Q: Peter, it is my understanding that you cannot legally spend U.S. dollars in Cuba and cannot use U.S.-issued credit cards either. Can you use U.S.-issued traveler's checks? If not, can you buy traveler's checks in the Bahamas and/or Mexico before going to Cuba?
–Terry Andrews, Annapolis, Md.
A: Cuba officially does not accept any checks, nor credit and debit cards, that are issued from American banks. So American Express Traveler's Cheques would be useless if you were headed to the island.
You can, however, use traveler's checks issued from other countries' banks or from currency exchange bureaux, such as Thomas Cook. But bear in mind that you can't buy traveler's checks from a Thomas Cook branch in the United States. You must buy them from a branch outside the United States, in a third country, such as the Bahamas, Canada, or Mexico. So if you are intent on using traveler's checks when you are in Cuba, make sure that you leave enough time to buy some when you are transiting that third country.
I advise forgetting about traveler's checks altogether and just bringing plenty of cash with you instead. Cash is king in Cuba, and the commission charged to exchange traveler's checks is extremely high. Furthermore, you can only change them at certain major banks and at well-known hotels.
So I suggest bringing several hundred dollars worth of cash with you and changing it into Convertible Cuban Pesos ("CUCs") when you arrive. Tip: Don't bring American dollars. Instead, buy or get from an ATM euros, British pounds, or Canadian dollars in the country you're transiting, then buy your CUCs when you get to Cuba. Otherwise you'll pay a hefty surcharge. Then take only what you need in your money belt each day, and leave the rest hidden in your hotel room or in the hotel safe.