For quite a few years now the Philippines has been marked by experts as the next bug tourist destination in Southeast Asia. Beautiful white sand beaches amidst a tropical setting, friendly English speaking locals and countless different attractions to try all set this country up to be the big next thing. Add to that the fact everything is extremely cheap there, and you’ll get the winning formula for a perfect island getaway.
Still, while the Philippines has indeed trended up and more and more tourists go there each year, the country is yet to become even nearly as popular as nearby locations such as Thailand or Bali. Mainstream tourism hasn’t hit the islands yet, and so the Philippines still remain primarily a backpacker’s destination.
This guide will describe what you should expect when planning your vacation in the Philippines. No doubt it’s a wonderful place to visit, and it could be a holiday you’ll remember for the rest of your life, but careful planning is required. Travelling in developing countries is not for everybody, and it’s better if you prepare and know in advance what to expect.
More than 7000 islands – so where should you go?
The Philippines is an archipelago consisting of 7107 different islands, between which you transport either by ferry or plane. If you want to make the most out of your vacation, naturally you’d want to visit as many different places as possible. However, that means you’ll have to endure numerous transfers along the way, and those are by no means easy or simple. A ground rule in a country like the Philippines is to expect a delay for every item in your schedule, and often times transportation even gets completely shut down due to weather or management issues.
So, it’s even more important to try and plan your itinerary sensibly and realistically, and to allow enough room for such unexpected events. Generally speaking, flights are much better than ferry rides albeit more expensive of course. So, if you want to be extra safe and can’t afford anything to go wrong, pick destinations which are connected by an airline route only.
The popular tourist spots are naturally also the most connected ones. Manila, the capital, and Cebu city are the major transports hubs and usually you can find flights to most places from these 2 cities. From there, you can easily go to Boracay, Palawan, Bohol and many other stunning islands – all of which are merely an hour’s flight away.
The real charm of the Philippines however, is going off the beaten path. There are too many of these to list here and it really depends on the season you visit in. Siargao and Camiguin islands are always a safe bet, since they have an airport installed and weather is good pretty much all year round. More obscure places, such as Caramoan for example, are really off the grid and should be only considered if you are used to roughing it up and handling everything on your own.
What’s the best time to visit?
Truth of the matter is there’s no real way to be completely safe when it comes to weather. The Philippines experience rains all year long, and weather is generally very fickle and hard to predict. This is ultimately why it has remained more of a backpacker destination, as it’s much better suited to people who are willing to travel with a flexible itinerary and make changes on the fly. Still, you can make an informed choice and play the odds – so that the chances of bad weather become quite slim.
The best time to visit is between November and May. At that time weather should be fine in all the major islands. If you want to be extra safe, narrow it down even further more and wait until March. This is when summer officially starts, but it also means prices for hotels and flights will be much higher. At that time the crowds also change quite a bit and you’ll see much more families and honeymooners as the young backpackers prefer to wait for prices to drop.
All this doesn’t mean you can’t come during the low season. First of all, some places in the Philippines have reversed seasons – for example Siargao Island. The whole Visayas region, which includes Cebu, Bohol and Boracay for example, is also relatively safe since the islands are sheltered from strong monsoon winds. The only places you should really avoid during the low season are Palawan and the Banaue rice terraces. If there’s bad weather in Palawan you’ll be stuck there, and Banaue is flat out dangerous due to floods and mudslides.
Is it safe over there?
Yes, it is safe, pretty much like any other country. It’s all a matter of knowing how to look after yourself and when to stay alert. Ultimately you go to the Philippines to relax and clear your mind, so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to be worried and extra careful all the time. That said, there are certain places and times where caution is indeed required.
With the exception of certain parts of Manila and Cebu, the Philippines is very safe and welcoming for tourists. All you have to do is avoid walking the dark alleys at night and don’t carry too much money with you when you leave your hotel room. The worst you’ll encounter are petty crimes such as pickpocketing and tourist scams. It’s also generally very safe for foreign females although standard caution should be maintained throughout your trip of course.
The only really dangerous part is the island of Mindanao, so avoid going there. You still have a ton of beautiful places to choose from, so it’s really not the end of the world. Over there your life might be at serious risk, with ISIS insurgents roaming around. Most foreign ministries strongly advise against going there, but clearly state other parts of the country are all relatively safe.
What are the most recommended activities?
The Philippines is first and foremost a diving destination. The country’s location makes it home to the most diverse marine eco-system anywhere on the planet. Stunning coral reefs can be found virtually anywhere you go. Each island has a different attraction as its main highlight – at some places you’ll see turtles, sharks, mantas and so on… Coron island in Palawan was the stage for a major naval battlefield between Japan and the U.S during WW2 and is now one of the best places in the world to go wrech diving.
Even if you don’t dive, you can always just snorkel and get a great glimpse of what lies underwater. Island hopping tours are the standard attraction everywhere you go, and they always include at least 1 or 2 snorkeling spots. Add to that a bit of kayaking, and jumping around between private beaches and hidden lagoons, and you are guaranteed to have a day full of excitement.
The Philippines is mostly about nature, so the attractions also carry into the mainland. Hiking trails can be found anywhere, usually leading to a volcano or a waterfall in the end. These vary in difficulty, with most being just a one-day trek, but others can take between 3 to 4 days to complete. Out of these the most recommended is the Banaue rice terraces for a longer trek, or the Kawasan Falls canyoneering if you can only spare a single day for adventure.
How much does it cost?
As with most exotic destinations, the main expense would be the international flight. Many countries do not offer a direct route to the Philippines, so the journey can become long and expensive. Once you are there though, living is quite easy and you should be able to make do with a pretty tight budget.
Anywhere you go, you can easily find a decent resort to stay at for between 20 and 30 USD a night. The fanciest all-inclusive resorts cost 200$, which is still much cheaper than anywhere else, including similar destinations such as Thailand, Bali or the Maldives. The exception to this are the super popular tourist islands, Boracay and El Nido, where prices vary dramatically based on the season and current demand. If you want to go there and stay at a nice resort, make sure you book your stay well in advance.
Living costs for a couple should not exceed 100$ a day, and that’s only if you really splurge. Tours are relatively expensive, so if you plan to just chill on the beach your costs will drop drastically. Shopping can be done in Manila, where you can go to any mall and find all the famous worldwide brands you know from back home. Prices should be lower by 20-30% or so, if it’s cheaper than that you should beware of buying a knockoff.