For a country that welcomes over 6 million tourists each year, we found it surprisingly difficult to travel around the Philippines. After two years on the road, most of which was spent in Asia, we thought we were savvy and adaptable enough to travel anywhere but the Philippines took us by surprise. Some of the things we were warned about (like that you have to book everything in advance) turned out not to be true and other things (like you WILL get food poisoning in El Nido) we didn’t find out until we got there.
Here is the list of things we wish we knew before heading to the Philippines. Read them, remember them and share them with anyone you know who is going there! It will make your trip a hell of a lot easier.
While you’re here, don’t forget to read my other posts about the Philippines
- How To Stay Safe In The Philippines
- The Best Budget Accommodation In The Philippines
- How To Ride A Jeepney In The Philippines
1. You Need An Exit Ticket
To board your flight to the Philippines you will need to show your exit flight details to the airline staff. They will ask for this either at check in or as you’re boarding. We didn’t realise we would be asked so we had to book flights at the check-in desk! It was an expensive oversight.
If you’re backpacking around Asia and aren’t sure how long you want to stay there then buy a flexible ticket so that you can change the date for free when you make up your mind. Air Asia’s Premium Flex fare gives you two date changes free of charge after you book – plus 20kg baggage, free seat selection, priority queuing and free food. It’s more expensive than a standard fare (a ticket to Bali was £100 at premium, whereas standard was £50) but it means you have a flight to show at check in and you can still be flexible about how long your trip will be.
2. You don’t need to book everything in advance
The main piece of advice I got about going to the Philippines is to book all of our transport in advance. I read that we might not be able to get on boats or that flights would book out, but we didn’t find this to be the case.
We booked most of our boats at the pier the day of travel or online the day before and still got seats. We also got a last minute flight from Cebu to El Nido for £70 with Air Philippines. Sure, this cost more than if we booked weeks in advance but it isn’t prohibitively expensive.
Some flights and boats do book up, so I’m not saying you’ll definitely get one, but it’s still possible to book last minute.
3. Learn how to ride a Jeepney
Jeepney’s are brightly painted open air jeeps that you can use to get around in the Philippines. They’re are a fun, cheap and convenient way to get around but it can be hard to figure out how to use them!
4. Boat and bus schedules aren’t always very convenient
When you’re planning your trip around the Philippines, you might take boat and bus schedules for granted. We were moving around quickly so we were hoping to get early morning boats to maximise our time in different places. However timings are not as convenient as we assumed they would be.
Boats often left at 3-4pm or later, and had stops along the way so we wouldn’t arrive at our destination until very late. Check out Schedule.ph to find out boat timetables between the different islands, but always call up and double check that the boat is running. Sometimes we would turn up for a boat to find it wasn’t running at all that day.
The Philippines is a huge country so make sure you factor travel time into your itinerary by checking all of the boat and bus schedules before you make any concrete plans. You don’t need to book them far in advance, but your plans could be disrupted if you don’t check them out before you travel.
If you’re nervous taking boats you can opt for business class seats on the top deck of the boat which is more spacious and only costs a small bit more than tourist class. All of our crossings were smooth and movies are shown on most journeys to keep you entertained.
5. The food is not great. At all.
The Philippines isn’t a country that’s known for its food, and for very good reason. If you’re a vegetarian, or just not a big meat-eater like myself, then you will probably find it difficult to get a satisfying Filipino meal there.
The menus are very meat heavy, usually pork or chicken (on the bone) with a rich sauce and white rice. The food is quite oily and salty, and if vegetables are included they will usually be fried up in oil too. Most ‘vegetarian’ dishes had pork in them so double check that when you’re ordering.
In the end we ate western food most of the time. My advice would be to research nice western places to eat, more and more hipster smoothie and salad bars are popping up so head to one of them to get some much needed vitamins. You’ll usually find an SM Mall nearby with some good options.
6. But alcohol is cheap
A bottle of beer is around 50 pesos / 70p / 80c and a local rum and soft drink will set you back just 80 pesos / £1.14 / €1.30. The local rum, Tanduay Rhum, is the cheapest spirit you can drink there – a small bottle (a naggin as us Irish call it) is just 100 pesos / £1.40 / €1.60, so you can have a very cheap night out!
The local gin is cheap too but it gave me ferocious hangovers so that might be something to watch. Oh, and local rum poured into a fresh coconut is DIVINE! Give it a try!
7. Carry plenty of cash
ATMs can be hard to come by in some places and often they aren’t working or are out of cash. Don’t let yourself get too low on cash and draw out plenty before you go outside the major cities. Some places simply don’t have an ATM and others may have one or two far away from where you’re staying.
Unless you’re in a city most places won’t take card so you will pay for most things in cash. There are lots of well known scams that happen with money changers so my advice would be to draw out your money there, and don’t bring home currency to exchange.
We use a Revolut card which allows us to withdraw money around the world with low fees. You just top up the card from your regular bank account using the app and withdraw as usual. The app is great and has some great security features – including a setting that prevents use of the card unless your phone is nearby so if someone steals it they can’t use it. It’s a regular Visa card so it works at most ATMs.
8. Tipping is customary
After spending so long in South East Asia we had gotten out of the habit of tipping, but this is common practice in the Philippines. 10-15% is the norm in bars and restaurants, and people usually round up cab or tricycle fares.
9. You’re probably going to stand out
Since the Philippines is such a popular tourist destination, I was surprised at how few western tourists we saw there. ‘Whitey faced people’, as an Indian tuk tuk driver once called us, attract a lot of attention in the Philippines and you’ll be asked for selfies and get little kids waving at you everywhere you go.
You’ll have to get used to people staring at you as you walk around, which can be uncomfortable at times. The upside is that lots of Filipino people will come up and chat to you because you stand out. We met so many lovely people who came up to us while we were walking around, and they were all great at recommending things to do and places to get food.
10. Internet is crap
Wifi and mobile data in the Philippines is so, so bad. I had heard it was bad, but it was worse than I expected. If you’re a blogger or a freelancer then this might be time to take a break from work because you will drive yourself crazy trying to work on the internet connections there.
We had a Smart mobile sim card which gave us unlimited data for a month for just £15. This is one of the better mobile data providers, but it was still quite slow at times. It’s fine if you’re just using using social media and reading the news but YouTube videos, Whatsapp calls and Netflix were another story…
11. Grab is a popular and fast way to find a taxi
Grab, the Asian version of Uber, is super popular in the Philippines so you can usually get a taxi to you within minutes. Meter fixing is rife in the country so stick to Grab as the price is set before you ride.
12. Flying can be the cheapest way to get around
Internal flights can be super cheap and often cheaper than getting a boat & bus somewhere. Keep an eye on flights on SkyScanner for internal flights and check out Air Juan which is a smaller airline that doesn’t show up on price comparison sites. They fly between islands into less popular airports for surprisingly reasonable prices.
13. El Nido is rife for food poisoning
If you take one thing away from this post, let it be this: be super careful what you eat in El Nido!
El Nido has an issue with Salmonella and E. Coli so many tourists get ill there. Every second person we met there was sick during their stay, one man was so badly ill he couldn’t leave the room for 4 days. I was really careful and still got ill (Tim and I shared all of our food there but he drank beer the night I got sick and I had G&Ts so I’m pretty sure it was from ice) and guys, this was like no other food poisoning I’ve ever had. I had nausea and vomiting for three days, terrible stomach pains and zero energy and appetite. It’s next level sickness.
Don’t eat uncooked veg, always check if the ice is made with tap water, don’t eat meat at all, and if you’re going on a night out stick to bottled drinks or ask for no ice in your cocktail. If you do get sick then go to the pharmacy and get Erceflora -don’t accept any other pills they offer you. These are capsules of liquid that you pour into a sugary drink and have before you eat. They kill the bacteria in your stomach and help with the symptoms of the food poisoning, everyone that was ill there swore by them and they really do help.
14. English is widely spoken
There are a variety of native languages in the Philippines, but the official languages are Tagalog & English – English is very widely spoken so you should have no issues with a language barrier.
15. Toilet paper is a rarity
Always have tissues in your bag and pockets because most bathrooms won’t have any toilet paper. This is a common problem in South East Asia but the Philippines was the worst country for it!
16. There is security everywhere
All hotels, guesthouses, shops, malls and most buildings will have armed security. Even though guns make me nervous, having security everywhere we went made us feel a lot safer. Tourist police are a common sight too and it won’t be hard to find one if you find yourself in trouble in a busy area.
17. Prices for Tricycles are set
Tricycles are a popular way to get around in the Philippines, they’re quite like Tuk Tuks but smaller. Prices for these are usually set but the drivers won’t tell you this, and will happily overcharge you if you don’t know how much you should pay.
If you’re travelling within a town you should only pay 10-20 pesos, if you’re going from a port or airport to your hotel then call ahead to the hotel and ask how much you should pay, then have a chat with the people at reception to find out what the prices should be for other trips.
Never ever ask a tricycle driver how much you should pay, because you’ve just set yourself up to be overcharged. Instead you tell them where you’re going without asking a price, and at the end of the trip hand them the exact money, take your stuff and go. Sometimes they will try to charge more but just be friendly and firm and tell them what you paid is fair. They’re fierce chancers there but they’re not aggressive and usually back off right away when you say no.
18. The mangoes there are the best in the world!
Ok I’m not sure if they’re actually the best in the world, but they are the best we have ever eaten. Start your day with fresh mango for breakfast or treat yourself to a mango and rum smoothie in the evening – delicious!