The Philippines has an abundance of natural beauty. From pristine white beaches to emerald lagoons, bubbling volcanoes to mist covered mountains, it is a nature lover’s paradise. However, travelling around the archipelago can be challenging and given I have travelled to over 80 countries, I do not say this lightly.
There are some important factors to consider if you are contemplating a trip to the Philippines. Armed with this knowledge, you can make an informed decision whether to make this your next destination.
So here are six things you absolutely need to be aware of before booking a ticket to the Philippines.
Internal travel is challenging
The Philippines is not a country where you can wing it. Whilst there are endless possibilities for getting around the country, finding the information to plan a route can be like trying to unravel the secrets of the Da Vinci code. Websites lack timetables or the ability to book online and for good reason. Timetables do not exist – instead buses leave when full and full here means with at least three more people than seats!
With over 7,000 islands the country is diverse but island hopping can be more difficult than you would imagine. Low cost carriers such as Air Asia have arrived in the region but most routes will require backtracking via Manila. Only the principle islands offer flights directly between them.
Ferries ply the waters between the islands so this is an option but the Philippines is renowned for overloading boats resulting in fatal sinkings. Research your option thoroughly before taking the plunge. We took an outrigger for the short journey to Mindoro and there were times when it was a little hairy! Large waves were threatening to engulf the benches and the boat crew would repeatedly stop the engines to surf the waves.
Pirates are also known to ply these waters and in the south kidnappings are a common occurrence. You absolutely should not visit this country without checking the advice of your Foreign Office. Some areas are considered off limits and visiting any no go areas invalidates your travel insurance.
Top tip: Do your research beforehand to decide on just one or two destinations you would like to visit (unless of course you are backpacking). Air Asia offers the option to book flexible fares which can be changed if foreign office advice changes and your chosen destination becomes off limits.
Top tip 2: As I write this, we are waiting out a torrential rainstorm which has temporarily grounded all bangkas leaving the island of Mindoro. We are booked on the seaplane tomorrow morning connecting with a late evening flight. If the coastguard upgrades the storm to a signal three, our seaplane will be grounded too putting us at risk of being stranded on the island.
As we nervously wait to see what happens, my advice would be to plan your route with jet plane connections in mind for your last trip back to the mainland. These will be unimpacted other than by the very worst storms.
The Abu Sayyaf group in the south, an offshoot of Al Qaeda, targets foreigners in kidnappings. These have resulted in brutal beheadings, most recently of two Canadians in April and July 2016.
Please do not think I intend to strike the fear of god into you with this news. The Philippines is quite possibly the most stunning Asian country I have visited with natural treats in abundance. It is however important that you are aware of the risks before planning your trip. Kidnappings are largely confined to the region of Mindanao in the South which can be easily avoided.
Recently the British Foreign Office upgraded Southern Cebu to essential travel only because of the increased risk of kidnappings so my advice is simple. Ensure you read your government’s travel advice and avoid any areas they highlight. We changed our plans because of the FCO update as we had planned to visit the south of Cebu.
Internet and phone connections are poor
We found connectivity to be great in Manila but once off the mainland island of Luzon, it was patchy and often completely unavailable. Hotels frequently lose connectivity and internet is at best 2G or 3G although there were talks of possible fibre-optic cables being laid.
Top tip: Our saving grace was the Ivideo. Still not entirely reliable, it allowed us basic access to update emails, post updates to Facebook (we are in the Philippines after all!) and book hotels. You can forget streaming though!!
Top tip 2: To avail of free pick-ups offered by hotels in Mindoro or other islands, you will need a phone. We travelled with the Tellink international SIM which came in incredibly handy for those late-night calls. It worked a treat in the Philippines and the cost of 22 calls of 31 minutes total duration came to just 33 Euros.
Cash is king
In Manila credit cards are widely accepted but outside of Luzon only the biggest hotels and companies will offer the ability to pay by card. Even if payment is accepted a hefty charge of 4 – 7% will be applied to purchases.
For hotels, you can overcome this by booking through a company such as hotels.com allowing you to pay upfront using your credit card. For restaurants, you simply need to ensure you have enough cash.
We learned this the hard way as we spent a stressful evening trekking from ATM to ATM getting increasingly despondent when the machines would not disgorge money. Our UK cards just would not work in these machines. Indeed, our last resort was to use the credit card to withdraw funds. Not a smart move but even the Supercard and Curve would not work here!
It is expensive relative to other Asian countries
I was surprised by how expensive the Philippines are relative to other Asian countries such as Thailand and Indonesia. Meals in Manila cost as much as £50 for two! On Mindoro it is possible to eat less expensively in beachfront snack bars but some of the hotels charge comparable prices to the UK.
Hotels are often overvalued and overpriced. An hotel advertised as a 4 star, is far from a western 4 star. Although accommodation can be lovely, with great service, they are often far from the standard they claim. One four-star property had a swimming pool with no sunbeds, a shower whose handle fell off the moment I turned it and an empty whirlpool.
Another had a plunge pool which didn’t look as though it had been cleaned recently whilst a five-star resort had a swimming pool with no pool towels. Don’t get me wrong, we stayed in some great places with fabulously attentive staff, Utopia Resort and Tribal Hills to name just two, but be prepared for a lower quality than what you may be used to.
Limited tourist infrastructure
Forget hop on hop off buses, or organised day tours. The Philippines simply does not have enough visitors to support this and thus any tours you want to do involve hiring a private driver and significant expense. For instance, our trip to Taal was charged at $248 each. That’s some serious wonga for a day out!
We managed to DIY that tour for just over £50 but it is certainly more difficult than in other countries with the concierges either unaware of how to do it, or actively dissuading you from doing so.
The ONLY REASON you need to visit
Despite these difficulties, the Philippines truly is a stunning country. From deserted, white beaches, to colourful coral reefs, smouldering volcanoes, and verdant rainforest, it is truly sublime. The plentiful rain douses the vegetation regularly creating emerald smothered hillsides which are breath-taking in any weather.
If you love nature and scenery, you will be blown away by the Philippines. Just check out my 90 second video below to see for yourself.
What do I think?
Sadly, this country is not my favourite Asian destination. Much as I love Taal and the gorgeous inlets of Puerto Galera, for someone on a two-week vacation, the logistical challenges are a pain in the ass.
I love piecing together journeys and taking local transport but when the concierge is trying to actively discourage you from doing so in favour of booking ridiculously expensive private tours, it becomes a bit disheartening.
As beautiful as the country is, and boy are the sunsets amazing, rookie travellers may be better finding their legs in a nation which has a more developed tourist infrastructure.