Cuba Rent Car, a Reason to Never Go Back

By Fernando Ravsberg

Photos: Raquel Perez Diaz

Rental cars in Cuba.

HAVANA TIMES — The problem of bringing in tourism from distant markets is that a large part of the “holiday package” that a traveler pays for is kept by the airline. The problem gets worse if the country doesn’t have airlines that are able to absorb most of this traffic.

The natural and most profitable market for Cuba is the US but it is forbidden by a blockade that stops its citizens from visiting the island as tourists. The small openings in US-Cuba travel initiated by Obama are now being systematically plugged by Trump.

A large part of the revenue foreign tourists leave in Cuba resides in their spending once on the island, in restaurants, buying gifts, going on trips, recreation centers, drinks and transport, the latter being one of Cuba’s most profitable businesses.

Car rental companies buy a car for 8,000 USD and then rent them out to tourists for two years, raking in approximately 50,000 USD and then they sell them on the national market for 40,000 USD. Renting out 1000 cars brings in 80 million USD every two years. And I suspect that there are more than a thousand of these cars on the island.

There are few businesses in Cuba that are so lucrative as that of renting out cars, so much so that some Cubans with the financial means buy used cars, Kia Picanto or Hyundai Atos, for 40,000 USD and then secretly rent them out to tourists.

Transport for tourists in all its forms could be a source of income for a country like Cuba, where it’s almost impossible for them to travel on public transport.

However, renting via State companies is really a headache, there are dozens of different directives to complicate the customer’s life, a lack of coordination, gasoline theft, cars in a poor technical state and poor service when there are breakdowns.

A few days ago, I experienced these “problems” firsthand.

To begin with, they told us that we couldn’t rent a car in Cuba, we needed to make the reservation from abroad. Later, we found out that this wasn’t true and we saw Cubans renting out cars in front of our own eyes.

When we rented one of these cars from abroad, we weren’t allowed to have one for a month, thereby forcing us to make two 15-day contracts with agencies belonging to the same company but located in two different points of Havana.

At the first agency, we had to wait 4 hours for our car but we should be happy because there were other people there who had been waiting 10 hours in spite of them having booked and paid for the car from abroad, several weeks in advance.

In the face of our complaints, the employees there blamed foreign tourism companies who, according to them, rented out more cars than what the country physically has. I got in touch with the Spanish agency and, miraculously, our car immediately showed up.

The state of the cars was pitiful, one of them stopped working and not even a mechanic could fix it. The agency’s boss informed us that the tourist needs to be with the car until the tow truck comes, “because that’s what’s stipulated in the contract.” Five hours later, there was still no sign of the tow truck.

The tourists who come to Cuba to relax don’t want endless processes or to guard a broken down car for hours while waiting for a tow truck.

We rented 4 cars from two different agencies during that time and there were 5 liters of gasoline invariably missing from each of them. When we complained, they brought along a policeman who told us that the rental company was “a State institution and therefore its employees were public servants.”

The policeman thought my companions were kicking up too much of a fuss for 5 liters of gasoline but he changed his mind once we did the math: in renting out 100 cars per day, about 700 USD were disappearing in fuel, 21,000 USD per month or a quarter of a million dollars per year!

It seems that some car rental agency employees receive higher wages than the average Cuban salary, more than enough to live. If that’s the case, wouldn’t you expect them to at least do a more efficient job that would leave tourists happy?

In this case, we’re not talking about the US blockade or the blockade of Cuban bureaucracy, but the blockade that we ourselves impose, by killing the chicken that lays golden eggs, doing an awful job, creating unease and driving tourists to never come back to Cuba.

Who loses out? The State loses as it will collect less money; the country loses when resources for healthcare, education and culture decline; and even the car rental agency’s employees lose out, who will have a much harder time to “resolve” their situation and make a bit extra.
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  • cubacarolina

    I absolutley agree that the overseeing of necessary functions to maintain decent relations for tourism is missing. It is stunning to know that there are no protections for travelers to ensure their possessions arrival , reservations or transportation once on the island. I can’t believe the airlines even function with tRumps gutting of every bit of progress (and you have to question his motives in light of his filthy past) Cubans have nothing on American corruption. I am sure if my people will suffer until this administration is gone.

    • Joseph Marti

      And which “American Corruption” has The Regime’s unfettered propaganda fed you?
      Always the case when any criticism arises – point finger north and say “but they do it too!”
      Just like my 3 year old.

      • Aldeki Arias

        after having lived a long life in both countries I can assure you that my knowledge of American corruption is solely from here the good ol US . You are a bigger fool than your 3 year old. Si quieres tirar mierde…

        • Joseph Marti

          You didn’t answer my question.

  • Gerard Matthews

    It is the same in quite a few countries throughout the world. Corruption breeds corruption, unfortunately Cuba is now being corrupted by it’s own people who in turn are literally fleecing the tourists, and as a tourist who has visited Cuba several times this breaks my heart. I will seriously consider not returning to Cuba in the near future, because I have worked hard to put by a few quid for my holidays and I do not intend to be conned any more by these wide boys!

  • Chuck1938

    If the phrase Penny Wise/Dollar Foolish was ever true, the car rental companies in Cuba is the prime example. It is so hard to entice and move a tourist from their country which maybe hundreds or thousands of miles away to visit Cuba, only to piss them off, once they visit a car rental company.

    Not only the cars are in terrible technical conditions, they are the most expensive on earth, they are dirty, you have to wait for hours, pay a bribe, purchase the most expensive fuel in the world, which will inevitable end up diverting them to the Dominican Republic or any other Caribbean island.

    It is clear, the Ministry of Tourism does not know or does not care about these horrendous service flaws, nor that this industry which should be the engine for the development of agriculture, cattle, fishing, food industry and others, have literally destroyed them, because of its abhorent decision to purchase these products abroad rather than produce them at home.

    If Cuba does not wake up and change course, cease putting pressure on emerging private enterprise and promote its growth, this industry will revolve around another 2-3 million new visitors for the next 20 years and never achieve the 20-25 million potential tourist it can receive per year.

  • Sotirios

    A tourist should NEVER rent a car in Cuba http://cubacustomtours.com/why-you-should-not-rent-a-car-in-cuba/ because, the law is such that, if you get into an accident, you have to stay in Cuba until your case is heard in the courts. There is NO presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

    • CErmle

      Not true.

      • George T

        Sotirios, only accidents resulting in death or serious injury are treated as crimes. Regardless of the nature of the accident, such as a person jumping in front of your car and breaking their leg, it can take six months to a year for the case to go to trial. Once at trial the onus is on the driver to prove their innocence. In most cases, the driver will not be allowed to leave Cuba until the trial has taken place. In some cases, the driver will be imprisoned during this delay.

    • Eden Wong

      That’s a huge exaggeration Sotirios, and your link has awful info. Every situation in your link had extenuating circumstances that made their situations much more complicated than what was reported.

      That said, driving in a developing country where their laws are much different than where you’re from of course has risks, but weigh those risks in a rational manner, not by linking to inaccurate sensationalism on a commercial website trying to sell you transportation in Cuba.

      • Sotirios

        Whether a country is developing or developed has no relevance here. One must abide by (and is subject to) the laws of the country he/she is visiting.

        Quoting from the US government’s site “… drivers found responsible for accidents may be barred from leaving the country during investigations. …. Cuban authorities may prohibit drivers of rental cars who are involved in accidents from leaving the country until all claims associated with an accident are settled…”

        And from the Canadian government’s site “… Under the Cuban judicial system, charges are not laid until the investigation is complete, and the accused may be jailed during the entire period of investigation….”

        And this is regardless of injury or death. In many countries the insurance will cover the damages and the tourist driver would not be prevented from leaving the country. But not so in Cuba.

        I am simply recommending that tourists not rent a vehicle in Cuba. Not worth the hassle people.

        Lesson here; one must be informed about the laws of the country he/she is planning to travel to.

      • Sotirios

        Whether a country is developing or developed has no relevance here. One must abide by (and is subject to) the laws of the country he/she is visiting.

        Quoting from the US government’s site “… drivers found responsible for accidents may be barred from leaving the country during investigations. …. Cuban authorities may prohibit drivers of rental cars who are involved in accidents from leaving the country until all claims associated with an accident are settled…”

        And from the Canadian government’s site “… Under the Cuban judicial system, charges are not laid until the investigation is complete, and the accused may be jailed during the entire period of investigation….”

        And this is regardless of injury or death. In many countries the insurance will cover the damages and the tourist driver would not be prevented from leaving the country.

        Lesson here; one must be informed about the laws of the country he/she is planning to travel to.

      • Sotirios

        Whether a country is developing or developed has no relevance here. One must abide by (and is subject to) the laws of the country he/she is visiting.

        Quoting from the US government’s site “… drivers found responsible for accidents may be barred from leaving the country during investigations. …. Cuban authorities may prohibit drivers of rental cars who are involved in accidents from leaving the country until all claims associated with an accident are settled…”

        And from the Canadian government’s site “… Under the Cuban judicial system, charges are not laid until the investigation is complete, and the accused may be jailed during the entire period of investigation….”

        And this is regardless of injury or death. In many countries the insurance will cover the damages and the tourist driver would not be prevented from leaving the country.

        Lesson here; one must be informed about the laws of the country he/she is planning to travel to.

        • Eden Wong

          Dear Sotirios,

          Your reply is meaningless in regards to my comment.

          Your commerial link has awful, inaccurate info. Every situation in your link had extenuating circumstances that made their situations much more complicated than what was reported. You know nothing about what actually happened in any of those cases.

          That was my only point.

    • CUBALIBRE

      Not true, you will be held if somoene is seriously injured and your at fault. Yes, you may be held in the country unitl that is resovled, whos’ at fault.. The same for any where you visit, in a sense, you injured someone at your fault, you think they allow you to just leave, US, or Canada for example??

  • Sky

    I am not sure that Fernando is correct when he says the rental companies buy a (new?) car for $8K. They might pay that in tax alone! Even used cars would be more expensive than $8K. Suffice to say that if people want to come to Cuba, they need to expect the whole package, including poor customer service, poor quality of vehicles etc etc. It is impossible for a Cuban who has never lived abroad to understand the norms of life out of Cuba. Cuba dances to the beat of its own drum, for better or for worse.

    • Carlyle MacDuff

      So Sky, what is the price paid by GAESA for a Geely and when did GAESA subsidiaries start paying tax? You may recall Sky that when the regime started selling used cars, the price of a five year old Peugeot 304 was $72,000.

  • CErmle

    No one in Cuba can buy a car for $8000 and later sell it for $40,000. That is simply false propaganda.

    • Carlyle MacDuff

      I note without surprise that during my absence at home in Cuba, CErmle continues to display his ignorance by disputing factual statements made by others without any basis. As an evident willing victim of the communist propaganda, CErmle denies reality in Cuba about which he knows naught. Unfortunately there is no cure for the type of vacous stupidity which he regularly displays in these pages with his fortunately short comments upon those more serious people who offer sensible opinions. Note that due to his ignorance he is unable to offer any information, merely jibing at those who do. CErmle is akin to a wart, a nuisance of no value.

    • Joseph Marti

      Again, respectfully inquire as to why my comment “Unless you are The Regime….” is disallowed. My point is that the Cuban Government excercises enough control on commerce that is is entirely feasible that they can buy low, profit, and sell high, without competition. Thank you for your consideration.

  • emagicmtman

    The last time I rented a car was in 2010. At $350/wk, plus gas, plus insurance, plus deposit, plus, plus, plus, it was just too expensive. During all my trips since then I’ve managed to get around Cuba via the ViAzul and Cuba Conectando bus systems and, increasingly, by hiring taxi particulares, which can usually be found around or near inter-provincial bus stations, the main squares in provincial towns, etc. Since I have intermediate-level Spanish, I can bargain; also, on several of these trips I split these fares with a friend. This last trip I hired a cab on the main square in Matanzas City for Habana ($43 split two ways), Habana to Santa Clara via ViAzul bus, taxi particular from Santa Clara to Sancti Spiritus, another taxi particular from Sancti Spiritus to La Boca, another taxi partular from Trinidad to Cienfuegos, then ViAzul bus again from Cienfuegos back to Habana.
    Besides all the “hidden fees” when renting a car, you have to worry about thefts, scapes and accidents, breakdowns, etc. etc. Just too much of a hassle. ViAzul’s service has deteriorated significantly since the early 2000’s, but it will do in a pinch. Cuba Conectando is better, but not as well known, nor pick-up points as clear, as is ViAzul. I agree with Fernando’s thesis, though: car rentals are competitive, and if the aggravations are too great, tourists will just go elsewhere.

    • Jesus Navarrete

      a lot of information, but I’m sorry apparently you’ve never rented a car in Florida to spend two weeks on vacation, my last experience cost me $1,300 for two weeks in December, now what’s your point?

      • Carlyle MacDuff

        I think Jesus Navarrete and Joseph Marti that emagicmtman with whom I seldom agree, was recording factual experience. In my own, Cuba is the most expensive country in which to rent, and CubaCar has a marked level of incompetence or ability to deliver on time and as promised. Remember to include the compulsory $18 per day insurance in the cost. Also if you bump into something resulting in any form of damage that you must have a Police Report in order to claim. Failure to do so means that you pay additionally for the damage and the insurance will have been for nothing! Obviously if you paid almost $100 per day for a car in the US, someone saw you coming. In short I understand emagicmtman’s point as entirely factual.

        • Joseph Marti

          I think you are being too generous. If that was indeed his point (which I am not convinced of) he sure did circle the block a lot. Let’s just say, to stay in the PC tenor of your response, that he is not very “eloquent” and tends to make one dizzy.

          • Carlyle MacDuff

            Thanks for the compliment Joseph especially bearing in mind that in my Scots origins, generosity is regarded with askance.

      • emagicmtman

        Of course high season in FLA you would expect to pay more, but $1,300 for two weeks? Yikes! By doing a bit of research, it is always possible to pay less, significantly less (i.e. use sites which compare prices, use cheaper rental locations, such as airports, etc.).
        My worst experience? In the 1980’s I rented a “Rent-a-Wreck” for about 1/3 of rates elsewhere. On my return trip, the muffler fell off 400 miles from home and the car sounded like a tank. By the time I turned it in, I was temporarily deaf!
        In Cuba, take a ViAzul or Conectando bus and “leave the driving to us!” or just rent a taxi particular and spread the wealth to the driver (who often rents the taxi from someone else, or just as often, uses his or her own car. It is amusing to see how the driver obtains gas from black market sources. I remember a few years back there was so much pilferage of state supplies that regular workers were canned from Oro Negro and Cupet, and replaced by social workers. How long did that last? Not long.
        I enjoyed talking with the taxi drivers, especially on longer hauls. In one case the driver not only had to visit several back road sites to obtain gas, but also picked up his wife, a nurse, who had the following day off, to keep him awake on the trip to from Santa Clara to Sancti Spiritus and back. (He was an engineer and had to work the next day, after driving there and back in the middle of the night. You can do such things when you are young, as I remember working the overnight shift, then the following day shift!

      • smj_nica

        You need to get better at finding good deals. It’s December and I just checked hotwire for what it would cost to rent a vehicle in Miami for 2 weeks. The most expensive is $591. a Cadillac is $456. Economy option is $213. Sorry you wasted your money.

        • Joseph Marti

          …What the Hell???!!!…

    • Joseph Marti

      I fail to see the point of your…. whatever you call it.
      Not sure it would even be pertinent in a travel blog.

  • Jesus Navarrete

    There are many lunatic writers, we have many theories against Cuba, we have many wise men of the letter paid by the CIA, but what we do not have is a real idea of what Cuba does to confront the most ironic economic, financial and commercial blockade the rest is in the contaminated hands, and prepared by hatred against Cuba.

  • Ginni

    Hard to believe you can acquire a NEW car for $8,000.00 Right now, my friend is ferrying rental cars for AVIS to Dallas, Texas for auction. They are scooped up for buyers to sell Overseas, maybe some are bound for CUBA. Most of those cars have at least 45-50,000 miles on them. So, they might be selling for $8,000 USED. These will be fuel economy cars, thus small cars that will be great for driving in CUBA.
    I saw Diplomat personnel driving all kinds of cars when I was in CUBA, even some from RUSSIA. CUBA needs some upgraded cars to help with transport especially if they want more tourists to come there.

    • Carlyle MacDuff

      Ginni, as you obviously don’t know Cuba, let me explain that in Cuba car prices are incredibly inflated. The sole importer is GAESA. Although living in Cuba, I cannot personally import a car – used or new. The regime imposes massive taxes, which is why the State offered a used five year old Peugeot 304 for $72,000.
      When the article talks of the rental companies buying a car for $8,000, it actually is talking of the price paid by GAESA. If you go on the web to hire a car from CubaCar, you may find that it says: “Volkswagon or similar.” What you will actually get is a Chinese Geely. If you examine one, you may well consider that $8,000 is overpriced as the materials used are of very low quality and the performance is punk.

      • CUBALIBRE

        How many times have you told people they don’t know Cuba because of a difference of opinion?
        You’re as bas Moses lol.. And guessing Liberal, as all Liberals are alwways more educated lol :-)..

        • Joseph Marti

          Oye Paracaida: what galaxy did you drop in from? Please tell me where Carlyle did anything but kindly provide Ginni with facts on the topic she brought up. That Ginni does not know Cuba and how automobile imports are handled is irrefutable.
          You are obviously ignorant, provacative escoria that gives Miami Cubans a bad rep.

          • CUBALIBRE

            NO… I’m good with what I said.. Far from ignorant, but thanks for all that.. Not sure what Miami Cubans have to do with anything..

          • Carlyle MacDuff

            See my response above CUBALIBRE. Incidentally, ‘Cuba Lifting the Veil’ ends with:
            “Viva Cuba libre.” That is what I hope for!

        • Carlyle MacDuff

          You obviously don’t understand courtesy CUBALIBRE. As Ginni is a newcomer to this site and as she obviously doesn’t know about cars in Cuba, I explained the reality – would you deny what I wrote? Do tell me!
          I recall an article in “The Economist” back in May of this year entitled “Cuba’s crazy used-car market”. It spoke of a 2014-model Kia Picanto being sold for $68,000. New cars can only be sold in government owned dealerships (Multimarcas).
          I am not offering a difference of opinion, merely relating facts. That has nothing to do with political viewpoints. I fail to agree that Liberals are always more educated as i have friends of various political opinions, Democratic Socialists, Liberals, Conservatives, but no Communists as I detest dictatorship of left or right and communism supports dictatorship.