14 July 2020.
For beach bums, dive enthusiasts and lovers of adventure, the Philippines are a dream destination.
Yet as utterly dreamy as the archipelago is, travelling in the Philippines is not without the occasional challenge.
Between choosing which islands to visit and finding the best transport options, to navigating the rainy season and wrestling with the wifi, these Philippines travel tips cover all the essential things to know before you visit.
* This post includes affiliate links and any purchases made through these links will earn me a small commission at no extra cost to you. *
1 | Flying is often the only way to travel between the islands
I may travel for a living, but I try to avoid flying as much possible and realising that this was often the only way to reach so many of the islands in the Philippines kinda broke my heart a little bit.
If you’re conscious of your environmental footprint, chances are you’ll feel the same way.
Most international flights arrive at Manila International Airport from where you’ll most likely need to transfer to a domestic flight to reach the outer islands. For travel between the three main island groups in the Philippines – Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao – you’ll also need to take additional flights.
So you don’t end up having to jump on a flight every other day, I’d recommend choosing just two or three areas which you can explore extensively by land or sea. Islands like Palawan and Cebu are perfect for this as there’s plenty to see and do and they’re also well connected by ferry to other nearby islands.
For those looking to avoid inter-island flights altogether, there are a handful of long-distance ferries, but these tend to involve multi-day journeys and are therefore impractical for anyone on a short trip. For the dive lovers, liveaboards can also provide inter-island transport with the added bonus of allowing you to visit some of the world’s best dive sites along the way.
2 | Overland Travel Can Be Time Consuming
Getting anywhere in the Philippines is rarely straightforward and most often requires a series of transport changes.
I’m talking a bus, tricycle, bus, ferry, jeepney, bus, walk type situation.
So plan on having a few long travel days during your trip and don’t underestimate the time it will take to get around when planning your itinerary.
Some islands that are particularly popular with tourists, like Palawan, have introduced tourist vans that offer direct transport between key hubs as a fast and convenient alternative to public transport.
For travelling overland, your main modes of transport will include:
Moto taxi | With the driver on the front and you on the back, moto taxis or ‘habal habal’ are very convenient for quick trips over short distances when you’re not weighed down with luggage. Remember to always wear your helmet!
Tricycle | Like a tuk tuk, these are perfect for transporting multiple people and their luggage. Often used over short distances, like getting from your accommodation to the bus station or a nearby beach.
Jeepney | An elongated pickup truck with two benches and a canopy, these brightly coloured vehicles are extremely affordable and popular in cities and small towns for medium-length trips.
Grab | Similar to Uber, Grab is cheap and reliable and the best way for getting around major cities without the need to haggle with a taxi driver.
Van | These comfortable minibuses have sprung up in many of the tourist hotspots and run on a set schedule. While they tend to be a little more expensive, they’re also far more convenient and time-efficient than the public transport options that exist.
Bus | Long-distance buses depart on schedule from the bus station or can be flagged down at bus stops along the route. They tend to be relatively slow, cheap and come either with or without air conditioning. Your luggage will be stored under the bus and you can buy your tickets onboard.
Minivans | Minivans tend to follow a similar route to long-distance buses but leave whenever they’re full and travel directly to the final destination with few stops. This means they’re often slightly more expensive than the bus but are generally much faster.
3 | Don’t Drink The Tap Water, Do Bring A Reusable Bottle
You can’t drink the tap water in the Philippines, but that doesn’t mean you should be buying bottled water instead.
Virtually all hotels, cafes and tour operators provide large urns of purified drinking water where you’ll be able to refill your own bottle (I use a Klean Kanteen) for free or a small fee.
4 | The Internet Ain’t Great
Let’s just say, an island paradise is a pretty good place for a digital detox right?
In major cities like Manilla and Cebu, wifi is generally fine, but in virtually every other town I visited, I found the internet fluttered between ok and barely useable even for a basic Google search.
On the plus side, this is sure to help you kick that Netflix addiction, but if you ever need to actually do a bit of research about the places you’re visiting, you may find it’s simply too slow to actually load anything.
From what I understand there is one key telecommunication company that has a monopoly in the Philippines and often throttle the speeds at different times throughout the day. Using it during off-peak times will increase your chances of it working.
If you do desperately need internet access, I’d definitely suggest picking up a local sim on arrival rather than relying on the wifi at your accommodation or cafes.
5 | It’s A Playground For Adventurers
From untamed jungle and hidden waterfalls to pristine reef and uncrowded beaches to dramatic cliffs and mountainous landscapes, the Philippines are a veritable playground for adventurous souls, both above and below the water, and with thousands of islands speckled across the map, this place is ripe for exploration.
The best part – you can handpick the islands and tailor your itinerary to suit exactly the kinds of activities that you love.
For island hopping, El Nido and Coron are hard to beat while surfers should make a beeline for the pumping breaks at Siargao. Divers will have countless options to choose from whether it’s sunken wrecks, macro life, spectacular corals or deep water sharks that you seek (check these great spots for diving in the Philippines).
For hiking and waterfalls, Cebu or Bohol both make an excellent choice and can easily be paired with a variety of other activities.
6 | Don’t Forget To Pack These Essentials
For the Philippines, you can happily pack in the same way you would for any other beach trip, but these are a few items you shouldn’t forget.
A Dry Bag | So, you don’t necessarily need to pack this one, you’ll find them for sale in literally every tourist beach town, but whether you bring one or buy one, I would definitely recommend you have one on hand. Between boat trips and beach days where there’s a high chance of your things getting wet and sandy, using a dry bag will simply give you peace of mind that your books and electronics will survive the trip.
Reef Safe Sunscreen | The Philippines are fringed in pristine reef and a mere drop of suncream has the potential to damage huge areas of these fragile organisms. Bring a reef-safe sunscreen from home and use it every time you plan on swimming in the ocean to help protect these sensitive environments.
A Rain Jacket | In the Philippines, when it rains, it pours. This is the tropics after all. So, to avoid getting absolutely soaked on the daily, pack a compact and lightweight rainjacket that can live at the bottom of your day bag, just in case.
7 | It’s A Good Idea To Cover Up Away From The Beach
The Philippines is a strongly religious nation with 80% of the population identifying as Catholic. While the archipelago is perhaps not as conservative as some of its neighbours, it is simply a sign of respect to dress modestly when you’re not actually on the beach.
In tourist-heavy towns, casual beach wear is perfectly acceptable, but when you tear yourself away from those pearly white shores, it’s a good idea to throw something on over your bikini. When travelling to the more conservative inland areas, consider covering up your shoulders and knees as well.
8 | Never Miss A Sunset In The Philippines
If there’s one thing you should never do while travelling in the Philippines, it’s miss the sunset.
As the sun begins its final arch towards the horizon, any lingering clouds are illuminated by a burning vermillion glow and streaks of Fuschia crisscross the sky before evaporating into an inky twilight.
It doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing, when the sunset show begins, be sure to make your way to the beach or a viewpoint and cast your gaze west. Trust me, you’re in for a real treat.
9 | Consider The Rainy Season When Planning Your Trip
Rainy season in the Philippines can mean anything from a brief afternoon monsoon to a week of nonstop torrential rain to a full-blown typhoon.
While the old adage ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing’ does ring remarkably true, if you’re seeking a tropical escape with sun, sea and salt in full supply, these conditions certainly have the potential to put a damper on your beach plans.
Generally, the rainy season in the Philippines runs from May to October, but perhaps the biggest misconception is that the entire archipelago is a washout during this period which is simply not true.
The Philippines cover a huge geographic area and the weather conditions vary greatly from one end to the other, meaning one region may be experiencing heavy rainfall while others are enjoying sunshine with the odd shower thrown into the mix.
Bad weather does have the potential to seriously disrupt your travel plans though with flights often being cancelled or heavily delayed and boat trips being grounded due to rough seas.
On the upside, travelling during the rainy season can also mean sun-drenched beach days alongside perks like fewer crowds and cheaper off-season prices.
My top tip is to simply be flexible, expect delays, check the weather and change your plans only if necessary. I’d also suggest always carrying a rainjacket and making sure your luggage has a waterproof covering.
10 | Limit Your Plastic Consumption
After seeing an alarming increase in the amount of trash washing up on its beaches in recent years, many of the Philippines most popular destinations are making a concerted effort to reduce their plastic consumption and as tourists, it’s up to all of us to do our part.
In places like El Nido, there’s a blanket ban on single-use plastics throughout the town and on all of the day trip boats. This means no plastic bags, bottles, cups, utensils, straws, take away containers and cigarettes are allowed and that all local operators need to be able to provide visitors with reusable products or an eco-friendly alternative (i.e. paper bags or straws).
Coron has similar guidelines in place, though in my experience, they generally weren’t as strongly adhered to as they are in El Nido.
It’s not a perfect system, but its a pretty damn good start and after just a couple of years, the difference between here and places like Malaysia and Indonesia where ocean trash is all too prevalent is stark.
Fingers crossed initiatives like this can begin to be implemented in more communities.
As for what we can all do to reduce our plastic footprint while we travel, start by saying no to plastic bags, straws and takeaway food and drink containers and stop buying bottled water. Instead, always carry a canvas tote for any on-the-go purchases, skip the straw, dine in and fill up using a reusable water bottle.
11 | Power outages are common
I experienced power outages in every single town I visited in the Philippines.
While this can largely be put down to the odd bout bad weather and wasn’t really a big deal, they can occasionally last for hours so I’d recommend bringing your own battery pack to keep your devices charged just in case. I use this Anker Powerpack which is compact and holds plenty of charge.
12 | Don’t Expect To See It All On A Short Trip
Made up of more than 7,000 islands, the Philippines are peppered across a vast area of the Pacific Ocean with palm-fringed picture-perfect beaches and wild jungle in full supply.
While a dozen or so of these islands are frequently put forward as the ones you just can’t miss, on a trip of a week or two, you’ll be hard-pressed to fit in more than two or three of them.
What’s more, why would you want to?
In a place that’s slow to travel and delightfully easy to enjoy, where long languid days spent sprawled out on sun-drenched shores and puttering between tiny castaway islands and brightly coloured reefs are among its most popular activities, the Philippines are absolutely a place to savour slowly.
13 | Take Note Of The Visa Requirements
Many travellers are able to visit the Philippines visa-free for a period of up to 30 days.
For longer stays, it’s possible to extend your visa at any immigration centre for an additional fee but this process can take several days so it’s a good idea to get the ball rolling before your visa-free period expires.
All visitors should be able to provide proof of onward travel.
14 | The Crowds Can Be Overwhelming
Despite having so many gorgeous spots to choose from, the Philippines have suffered from localised overtourism.
As if overnight, once sleepy beach towns exploded in popularity and began to attract immense tourist crowds that put a strain on local businesses and took a heavy toll on the environment.
Places like Boracay and El Nido are two such places that have drawn in overwhelming numbers of eager beachgoers and island hoppers in recent years. As a result, Boracay was closed down for several months to allow it time to recover, while El Nido began tackling its waste management issues and putting caps on the number of visitors at its key attractions to assist in dispersing the crowds.
These days, things have improved, but during high season you should still expect these tourist hotspots to be crawling with visitors. To enjoy them without the hoards, consider travelling on a weekday outside of the peak tourist season which falls between November and February.
15 | The Philippines Are Heaven For Underwater Exploration…
A bay of well-preserved shipwrecks, plunging subsea cliffs and vibrant coral gardens set the scene for some fantastic diving and snorkelling.
Against this magnificent backdrop, you’ll be able to swim alongside enormous bait balls, elusive thresher sharks, countless brightly coloured macro critters, schools of large pelagics, sea turtles, whale sharks and manta rays to name a few.
The waters surrounding the Philippines play host to an explosion of marine life making it one of the best dive destinations in the world with something to offer every kind of ocean lover. Like much of South East Asia, dive rates are also reasonably affordable with plenty of options for liveaboards.
Don’t miss this roundup of where to find the best diving in the Philippines.
It is important to note that while I personally had nothing but great dive experiences here, I did unfortunately meet a number of travellers who encountered serious issues with a few of the dive operators in the Philippines.
If you are planning to dive, always, always research the dive shops and read their online reviews to make sure you’re choosing an operator that is responsible and safety-conscious. This is not a situation to put price above all else.
Diving is ordinarily a very safe sport, but when things go wrong the consequences can be dire and you want to know you have a reliable team behind you in the event of an emergency.
16 | … but choose your wildlife encounters carefully
In 2020, it should be common knowledge that most animal encounters orchestrated as tourist attractions are a big fat no-no and often prioritise human interaction and our insatiable desire for the next best selfie over animal welfare.
In short, most are just wildly unethical and should be avoided at all cost.
In the Philippines, snorkelling with the whale sharks in Oslob is a clear example of this, however it continues to attract huge numbers of tourists each year. For years, operators here have been feeding the whale sharks which encourages them to stay closeby, despite the fact that they don’t naturally congregate here. Though much is still not understood about the life cycle of whale sharks, it is likely this may disrupt their natural migratory behaviour as well as their feeding and breeding habits.
Above the surface, small boats and canoes crowd around deploying hundreds of swimmers that surround the giant creatures jostling for prime position. Though basic rules like keeping a 2-metre distance and not touching are in place, they are rarely adhered to or enforced.
There is plenty of footage of this spectacle on Youtube, and it is heartbreaking to watch.
If you are planning to visit Oslob, I would implore you to reconsider a less intrusive alternative or simply wait for the magical opportunity to see them in the wild.
17 | Yes, The Water Really Is That Blue
I grew up by the beach and have spent countless summers at the seaside, even this very website was inspired by my deep love of the ocean, but I’ve never seen water like I saw in the Philippines.
From shimmering topaz to mesmerising turquoise, this archipelago really does boast some blue ass water. In fact, there’s a good chance you’ll catch yourself constantly exclaiming about just how blue it is.
18 | A Note On Safety In The Philippines
For the most part, the Philippines are a pretty safe place to visit.
If you’re sticking to the key tourist areas and you take the usual precautions, you’re unlikely to have any issues. But if you’re planning to travel off the beaten path to more remote areas of the Philippines, there are a few rougher areas to be wary of.
There’s a high threat of piracy in the southern Philippines, particularly in the channel between Borneo and southern Palawan where a string of serious incidents have occurred in recent years. As a result, nighttime travel is not recommended here and curfews are in place across many towns in the area. This zone is also on the ‘Do Not Travel’ list for Australia and unless you’re going on an organised expedition or visiting for a specific purpose, you should reconsider the need to visit here.
Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, like the recent activity of Taal Volcano, also present a risk when travelling in the Philippines.