While the Philippines is known for its stunning beaches, beautiful waterfalls and amazing sea life, it’s also regularly in the news for less positive reasons. Violence due to the crackdown on drugs and religious conflicts are often reported and can leave a prospective visitor nervous about visiting the country. That feeling is totally understandable and something we felt before we arrived there too. It’s part of the reason that it took us over 2 years to visit!
The first thing I can tell you is that we had no negative or frightening experiences in the Philippines. We didn’t see anything happen and everyone we spoke to there was friendly and kind However there were definitely a few times when I felt unsafe and uncomfortable, especially at night and in cities. Here are some tips we picked up to keep ourselves and our belongings safe while in the Philippines.
Buy a SIM card
It doesn’t matter how long you’re going for, or how small your budget is, I strongly urge you to buy a SIM card as soon as you arrive in the country. Being without a phone or internet connection will leave you vulnerable. Without a phone you will have to rely more on the help of strangers and there are many scams in the country that start with unsuspecting tourists asking for help.
If your phone is locked to a network get it unlocked before you leave, or bring an older unlocked phone if you have one. My sister brought an old unlocked iPhone she had at home and used that to hotspot to from her locked phone. If you can’t get your hands on an unlocked smartphone you can buy portable wifi from airports and mobile phone stores in the country too.
Smart is the most popular mobile network in the Philippines and has the best reception throughout the country (which isn’t saying much). There are Smart booths in all airports we arrived at and it’s £15 for 30 days unlimited data. You can order a Smart tourist sim here at least 2 days before you arrive in the country and pick it up at the airport.
Use Grab When You Need a Taxi
Grab taxis are a safer way to get around than public taxis, especially if you’re a female traveller, since journeys are tracked and recorded. They’re also much cheaper and you’re not going to get ripped off (meter fixing is rife in the Philippines). Download the Grab app before you get on your flight so that you can get safely from the airport to your hostel. The app will tell you the fare before your ride so there’s no surprises at the end of the trip, and you can pay by card if you haven’t got any cash.
If you’re ever sightseeing and find yourself in an area where you feel uncomfortable then duck into the nearest shop, or stand by the nearest friendly face and order a Grab to get yourself out of there quickly. (Another reason for having a SIM card!)
Stay somewhere nice for the first few days
If you’re apprehensive about visiting the country, spend your first few days in a safe and comfortable hotel in a touristy area. I love getting off the beaten track and staying in unusual places but that’s not much fun when you’re new to the country and worried about your safety.
Give yourself some time to get the lay of the land, to get familiar with the money so you can pay discretely, to find out what the people are like and to feel more comfortable. In Cebu I felt quite unsafe at times which left me feeling a little anxious so it was a relief to go back to a safe and secure hotel at the end of the day. You can read about where we stayed in this post.
Bonus safety tip: buy a basic £2 rubber door stop and put it under your door at night if you don’t feel safe in your hotel or guesthouse. That way no one can enter the room in the night.
Don’t leave your things unattended
I know this sounds obvious but in the Philippines you have to be even more vigilant than usual about looking after your belongings. Most items are stolen in restaurants, bars and cafes while the owners are busy eating. Keep your bag on your lap while you eat and keep your phone in your pocket or bag rather than on the table when you’re not using it.
Stay vigilant if you’re approached by a stranger
A common tactic for thieves in the Philippines is to distract the owner while someone else takes their belongings. If someone comes to talk to you on the street or when you’re eating hold your things while you speak with them.
You will get approached by loads of people wanting to chat to you because people there love tourists, so don’t treat everyone like they’re a criminal. Most of the time they’ll just want to chat, but always make sure to keep a hand on your phone and your bag while you talk to them.
Find out where not to go
Most of the conflicts in the Philippines take place away from the touristy areas of the country. But if you feel like venturing to some different areas then check online for the places you definitely shouldn’t go.
World Nomads has a list of places to avoid going to and the UK Government site gives up to date travel advice to tourists. Check this to find out if there is anything taking place that could disrupt your travel plans or potentially cause conflict, for example if there is an election or event taking place.
When in doubt, go to the mall
If you find yourself lost, in an area where you feel unsafe, or being hassled by a stranger that you can’t shake off then head straight for your nearest mall. Filipinos love their shopping malls and they are all over the cities so there will usually be one nearby. They always have a security guard at the door who you can tell if someone is giving you trouble, and free WiFi if you need to order a taxi home.
Hopefully this will help to ease your worries about going to the Philippines and to stay safe while you’re there!