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An Updated and Honest Philippines Travel Guide and Travel Tips for Beginners from a Filipina

Hi there, I’m Jona, a Filipino who left her homecountry to pursue a long-term trip abroad. Here is an honest and updated Philippines Travel Guide and Travel Tips.  I hope you find it useful. If you got questions not answered in the content, please leave a comment, so I can update this monster of a post. The length is about 2500 words. So spare at least 30 minutes for this! This Philippines Travel Guide and Travel Tips answered all the basic questions first-time travelers might ask: the crazy president we have, terrorism, horrible traffic, public transportation, food, the state of our Internet (one of the worst in the world), and what-not.

I vowed to travel the entire Philippines, from the northernmost to the southernmost part before traveling abroad. I tried to keep this promise for almost a decade. But I failed. Believe it or not, it is more cost-effective and convenient to travel to neighboring ASEAN countries than to travel to the northernmost or southernmost parts of the Philippines.

But I did try, all right. I’ve been to most provinces (we got 81). I’ve traveled to a lot of off-the-beaten destinations. And of course visited the popular ones.

This is a crash course on my country. Geographically. Culturally. Politically.

Ready?

Where is the Philippines?

The Philippines is those seemingly scattered islands you can find in the east of Vietnam, north of Borneo and Indonesia, south of Taiwan.

It is a country where almost everyone speaks English and is crazy about whitening soap. We love our rice.

Our country has an “s” for a reason: The Philippines. We are comprised of more than 7 500 islands (as of 2017). Our archipelagicness is both a curse and a gift.

It is the biggest Catholic (hypocritical and otherwise) country in Southeast Asia.

There is no definitive narrative you can pin to our country. What you experience in one place might be the reality that exists in that particular region. The northern part does not have any semblance to the tail of the country at all.

We have 180 languages. Our so-called national language is Filipino. But most of us called it Tagalog (it is a beautiful language, so is Cebuano, Waray, and the rest). Most Filipinos can speak Tagalog, but most of us especially the people living in central and southern parts don’t consider it as our mother tongue.

The locals living in central and southern parts (where I used to live) can speak or understand at least three languages. (Nope, not dialects, but full-grown languages  )

Is it okay to travel the Philippines without booking a travel package?

Now it entirely depends on your budget, time, and will. If you want pure convenience and comfort, you can indeed avail any of the travel packages to the Philippines. You can find some good travel packages on Philippines Travel Package.

Tours make perfect sense if you don’t have all the time in the world yet you have enough money to cover all expenses. Travel packages are a bit pricier than doing it on your own. But it also means you don’t have to spend hours planning the whole trip. Everything will be planned for you.

Usually tours in the Philippines cover the top island destinations in the Philippines, the lovely Palawan, the popular Boracay, and even the capital Manila, where has some hidden gems if you know the right people.

Do I need a visa to travel to the Philippines?

It entirely depends where you are from. Citizens of many western countries are allowed to enter and stay for 30days without a tourist visa.

Citizens of the following countries don’t have to get a tourist visa. Just in case, kindly double-check the requirements.  For visa-related information about the Philippines, check the Philippine Embassy.

There is recent terrorism in the Philippines. Is it safe to travel there?

As I said, there is no definitive narrative you can pin in my country. It is too diverse, that we locals don’t call ourselves Filipinos unless we are abroad or we are talking to a foreigner.

Now look at this map. Palawan (evergreen color) is in the tail of Luzon. Cebu (sock-like shape island in the middle) in central Visayas. Boracay (one of the tiny dots in pink Panay) in western Visayas.

Philippines Travel Guide

And yes, terrorism exists in the Philippines (like anywhere in the world), and most of the victims are Muslims themselves.

Marawi City, as of writing (June 2017), is occupied by Maute Group, a radical, again, radical Islamist group. Can you spot Marawi City in the map on the top. I encircled it.

In the map below, Marawi City is the red dot in a much larger Lanao del Sur, a province in Mindanao—the largest island in the Philippines.

I’m pretty sure, Siargao, a popular island destination, in northeastern Mindanao is not affected at all. Much more Luzon and the Visayas, where most popular destinations are located.

Where is Marawi City

Photo from Rappler

The realities of Marawi are indeed saddening. But businesses elsewhere in the country go on. Again, always remember you are in an archipelagic country. The whole Philippines is not plagued by terrifying danger. Personally, I think Manila is more dangerous than most cities in Mindanao—where Marawi City is. But that is just me.

You might hear news or two about terrorism, some locals would joke about it; but as a passing tourist, you won’t really experience anything remotely dangerous or horrifying.

I’ve heard your current president is terrifying, is that true?

Well, I cannot speak for most  Filipinos. In some ways, he is terrifying. In many ways, he is like a kid who failed his Good Manners and Right Conduct class back on elementary days. But the thing is, most Filipinos  (the huge base of our social pyramid) voted for him.

How is it for you as a tourist? As long as your contacts on FB are not middle-class, elite, and intellectual class of the Philippines, you should be fine.

Our political scenario is much larger and inflated on social media. You know, the kind where you sympathize with the poor, post about it on Facebook, and then you have steak and wine for dinner.

The drug-related murder in the Philippines is real though. It is effing real, but it is rather complicated. And I don’t intend to digress from this supposedly light travel guide to my lovely Philippines.

When is the best time to travel in the Philippines?

The Philippines is directly facing the Pacific Ocean, the largest body of water on Earth. That being said, we suffer from some of the most monstrous typhoons out there. From June to November are typically the monsoon months. It is for the better if you visit the Philippines somewhere between December and May. Summer is April and May for us, so these months are the peak season. If you go to popular tourist destinations during these months, expect a throng of local tourists around.

Philippines Travel Guide

Batad Rice Terraces 2013

The Philippines Travel Guide: Flights to the Philippines

It entirely depends on where you are flying from. One of the options is to check it through Skyscanner, Expedia, and Kiwi, Etihad Airways, and more.

| FLY THROUGH ETIHAD AIRWAYS | BOOK THROUGH KIWI.COM |

From the USA and most western European countries, return flights usually range from $800-$1500. Rule of thumb in booking flights: book in advance to have it cheaper. You can check my personally tested guide in finding affordable flights. The guide contains the right FB pages to stalk to score insanely cheap flights.

International flights to the Philippines land either in Manila or Cebu. If your final destinations are either Palawan or Boracay, fly to Manila. If you intend to visit the central Philippines (Cebu, Bohol, Siquijor), fly to Cebu.

The Philippines Travel Guide: Domestic Flights in the Philippines

There are three dominant airlines in the Philippines. Cebu Pacific Airlines is known for its affordable flights, wide reach, and hmmm flight delays. For its affordability, most Filipinos made use of its promo fares. But then again, flight delays.

I prefer flying through Air Asia. Its affordable flights are constant. Its flights within the Philippines are rather limited though.

The third option is to fly through the Philippine Airlines, the priciest among the three. Its flight routes are almost as wide-reaching as Cebu Pacific Airlines. Most of the time though, Philippine Airlines is more expensive. But its flight services are better. I’m a cheapskate, so I rarely use this airline.

The fourth is SkyJet Airlines. It is a small airline. It only flies to popular tourist destinations such as Palawan, Siargao, Boracay, and Batanes.

The Philippines Travel Guide: How long do I need to explore the Philippines?

It took me almost a decade to travel around my country, but I’m not even close to being done yet. Since flights are generally expensive, I suggest you allot at least two weeks to a month in exploring the whole country. One week is too short. Archipelagic as we are, traveling around the Philippines requires a lot of flying and sea-faring.

You always have the option to stay in one place. For example, you can spend two weeks alone in Palawan and explore the lovely islands around.

Philippines Travel Guide

Coron, Palawan, Philippines

The Philippines Travel Guide: What are the possible routes?

If you are flying to and from Manila, you can head to Palawan, then, Cebu, then either Siargao or Bohol.

Manila-Boracay-Cebu-Palawan is a possible route too.

You can also directly fly to Cebu, stay some days exploring the southern and northern reaches of the island, then fly or ferry to Bohol or to Siargao. Or fly to Boracay.

Don’t expect me to provide you a detailed itinerary. Unless you pay me! Hahaha!

The Philippines Travel Guide: I’ve heard traffic is horrible, is it true?

Uhuh. As horrible as it can get. But good thing, though, you are not traveling to the Philippines to merely stay in our badly planned cities. You’re here to escape from your own inanities and sad realities. 😛 You’re here to escape. So I assume you won’t spend much time in the cities. So don’t worry about it. But you’re flying in and out from major cities in the country (Cebu and Manila), so always make sure you make it back to the airport before your flight.

How’s the Internet speed in the Philippines?

Ready to stretch your patience. The Internet in the Philippines sucks big time, that is, if you are a digital nomad. But if you’re not, then you should be fine. The Internet still allows you to check your email, post your holiday photos on social media, watch short videos on Youtube, but definitely it is a bit stressful if you intend to stream movies online or you have Internet-related jobs.

Most hotels also provide free Wi-Fi. If you want to have your own data, you can choose either Globe or Smart. These two monopolize the telecommunication industry in the Philippines.

Philippines Travel Guide

Small Lagoon, El Nido, Palawan

The Philippines Travel Guide: How’s the food in the Philippines?

Well, frankly speaking, if you have been to other Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, you won’t love our food as much. But it doesn’t mean our food are all greasy. We have many vegetable-based dishes like pinakbet and coconut milky jackfruit salad, sauted spinach, dinuldog, and what-not. But then again, Filipino food is such a loose term that even I, a Filipino, do not have a full grasp of it.

An ordinary Filipino spends Php30.00/meal (US$.60), but you won’t be eating what most ordinary Filipinos have, right?

With my exhaustive affairs around my country, I could say that our food varies from one place to another. But definitely, Bicol region is a foodie’s paradise.

Of course, you have access to fresh seafood, a staple of rice meals, pork and chicken dishes. And since the Philippines love copying western countries, you can find a lot of western restaurants around.

The Philippines Travel Guide: How’s the public transportation?

Horrible. The lack of efficient public transportation has been a problem in the Philippines. Hence, if you are here, it is important to have apps such as Uber and Grab (Southeast Asia’s version of Uber). Even locals are scammed by taxis, how much more if you are a foreigner. So download these two. They are quite handy around Southeast Asia.

What are the famous festivals in the Philippines?

Cebu City’s Sinulog Festival (every third Sunday of January) must be the biggest festival in the country. Some people think it is synonym to a street party, but by tradition, it is not. It is a religious festival dedicated to baby Jesus Sto. Niño. It involves a lot of dancing, singing, and vibrant costumes.

Aklan’s Ati-atihan also commences in January for the same reason: Sto. Niño. Dancers are all painted in black and wear vibrant costumes.

Iloilo’s Dinagyang Festival happens in every fourth Sunday of January. Pretty much like Sinulog and Ati-atihan, some people see this festival as a time to party and get wasted.

Quezon’s Pahiyas Festival takes places in May in Lucban, Quezon. Makeshift houses are decorated with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Sinulog Festival, Cebu 2013

The Philippines Travel Guide: What are the top beach destinations in the Philippines?

I have exhaustively traveled around my country, I could safely say it is hard to find beaches that can top the beaches in the Philippines (but my experience is limited; I’ve only been to 15 countries; so don’t trust me on this one 😛 ). I particularly prefer the less popular ones. But touristy places are touristy places for a reason. They are beautiful and have all the conveniences for non no-frills travelers.

1. PALAWAN

Conde Nast Traveler dubbed Palawan as the most beautiful island in the world. The islands and islets surrounding the waters of Palawan are indeed beautiful. The flagship destinations of this longest island province in the country are Puerto Princesa Underground River (I haven’t tried this), El Nido [Travel Guide to El Nido], and the lovely Coron.

Southern Palawan remains an off-the-beaten destination even for local travelers, but it has some of the beautiful islands. But then again, traveling to southern Palawan is rather inconvenient.

| AWESOME HOTEL DEALS IN EL NIDO, PALAWAN | AWESOME HOTEL DEALS IN CORON, PALAWAN | AWESOME HOTEL DEALS IN PUERTO PRINCESA |

Updated El Nido Travel Guide 2017

Nacpan and Catiland: the Twin Beaches of El Nido

2. BORACAY 

Boracay is beautiful, all right. This island has some of the glorious sunsets you cannot experience elsewhere. But to be overly popular has its own downfall. The island tends to overcrowded and noisy. If you are into crazy parties and what-not, Boracay might be for you. This island still has tiny pockets of solemnity tucked here and there.

| AWESOME HOTEL DEALS IN BORACAY |

Philippines Travel Guide

Boracay circa 2010

3. CEBU

I was born and raised and made a living in Cebu. With my constant affairs with this archipelagic country, I found Cebu a very strategic base. It is in the middle of central Philippines. So my list of travel options is long.

Cebu itself has everything. It has a lot of beautiful beaches, dive spots, waterfalls, old churches and little islands. Southern Cebu is extra popular for its varied activities such as the famed Kawasan canyoneering and diving in Moalboal (Read my 18 things to do in southern Cebu). While northern Cebu has a lot of off-the-beaten beaches. The flagship destinations up north are Malapascua and Bantayan Island.

| AWESOME HOTEL DEALS IN CEBU |

Philippines Travel Guide

Bantayan Island, Cebu, Philippines

4. SIARGAO

Others said Siargao can be the next Boracay. I really hope not. This island—despite its burgeoning tourists—remains idyllic and laidback. Although primarily known as a surfing destination, Siargao Island has a long list of activities for non-surfers. I’ve been here four times already, but the list of things to experience keeps on expanding.

Check out my very detailed (self-serving hehe 😛 ) Siargao travel guide. 

| AWESOME HOTEL DEALS IN SIARGAO |

Siargao Travel Guide 2017

Magpupungko Rock Pools, Siargao Island

5. BOHOL

Bohol is Cebu’s neighbor. Bohol is as popular as Cebu for some reasons. It is small, yet it has a lot of things to offer, from unpopulated beaches like Anda to the popular Alona Beach, from bee farms to Chocolate Hills, from scuba diving to river cruises.

| AWESOME HOTEL DEALS IN PANGLAO, BOHOL |

Philippines Travel Guide

Chocolate Hills, Bohol, Philippines

What are the off-the-beaten destinations in the Philippines?

1. Isla de Higantes and Sicogon Island, Iloilo
2. Masbate
3. Britania Group of Islands, Surigao
4. Dahican Beach, Mati, Davao Oriental
5. Asik-asik Falls, North Cotabato
6. Batad, Ifugao
7. Cuatro Islas, Southern Leyte
8. Siquijor

What are the top diving destinations in the Philippines?

1. Anilao, Batangas
2. Malapascua Island, Cebu
3. Balicasag Island, Bohol
4. Apo Island, Negros Oriental
5. Coron, Palawan
6. Moalboal, Cebu

What are the top trekking destinations in the Philippines?

1. Mt. Pulag
2. Mt. Timbak
3. Mt. Mayon
4. Mt. Guiting-guiting
5. Mt. Talinis
6. Mt. Kanlaon
7. Mt. Apo
8. Mt. Dulang-Dulang

The Philippines Travel Guide You Can Read Somewhere

  1. Highly Recommended: The Philippines for beginners: 7 first-timer fails to avoid on your trip
  2. Lonely Planet’s Philippines Travel Guide 
  3. Independent UK’s Philippines Travel Guide 
  4. Fodor’s  Philippines Food Travel Guide 

 

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Jona | Backpacking with a Book

Hi, I'm Jona! I write stories and poetry and take a lot of photos, which I'm too lazy to upload. If you want to receive some photos that I don't share here on the blog, please leave your email here. I'm crazy about cats too. Feel free to browse through BWAB, and I would love it if you say hi! For collaborations, projects, and other things, please email me at backpackingwithabook@gmail.com For more stories about BWAB, check here. Connect with us through

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7 Comments

  1. Teesh says:

    Love how honest this is, Jona! When foreigner friends ask me about the Philippines, those are basically the same questions they ask lol

  2. Jet says:

    Very honest and no bias. I love the Philippines but I’d also describe the country this way. 😊😊

  3. Jud says:

    Really good explanation! A useful read definitely. I just have one more question which is causing me some anxiety. I am a healthy, curvey UK size 10 and apparently that is considered fat in the Philipines and my clothes will be labelled as XL in shops! I have also been told that Filipinos have no issue telling you to your face that you are fat! Obviously, this is very different to British culture.

    • Hi there, Jud!

      Eeer. This is kinda true. Most Filipinos make fun of each other and by extension, of foreigners. But I don’t think, we will say that to you unless we have a kind of bond already. And when you encounter someone saying that to you and you feel uncomfortable, please call out that someone. But most of the time, we just joke around—our weird way (by “our”, I mean, some of us) of making friends. I know it is weird. 😐

  4. […] lot of travel guides for Philippines mentioned that Pork Adobo is the most popular dish in the Philippines so of course we had to try. […]

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