Backpacking Philippines: The Essential Budget Guide
Backpacking Philippines is often forgotten when it comes to travelling around South East Asia.
With Thailand, Vietnam and Laos easily accessible from one another, the Philippines is often left out of South East Asia backpacking itineraries.
This is a travesty, as it is a hidden gem and there is actually a lot of great things to see and do in the Philippines.
I can see why many people miss out on backpacking the Philippines, as it’s geographically isolated from the rest of South East Asia.
However, I really think any backpacker in the region should seriously consider visiting, as the Philippines is a country with rich culture and history and some amazing scenery!
The Philippines is very distinct from the rest of South East Asia, this is due to the influence of its colonial past. With reminders of the days of Spanish and American rule still clear today. Cheap internal flights to the islands and a diverse range of activities make this a must for anyone backpacking South East Asia!
- Capital – Manila
- Population – 101,000,000 (estimate)
- Currency – Philippine Peso
- Main languages – Tagalog, English
- International dialing code – +63
Arrival in the Philippines
Here’s the good news:
If you are a national of Brazil or Israel then you receive a 59-day visa upon entry. You can extend your stay for two months at a cost of US$30 in most major cities and resorts such as Manila, Cebu and Boracay. The visas that countries are entitled to can be found here.
One thing that I learnt for this Philippines Backpacking Guide, was that it’s best to have a flight out of the country booked beforehand!
Some airlines will not let you board your flight into the Philippines if you don’t. This happened to me when I was travelling from Australia and I had to book a flight to Thailand quickly before I was allowed to board. The stupid thing is that most of the customs officials do not bother to check this, but it’s best to be on the safe side.
You will be required to fill out a disembarkation form and customs form upon arriving in the Philippines. During your stay, you may notice a booth with ‘Terminal Fees’ written on it. When leaving the country, visitors are usually required to pay a departure fee, however, this is usually included in the price of your plane ticket.
Foreign nationals staying in the Philippines are exempt from this fee, so don’t worry about paying it if you see these booths!
Travelling Around the Philippines
Buses are the best option for getting around while in Luzon. Another option is to rent a taxi to drive you to your destination, but I would go with the buses as they are cheaper and plentiful. For getting around in major cities, you can take a ride in one of the many jeepneys. They cost around 10 pesos per journey, with the main destinations printed on the side of the jeepney.
Taxis are a good way of getting around the big cities, such as Manila and Cebu. When hailing the taxi, make sure the driver has a metre and that it is on. Don’t get in the taxi if there is no metre, as you could end getting ripped off. It is also advisable to have small notes, such as 100PHP notes.
This happened to us once when we went to pay, the driver said he had no change, after a few minutes of persuasion, he eventually pulled out the biggest wad of cash I’ve ever seen and gave us change! The drivers usually do this to try and get a bigger tip, if this happens to you, don’t be fooled, be persistent and they will eventually cave in!
The main mode of transport between islands is by boat or air. There are a number of airlines that operate internal flights in the Philippines. Most of these are cheap (if you don’t book too late) and are reliable. We arrived a good 30 minutes after check in had closed for a flight in Cebu and they still let us check in without a problem. Obviously, I wouldn’t recommend trying this, but if you are in this situation, just be nice and apologise and they will normally help you out! A few domestic airlines are Cebu Pacific, Tiger air, Air Asia and Philippine Airlines.
Travelling the Philippines by boat is only advisable for short distances. So from to Cebu to Bohol or El Nido to Coron Island. Any further than that and things become complicated. The boat journey from Cebu to Bohol is about 2 hours, so Manila to Palawan, for instance, is a lot longer, about 24 hours in fact.
It’s just not worth going by boat if you want to island hop, it may be cheaper, but you’ve wasted a day getting to the destination. For travelling to Palawan, Luzon or the Visayas from another island I would recommend flying, you may spend a bit more, but you won’t waste your time!
Weather in the Philippines
As the Philippines is a tropical nation, the weather can vary depending on what time of the year you visit. March to May, during summer, are the hottest months, with rainy season starting in June and continuing until October. Typhoons are common during this period and can be devastating. Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013, was one of the strongest recorded cyclones and killed at least 6,300 people. The effects of which are still being felt today, as the rebuilding effort continues.
The country often experiences droughts during the summer months, which can have knock-on effects. As most of the Philippines power is generated by hydroelectric power plants and the need for air conditioning high during this time, it is common for there to be black-outs.
Culture and language
The influence of the Philippines colonial past is evident throughout the country. It is an anomaly in South East Asia, as it is the only majority Christian country in the region, with over 80% of the population practising Roman Catholics. Religion is central to Filipino life and it is not uncommon for the country to grind to a halt during religious periods such as Easter and Christmas, so be aware if you are travelling around this time.
The region of Mindanao is home to the majority of the Philippines practising Muslims, whose militias have been warring against the government for some time, so take care if you travel here.
There are a few cultural oddities in the Philippines, or at least, they are oddities to the average backpacker. Despite being a nation of relatively small people, the national sport is basketball! The American influence is obvious here. Walking around in my NBA jerseys, I would often get people coming up to me to talk about basketball, how they love this team, that player and if they could take my jersey!
If you’re a basketball fan, like me, then you will love it, you can also watch the majority of the games on TV! Karaoke is also huge in the Philippines, you are bound to come across a bar with a karaoke session in progress, in virtually every island in the country! Karaoke is taken very seriously here, so don’t criticise or laugh at any performances, that is definitely a faux pas!
English is widely spoken and considered an official language. It is a compulsory subject in school and if you are in a big city, then you will have no problem getting around. This is one of the benefits of travelling the country and it certainly makes things easier for backpackers. Outside of the main cities and tourist hotspots, you may struggle to find locals who speak English. Tagalog is the predominant language and knowing a few words, will certainly make your life easier and endear you to the locals!
Why you should visit the Philippines
Travelling the Philippines is great, as the country is quite diverse in its landscapes and scenery!
Below are a few of the best reasons to visit the Philippines!
Amazing beaches and stunning scenery
The beaches in the Philippines are some of the best in South East Asia, if not the world. Boracay beaches are regularly ranked as some of the world’s top beaches and there are plenty more, in particular on the island of Palawan.
The scenery is also incredible and varied from island to island. From the Chocolate hills in Bohol to the towering limestone cliffs of El Nido and the subterranean river near Puerto Princesa there is a diverse range of scenery.
The locals are extremely inviting and can not help you enough. We never once had any trouble during our stay and the fact that the majority of Filipinos speak English is a great help and makes getting around easier.
Considering that a large part of the population lives in poverty, Filipinos are very happy people. I actually felt this was a bit of a wake up call for me. As it made me realise that happiness from within and not external factors such as wealth or possessions. This was one of the bet takeaways of backpacking the Philippines for me!
Due to the fact that the Philippines was once a Spanish and then US colony there is a mix of Spanish style cathedrals, modern skyscrapers and malls in the big cities. For the keen historian, there are a number of interesting sites to see such as Magellan’s cross in Cebu and Intramuros in Manila. Along with Second World War memorials and sites, there is a range of things to see.
Loads to do
With the amazing scenery and landscape of the different 7101 islands that make up the Philippines, there are lots of different activities to choose from. From world-class scuba diving sites to mountain trekking or simply taking in the sights and relaxing at a beach, a trip to the Philippines offers it all!
Where to go in the Philippines
As there are a lot of places to visit in the Philippines, it can be hard to decide where to go even if you have a bit of time to explore. The big cities can be a little overwhelming at times, but travelling to Cebu City is definitely worth it. It’s smaller than Manila and a lot more enjoyable as far as I’m concerned.
Below are my top 5 must see places while backpacking the Philippines.
As far as I’m concerned if you don’t go to El Nido then you have wasted your trip. This was definitely the best place I visited in the Philippines.
Read more: El Nido Travel Guide – The Final Frontier
Travelling to Palawan is a must if you are backpacking in the Philippines, and there is a lot more to see besides El Nido! There’s not much to see in the main city Puerto Princesa, but head to Sabang, the subterranean river, Honda Bay and Coron Island to see the natural wonders this place has to offer.
Although not as good as El Nido, Boracay is still a great destination. White beach is a great spot to do some sunbathing, although it is a little commercialised. Take a trip to Ariel’s Point for some great cliff jumping and snorkelling.
Read more: Boracay Travel Guide
The island of Bohol is home to diverse wildlife and topography. The Chocolate Hills are a strange sight, as is the Tarsier monkey, which is indigenous to the island and the world’s smallest primate. The island is ideal for exploring on a scooter with a number of interesting sights to see in the heart of the island.
Banaue Rice terraces
Although I didn’t go to the terraces during my trip, everyone I spoke to said they were amazing. I’ll definitely be checking the terraces out on a return trip!
Not so great
Like everywhere there are a few places that do not show the best of a country. Here a few of my personal downsides to my time backpacking the Philippines.
The capital is one big sprawling mess of a city and apart from Intramuros, there is not an awful lot to see. My advice would be to spend as little time as possible in the major cities as you visit the Philippines to spend time in a smoggy city.
Read more: Manila Travel Guide
Unfortunately our trip included a visit to Angeles, a two-hour drive north of Manila. Sex tourism is the main driving point for this place and it wasn’t to my tastes. Unless it is your thing then I would avoid this place altogether, your time could be better spent elsewhere
Getting around in the major cities is a task in itself. The traffic in Manila and to a lesser extent Cebu is horrendous. A trip to the airport can take a lot longer than it should and we almost missed a number of flights because of this, which added unnecessary stress. So give yourself a bit more time than normal to avoid missing any flights.
As the Philippines is an island archipelago nation, getting around entails lots of flights. This can become tiresome and eats into your time in the country. Flights can be expensive, especially if you don’t book them till the last minute.
Apart from a dish known as sisig, Filipino food leaves a lot to be desired. You can find some great street food, but it is in short supply. Compared to Thailand for example, the food is lacking.
There is also a wealth of American fast-food outlets, so finding healthy non-Filipino food can be a struggle. The huge malls in the big cities have a plethora of choice and some have fantastic restaurants!
How much does it cost to travel in the Philippines?
Depending on where you go backpacking in the Philippines, it can either be cheap or expensive. Boracay is the prime example, expect to pay more here for just about everything as it’s one of the most popular places to visit in the Philippines. Whereas, somewhere like Bohol will be cheaper as it’s less frequented by tourists.
- Food is generally inexpensive in the Philippines, there are a wealth of markets and street food stalls in most locations. Fast food is popular in the Philippines and there are a lot of outlets in all locations if you don’t fancy the local food. The average cost of a meal is about 140PHP, which can go up to 200/300PHP if you eat in a more established restaurant. Alcohol is very cheap in the Philippines and a bottle of San Miguel will set you back 100PHP. If you prefer spirits, then rum is the way to go, Filipino Rum is ridiculously cheap! It can be as cheap or even cheaper than beer in some bars and you can buy a bottle of it in most shops for about 200PHP!
- The price of accommodation in the Philippines can vary due to a number of factors. Expect to pay more in the more touristy areas such as Boracay, while staying in shared accommodation is generally cheaper than a private room in a hotel. Hostels don’t really seem to have taken off yet in the Philippines and we struggled to find many during our time in the country. There are a number of hostels out there, but they are short on the ground. I used Agoda a lot in the Philippines to book accommodation and highly recommend it. You will find great deals here, which can see you getting a room in a decent hotel for 50 or even 70% cheaper than normal!
- The biggest expenditure travelling the Philippines is moving between the 7,000 islands that make up the Philippines. As I mentioned above, there a lot of cheap airlines operating in the Philippines and provided you book in advance, you can get a good deal. We often booked flights a few days, or in some cases, on the day of the flight. If you want to save money don’t d this, the price quickly rises the closer to the flight you get, booking early will save you a lot of money. An average flight from Manila to Cebu, for instance, should cost around 2000PHP. Flying to most of the main hubs in the Philippines, such as Boracay and Puerto Princesa, will cost a similar price. However, you will pay a bit more if you are going to a location a bit more off the beaten track such as El Nido or Coron.
The Philippines is a great country with lots to do, but the above is only scratching the surface, with more time there is a lot more to see and do. A minimum of a month is what I recommend for travelling the Philippines. Basically, the more time the better. As the country’s tourism board states: It’s more fun in the Philippines!
For more information on travelling the Philippines, check out the Lonely Planet Philippines (Travel Guide)!