There’s a lot of buzz around the Philippines lately, as more and more people find other Southeast Asian destinations such as Thailand or Bali too touristic and crowded. If you are also on the lookout for the ultimate paradise getaway, the Philippines should be high on your bucket list.
The problem begins when you start actually trying to plan your trip, since reliable information is so hard to come by. Backpackers who travel across Asia for months on end don’t need to worry, they hardly spend anything and can afford to be spontaneous and waste a few days here and there. But what about more established travelers such as young professionals, students on a budget, honeymooners and even families with small children?
Let’s be honest, most of us can’t afford to take 60 days off to roam and explore this hidden paradise, as much as we would have liked to do just that. Instead, most tourists have to settle for a much longer stay, usually somewhere between 2 and 3 weeks at most.
So, how do you prepare for such a trip and make sure each day is well spent? How do you sift between all the hype-driven information online and find genuine and helpful tips to help you plan the best vacation?
This guide, contributed by a local specializing in Philippines travel, can hopefully help set you in the right direction.
10 Philippines travel tips to help you make more informed choices
1. Stick to only a few destinations in the Philippines
So, you start planning your trip and immediately you are overwhelmed with the amount of choices available. There are more than 7000 islands in the Philippines, out of which so many are worth visiting. They are all so beautiful and offer such a wide array of special attractions and activities that choosing just a handful feels practically impossible.
As much as it is tempting to build a fast-paced itinerary and try to squeeze in as many different islands as possible, this would be a terrible mistake. Transfers between islands take very long since distances are huge and delays are very common.
The last thing you want to do if you only have a couple of weeks there is waste 50% of your time sitting in a ferry and or waiting at the airport terminal for your flight to finally take off.
Focusing on a smaller number of destinations also helps you enjoy each of them to the fullest. An ideal vacation in the Philippines should be a mix between exciting adventures and just chilling at a private beach and relaxing. If you run around between countless locations, there just won’t be any time to relax.
The way to go is limit yourself to 3-4 locations only. Which ones exactly is entirely up to you. Ask yourself what you expect out of this trip, and what usually makes you happy when you are on holiday. Think about the needs of all group members and figure out which locations have the highest chance of keeping everyone happy and satisfied.
Reading guides to the Philippines is always a smart move, as it can give at least a rough idea of what each place there is all about. If you can’t be bothered with doing such extensive research, consider paying a professional to help you plan the whole trip.
That said, it’s hard to know which tour operators can be trusted or not, which leads us to the next point on this guide.
2. How to stay safe and healthy in the Philippines
One major misconception about the Phillippines is that the country is not safe. Horror stories about terrorism catch the headlines and bring a lot of bad PR to the country. This is further prompted by foreign ministry advisories which suggest the country, or at least large parts of it, is not safe for tourists.
On top of that, you might get a lot of warnings from your local doctor. They might suggest you need a lot of travel vaccines and precursory measurements before going there.
While this is undeniably true, it can be easily mitigated and in reality, doesn’t affect 99.9% of the tourists coming to the country. As long as you prepare and are aware of the risks at all time, there is a really slim chance of you encountering any trouble throughout your trip. If you do, you can attribute it to your bad luck, since this is a risk that can equally happen wherever you are in the world.
Violent crime is virtually non-existent in the Philippines. With the exception of a few rough neighbourhoods in Manila and Cebu, you can walk around drunk in the middle of the night and nothing will happen to you.
Petty crimes such as pickpocketing and small tourist scams are an issue though, and this means you need to stay alert and try to travel in groups whenever possible. Kidnapping and terrorism is only prevalent in some parts of Mindanao – so just avoid the whole region altogether if you want to be extra safe.
When it comes to health, there are just a few basic tips you need to follow. First, make sure to apply mosquito repellent as often as possible. Scare stories will warn you of Malaria, but this is just foreign doctors trying to sell you Malarone or some other super expensive pills.
In reality, Malaria is only found in the most remote and uninhabited areas of South Palawan. The only real danger is dengue fever – so if you feel any flu-like symptoms, go straight to the hospital.
Secondly, don’t drink tap water if you can. Water pitchers provided in restaurants for free are called “service water” and they should be fine – they are provided to the restaurant separately and approved by the local sanitary authorities.
Lastly, try and only swim during island-hopping tours or while going to more secluded beach areas. Beaches near a large concentration of hotels are often extremely polluted by motor oil and sewage.
3. Philippines’ online tour agencies are sometimes misleading
Part of the risk in travelling to developing countries is you never know what to expect. The tourism industry hasn’t evolved yet to meet or even comprehend acceptable western standards of accommodation and service. This can lead to misaligned expectations, leaving you feeling disappointed and frustrated to the point of ruining your entire vacation.
In general, it is recommended to take everything with a grain of salt. Try to block out the hype and sell oriented content and focus on actual facts and firsthand experiences instead. For example, did you know the island of Boracay, the most popular tourist spot in the Philippines, is closed to visitors for at least 6 month?
Out of the local travel agencies online, few – such as Philippines Travel Package, put up a notice to notify its potential clients about the situation. Some other agencies continued selling their packages to uninformed tourists as if nothing has changed.
This just exemplifies the inconsistencies that exists with local suppliers, and the questionable services on how honest and reliable they can be.
If you think the problem stops with local tour agencies then you may be mistaken. Even international, well known sites such as Booking.com for example can sometimes publish misleading information in their hotel reviews.
Generally speaking, star ratings don’t mean a whole lot since they have no correlation with the actual level of the hotel. Average rating tends to be misleading as well, since most raters are Filipinos and they have completely different standards compared to yours.
4. Try out the Philippines’ unique attractions
Since you are already in a strange and unique country, you should do your best to make the experience as special as possible.
This means thinking outside the box and not just going for the mainstream tourist attractions. Instead, do some research and understand what’s special on every island!
Every place you go island-hopping and snorkelling is the go-to tour offered by local operators. Sure, some places, such as El Nido and Coron for example, are nicer than others, but ultimately, the same tours offered in these islands are offered in most other islands.
While it is ideal to focus on lagoons and private beaches while in Palawan, when visiting other destinations try and work in some other activities as well.
Canyoneering in Kawasan Falls in Cebu, which I did and would highly recommend for how exhilarating it is, or the ATV drive across Bohol’s Chocolate Hills are great examples of popular tours that don’t involve beaches and islands.
Another way to mix things up is to add some different destinations to your plan, ones that will provide a completely different vibe than the traditional island vacation does.
Out of these, the Banaue Rice Terraces are the most recommended since it provides the perfect opportunity to learn about the country’s rich culture and inheritance. If you can’t endure the 8-hour bus drive from Manila to Banaue, then just spend a day or 2 in the capital itself – visit the old town and take a tour to the slums – and you’ll see a different side of the Philippines that most tourists ignore.
5. Swimming with whale sharks is questionable
We mentioned a few of the popular attractions in the Philippines, but this one requires a separate discussion. Going to Oslob to swim with the whale sharks is something most tourists try and include into their holiday and understandably so – when will you have a chance to do such a thing again?
The problem with this tour is that most tourists don’t realize the consequences of partaking in it, and nobody bothers to inform them.
The fisherman over at Oslob started feeding the whales and this is what makes them go there every morning. This not only means their migration, feeding and mating patterns are severely disrupted, but it also exposes the whales to injuries as they get too accustomed to swimming around motorboats.
To make matters worse, the tour is completely unregulated and visitors are allowed to do pretty anything they want. From touching the whales to filling up the waters with sunscreen and motor oil, it all points to a severe lack of awareness on the environmental issues. Whales sharks are a seriously endangered species and a majestic animal, and they certainly deserve better treatment and attention from authorities and visitors alike.
There are so many other amazing animals in the Philippines which you can see in the wild. You can swim with dolphins, sea turtles, manta rays and even sharks without interrupting their habits and local environment.
If you really want to swim with whale sharks, why not go to Donsol instead? The tour there is highly regulated and you can actually do it in the wild instead of in a staged theatre.
6. Understanding the local Filipino mentality
Filipinos are extremely pleasant and friendly – they will do whatever they can to make you feel welcomed and give you the best service you can. That said, there are huge cultural differences which can lead to miscommunication and cause serious trouble.
First of all, understand you are visiting a tropical country where the pace of living is extremely slow. This is the same as stressful urban areas in developed first world countries. People here take their time and nothing is urgent.
Be prepared for long waiting times everywhere you go – from airports to bars and restaurants – just remain patient. Foreigners who complain or ask “when is it going to be ready” are often considered rude and if anything, it results in slower service out of spite.
Another misconception revolves around the level of English spoken by locals. Sure, the average Filipino speaks much better English than most of his Southeast Asian counterparts (most notably Thais), but that doesn’t mean communicating is easy.
The worst thing about it is they will not tell you when they don’t understand, which can lead to mistakes with bookings and mess up your plans. The best solution is to keep the conversation fairly basic and avoid special requests when possible.
7. Finding the best places to eat, and realizing local cuisine is underrated
Another common misconception is that the local food is terrible.
It takes some adjustments, sure, but the kitchen is diverse enough that you can surely find something you like. It might not suit every palate, since Filipino food is too sweet to some, but the overall quality is quite good and selection is wide.
We suggest trying out the local street food by following the locals and see where and what they order. If you are not feeling adventurous enough, there are plenty of high quality places everywhere you go. The safest bet will be to eat at resorts, specifically 5-star ones such as the Shangri-La.
The best thing is that the local culinary scene has many influences in it. Spanish, Italian and Chinese are the predominant kitchens here so if you like any of those you should be more than fine.
Indian and Korean restaurants can also be found anywhere, and of course all major American franchises are widely popular as well.
All this means you can keep your stomach happy anywhere you go and try out something different every night.
8. One step ahead of mainstream tourists
One of the biggest motivations for people who visit the Philippines is the search for virgin islands unspoiled by modernization. There are not many places where you can lay on a white sand beach, close your eyes, listen to the ocean’s waves without anyone else jostling for the same space as you. Imagine having nobody around an having the whole place all to yourself – sounds like a dream vacation, doesn’t it?
The thing is that everybody is often after the most beautiful or trendy locations, so most would horde to the same few locations. Try taking the island-hopping tours in El Nido and see for yourself. Sure, the places are spectacular, but they can hardly be classified as secluded when you are surrounded by dozens if not hundreds of tourists.
The solution to this problem is fairly simple. If you really want privacy, don’t be afraid to explore and think outside the box.
Everyone in El Nido is taking the island-hopping tour? Hire a private speedboat instead of the group tour with the slow motorboat and get to all the nice places ahead of everyone else. Alternatively, just rent a motorbike and visit some uncharted beaches on your own.
Another option could be to skip the most touristy locations and go off the beaten path. Sure, you’ll miss out on the most beautiful destinations in the Philippines, but the alternatives are also fantastic and nature is still breathtaking.
Smaller islands like Camiguin for example are a wonderful option for people who want a romantic and private vacation that still provide a ton of exciting adventures and attractions.
9. You should prepare for some bad weather
A lot of guides recommend travelling during the low season (June to September) in order to save some money. While this isn’t inherently wrong, it is definitely a huge risk.
It takes only one cancelled flight due to bad weather to turn this amazing “money saving” opportunity into a larger hole in your pocket.
Even If you think you can get a refund in such a case, consider the fact it can take months of chasing airline companies and hotels before seeing your money again.
Truth of the matter is that even during the summer, rain can often occur. Carrying a dry bag and an umbrella with you is never a bad idea.
However, during the low season these sporadic downpours turn into monsoon and typhoons instead and can seriously complicate things. Even if not always life threatening, it’s enough that it will keep you stuck inside your hotel which would pretty much ruin your stay on the island.
If you do insist on traveling during the low season, be aware of the limitations and make the necessary arrangements.
First of all, Palawan is out of the picture as it is the area most afflicted with storms and floods. If you go to Palawan at those dates, there’s a huge chance your flight or ferry mayb be cancelled and you can find yourself stuck on the island for days.
Moreover, the Luzon area is also quite dangerous. Manila and surrounding areas, most notably Banaue, are impossible to get around at since floods and landslides happen all the time. Overall, people who travel during the low season can’t realistically make a solid itinerary. Instead, you have to just come here and go with the flow – let the weather dictate which places you visit every day.
10. Keep an open mind
To summarize everything above – you need to understand what to expect of the Philippines and adjust your mindset accordingly.
This is ultimately still a third world country, and things don’t always work the way you are used to. There’s nothing stopping you from having the best time of your life, but it’s a place where things rarely go exactly as planned.
As long as you keep that in mind, and just let go and go with the flow – you will be fine and enjoy every second of your trip. Whenever you feel like your travel plan isn’t working or locals just don’t get it, remember to take everything in perspective.
You are on vacation at one of the most beautiful places on earth – how can anything possibly be wrong?
Read the rest of my posts on Philippines:
- Queen City of the South – Cebu, Philippines
- Davao, The Fruit Paradise of Philippines
- Clark, The Lesser Known Gem of Philippines
- Coron, Palawan Itinerary
- El Nido, Palawan Itinerary – The Only Guide You Need for Visiting El Nido!
- Boracay On A Budget – USD 303 for a 5D4N!