The Philippines is a South Western Pacific nation consisting of over 7,000 islands. Its geographical location means it is one of the most biodiverse countries in the World. As a result, there are some absolutely remarkable things to do and places to see whilst there. Want to know what to do, what not to do, and what to look out for whilst travelling? Here are our 10 tips for travelling the Philippines.
The Filipino people are the nicest you’ll meet backpacking
Southeast Asia is probably safer than you think. There has been no shortage of decent, friendly people in every country we’ve visited. The Filipinos however, top the list. Their sense of humour cannot be matched; they are incredibly polite (get ready to be addressed as “Sir” or “Ma’am” a lot), humbled and, in our opinion, the most trustworthy.
Don’t rely on the weather forecast
We were a bit miffed on arriving into Cebu in mid-January. Not only did we find grey and rainy skies, but extreme flood warnings. This was all in the month that has, on average, the lowest amount of rainfall in the year.
It’s worth remembering that the Philippines is a nation composite of over 7,000 islands and doesn’t share one uniform climate. For example, the fringes of the most easterly islands tend to be wet all year round with no dry season. The western side of the archipelago, however, has a notable dry period; we even noticed different flora and fauna as we journeyed from east to west.
We suspect the complexity of the Filipino ecosystem proves challenging to meteorologists. Here’s a top tip: Almost every time we checked the weather, either using Accuweather or the BBC satellite data, it was wrong. (Accuweather, unbelievingly, gave two different readings depending on whether you went to the site directly or used the mobile app.) Two weeks of projected thunderstorms in Palawan never materialised and, thankfully, we were treated to some lovely weather. The forecast was not even reliable in a 24-hour period, but grew more accurate within 12-hours—and by that time you could usually guess how it would turn out by intuition.
Save your money exchange until you’re there
We took all the usual precautions before heading out, including pooling our money together (the larger the sum, the better the rate) and shopping online. It’s impossible for us to say how many Filipino pesos to the pound you will get as the market fluctuates constantly but, before departing, we shopped around the high street and online and were offered approximately 59 Filipino pesos to the pound. The best deal we found was online with John Lewis, at 63 pesos to the pound. But on landing at Cebu airport, we were treated to exchange rates of 67 – 70 pesos to the pound, quite a considerable difference.
So save your exchange until you’re there. A Halifax Clarity credit card will also spare you of any overseas exchange fees, which are typically around 3 percent with other credit cards.
Tricycles are fun, but not for long journeys
There’s no doubt that the Filipino answer to the tuk-tuk can be a great novelty, especially for those hidden beaches just a little out of walking distance or, as a means of getting back to the guesthouse after a few Red Horse beers. But they stagger on quite slowly and, for those longer journeys, the novelty gets old real fast. If a tricycle driver says a journey will take 30-45 minutes, expect it to be more like an hour. On the other hand, taxis are unbelievably cheap (a 40-minute taxi ride can cost less than £3), much quicker and much smoother. In some of the more rugged parts of the Philippines, such as Palawan, tricycle passengers have been known to be injured as the tarmac gives way to rock and sand.
It can be as expensive as you want it to be
Behind Malaysia and Singapore, the Philippines was probably one of the more expensive Southeast Asian countries we’ve visited—but it only has to be if you make it. Unlike in the former two examples, tours in the Philippines are generally inexpensive. A boat trip or taxi hire for the day will cost about 1,500 (£20) pesos or less. And of course, if you avoid the tourist-trap eateries of, say, Alona beach and dine like a local then you can expect a meal for less than £1.
Hotels in some of the more isolated areas can be a little pricier if you’re looking for luxuries such as air conditioning or a toilet that flushes: in our experience as much as £50 a night, so be prepared.
Always carry change
This tip is common sense, perhaps. But, a point we thought worth reiterating here—especially if your foreign exchange bureau hands over a wad of 1,000 peso notes. We made the mistake on two occasions; often the drivers don’t want to surrender all of their change and for good reason (a tricycle ride, depending on the trip, can cost as little as 50 pesos). Use reliable sources to break into your notes: restaurants, supermarkets, Jollibee’s, etc.
A waterproof carry-case for your mobile is a MUST
In the Philippines you’re never too far away from a stunning, postcard-esque beach. So, it should come as no surprise that many of the tours and activates require more than a little dabbling in its turquoise-azure waters. Fortunately, waterproof carry-cases for mobiles and “dry bags” are sold in abundance wherever there is a significant tourist-y presence. Typically, a phone case will cost about 100 pesos and the dry bags—depending on the size—will cost about 300-450 pesos.
A lot of the open-sea tours require you to wade to the boat before disembarking. In our opinion this is one of the most hazardous times as—depending on how far out the boat is anchored—you can get up to chest deep in the water. Even if your phone is waterproof or water-resistant, we’d recommend the waterproof cases and bags.
Aqua shoes are underrated
A brain fart on our part, perhaps, but we completely didn’t know/think about the need for aqua shoes until our boat anchored about 40 yards from the nearest beach— over a bed of sharp rocks and dead coral. In fact, we didn’t even notice the aqua shoes in shops until we actively searched for them; the Filipinos seem to prioritise dry bags, waterproof cases, even beads/necklaces sales instead. Your guide will instruct you to don your aqua shoes ONLY when you’ve anchored over rough terrain during the tour. Of course, it’s a little late then.
So we’d definitely recommend a pair of aqua shoes. They’re a little pricey, around 400 pesos for a pair, but essential for scrambling over coarse (and wet) limestone and broken bits of coral. Many sites in El Nido’s famous Bacuit bay, such as Hidden Beach and Secret Lagoon, involve lengthy treading over uncomfortable rock and you’ll quite literally be crying out for them.
Bring proof of travel for international AND domestic flights
Don’t get caught out here. The Filipino government requires you have proof of an international departure flight. Usually, British tourists are issued with a 30-day permit for travel upon entry, so a departing flight should be within that window—unless you have already negotiated a tourist visa with the Philippine Embassy, in which case your departure flight should be within the 59-day window.
Security is really tight around the Philippines’ airports. Before you’re even allowed through the door a security officer will demand to see flight details. Don’t let that worry you too much, often the simplest form of evidence—your itinerary from the travel agent, or an email from the airliner for example—will be enough to satisfy them. Be sure to screenshot the information if you don’t have any data.
There is no country in Southeast Asia to rival the Philippines
The last of the top ten tips for travelling the Philippines maybe isn’t a tip. But, without a doubt, the Philippines was our favourite place to visit during our Southeast Asian odyssey. There’s just so much to do. At the time of our visit, the temperature was, on average, a pleasant 28 degrees Celsius. If you want to go clubbing head for Boracay, the “Ibiza” of Southeast Asia. If it’s swimming with whale sharks that’s on your bucket list, try Donsol bay (though maybe not at the time of writing—a plume of ash from Mount Mayon has closed the airport). For stunning rice terraces, well, they’re just north of Manila. Or if you’re a beach junkie looking to top up your tan, look no further than Palawan—the most beautiful island in the world.
Top Tips for Travelling the Philippines
There you have it. An amazing journey with some amazing experiences. Have you ever been to the Philippines? Tell us about your adventure in the comments below.