Cuba Car Rental Advice

As we gear up for another busy summer season where the demand for car rentals usually exceeds the local supply, here are a few of my best tips for those preparing to pre-book their 4-wheeled holiday in Cuba. From both personal experience and client reports we’ve become aware of various ways that clients are unnecessarily separated from their hard-earned money and this we hope this post will help to make you aware of current policies and how you can protect yourself against unscrupulous operators when renting a vehicle in Cuba.

Cuba currently has 4 car rental operators to choose from, all of which are operated by the state. The Transtur group operates REX, Cubacar and Havanautos. The Transgaviota group operates Rent Car VIA. Accredited travel agencies contract preferred rates with these companies either directly with the car rental companies or via their ground handlers in Cuba, rates which are generally below the public prices established for payment directly by clients in rental counters for direct reservations. The rate you pay for car rental services descends depending on the duration of the rental. Rental companies accept advance reservations of 3 or more days in duration and rates generally go down incrementally for 7+ days, 14-15+ days, and at present just two companies (REX and Rent Car VIA) have preferential rates for rentals of more than a month in duration.

Few tour operator contracts include prepayment of insurance, except in some cases for US-based clients, whose government places restrictions on how much money they can spend in Cuba. In general, rates designed specifically for US-based clients traveling with OFAC licenses are higher than for other nationalities of travelers for many services in Cuba.

Our quotation process and invoicing includes specific information on the rates for local services including:
additional drivers (optional). VIA charges a set fee for additional drivers for the duration of the rental, while the other 3 companies have a daily rate for this service. Additional drivers must be registered on the contract when opened, and most companies won’t accept their incorporation after the rental has initiated. The damage waiver issued by the rental company will not cover unregistered drivers and the rental companies require that the primary driver be present upon return of the vehicle, and may charge a fine for violating that rule.
dropoff fees. REX is the only company which currently doesn’t charge dropoff fees in their Cuban rental counters. REX only charges dropoff fees for pre-arranged pickups or drop-offs in locations where they don’t have a rental counter/staff. We publish the official dropoff fees for all 4 rental companies so that you can have a very close estimate to what the actual charges will be if dropping off your vehicle in an alternate rental counter or province prior to traveling. Being familiar with those rates in advance helps to avoid being overcharged locally.
daily damage waiver. This is an obligatory fee as foreign-issued policies don’t cover rental cars in Cuba. VIA is the only exception, whose insurance policy is optional, but if you choose not to pay for their insurance package they will assess a significantly higher refundable damage deposit, payable upon opening the rental contract. As part of our booking process, we also express the local rates for this service which you should expect to pay the rental company when opening the rental contract. A very important rule to remember is that you should never pay anything to the rental company functionary unless it’s clearly detailed on your rental contract. My brother recently rented a vehicle where the Rent Car VIA functionary attempted to charge him double the actual established daily damage waiver rate when he picked up the car. Having the real rate printed on his information meant that he immediately called me to double-check before handing over his cash and I cleared up the confusion for the rental company’s employee. Although specific policies for each company may have different terms, in general none cover tires or audio equipment. We suggest you carefully inspect the condition of your vehicle’s tires (including the spare tire) when opening your rental contract to avoid disappointment later.
security deposit. This is refundable at the end of your rental providing you return the vehicle in the same condition in which it was rented. If paying by credit card (remember, you can’t use US-issued or affiliated credit cards in Cuba), the rental companies will only take a pre-authorization for the established amount for the deposit, and charges will only be processed at the end of the rental if there are discrepancies in the condition of the vehicle. In the event of an accident, you must complete a police report in order for the insurance coverage to kick in. If you are found to have been under the influence of alcohol or drugs while operating the vehicle, you’d better have deep pockets and a lot of patience. It’s very important to have any dents, scratches, or missing equipment on the vehicle clearly noted upon opening your rental contract to avoid any discrepancies upon return of the vehicle.
fuel. This is a charge for which we receive the most frequent complaints, and it’s due in large part to the rental companies’ policies. Rent Car VIA charges for the empty fuel capacity at the end of the rental. If they try to charge you for fuel at the beginning, you’d better make sure it’s documented on the contract. This also recently happened to my brother, and only by being very convincing with the rental guy when I discovered what he’d done was my brother able to recover the funds, as there was no documentary evidence that he’d handed over $58 in cash when opening his contract and he was forced to pay for the fuel consumption again at the end of the rental. Charging for the empty fuel capacity at the end of the rental is clearly the fairest of the policies, but still leaves room for play for the rental counter functionaries as there’s no digital reading on their vehicles for the amount of fuel in the car when you pick it up or return it; it’s their estimate that will appear on the contract. They don’t take the vehicle to the gas station in your presence or provide a receipt for the amount of fuel required to fill the vehicle at the end of the rental. Make sure the vehicle is not parked on an incline when you do the initial inspection as that can skew the actual capacity of the vehicle’s fuel tank. If your vehicle is replaced at any time during the rental period, make sure that the fuel capacity of the initial and replacement vehicles when returned/replaced are also noted on your contract at the time of the change of the vehicle as these factors will all be taken into consideration at the end of the rental when you pay for your fuel consumption. As for the three Transtur rental companies, their policy is one that few clients (or we, for that matter) agree with and it works like this. They’re supposed to deliver the vehicle with a full tank of fuel and they expect you to return it empty. Obviously that creates a certain level of stress for clients at the end of their rental period when trying to gauge exactly how much fuel they’ll need to get back to the rental counter. It’s my understanding that this policy has been in place for more than several years now for a couple of reasons. One is a report I heard that some malicious Miami Cubans poured sugar into their luxury car’s gas tank at the end of the rental, effectively ruining the very expensive car for future use. But the other reason why the policy was actually put in place is probably closer to the truth. In Cuba the rental companies expect you to fill your car with the highest octane, or “Especial” fuel only for maximum performance. But since there’s also regular and motor fuel available at gas stations in Cuba, even though gas station employees are prohibited from dispatching the lower-priced fuel to rental vehicles with tourism plates, it sometimes happens. So the rental companies prefer that their own employees fill up the vehicles using company-issued gas cards at the end of each rental, thereby ensuring that the vehicles are always running with high-performance fuel for the next client.
airport pickup fees. These are in place for all Transtur rentals, but VIA (so far) has not implemented this additional charge. At present REX, Havanautos & Cubacar charge $20 when you schedule your vehicle for airport pickup.

Paying all local fees by credit card seems to be more effective in reducing fraudulent charges for many services, as there’s also a paper record that can’t be tampered with on your end. If paying for any local charges in cash, again make sure that everything is fully documented on the rental contract. At the end of your rental, retain a copy of your rental contract. If the rental counter functionaries attempt to convince you otherwise, you should be suspicious as it’s your official receipt, a record of the service and all transactions and without a copy of your rental contract, it’s difficult if not impossible to present a claim for services afterwards.

Regarding the exact model or condition of vehicle that you’ll be assigned, note that only VIA confirms specific models in advance, although they reserve the right to substitute other models in the same price category or superior categories in the event of breakdown. The other three rental companies confirm only categories. In terms of our client feedback, REX obtains the best evaluations in terms of the quality and maintenance of their vehicles, followed consecutively by Havanautos, Cubacar and lastly Rent Car VIA. Many of our clients choose VIA for summer rentals based on rates alone, but for more demanding clients, we recommend weighing the option of spending a little more for a more comprehensive guarantee with one of the other rental companies. For those who only drive automatic vehicles, the Havanautos fleet is comprised exclusively of automatic transmission vehicles. REX has several mid-high to luxury automatic transmission vehicles which receive consistently good reviews, and Rent Car VIA has several attractively-priced automatic vehicles, but some of these are often disappointing in terms of overall condition. There are exceptions of course, but the Peugeot 207 SW automatic model seems particularly problematic and can be very hit or miss depending on the vehicle assigned. VIA has fewer options in their fleet for replacement vehicles when mechanical problems arise, which sometimes results in delays and sometimes even disappointing last minute service cancellations by the rental company when they aren’t able to substitute a similar or superior vehicle for prepaid bookings when availability of certain models is limited or at full capacity.

Rental companies in Cuba are contractually obliged to guarantee the vehicle/category that you’ve prepaid in technically sound condition (meaning that it will pass inspection with Cuban Motor Vehicles) or substitute with one of a similar or superior category within a reasonable amount of time. On paper that’s nice to know, but in reality when mid-July or New Years rolls around and all operating vehicles in their fleet are sold out, our experience is that they’re occasionally not able to pull the rabbit out of the hat. In an ideal world, if you are able to be flexible with the type of transmission of your vehicle, that can open up more options, but many our US-based clients only drive automatics, which limits the replacement possibilities in the event of total breakdown of their rental vehicle. The first and most important step if you encounter technical difficulties with your vehicle after completing the rental contract is to report the problem, your vehicle’s license plate #, your name, location and contact information to the rental company’s 24-hour technical assistance number listed on your rental contract. We suggest getting the name of the person you speak with as well as noting the time of the call as they are obliged to respond with a tow truck/mechanic or replacement vehicle within a reasonable amount of time. This of course depends on your location and previous service calls registered at any given time, but having the incident officially registered and on record with their operations office is the first step to getting the problem resolved. We’ve found that reporting mechanicals to individual rental counters is not necessarily a guarantee that a report will be issued to the operations office, and often results in undue delays since the official procedure requires clients to report mechanicals directly to the rental company’s operations office. As an intermediary in securing your reservation, we are happy to provide advice if required, and intervene on your behalf with the rental company if the process has completely broken down or you feel the rental company is not being responsive, but in general the most efficient way of resolving technical issues with your rental car is for you to personally contact their 24-hour technical services number to report the issue. We had a client reserve a 7-passenger Peugeot Partner Tepee from VIA in January for a recent rental in May. In the interim, it appears that the rental company has been gradually removing that model from their fleet without issuing notification to their partners, and when the client showed up at the rental counter to claim their minivan the rental company tried to substitute a 5-passenger Peugeot Partner with no notice whatsoever to our ground handler or our agency. We intervened on the clients’ behalf and insisted that the rental company comply with their contract and substitute a vehicle of a similar or superior category, and luckily they were provided with a 9-passenger Peugeot Expert Tepee at no extra cost, albeit 3 hours after their scheduled pickup time. That there was actually a 9-passenger vehicle available for the substitution unfortunately isn’t always the case in extreme high season. The rental company should have contacted us in advance, shouldn’t have tried to substitute a lower-cost vehicle for a prepaid reservation, and should have automatically known to upgrade, but the level of customer service in VIA simply isn’t always up to international standards. On the very odd occasion where a prepaid advance reservation isn’t able to be fulfilled by the rental company for whatever reason, unfortunately the only option we’re left with is to refund the service.

Avoid driving at night when at all possible. Especially on the highway, be on the lookout for loose livestock and avoid speeding. Cubans have a hand signal where they raise their index and pinky finger to indicate that there’s a cow or otherwise large animal on the road, indicating that you should immediately slow down as their movements can sometimes be unpredictable. Flashing your headlights at someone is the universal signal to warn of police ahead. It’s very commonly used in Cuba.

If you commit a traffic violation while driving, you can have a fine applied to your rental contract. For visitors to Cuba, the amounts usually range from $10-$30 CUC depending on the infraction committed. Under no circumstances should you deliver cash to the police officer issuing the ticket, which could be considered bribery. Outstanding fines are resolved upon completion of your rental company directly with the rental counter functionary upon closing the rental contract and the amount to be paid will be reflected on the rental contract. Besides opening the doors to larger problems, offering to bribe police officers to avoid accepting a legitimate ticket only encourages deviant behaviour and in my humble opinion creates a bad precedent for future visitors to Cuba.

Hitchhiking is commonplace in Cuba, and while it admittedly might be nice to extend the favor, you should be aware that opportunistic crime is also occasionally associated with the practice. Petty theft is the most common report I’ve had from clients who’ve unwittingly picked up unsavory characters, even some of the most experienced travelers have fallen victim to unsuspecting drivers of vehicles with tourism plates. I’ve had more than a couple of clients be unwittingly relieved of their cash and valuables on the route between the Jose Marti airport and Havana, one of whom was so unnerved by the experienced that she cut her trip short, and another gentleman who luckily followed my advice to immediately complete a police report as he had been relieved of his driver’s license in the process, and this on the first day of his holiday. Fortunately, the document had been verified by the rental counter functionary upon opening the rental contract and when he was later pulled over by a police officer, the client presented his rental contract and the police report and the police officer allowed him to proceed without even issuing a ticket in light of the bad experience, even though the visitor was no longer in possession of his driver’s license.

Lastly, always use an official parking attendant, especially for overnight parking. You can expect to pay $0.25 for most short-term local parking and $1-$2 for overnight rates. Most official parking attendants in Havana wear a red Havana Club vest and all of those who are officially designated for this type of employment also possess an official document identifying them as such. This is the best way to protect you and your possessions. Keeping personal items and valuables out of sight and reach in the vehicle is also key to avoiding attracting petty thieves in the first place.

The huge majority of our clients rent vehicles without incident (or at least without reporting incidents to us), so the above isn’t meant to be alarmist, but simply to alert you to many of the ways you can avoid being taken for an innocent traveler. Now you can consider yourself “in the know”.

Hectic Santa-Free Holidays

The hectic holiday season is here, but for us it has absolutely nothing to do with last minute shopping, thankfully. Our office flooded a couple of weeks ago and we had a big disagreement with the building management, which I’m pretty sure has all but been smoothed over now. But it was touch & go for a few days on finding a new location for January, which had my brother all in a tizzy since we’re in the midst of our bicycle tour season and he just doesn’t have the time for a move/new set-up. While most of our reservations are made far in advance, once the extreme high season dates arrive, there are almost always last minute surprises. They began to roll in on Dec. 20. One client who arrived in Santa Clara has reserved a late model Peugeot vehicle with automatic transmission with Rent Car VIA (who has the lowest rates of the 4 rental companies for extreme high season). When she arrived, they presented her with an older Peugeot automatic model which was a lower category than the one she booked. Right away, she called me and I contacted their operations office who readily recognized the problem which was due to a breakdown in the vehicle they’d assigned to her rental. She opted not to take the downgrade they were offering and later that same day (luckily) they delivered the model she’d prepaid. One down, how many more to go? The next day while we were at our end of the year motorcycle club party, I received a call from a client who’d picked up his VIA automatic transmission Peugeot vehicle in Havana but by the time he’d arrived in Viñales it wouldn´t turn to the right. He also followed instructions and contacted us for advice. I told him to contact the rental company´s 24-hr operations line and ask for the car to be towed, and have the rental company´s functionary corroborate the fact that it was no longer operational. The next day he had a replacement car, despite the fact that when he first contacted them they said they had no automatics remaining. Then I had someone else who was supposed to pick up a Geely CK from Rent Car VIA upon his international arrival in Holguin. He called me the next day mid-morning to advise that they’d delivered a vehicle whose check engine and ABS lights were lit, and the vehicle cut out 3 times before he could even leave the parking lot. The rental counter functionary made note of the technical deficiencies on his contract and told him to go to the Hotel Bosque the next day to try and get another car. For some reason the client was told not to contact us from the airport, that there would be no one working that late at night. Wrong information, but at any rate I was still able to investigate the chain of events, establish with the airport rental counter that the car was definitely not in working order upon delivery (despite conflicting information from the rental company’s operations office), and finally in less than an hour a replacement vehicle was on its way.

In the middle of all the rental car troubleshooting, I received a last minute request from a U.S. group who’d been getting the runaround from the intermediary arranger who’d been trying, unsuccessfully, to book their services for early January. I agreed to take them on, although somewhat against my better judgment this close to departure and during our busiest time of the year. I’ve secured most services but am still waiting for a quotation on their transport/extrahotel package. I was able to do a little investigative work on their booking at the Havanatur 35-year anniversary gala dinner we were invited to on Dec. 19. The intermediary who poses as a “guide” was booking their services through another agency and collecting a big chunk of cash for payment on arrival. Not much security in that modis operandi, and from all accounts the end result was a very inflated package price. Unbeknownst to me at the gala dinner they seated me beside one of the vice presidents of Havanatur where we’ve been represented in the Cuban Chamber of Commerce for over a decade now. After I asked her what department she worked in, and she told me her position I probed a little further and discovered that Havanatur has made cuts and only represents 5 foreign travel agencies now, and only three of us had been invited to their gala dinner. Presumably the other two aren’t producing sufficient sales to justify representation through their organization for much longer. We took home a plaque, a reproduction of a Cecilia Valdes painting, other miscellaneous gifts, and were enriched with a performance by a young opera group called Habana Clasicos. Their regular gig is on Friday nights @ 9 :30 at the Hotel Sevilla for anyone looking to take in some high-level cultural entertainment.

On Dec. 20 we were given Havanatur invitations to the 70th anniversary of the debut of Alicia Alonso as Giselle. The performance was at the National Theatre (the Gran Teatro is still under renovations) and didn’t disappoint. At intermission I couldn’t take my eyes off a fellow outside who may qualify for one of the biggest fashion faux pas I’ve seen to date. Zebra-striped shirt with, get this, matching zebra-striped tight pants. What was he thinking, I wondered to myself as I unsuccessfully tried to force myself to look the other way. I did think of snapping a picture but I just couldn’t do it. Tropicola and fried sweet potato chips and we were back for the second act.

On Dec. 21 my nieces were invited to our house for a sleepover. My brother’s youngest daughter is just 3 and wasn’t in our initial sleepover plans, but she made such a convincing plea that we relented and told her that we’d give it a try. As her mother was pulling her things out of the closet, Amanda instinctively knew her Mom was not altogether comfortable with letting go and she looked at her and said, “Mami, it’s ok. Don’t be scared.” Priceless, especially considering that she was really totally okay with the experience and didn’t cry one bit the whole time. After a hair, makeup & nails session with the girls in the morning we were off to take in the last day of FIART along with my husband’s ex-wife (to whom who he pointedly refers to as the mother of his children and NOT as his ex-wife) and her young son, plus their adult daughter and oldest granddaughter. We all crowded into his Peugeot Partner with the 3 oldest kids in the rear section fighting over who was going to get the stool we brought along and who was relegated to sit on the wheel wells. The kids weren’t the least bit interested in the shopping at FIART but rather dragged my husband and me down to the waterless moats where there were three big inflatable carnival attractions. He bought 5 rounds of 10-minute sessions which meant there were no kids crying to go back & do more (they were pooped and red-faced by the time they got out of there). After some cotton candy treats we called it a day. In the midst of the jumping games we received a call from a motorcycle friend whose Indian had quit in the middle of the highway. So when finally got back home after dropping off the troops, we switched cars, hooked up the trailer and headed out for a 400-km favor to bring our friend, his wife and the Indian back home to Caimito. I don’t know what he was thinking when he left home for a road trip with a Friday the 13th shirt on but both his Canadian riding companion and myself set him straight on the Fri 13/Tue 13 thing and he’s now fully convinced he must turn the shirt into a rag. They tried to force dinner on us when we got there but we still had an hour to go to get back home and had to decline. No rest for the wicked last Sunday.

Monday and Tuesday were cram days, making sure all loose ends were wrapped/tied up before the holidays. Still fielding calls from the US group who thinks I am a miracle worker. I hope I don’t disappoint, but honestly there’s only so much a girl can do with less than 2 weeks to prepare in ultra high season. Am hoping some ball games will come together for them, but still not entirely sure about that yet. One of our neighbors comes in twice a week to make lunch for us and take some of the load off. We saved the gala dinner menu to present to her on Tuesday as if that were our lunch request. She didn’t quite know what to think when my husband handed it over, and after puzzling over it for a minute finally asked us if we were out of our minds. Her speciality is home-cooked Cuban food and she didn’t even know what some of the things described on the gala menu were. Comic relief.

On Tuesday night we were invited to spend

Noche Buena with some friends. Her kids set and decorated the festive holiday table. The cake I decided to bake at the very last minute for the occasion flopped (top layer was too hot and as I was sticking berries into the top to decorate it fell apart) so off we went to our favorite sweet shop, Fontanella. There must’ve been 40 people in line to buy cake, which were dribbling out of the bakery one or two at a time. By some strange stroke of luck no one was looking for their Dulce Tres Leches which were just sitting there on the shelf , so once again the gods were with us and we arrived more or less on time. We feasted on succulent roast pork, yucca con mojo, black beans, rice, tamales, salad, fries, cider, and turron.

And yesterday for Christmas Day we spent most of the day watching the “Kidnapped” series on a bootleg dvd set. My husband made a hearty vegetable soup. Finally, a well-deserved chance to catch up on the rest we didn’t get on Sunday. I think the only person that called to interrupt my lazy day was my brother, and it was only an afterthought to wish him a Merry Christmas. I didn’t even bother hauling my 9” bonsai Xmas tree out of the closet this year.