9 Tips for Visiting the Philippines For the First Time

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Las Cabanas Beach with palm trees Philippines

Every now and then I come across a country and for one reason or another we don’t get on – that was my experience with the Philippines. Don’t get me wrong, the country is beautiful, the people even more so it really was not them – it was me.

Three months breezing through Hawaii at the end of last year and time spent in Thailand have both given me a false sense of ease when it comes to travelling around islands. Relaxed entry requirements, and cheap flights and boats were the norm.

However, in the Philippines, things are different and a bit more planning is required. From getting into the country to getting around to booking a room, I just didn’t get it right and for most of my time it felt like I was pushing my Philippines journey up hill.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way. With the benefit of hindsight, here is my guide to visiting the Philippines.

1. Consider if the 21-day visa-on-arrival is enough

I had to smile when someone recently asked me if I’d visited all of the islands during my stay in the Philippines. Given there are over 7,000 of them and factoring in that the standard visa on arrival permits a short, 21-day stay, that would involve over 300 islands a day. That’s a lot even by a fast traveller’s standards! And I am not a fast traveller. I can (and did) happily pass over a week in Manila, spent more time than most in Puerto Princesa, and before I knew it, my visa was fast running out.

There are at least 4 main islands most first time visitors explore:

Luzon: home to Manila (the usual international entry and exit point) and, in the north, the Batad Rice Terraces.

Bohol: for the chocolate hills.

Palawan: for the beaches in El Nido and Coron.

Boracay: for beaches with nightlife thrown in.

That’s less than a week on each island if you work with the 21-day visa-on-arrival. For many (and for me) that wasn’t enough. Particularly when travel between locations can be slow (e.g. getting to El Nido from Puerto Princesa is around 6 hours by bus) or involve flights.

In my usual style, I thought I’d turn up in Manila, have a look around the Philippines and decide after a couple of weeks how long I wanted to stay. And it didn’t seem like a bad plan as it is possible to extend your visa within the Philippines for up to 56 days. But there is a catch.

In order to enter the Philippines you must have an outbound ticket and unless you have pre-arranged a visa, that ticket must be dated within 21-days of arrival. Extend your visa and you require a further ticket. Consequently, the reality of extending in-country is cost upon cost. Not something your average budget traveller likes to incur.

For that reason, it makes sense to decide on your length of stay in advance so you can book your return ticket and arrange your visa accordingly.

2. Make sure you have a return ticket

In light of the above, this may seem an obvious point, but I confess I had become complacent with entry requirements having spent a lot of time in Latin America where such things are largely free and breezy.

I’ve already written about the problem I had trying to board a flight to the Philippines with a one-way ticket. In short, you can’t. For me, this lead to a panic purchase at the airport of a return flight on a date and to a destination that ultimately was a bad choice in terms of both location and time. However, holding that return ticket in my hand, I became reluctant to extend my visa in the Philippines as it would have meant saying goodbye my outbound ticket.

There are a few alternatives if you want more flexibility. You could consider a fully refundable ticket from the likes of Tiger Airways, though this can be costly. You could buy a cheap, disposable ticket, though such a clear waste of money sits badly with me. Or, the more sketchy alternative it to ‘create’ a ticket (some tips from Wandering Earl on this). The ex-lawyer in me  feels the need to point out that this is not a legitimate way forward so make sure you think through the risks. 

3. Advance book the backbone of your island hopping

One of the cheapest ways to get around the Philippines used to be by boat but since Superferry sank a while back and sadly people died, the ferry is currently suspended between many routes. This makes flights the only mode of transport in many cases.

The good news is that the routes are competitive, served by a number of airlines (including Air Asia/Zest, Philippines Airlines, Tiger Airways and Cebu Pacific Air). The downside for wing-it travellers (like myself) is that the cheap promo fares sell out quickly, making impulse flight purchasing pretty expensive. Once again, Hawaii with its well-priced last-minute inter-island tickets lured me into a false sense of travel-impulsiveness.

If I had my Philippines time again, I’d work out the backbone of my trip – pick the islands I wanted to visit, divide up my visa time accordingly and get my flights booked up front. Yes, it kills spontaneity, but I found that spontaneity in the Philippines kills your budget.

4. Remember it is a developing nation

slum houses in Manila

This may seem like another obvious point, but travel through mainland Southeast Asia for any extended period of time and it’s easy to take basic amenities for granted. In that respect, the Philippines is different.

In El Nido, power is only available between 2 p.m. and 6 a.m., making air conditioning upgrades a waste of money and serving as a good reminder to charge your electrical items when you can. Equally, there are frequent ‘brown outs’, when power simply cuts out. Toilet paper is rarely provided (except in hostels and hotels), hot water is considered a luxury (and often costs extra) and sewage management isn’t what you might hope (impacting the nostrils and swimming conditions alike).

In honesty, this rudimentary side was one of my favourite parts of my trip (the toilet and sewage system aside), but can be a surprise for some used to the relative comforts of Thailand.

5. Hit the ground running if you have the 21-day visa

Did I mention that I’m a snail-like traveller? Consequently, I always take a few days to acclimatise to a new country, usually in its capital city, exploring the food, the culture and the people before doing any real sight-seeing.

However, if you’re on a short visa in the Philippines, you’re going to want to hit the ground running as there is too much to see to idle in one place without a plan. I’d recommend do at least some pre-planning of what you want to explore on the various islands. Whether that planning involves internet research, picking up a Lonely Planet or scraping the minds of fellow travellers the second you land, it will help you get the most out of your visa time.

6. Book beach accommodation and major sight-seeing ahead of time

I feel like a kill-joy with the repetitive message to plan ahead, but my impulsive travel approach tripped me up so many times in the Philippines, including when it came to getting good, well-priced accommodation.

In cities like Manila, cheap accommodation is pretty easy to come by. However, head to the likes of El Nido and you’re going to struggle a bit more. Popular and not exactly budget, I found the cheaper accommodation all booked out when I arrived without a reservation. This is particularly so if you travel on a weekend (and can even be the case with popular hostels).

During my short 5-day trip to El Nido, I had to change accommodation three times because my decide-on-the-day approach simply didn’t wash in these parts. That left me with limited room choices at the higher cost end.

And the book-in-advance advice doesn’t just apply to accommodation. Most people who land in Palawan want to visit the Underground River, often as a day-trip from Puerto Princesa. However, when I arrived, at the start of low season, tickets were booked out for more than a week in advance and I know people who travelled to Sabang (the town closest to the river) who were still unable to access tickets.

I really didn’t expect this sight, that I’d honestly not heard about until I reached the Philippines, to be as impossible to see as Alcatraz, but it appears to be the case. The lesson learned: book your ticket way in advance. You may be able to do that by emailing Banwa Art Cafe [Note: this is a lovely place and the owner is very friendly but if you think about staying here, check the beds first. I unfortunately found bedbugs here as well as rat droppings in the room.]

7. Accept that the Philippines is a bad food nation and get over it

I’ve met some people who disagree and perhaps it is because my trip to the Philippines was immediately preceded by a month in Japan, but I was consistently disappointed with the food in the Philippines. Street BBQ was nice and tapsilog enjoyable, but for me, that was as good as the food got. Unfortunately, fast food predominates in the Philippines where burger joints like Jollibee seem to be an institution.

I love to eat local and I spent weeks trying to search for something that simply doesn’t exist – consistently good food. In my final week in the Philippines, I accepted that the food isn’t their finest asset. With that disappointment gotten over, I ate amazing Indian, Japanese, European and Thai food during my stay as well as devouring the Sofitel Manila Sunday Brunch, banishing the guilt at not eating local.

8. Don’t expect the Philippines to be Thailand 30 years ago

Secret beach with many boats in the Philippines
Secret Beach – not so secret

It’s true that the hoards who have deeply trodden and churned up the banana pancake trail in the rest of South East Asia have barely begun to step foot in the Philippines. And for that reason many people expect the Philippines to represent some sort of panacea to the overcrowding of the beaches that has seized Thailand. Sadly, the Philippines has long been discovered by the beach loving crowd and the party is well under way.

This year Boracay was named number 1 island in the world (seriously, THE WORLD) by Travel + Leisure magazine – cue influx of American tourist. Equally, El Nido is far from the final frontier it claims to be. Not only is it possible to fly there (no machete needed to clear the jungle to get to these parts), the tours are so heavily organised that you can choose between tour A, B, C or D, like it or lump it. The result – Secret Beach is the biggest known secret around, Hidden Beach was hard to get a spot on and snorkelling necessitated boat dodging and sucking in diesel fumes. Add the omnipresent waking screech of tricycle brakes and development crammed into every square inch of prime Philippine coastline, and finding a quiet spot may not be as easy as you think.

That said….beauty is definitely on the itinerary if you can escape the masses. I’m almost tempted not to share this as I want it to remain relatively untouched, but search for Las Cabanas beach in El Nido (the main image above) and there you will find true paradise (during my visit there was a local family, a dog, a solo-Swedish backpacker and a fruit seller at the beach).

Las Cabanas Beach empty beach on El Nino island

Las Canbanas aside, my advice – lower your expectations of paradise and you’re less likely to be disappointed.

9. Don’t be beaten

The most important thing I came away from the Philippines with was determination. I feel like I have barely scratched the surface of this beautiful country and my time to leave came too soon. But, I will not be beaten. I will return. But next time I will have a much firmer plan in mind.

For more travel planning tips and stories about Asia, see:

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.

16 thoughts on “9 Tips for Visiting the Philippines For the First Time”

  1. I think that if you only go, and recommend to go, to the most popular places in Philippines – i.e. El Nido, Boracay or Bohol – you will not find a secluded paradise but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Philippines is a massive country and there are many under the radar, undiscovered and unspoiled places to be found here. Hitting a few tourist hot spots and making a blanket statement about the thousands of islands of the Philippines is unfair and inaccurate in my opinion. Philippines has a huge potential for off the beaten path discovery for adventurous travelers who care to dig a little deeper.

    • Pola, you’re right but the reality is that with limited visa time, most visitors are going to hit the top spots first – in the same way that most people who visit Italy are probably going to prioritise Venice, Florence and Rome. I’ll definitely be back to explore more but not every visitor has the opportunity to go to a country more than once.

  2. hi! just read what you have written about your experience with my country.. and yes, i do agree with you that spontaneity kills the budget here (sadly).. and yes, you should come back and explore the country more.. i suggest though that you visit islands from the visayas and mindanao or probably up north luzon.. but then again due to the availability of low budget airlines some if not most of the to-go places will somehow be a bit crowded.. but with food, i’m not sure i could recommend a restaurant that serves true blue Filipino cuisines.. coz i am not sure if that certain food is uniquely filipino or a version of a foreign cuisine.. well, i just hope that when you do come visit the Philippines again, your experience will be more wonderful than your last.

    • Thanks for the tips Florie. Next time I go to the Philippines, I’m going to do things very differently, and I’m hoping it will feel like a completely different place. I do have some good food tips from other people as well so maybe my eating will be more enjoyable as well! 🙂

  3. I kinda felt sad when you said “lower your expectations of paradise and you’re less likely to be disappointed”. Not because I am a Filipino but because I really do find a lot of strikingly beautiful and paradise-like beaches and islands here in the Philippines.

    But I am still trying to put myself in your shoes, which I believe what I also felt when I went to southern Thailand.

    But this is a great blog entry. Thanks a lot for enjoying the Philippines!

    • Hi Carlo, thanks for taking the time to comment. I’ve just looked back over the post which I wrote a while ago. I agree that the Philippines (the little I saw of it – I was only on a 21-day visa) has a LOT of beauty. I think the problem for me was how much it had been hyped-up before I went so I was foolishly expecting it to be less touristy, hence the reference to Thailand 20 years ago. I saw this particularly in relation to El Nido. Dubbed the Final Frontier, I really was expecting beaches like those I’d seen in Panama where I could play Robinson Crusoe as one of only a handful of people on the beaches. Instead, the ABCD tours all run the same route turning places like Secret Beach into something so un-secret it may as well be published on Perez Hilton’s website. I skipped Boracay because I anticipated a similar deal. However, I’m going to return, with lower expectations (no offence intended towards the Philippines, I think my expectations were unreasonably high!), and explore some more and hopefully find more places like the near-empty beach just outside of El Nido that convinced me that the Philippines does possess a slice of paradise. Any suggestions welcome!

      • Hi Jo,

        The problem when it comes to food is that majority of Filipino food is best tasted at a local’s house, or visit Philippines during its numerous fiesta celebration to sample as many local food as you want. There are also a lot of hole in the wall cafe in the city that is only known to locals. It’s very tricky to come up with a commercial list of restaurant that features authentic Filipino dishes, actually. The best versions is always made at home, cooked by our mothers and grandmothers, recipes passed down from one generation to the next.

        I suggest you connect with Nathan Allen of I Dreamed of This and Kyle Jennerman of Becoming Filipino, they are two foreigners having extended stay here in the Philippines, exploring the food and the sights. They could give you a foreigner’s eagle view and suggestions that would perhaps meet your expectations.

        • So, I need to get an invite to someone’s home for dinner?! 🙁 but at least it restores my faith that there are tasty dishes to have in the Philippines 🙂 Thanks for the blog referrals – I’ll check both of those out.

      • I guess you need to explore Carabao Island for a private island getaway and perhaps you will finally say Philippines is indeed a paradise here on earth .

  4. Hi Jo!

    Yeah, it’s not easy finding the ‘local’ cuisine spots in the ‘pines, but there are really good quality ones too. In Manila, I recommend the outdoor food court at Market!Market! mall in Taguig; and Wooden Spoon restaurant in powerplant mall at Rockwell area. Both are affordable and very filipino! Enjoyed reading your blog. I will come back for more tips hahaha Thanks!

  5. Hi,
    we got some improvement with the visa now. Most tourists can stay 30 days now.
    And after that you can now even extend easily up to 6 month at once.

  6. I love your unbiased take about your travel to the Philippines. I am a Filipino but I feel that even local tourists feel what you felt when you were here except of course the entry on food. My husband shares your sentiment on food though. He cringes every time he see food swimming on oil or sauce. Haha! And yes, I agree that spontaneity in the Philippines will indeed kill your budget.

    • Thanks, Kessa. I think I had too high expectations of the food when I visited the Philippines. Such a shame because I loved everything else about the country…though I do take comfort in the fact your husband shares me view – so, I’m not the only one who wasn’t bowled-over by the food. I will return and I will try to love the food more. But I will have a better plan next time 🙂

      • Awwww! I’m so flattered you took time to respond to me.

        I’ll keep tuning in to your blog. I might have recommendations where to eat when you come back.

        • Kessa, my mum taught me good manners – you took the time to message me so it’s only right I reply 🙂 I may not always be as quick as I want, but I always try to get get back to people and their comments. Please do keep reading and yes, I will definitely be in touch when I return to the Philippines!


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