Essential Philippines Travel Guide – Know Before You Go

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Las Cabanas Beach in El Nido.

The Philippines is a dazzling sprawl of 7,641 tropical islands in southeast Asia. From the bustling metropolis of Manila to the white-sand beaches of Boracay to the lush green Banaue rice terraces and the limestone cliffs of Palawan, it’s a country to get lost in nature. In this guide, I’ll share an overview and map of the best places to visit along with the essentials to know before you go: visas, vaccinations, safety, the best time to visit, how to get around, what to pack, and travel tips for visiting the Philippines.

Best places to visit

The Philippines is packed with things to do from swimming with whale sharks to UNESCO World Heritage sites to beautiful beaches. My tip is to plan your itinerary by island. I didn’t do this when I visited and I wish I had. That way, you can maximize your time and minimize your travel days. Here are some of the most popular tourist destinations, by island. I’ve put them on a map below.

Sweeping bay in Palawan.

Luzon Island

  • Manila – Capital city of the Philippines. Visit Intramuros, the Spanish colonial district of Manila which includes Fort Santiago.
  • Batad Rice Terraces in Ifugao – considered the Eighth Wonder of The World. The rice fields are a great cultural experience with hiking and waterfalls.
  • Taal volcano – trek to a volcano crater lake. Adventurous day trip from Manila.
  • Luzon Island is the largest island in the Philippines.

Bohol Island

  • Over 1,000 cone-shaped hills, known as the chocolate hills. Best seen in the dry season when they are brown.
  • Visit a sanctuary to see the cute large-eyed Tarsier monkeys.
  • Panglao Island just off the coast of Bohol Island and famous for Dumaluan Beach, and Hinagdanan Cave.

Palawan Island

  • Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • El Nido for boat trips and snorkeling amid limestone cliffs (karsts).
  • Coron is a popular dive spot thanks to its clear waters.

Boracay Island

  • Famous for White Beach which has epic sunsets.
  • Lively nightlife thrown in.

Cebu

  • Beautiful beaches, snorkeling, diving, and waterfalls.
  • Cebu City for culture including the historic Magellan’s Cross.

Bicol Island

  • Bicol region is home to Donsol, one of the best places to swim with whale sharks in the Philippines (.
  • Mayon Volcano with its beautifully shaped cone.

Siargao Island

  • Cloud 9 Surf Break – one of the most famous surf spots in the world. Lessons available by local instructors.
  • Natural rock pools, lagoons, and beaches to explore.

Mindoro Island

  • Puerto Galera – famous for White Beach, beach hopping, and dive sites.
  • Apo Reef National Park largest coral reef in the Philippines and second largest in the world. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Other destinations of note: With over 7,000 islands, this list could go on forever. Here are two other spots I couldn’t resist mentioning: Sulu Archipelago and Asik Asik Falls on Cotabato Island. And if you want more, here’s a list of the major cities in the Philippines and National Parks.

Map of the Philippines

You can find the attractions above shown on my Google Map of the Philippines.

Map of the best places to visit in the Philippines.

The best time to visit

The Philippines has a tropical climate that’s hot, humid, and rainy. It has two main seasons: the wet season and the dry season. Here’s an overview of the best time to visit.

  • December to April – Dry Season – The best weather. However, it is also peak season and therefore the most expensive and busiest time to visit. Book ahead.
  • June to October – Wet Season – The rainy season is the worst time to visit for the weather – the potential for typhoons and torrential rain. But, fewer people and lower prices.
  • May and November – Shoulder Season – A good compromise with a balance of decent weather and lower crowds/prices. Note this is May AND November, not May TO November.

Be aware that the weather changes depending on the location as well as altitude, so always check the weather locally for your itinerary. Here’s an in-depth weather guide. Related: 101 Things to Do When It’s Raining on Vacation.


Visas

Visitors from most countries get a free 30-day visa on arrival. For most people, this is enough but you can extend if you need to. Your passport must have at least 6 months’ validity remaining.

Onward tickets

I was on an open-ended trip when I visited the Philippines and planned to decide on my next country after I landed in the Philippines. Not an option, it turned out! You will not be allowed to board your flight unless you can show an outbound ticket that leaves the Philippines within your 30-day visa period. You can read more about the problem I had trying to board a flight to the Philippines with a one-way ticket and my list of Philippines Entry Requirement checks.

If you are backpacking in the Philippines on an open trip, you can pay a small fee (around $15) and get an onward ticket that they later cancel for you. I used Best Onward Ticket.


Vaccinations

While there are no legally required vaccinations for the Philippines, the NHS Fit for Travel website recommends you’re vaccinated or boosted for Hepatitis A and tetanus. If you want to be extra cautious, you might want to get vaccinated for Diptheria, Hepatitis B, Rabies, and Typhoid. There is no risk of yellow fever but you must show a certificate of vaccination if you’ve recently visited a yellow fever zone (mostly Africa and South America).

Malaria

The risk of catching malaria is generally low in the Philippines and most travelers won’t need anti-malaria pills. However, the risk increases a little based on location, elevation, time of year, and length of stay. Check a Malaria Map if you’re going remote or rural. The best tip is to wear mosquito repellent, which should also protect against dengue fever (which I caught in Mexico and don’t recommend!).


Boat on clear water in Philippines.

International airports

The three main international airports in the Philippines are:

  • Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) in Manila,
  • Mactan–Cebu International Airport
  • Clark International Airport (Manila’s low-cost airport north of the city).

International connections are increasing to tourist hotspots like Bohol and Boracay but the main airports will give you the best routes and prices. I use Skyscanner to check routes and prices.

Island hopping via ferries and bangkas

You have two options when it comes to getting around the islands by boat:

  • Ferries2GoTravel runs a good network of scheduled ferries between larger islands. It’s not like Greece where there are several ferries a day. Ferries typically only run once a day and not every day so plan your route. Some ferries travel overnight – check the timings closely.
  • Bangkas (pumpboats) are smaller boats that take shorter trips – think of them like local water taxis to get around the beaches. You’ll find the best information locally.

Domestic flights for island hopping

Flying is another way of island hopping. Here are my tips for taking internal flights in the Philippines:

  • Routes are competitive and served by several airlines. I’ve flown with and recommend Air Asia and Philippine Airlines. Cebu Pacific is another popular option.
  • Cheap promo fares sell out quickly, so last-minute flights are expensive. Here are my Tips For Booking Cheap Flights, the main one is to book early.
  • If you do want to save money, pack light as baggage prices can push up your flight cost. If you do book baggage, add it when you buy your ticket. As with the low-cost carriers in Europe, you pay extra to buy it at the airport.
  • Manila and Cebu are hub airports so you might have to fly through them rather than being able to fly directly between smaller islands. It pays to work out your whole route and connections before you start booking flights.
  • Weather often impacts flights so expect delays, and cancellations and don’t book connecting flights too close together. You don’t want to have to deal with a missed flight.
  • Expect to pay a departure fee when you fly. The fee changes between airports but is usually only a few dollars. Have pesos available to pay. The fee is usually included in international tickets.

Intercity buses

Buses are one of the cheapest ways to get around the Philippines within an island. But can also be the slowest. Most cities and towns are well-connected. I took the bus several times, including the night bus, and found it a decent enough experience (not like the scary buses in Vietnam!). Here’s a good list of the bus companies in the Philippines and their destinations. Pack a warm layer. The air-conditioning on buses is fierce.


Jeepney in Manila.

Getting around on Local Transport

Like most countries, you have several options for local public transportation. The most common options in the Philippines are:

Taxi

Taxis are readily available in cities. They’re air-conditioned and very affordable compared to many other countries. Here are a few insider tips:

  • Traffic in Manila and other cities can be terrible. If you have a flight to catch, allow extra time.
  • Make sure your driver turns on the meter. If they refuse, get out and find another cab.
  • Likewise, if the meter starts rising quickly, particularly in the first mile, it’s probably rigged. Despite the hassle, you’re better off getting out and taking another cab.
  • In Manila, there are yellow airport taxis and white, metered taxis. The yellow taxis outside arrivals are more expensive. For a better deal, head down to street level to find a white taxi.

Rideshare

Uber left the Philippines several years ago when the local branch was bought by Grab. Grab is now the most popular ride-share service in the city. Download the app to order cars, motorbikes, and food.

Jeepney

Converted WWII army jeeps, Jeepneys are local buses that run in most cities. They work similarly to Thailand’s songthaews and run a set route through the city, according to the number and destinations painted on the side. To work out the routes, ask a local. The air conditioning is au natural so wear your deodorant.

LRT

There is a small but effective light rail train in Manila. It has two lines that stop at most of the popular tourist spots. It’s cheap but crowded. Keep an eye on your bag and pockets.

Tricycle

Tricycles are the Philippines’ answer to the rickshaw and can be found throughout the country. Passengers sit in a sidecar rather than behind. Some are motorized, some are pedal bikes. They’re not for nervous people as they zip through traffic, often cutting the wrong way into oncoming traffic.

Prices are by agreement. For the best prices, it’s better to flag down a passing tricycle rather than one sitting outside a tourist site, and do haggle. It’s worth noting that for pesos per mile, I found the taxis cheaper than tricycles every time, even with hard bargaining. So, if you do take the trikes, you’re doing so for speed or experience, not price.


    Batad rice terraces.

Where to Stay: Hotels, resorts and hostels

The Philippines has accommodations to suit every budget from luxury resorts and hotels to locally owned hotels and hostels. Some of the cheaper hotels can feel a bit concrete and industrial, and windows aren’t always guaranteed. I stayed in a few hostels and bed bugs were a real problem (check for bed bugs before you sleep!). Here are my booking tips:

  • Air-conditioning or fan in your room – rooms are often priced according to whether you have a fan or a/c. Fan rooms are cheaper if you’re on a tight budget and can be good enough.
  • Hot water is considered a luxury and often costs extra in cheaper accommodation.
  • Shared bathrooms are common in hostels but also possible in family-run hotels.
  • Book ahead in high season and expect prices to double.
  • Prices can triple around New Year and Easter.
  • Keep in mind Asia peak periods too like Chinese New Year (February) and Japanese Golden Week (late April/Early May).

Related: The Best Travel Sites for Trip Planning | Tips For Your First Stay In A Hostel.


What to pack

As well as the usual items, here’s what I’d specifically recommend packing for your trip to the Philippines.

  • Refillable water bottle
  • Head torch
  • Dry bag
  • Raincoat (breathable)
  • Flip-flops
  • Travel towel
  • Power bank
  • Sleep sheet for hostels
  • Warm layer for cold transport
  • Mosquito repellent
  • Water shoes
  • Universal travel adaptor

I have a more detailed printable packing list as well as what to take on a long-haul flight and What are the Best Shoes for Travelling?


Sunset in El Nido.

Safety Risks

Safety risks in the Philippines are more nature-based – typhoons, earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, and drowning are the things to look out for. Keep an eye on the weather reports and local news as you travel.

Related: 40 Travel Safety Tips for a Stress-Free Trip.

Electricity

While things have improved in recent years, there are still parts of the Philippines where electricity is unstable. When I visited, El Nido was going through a phase of only having power between 2 p.m. and 6 a.m. Things are better now but there are frequent ‘brownouts’ when power simply cuts out. Tips:

  • Don’t pay for air conditioning upgrades in an area that doesn’t have reliable electricity.
  • Charge your electrical items when you can.
  • Pack a head torch.
  • Roll with it.

Tap water

The tap water is not safe to drink in the Philippines. Technically, there is a small part of Manila that claims drinkable water but even the locals don’t trust it. Drink bottled water only.

Toilets

Most toilets in tourist areas are Western style rather than squat loos, though you will probably still encounter a few squats in more remote areas.

Public toilets are rare. If you do find one, toilet paper is rarely provided. Speaking of TP, the sewage system cannot handle toilet paper. It must go into the bin next to the toilet. Yes, it can feel strange and icky at first, but you don’t want to be that person who blocks up toilets in a restaurant, do you?

Solo female travelers

I traveled solo to the Philippines and found it to be a very safe destination for solo female travelers. I didn’t get harassed or feel uneasy, I was comfortable hiring male guides on long treks to remote areas and traveling on night buses on my own. The locals I met were very friendly, as were other solo travelers. Overall, the Philippines was a lovely, welcoming country for a lone lady. Bathroom tip: while it’s getting easier to find tampons in the Philippines, pack what you need. Related: What To Do When You Feel Lonely Travelling Alone | 21 Tips for Eating Out Alone.

Cell service and wi-fi

Unfortunately, 4G and Wi-Fi are not as reliable as you want. Even if you buy a local SIM, the connection can be slow and patchy, especially in islands like Palawan. Touristy cafes and hotels are your best bet for connection but you’ll need to have some patience. I usually get a virtual SIM with Airalo. It saves packing a hotspot.

Money, ATMs, and Credit Cards

The local currency is the Philippine peso. While it’s possible to pay by credit card in many places, I wouldn’t go cashless. If you do pay by card, you might have to pay a transaction fee in smaller establishments or for small purchases. There are ATMs in all cities and most towns but do plan if you’re going somewhere remote and to smaller islands. ATMs charge a withdrawal fee which is usually P200 (that’s about $3.50).

Tipping

The standard tip in the Philippines is 10%. Sometimes it’s added to your bill but not always.

beef adobo with rice.

Food in the Philippines

Food in the Philippines is meat-heavy, often with cuts of meat you might not encounter at home like offal. The meat can be greasy and most dishes are heavily flavored with salt, sugar, and vinegar. It’s an acquired taste and, honestly, not one to my liking. But give it a go. I’ve written about what to eat and what to expect in my guide: Filipino Food – 21 Dishes To Try And Is It Any Good? If you’re stuck, try the street BBQ or spring rolls. Sorry veggies, the Philippines is going to be a challenge but here are some tips. If the local food isn’t for you, head to the Sofitel Manila Sunday Brunch for wonderful international food.

Escaping the crowds

The Philippines was pitched to me as Thailand 20 years ago (as was Myanmar). The truth is, that the Philippines has long been on the tourist radar. Secret Beach in Palawan is the biggest known secret, and at Hidden Beach, my snorkeling was marred by boats and diesel fumes. Finding a quiet spot may not be as easy as you think, but it can be done. If found serenity at Las Cabanas Beach in El Nido where there was just me, a local family, a dog, and a fruit seller. You just have to go left when everyone else streams right, ask the locals for secluded spots, and explore beyond Instagram. There are 7,641 islands after all. Not all of them can be crammed with tourists.

waterfall in Banaue.

10 Top Travel Tips

  1. Plan your itinerary early. There are lots of islands to visit and it’s better to choose a cluster of well-connected islands to avoid lots of travel days.
  2. Book ahead, especially during the high season. This includes flights, accommodation, and activities.
  3. Pack for tropical heat and expect some rain even in the dry season – flip-flops, a dry bag, and a travel towel are my packing essentials.
  4. Prepare for patchy internet and electricity in some areas. Charge batteries when you can.
  5. If you’re backpacking through Asia, make sure you have an onward ticket – you won’t be allowed to board your flight without one.
  6. Keep an eye on the local news – natural disasters are rare but they’re your biggest safety risk.
  7. Pack snacks – the food might not meet your expectations.
  8. Expect flight delays – don’t book connecting activities too close together.
  9. Don’t drink the tap water and don’t flush toilet paper.
  10. Don’t assume you can use credit cards everywhere. Check for ATM availability on smaller islands. Always carry some pesos.

Traveling to other countries in Asia?

If you’re traveling elsewhere in Asia, here are some of my other guides:

Vietnam: The Best Things To Do In Vietnam | 15 Must-Visit Cities in Vietnam | Vietnam Travel Guide

Thailand and Cambodia: Wine Tasting at Hua Hin Hills Vineyard in Thailand | Tonle Sap – The Trip that Changed my Life

Japan: Eating Kobe Beef in Japan | What to Eat in Japan | I Ate Fugu in Japan and Lived to Tell the Tale

China: 21 Best Things To Do In Hong Kong | How To Visit The Pandas in Chengdu

So, that’s my Philippines Travel Guide. Got any questions? Leave a comment below.

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Palm tree beach with text overlay.
Author - Jo Fitzsimons

Hi, I'm Jo, the writer behind Indiana Jo. In 2010 I quit my job as a lawyer and booked an around the world ticket. As a solo female traveller, I hopped from South America to Central America, across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It was supposed to be a one-year trip but over a decade later, it's yet to end. I've lived in a cave, climbed down a volcano barefoot, spent years as a digital nomad, worked as a freelance travel writer, and eaten deadly Fugu. Now I'm home, back in the UK, but still travelling far and wide. You can find out more About Me.