Last update August 2018
The second best way to explore Cuba is to rent a Car.
If you want to rent a car, do so before you go. But you might want to read this post to the end (and our book) before you do so! Once in Cuba the agencies never have the car you want (or any car for that matter).
Let me explain in this post why you should not rent a car and then if you still want to rent one how to do it.
Rent a car on the Internet.
Although they have three different brand badges in Cuba: REX, Havanauto’s and Cuba Car (Al websites might be offline or not… It’s Cuba). All car rental companies belong to the state as you can see here Gaviota. So there is no competition. Monopolies make for bad service, high prices, bad websites and very limited options. A first glance at their websites will convince you that this is going to be hard. Just try to find the car you would like on one of the sites above and you will see.
No other operators are available on the market. Forget about AVIS or Budget or any other favourite agency.
How to rent one?
If you want to rent a car directly from the state-run companies there are a few things you should know. The websites are not very user-friendly.
Step 1: Fill in your requirements and you will probably get the answer ‘no car available that fits your requirements’. Play around with ‘Pick-up’ location, Pick-up time and Pick-up date and type of car, until you get a car proposal. This can be time-consuming.
Step 2: Fill in the required application.
Step 3: Get a bill from a vague office in Paris or Hamburg (depending on your location). This strange payment request is the ‘Embargo effect’. You can not pay Cuba directly due to the US embargo so the Cuban rental car companies have set up front companies abroad to be able to receive money.
You can pay that bill, works 99% of the time! You might or might not get a voucher, but your car will (probably) be waiting for you.
Shopping around for a better price is useless… It’s a state monopoly. All cars are the same price everywhere. (Unless they are a lot cheaper but that is too good to be true and usually will cost you less money for no car. This site, and others like it, are notorious for renting NO cars for a very good price. Then, a few days before you leave they tell you that you have to upgrade (extra money) because your car is not available. Whether you pay or not, does not matter. No car upon arrival. New ones are popping up regularly. Use your common sense! Too good to be true is just not true.
But read on…
Arguments against renting a car
Cars are way more expensive than anywhere else in the world. It’s just costly.
There are very few cars available for rent. Very few. Even if you rent a car via the internet, you might not get one. (And you might not get refunded either)
At the moment a lot of Cubans rent the tourists cars and drive them as a taxi. They rent long term and pay a little bribe under the table. So there are just not enough cars for regular tourist available…
I’ve set up my office at a hotel that has a rental car agency and pity the guys hanging around for hours waiting for their vehicle. And sometimes, after waiting 5 hours, they get send-off because there is just no car available.
Supplemental costs of car rental
In addition to the rather high prices per day, you will have to pay 10-20 CUC per day in insurance, a deposit (depending on the company but you can do this with your credit card) and the full tank of gasoline (which is not full). And of course the gasoline you will consume during your trip.
When returning your car, you will have to pay a 100 CUC fine if you didn’t read our book. (Not that they ask if you know it, but because of a trick they pull with the contract. The cost of not reading CubaConga can be rather high).
If you decide to rent a car, we explain not only how to avoid the 100 fine but also what to do in case of a flat tire (probability you will get one about 80%).
How to rent a car
Renting a car can be a frustrating process. All state run companies (remember, monopoly so not very customer oriented) have websites to rent cars. You fill in your requirements and they tell you: ‘no car available matching your requirements’. And that is because the specific car you want to rent at that specific agency is not available at the time you want it. As you can see there are 3 variables in this search: specific car, agency and time. If you want to pick up a car outside opening hours the result is ‘no car available matching your requirements.’ The same goes for the other variables
Playing around with cars, dates and times will get frustrating.
Cuba Travel Network
The solution is a renowned Dutch company that reversed the search system. You fill in your requirements and they tell you which cars are available that match your requirements. If you want to rent a car with no hassle and hidden costs (their prices include the insurance fee) just fill out THIS FORM.
The better solution:
Rent a car with a driver for less
You could decide to rent a car with a driver. A lot of Cubans rent tourist cars for a lot less than you can. They fill them up with black market gasoline and drive taxi all day.
To find such a taxi, ask your casa particular or go to the Viazul station. This will add at least 10 CUC to the price so just book one trip (let’s say Havana-Trinidad which should cost you about 90-100 CUC for a whole car). Then talk to the driver and negotiate prices for all the trips you want to make. But you will have to bargain hard!
This is a quote I received from yotellevocuba for Havana-Camaguey (560 km):
Hola Sr. (a):
Ante todo un saludo y gracias por su comunicación con nosotros. Sobre
su solicitud el precio de ese recorrido sería de 390.00 CUC ida, e ida
y vuelta de 430.00 CUC.
That is an outrageous price since I’m able to make this trip for 100 (renting a whole car! (And you should be able to do it for about 120.)
Having a clue, in this case, would bring the price you pay down to less than 25%! That’s why we wrote our book… Please read it and get yourself a clue!
Advantages of this method:
- You use the car when you need it. If you want to spend a few days in a place, you don’t pay.
- It’s a lot cheaper in gasoline. You would have to fill up your tank in an official gas station at 1.20 CUC/litre. Your driver buys it on the black market for half that price.
- You do not have to spend 4 to 5 hours at the renting agency, waiting for your car. (Customer service and State Monopolies don’t go well together.)
- He knows his way around and can act as a guide. You will have lunch and dinner in cheap places that offer excellent service and good food.
- You won’t get any fines.
- If your driver becomes your friend, you will have an ally during your adventures.
- It’s very relaxed to let someone else do the driving. He knows local conditions and understands Cuban traffic better than you do.
- You will not get a flat tire.
We explain in our book how to get and negotiate such a deal.
You should know
That the probability of getting into an accident is quite low and the chance people get hurt even lower. But not 0! If you get into an accident with injuries, you might not be allowed to leave the island until the investigation is finished. That might take a month or more… Every year a few tourists get stranded on the Island.
Renting a car in Cuba is different. Almost everything is different in Cuba, so please prepare your trip! Read our book for much more advice on how to best cope with Cuba.
You might realise by now that we have a different view on Cuba than the mean stream Travel guides and websites. That’s because we are residents and spend a lot more time on the Island than the average writer. Here’s for instance how you should handle the street hustlers.