Philippines

Everything you should know before your trip to the Philippines

Planning a trip to the Philippines and feeling a bit lost? We’ve got you covered! In this post, we’re sharing all our tips and tricks from our own adventure. From finding the best places to stay and getting around to discovering delicious food, you’ll find everything you should know before your trip to the Philippines right here. We want to make sure you’re ready for an amazing time in the Philippines.

Everything you should know before your trip to the Philippines

1. Food and cuisine
2. Accommodation
3. Transportation
4. Local culture
5. Public holidays and festivals
6. Language and communication
7. Safety and health
8. Money and budgeting
9. Apps and technology
10. Sightseeing
11. Connectivity
12. Visa and entry requirements

1. Food and cuisine

Filipino cuisine is an exciting mix of rich flavors and influences from various cultures. From hearty stews to sweet treats, the Philippines will definitely surprise you on many levels. A lot of people told us that the Filipino cuisine is mediocre at best, so we honestly didn’t know what to expect when we got there. And sure, it’s maybe less diverse than the Thai kitchen or less spicy than the Sri Lankan, but the Philippines definitely have some must-try dishes too! Here’s a glimpse into some of the must-eat foods of the Philippines.

Adobo

Probably the most famous food in the Philippines is Adobo, a dish that stands as a national culinary icon. Made with chicken or pork simmered in a marinade of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, and black pepper, it’s both savory and comforting. It’s perfect for those who want a taste of home-style Filipino cooking. We’ve tried adobo a few times, and you can get it from most (road side) grill houses!

Halo-Halo

You can’t leave the Philippines without trying its iconic dessert, Halo-Halo. This colorful concoction is filled with sweetened beans, fruits, jellies, a scoop of ice cream, and topped with shaved ice and evaporated milk. It’s a real shame that we only discovered this dish on our last day in the Philippines. We would’ve eaten a lot more of it since it’s perfect for cooling down on a hot day.

Sinigang

Sinigang is a sour tamarind soup with a mix of meats or seafood and vegetables. The tangy broth is both refreshing and complex, really difficult to explain but once you try it you’ll know what we’re talking about! Kelvin tried pork sinigang at Sharky’s Restobar in Coron and really liked it. They told us that each region in the Philippines has its own twist on this classic, so try it wherever you go!

Western food (yes, we know)

Everything you should know before your trip to the Philippines: food

A bit of a strange one, and something we’ve never done before in this type of blog post, is include non-local dishes. When we first arrived, we were really scared to try out local dishes because a lot of people (wrongfully) warned us about Filipino food. This meant that we, at least for our first days in the Philippines, resorted to western food – a lot. Very unlike us, we know. However, the bright side of this is that we now know that you can get great western food in the Philippines! Whether it’s burgers, pasta, pizza, tapas, wraps,… We’ve tried it all in the Philippines and they really know their stuff.

2. Accommodation

General information

Accommodation in the Philippines tends to be more expensive compared to other countries in Southeast Asia. We spent an average of € 48 per night for both of us. Compared to € 41 per night in Thailand, € 26 per night in Vietnam, or even € 23 per night in Sri Lanka, this is a (big) difference. Of course, where you’re staying can differ greatly between people. But, since we aim to experience a nice mix of budget accommodations and more luxury hotels, we think we have a nice overview of the accommodation costs in the Philippines.

We were able to pay with our credit card in all accommodations we stayed in. We booked and paid for most of them in advance, while we reserved some in advance but paid upon arrival. Since our Mastercard gives us some miles for every euro spent, we really like this!

Budget accommodation options

We go more in depth about this in our Philippines budget breakdown, but we found that going with budget hotels was less expensive than searching for hostels. This is a trend we’ve noticed throughout our world trip! Sure, if you just want a bed to sleep in them some hostels might still be cheaper. However, the moment you want a little extra comfort (even if it’s just a double bed in a dorm or a more convenient location), then hotels are usually cheaper. If you’re looking for budget hotel recommendations, we highly suggest the accommodations-part of our budget breakdown!

Special accommodation options

The Philippines has an abundance of fancy and cool accommodation options. Our favorite was definitely sleeping in a treehouse at Mandala Tribe Treehouses. But even if you’re more into resorts or luxury accommodations, the Philippines has something for you!

3. Transportation

Getting around by bus

Buses are convenient, affordable, and give you a taste of “local life”. On top of that, they all departed and arrived on time. Even though some tourists (and locals!) tried discouraging us from taking the bus, we have zero regrets in doing so. It is one of the most affordable ways to get around in the Philippines!

The most noteworthy thing about taking the bus in the Philippines, is how to calculate the fare. The conductor will punch holes on the ticket to indicate the date, the base fare, and the additional cost (depending on the distance). On our first bus, the numbers 2, 3, and 7 were punched, indicating a total fare of 237 pesos. It might seem daunting or difficult at first, but it really isn’t. We highly recommend asking the conductor (or a local) to explain it to you when you take your first bus. Also, if you’re a senior or student you can get a 20% discount!

In general, you can bring your smaller luggage on board. The bus driver will stow larger luggage, like suitcases or backpacks, in the compartment under the bus.

Getting around by tricycle (tuktuk)

First things first, a tuktuk is called a tricycle in the Philippines. The locals will understand you when you say tuktuk, but it really isn’t as commonly used as in the rest of Southeast Asia. 😉

We used tricycles a fair amount of times, either by hailing them on the side of the road, ordering them through an app (more on that later), or by asking our accommodation to arrange one.

We (almost) never haggled on the price for two reasons. The first being that tricycle rides in the Philippines are, dare we say, dirt cheap (we usually paid less than € 1 for a 15 minute ride or so). The second reason is that the fares are set in most places we visited. The drivers usually have a poster somewhere in the vehicle to indicate what the fare will be, eg. from the city center to the beach is 150 pesos. The only exception to this was when we traveled with friends. Because there were more of us, we realized we had a bit of bargaining power and made use of it. We highly recommend making some friends along the way to either share the fare, or try to haggle the price down a bit!

Always check with locals or your accommodation how much a trip should cost, and make sure you know the price for the whole group (rather than per person). Also, we didn’t see any “metered tricycles” in the Philippines, so agree on a price before hopping in the vehicle.

Getting around by taxi

We only used taxis in the bigger cities (Cebu City, Manila) and always ordered them through a ridesharing app (more on that later). We have zero complaints about using taxis in the Philippines! They are clean, affordable, and all drivers we had drove very safely.

We only recommend taking taxis when you’re carrying a lot of luggage and have to go somewhere far or fast, like the airport. If you have time to spare, take the bus, and if the distance isn’t too far, hop in a tricycle! If you want comfort all the time and have money to spend, feel free to take a taxi of course.

Getting around by ferry

The Philippines is home to more than 7000 islands, which means you’ll probably be on a boat at some point during your trip. We have nothing bad to say about ferries in the Philippines. The ones we took were clean, had enough space, and arrived (more or less) on time. We even had WiFi on a couple of them!

You can almost always choose between multiple operators, ranging from budget-friendly (and slower), to more expensive (and faster). Depending on how much time you have in the Philippines, you might opt for the fast crafts to save on transportation time.

You can buy tickets online through 12go.asia or at the counter. If you want to see the full range of options, buying at the counter might be the better option. That is, if it isn’t high season because then we really recommend buying in advance!

Another tip we have for you is to arrive at the port some time in advance. There’s some security and screening that happens before you board the boat, and this takes some time. Sure, you don’t have to arrive 3 hours in advance like with air travel, but don’t underestimate this. The most thorough screening we went through was on Coron Island. Here we had to go through metal detectors, let security do a bag search, and all passengers had to put their luggage in a straight line so that a dog could sniff it for forbidden items.

One downside to ferry rides is that they are pretty weather dependent. Although cancellations with ferries are rare, they do happen (as well as delays). If you’re visiting between July and October (monsoon season), there’s a high chance that ferry rides are canceled because the Philippines attracts a lot of typhoons during that time.

Be aware that boat trips can cost significantly more when you compare them to buses or tricycle rides. If you are all about budget traveling, consider visiting less islands and staying longer in one place. Our boat tickets ranged from € 5 for a 20 minute ride (quite affordable), to € 45 per ticket to get from Coron to El Nido. In addition, you’ll also have to pay a terminal fee when entering or leaving an island in the Philippines in most places. Make sure to factor in this expense when creating your itinerary, or just follow our amazing Philippines itinerary instead. 😉

Getting around by plane

For people that don’t like boat trips, are on a tight schedule, or don’t have to worry about money, planes are the way to go. The most prominent airlines in the Philippines are Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific, cebgo (regional brand of Cebu Pacific), AirSwift, Sunlight Air, and AirAsia (Philippines).

The first thing you should know is that flight cancellations are very normal in the Philippines. Similar to ferry rides, flights do not take off when the weather doesn’t permit. We actually had this happen ourselves, when our flight from Dumaguete to Manila was canceled because of the wind. The crazy thing about this whole situation was how the locals found this completely normal! After they announced the cancellation, everyone just got out of their seats and left the airport without making a fuss. We were the only ones freaking out! 😂 Luckily, we got a full refund.

In addition to the point above, make sure to have some margin when relying on flying. If your flight to Manila gets canceled the day before flying back home, you might not make it in time! We recommend having a more flexible schedule (both for flights as well as hotel reservations), and taking a margin of 1-2 days.

The main airports that offer direct flights when flying domestic are Manila and Cebu. If you’re stranded in a more remote location, chances are you’ll have a layover in one of these airports. It might be worth it to check ferry schedules to either one of these cities in order to minimize your layover time.

All in all, we recommend taking planes in the Philippines, especially if you want to save on transportation time. They’re not that expensive (still way more costly than taking a ferry), and depending on what cities you visit, flying might even be inevitable!

4. Local culture

Before diving into the vibrant culture of the Philippines, one thing you’ll notice is the friendliness of the Filipinos. Everyone will always greet you with a big smile, we absolutely loved it!

When it comes to religion, the Philippines stands out in Southeast Asia for being predominantly Catholic, a result of over three centuries of Spanish colonization. You’ll find beautiful old churches everywhere, and during religious festivals like Holy Week or Sinulog (more on that later), the devotion and cultural celebrations are quite the sight. Almost all of our tour guides were religious catholics, and all of them wore cross necklaces!

Haggling is very much a part of shopping in the Philippines, especially in markets and smaller shops. Prices are often negotiable, although we must admit we never really did it. The main reason for this is that prices in the Philippines are pretty low already. The only time when we did haggle was when we were traveling with some friends. Being with a group of 4 or 6 people really gives some bargaining power when talking to tricycle drivers, so feel free to use that power!

Don’t be surprised to see and hear influences from all over the world. The culture in the Philippines has been shaped by the Spanish, American, Chinese,… you name it. You’ll notice Spanish-sounding names, buildings with colonial architecture, festive American-style Christmas celebrations, and even a love for basketball. Oh yes, Filipino people really love their basketball!

A tip for smoother transactions that we learned throughout our Southeast Asian travels is to always carry smaller bills and change. Stocking up on smaller notes can save you a lot of hassle, although we must say we’ve only experienced one driver not having change.

Lastly, not so much culture related but more of an observation, is the love for (and presence of) malls. Sure, Bangkok or Singapore house a lot of malls too, but we never expected to find so many malls in small towns in the Philippines. It probably has something to do with malls having air conditioning in the Filipino heat. 😉

5. Public holidays and festivals

We already mentioned that people in the Philippines are very religious. This means that holidays like Christmas and the Holy Week (the week between Palm Sunday and Easter) are celebrated very seriously. To give you an idea, most broadcasting TV stations are closed in the week before Easter! In addition to the ones mentioned, the Philippines also celebrates the following holidays.

Independence Day or Araw ng Kasarinlan, commonly Araw ng Kalayaan (June 12th)

This is a national holiday in the Philippines, commemorating the declaration of Philippine independence from Spain in 1898. It’s the country’s National Day with parades in Manila as well as local celebrations. Expect a lot of impact on public transportation or if you plan on visiting during that time. Make sure you have all your hotel reservations booked in advance!

All Saints’ Day or Undas (November 1st)

All Saints’ Day is a time when Filipinos pay homage to their deceased loved ones. Families gather at cemeteries to clean and decorate graves, offer prayers, and remember the departed through storytelling and sharing of food. Usually schools are closed during this time, as well as a lot of businesses. Another testament to how religious holidays are celebrated in the Philippines!

National Heroes Day (last Monday of August)

National Heroes’ Day in the Philippines is a national holiday dedicated to honoring all the country’s recognized heroes throughout its history. That doesn’t mean that individual heroes, like Jose Rizal (31 Dec), Andres Bonifacio (30 Nov), and Ninoy Aquino (21 Aug) don’t have their own, separate holidays. Some of these are national holidays, others are regional.

6. Language and communication

Useful phrases

One thing you’ll quickly discover is that English is widely spoken in the Philippines, making communication quite easy. Filipinos often switch between English and their native tongues, and you’ll find English used in signs, menus, and official documents. While you might not need it, picking up a few local phrases can be fun and endearing to the locals. Try greeting with a “Magandang araw” (good day) or expressing thanks with “Salamat”. The thing we remember most, however, is that many locals end their sentences with “sir” or “madam”. Yet another sign of Filipino politeness and hospitality!

Language barriers

The language barrier in the Philippines is almost non-existent. English proficiency is impressively high, even in more remote areas. Whether you’re speaking with hotel clerks, waiters, taxi drivers, or even locals in small towns, you’ll find that most Filipinos can communicate effectively in English. 

That said, the prepared traveler might find it useful to have Google Translate installed on their phone. But honestly, between English and the friendly smiles, you’ll rarely find yourself lost in translation here.

7. Safety and health

Travel insurance

Securing travel insurance is essential. Look for a plan or credit card that includes coverage for medical expenses and emergency assistance. It’s also wise to consider insurance for possible trip delays or cancellations, as these occurrences are frequent. We personally chose a Mastercard that gives us all these features, along with car rental insurance, and highly recommend doing the same.

For those seeking a dependable travel insurance provider, we recommend Visitors Coverage. They collaborate with reputable insurance underwriters and providers, offering a diverse selection of tailored policies to suit various needs.

Health precautions, safety tips, and vaccinations

We made sure to get our vaccinations sorted for the trip by booking an appointment at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp. After chatting with the doctor about our travel plans, we got a list of recommended vaccinations tailored to our itinerary. While some shots, like rabies or typhoid, might not be crucial if you’re sticking to resorts and avoiding street food, we decided to play it safe and went for all 13 recommended vaccinations. Yep, lucky number 13!

If you’re after vaccination info without a trip to the doctor’s office, the Belgian website wanda.be has a great breakdown of required and recommended shots by country. For our Philippines trip, we got jabbed for Hepatitis A and B, tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis, polio, measles-mumps-rubella, typhoid fever, rabies, and Japanese encephalitis.

Now, what about malaria? Travelers planning to explore the southern region of Palawan island should be aware of the potential risk of malaria transmission. If you’re visiting the south of Palawan, it’s advisable to take malaria medicine as a preventive measure, in addition to using mosquito repellent containing DEET. In all other parts of the Philippines, mosquito repellent is sufficient which means you don’t have to take malaria pills.

8. Money and budgeting

Currency and exchange rates

The official currency of the Philippines is the Philippine Peso (PHP). It’s denoted by the symbol ₱ and is abbreviated as PHP. Currently 100 PHP is equal to around € 1,60 ($1,71), or 60 PHP ≈ 1 euro (or 1 USD). This made it fairly easy to make quick calculations!

When it comes to withdrawing money, do know that all ATMs in the Philippines charge a fee. This fee is something between 100 and 300 PHP, the most common amount we came across was 250 pesos. HSBC and Chinabank have the lowest fee and some of the highest withdrawal limits. The only downside is that they don’t have a lot of machines in the country. So, the moment you see an ATM of these banks, make sure to withdraw some money!

When it comes to cash versus credit, we used our credit cards to pay for hotels and paid in cash when eating out or when we had to pay a driver. We haven’t seen a lot of people use their cards when paying in a restaurant. Our feeling is that cash is still very much preferred in the Philippines.

Tipping is not mandatory in the Philippines, but they have something else to get just a little bit of extra money out of you: service charge. In around 7 out of 10 restaurants we visited, service charge (usually between 5 to 7 percent) was already included. The highest service charge we’ve seen was 12%, so you can believe we did not tip extra in that restaurant!

And now that we’re talking about getting a little bit of extra money from you, this applies to tours and excursions, too. The Philippines are notorious for trying to charge extra for everything. When we did a canyoneering tour at Kawasan Falls, we had to pay an extra 10 pesos (€ 0,16) everytime we wanted to use the swings. Same goes for Cambugahay Falls on Siquijor, although there the fee was 50 pesos (€ 0,80) for unlimited swings. Going on tour A in El Nido? Better believe you’ll have to pay 200-400 pesos extra for the (mandatory) rental of a kayak.

So, before paying the tour operator (or anyone, really), always make sure to know what is included in the price and what isn’t. That being said, we really don’t have a bad word to say about Filipino tour guides. They go above and beyond what you expect from them, whether it’s taking countless pictures and videos, preparing your food, or even haggling with a tricycle driver after the tour is done!

Budgeting tips

For budgeting tips, we kindly forward you to the tips part of our Philippines Budget Breakdown. 😉

9. Apps and technology

Navigation apps

For navigation in the Philippines, we primarily relied on Google Maps, which served our needs well. However, like in other countries such as Sri Lanka and Vietnam, we occasionally encountered quirky directions while navigating on scooters. If this happens to you, don’t hesitate to ask locals for guidance. We had to do this more often than we’d like to admit.

ATM Fee Saver

In search of reliable ATMs with the lowest fees? Use the app ATM Fee Saver! We always mention this app in our guides just because it’s so useful. And no matter what ATM you use, the key in minimizing fees is to estimate how much money you’ll need, and withdraw everything in one go. Also, always decline the conversion (this applies to when you’re paying with your card, too). 😉

Ridesharing apps

In larger cities like Manila and Cebu, we utilized Grab for convenient transportation, especially to and from the airports. Surprisingly, in Dumaguete, we were even able to order a tricycle using Grab! However, outside of these urban centers, Grab’s availability was limited (or even, non-existent). In smaller towns and rural areas, we resorted to traditional methods like hailing tricycles by the roadside or arranging transportation through our accommodations. Unlike in Thailand or Vietnam, Grab isn’t as widely available. Other apps (that we didn’t use) are JoyRide and MoveIt, although they seem to be more catered to single riders and solo travelers.

Food delivery apps

We never ordered food through delivery apps, bar one time: our last night in Manila. For this, we used Grab (GrabFood) to order… McDonald’s. 😂 We don’t have a lot of insights on this topic, although we heard that FoodPanda might be a good alternative, too!

10. Sightseeing

Must-see attractions

Where do we even start with sightseeing in the Philippines? It’s a paradise with so much to offer! If you’re heading to Coron, make sure to check out our guide to the 5 bucket list destinations you can’t miss on Coron Island. And if you’re all about those beach vibes, don’t skip our list of the 5 incredible beaches in the Philippines. The Philippines has some of the most beautiful beaches we’ve ever seen!

Local tours and activities

With thousands of islands, island hopping in the Philippines is a must. You can choose to do a Coron Island Tour or El Nido Island Tour, or go on a Philippine expedition that takes you from El Nido to Coron!

And when you’re in Moalboal, you should definitely go on a canyoneering adventure at Kawasan Falls. It was one of the highlights of our time in the Philippines!

Recommended itineraries

We’d get it if doing your own research is overwhelming. That’s why we created the ultimate itinerary for 2 weeks in the Philippines, designed to help you make the most of your time in this beautiful country. And if you’re headed to Palawan, don’t miss our comprehensive travel guide to El Nido, packed with tips on where to stay, what to do, and where to eat. Plus, if you’re craving a more hidden gem adventure, our Siquijor travel guide has everything you need to know about exploring the best island in the Philippines. Why do all the hard work when our detailed guides have already done it for you?

11. Connectivity

Sim cards and data

After hours of online research prior to our arrival, we decided to go for a Smart sim. The two “main players” when it comes to sim cards in the Philippines are Smart and Globe. We went with Smart and can recommend them! We always had an LTE/4G connection with fast (enough) speeds, which was surprising after reading so many bad things about connectivity in the Philippines. If you want to be absolutely sure that you’re connected everytime and everywhere, we (and locals) suggest going for two sims. The reasoning behind this is that on some islands there are more Smart-towers, on others Globe is more reliable. For our itinerary, Smart was fine but if online connectivity is important to you: get 2 sim cards! Some phones allow dual-sim, or you and your partner can both get sims from a different operator.

However, many people we met who had Globe were not happy with the service. Usually they couldn’t even get a signal, or when they did have a signal the paid “load” (top up balance) did not work. Take that as you want!

Lastly, we must admit that we (probably) got scammed when buying the sim card. We bought it in a mall in order to avoid paying too much at the airport. However, the very friendly lady told us we had to pay 860 pesos (€ 13,50) for 24GB/30 days. This seems reasonable at first, however a quick check on the Smart website told us this should cost 300 to 500 pesos. So, please don’t make the same mistake as we did!

Now, obtaining a sim card in the Philippines is not as easy as it sounds! To buy a sim card in the Philippines as a foreign tourist, you’ll usually need your passport, proof of address (like a hotel booking), and a return ticket. The lady salesperson did not ask for our return ticket, but we did have to show our passport and the address of our hotel. After you’ve given the information, it takes around 24 hours to be confirmed. After this, your sim will be activated and is valid for 30 days.

If all of this sounds like a big hassle (which quite frankly, it is), then we highly recommend Airalo. It’s the most reputable and well-known eSIM company around, the most convenient option if you want to be connected from the moment you set foot in the Philippines. And what’s even better is that you can use the code TastingSunsets for a $3 discount on your first order. How cool is that? 😉

Internet availability

We already mentioned how happy we were with our Smart sim, so in our case phone connectivity was pretty good. Friends we met along the way had more issues, so take this into account when visiting the Philippines!

When it comes to WiFi availability, it is a different story. Many restaurants we visited provided WiFi, but they required a password that was never shared publicly. This meant that we had to ask for the password every time, which resulted in us just not bothering and using the data from our phone. If you’re a budget traveler without a sim, get ready to ask for the password… a lot!

Another thing we’ve noticed is that fast food chains in the Philippines (McDonald’s, Jollibee, KFC,…) never offer public WiFi. We were absolutely shocked the first time we entered a McDonald’s! We thought this was a global thing: fast food chains give free WiFi. Well, not in the Philippines! Off topic: fast food chains also don’t have power outlets that you can use, so working remotely from any of them is a big no-no.
Lastly, we can say that connectivity in the hotels we stayed at was pretty okay. Sure, the speeds weren’t the best and we had a power cut or two, but that is to be expected. 😉 It never stopped us from planning the next steps of our world trip or doing some other research, and we were connected 99% of the time!

12. Visa and entry requirements

Entry requirements

The entry requirements for the Philippines are very basic. Holders of passports must ensure their passports are valid for at least six months at the time of arrival. They should also possess a return or outbound ticket to their country of origin or next destination. All standard stuff, the only thing worth mentioning is that travelers need to have completed the eTravel Travel Declaration Form. This form is available free of charge on the eTravel platform. You can fill out the form 72 hours prior to arrival.

Visa application process

The Philippines was the first country of our world trip where we didn’t have to apply for a visa! Yes, we could enter the Philippines free of charge for up to 30 days. There are currently 157 countries that can enter the Philippines visa free for 30 days, Brazilian and Israeli nationals can even visit for up to 59 days! You can check this official government website if your country is visa free for a certain amount of days. So, other than filling in the eTravel Declaration Form, you can enter the Philippines free of charge!

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