round sockets.
Restaurants (5-10% of bill)
Many restaurants (state and private) now add 10% service to the bill. (In some state restaurants they may claim this is a tax, which is not true.)
If service has not been added then 5-10% is reasonable.
Staff in an all-inclusive resort (CUC 20-30 per week)
As a general rule if someone seems to be making a special effort with you (a gardener giving you a flower, a waiter getting you champagne after happy hour has finished etc. etc.) then they would appreciate a tip. A dollar here and there goes a long way. Change CUC 20 at the start of a week to spend in tips.
Toilet assistants (10-25c per pop)
Yes it would be nice if toilets had running water, toilet paper and some semblance of hygiene but lets face it sitting outside a toilet collecting cash is not the best job either. So get some change, grin and bear it.
Parqueadores (25c to 1CUC)
Cuba has no parking meters and very few places where you have to pay to park your car. However anytime and anywhere you park your car someone is likely to come and ask you for money for looking after it. Mostly these will be licensed parqueadores who may point to an official price list, which confusingly does not really properly distinguish between moneda nacional and CUCs.
The basic rule is that anywhere that you park the car give someone 25 cents (CUCs). Outside a major nightclub or at the beach for a while they will probably want 1 CUC.
Musicians (CUC 1 per group)
If you like a musician who is playing in a bar or a café, especially if he plays a few songs especially for you, then there is an expectation that you should pay something. There is no need to pay more than a dollar and especially in tourist ghettoes many musicians make a reasonable living. But nonetheless music is the life of Cuba and a dollar here or there is appreciated.
Tour Guides (CUC 2 per person per day)
Certain guide-books suggest CUC 2 per person per day for a tour guide. As is the case anywhere do what you think is right but be careful of falling for a sob story especially if the person telling it is young and pretty/handsome since you are probably being played!