Whether you’re a budget backpacker, slow traveller, or going on a family adventure, these practical tips for travelling to the Philippines for the first time will help you prepare for an epic trip to the archipelago.
I’ve grown up visiting different provinces in the Philippines since I was a little girl, and even lived and worked there for a few years as an adult. The country has been both a home and a holiday, and I’ve learned a few things about travelling through the islands the hard way. I love the unpredictability of it all.
These Philippines travel tips are updated for 2019 to reflect the current political state and environmental welfare of certain areas in the country. I hope you find them helpful.
Travel Tips for Visiting the Philippines for the First Time:
Be open minded and embrace “Filipino” time
The Philippines is made up of over 7,000 islands, which means that things run very much on island time. Things won’t run on time and bus and boat schedules are known to be unreliable (sometimes getting cancelled last minute). If you’re used to things being smooth and on schedule, you’re likely to get frustrated. Whether you’re in a queue or riding a local bus, try not to dwell on the negative - laugh things off, chalk it up to Filipino time, and stay flexible with your travels so you can switch up your plans if something goes awry. It all makes you more resilient, anyway!
Double check the weather
Roll up to the beach ready for paradise, and instead you’re faced with a tropical monsoon… #classic. One common mistake people make about the Philippines is thinking that every island has the same weather. Across the archipelago are four distinct climate zones. Check the forecasts carefully across each region and pick where to go based on that. Manila's wet season (July to Sept) is pretty intense, but lots of other areas are dry then. Keep an eye on earthquakes and typhoons wherever you’re planning to go, and plan to avoid those as well. (typhoon2000.ph)
Be respectful of the local environment
Whether you’re scuba diving in Bohol, or hiking a mountain in Cebu. Just remember to stay respectful and conscious of the environment you’re in. Don’t litter, don’t touch the coral, and make sure you take any plastic you see out of the sea (hey, it rhymes!). We need to preserve the beauty of the islands, especially in places where tourism has boomed. Please also try to remember, as cute as the local kids are, that they’re still kids - no need to take pics of them. Enjoy the memory of their laughter and carefree nature instead.
Be conscious of local and national politics
There’s a lot of political and environmental controversy happening in the Philippines right now, and it’s best that you do your research so you know what’s going on with the country. Especially in the southern region, such as southern Mindanao, where there are controversial Martial Laws in place. Keep your opinions to yourself and try not to get embroiled in a hot debate with local strangers, lest you offend them. It’s a tough time for politics around the world right now and things could get hairy. Keep it light!
Get meds and vaccines before you go
Make sure you get any medication or vaccinations you need before you travel to the Philippines, especially if you’re planning to go island hopping. Drugstores can be hard to find in some less popular tourist destinations, and some western medicines can’t be found out there (although there are alternatives). Dengue, rabies and typhoid prevention is a good place to start (check CDC and WHO). Same goes for tampons, pads, prescription meds, etc.
Research what things you can do or get in the Philippines that you can’t back home
For example, if you’ve wanted to get your Open Water Scuba Diving license then it’ll definitely be cheaper in the Philippines - plus the water’s guaranteed to be warmer, clearer and probably more beautiful! Because the waters are tropical, there are clownfish, turtles and anemones galore. The Philippines is also known for its beautiful world-class pearls, so things like high quality pearl jewellery is very affordable in the country.
Drink bottled water
Make sure you always drink bottled water, or at least filtered water from a restaurant. Brush your teeth with bottled water too. If you’re on a remote island, the tap water can be questionable (unless you’re in a good hotel). You can also get a water-filter bottle, which helps reduce plastic and is more eco-friendly. If you feel dehydrated, try and get an electrolyte drink like Lucozade Sport or have some good ol’ natural coconut water.
Be adventurous with local food
Filipino food is starting to gain recognition around the world. An amazing fusion of Spanish, Malay, Chinese and more, the Philippines has some of the most varied and exciting cuisines out there. From freshly grilled angel scallops on a beach, to national dish adobo, to fruit delicacies like durian and street food like adidas and balut, you should try as much as you can. At the very least, have some ube ice cream!
Don’t eat raw food or raw fruit unless you peeled it yourself
Be careful eating salads, raw food and peeled fruit (especially when you’re in a more remote location or during an island hopping tour) as these could have been prepared in a contaminaed environment or washed in contaminated water. If you’ve got bottled water, try to rinse the fruit before you eat it, or stick to the cooked food (BBQ anyone?) It’s better to eat fruits with a skin you can peel rather than ones you can’t. TRUST ME. Otherwise...
Prepare for an upset stomach
You know what they say about Bali Belly or Bangkok Belly? I guarantee that your stomach will feel unsettled at some point on your trip. From rich, salty Filipino food to ingesting rogue bacteria you picked up from a boat trip, the proverbial “it” is definitely going to happen. Make sure you have rehydration sachets or a “plugging” medication like Pepto-Bismol, available at drugstores in the country. Try to avoid salad or exposed food and unpeeled fruit unless you prepared it yourself - and stay hydrated!
Travel with cash
Finding a reliable card machines in more remote parts of the Philippines is like trying to catch a mosquito in one hand on your first try: chances are, you won’t! The Philippines is very much a cash society, so make sure you load up whenever you spot an ATM or somewhere to withdraw money. Always have at least a couple of 100 peso bills on you - you never know when you’ll need to grab a tricycle or taxi.
Expect a slow wifi connection
If you thought finding an ATM was difficult in a remote island, try getting a decent wifi signal! In one hotel we stayed at in Siquijor, there was a portable wifi hotspot stapled to a coconut tree that was shared between ten guests. I highly recommend getting your own portable wifi if you need reliable internet during your travels. If not, have a drink or meal at a decent hotel and see if they’ll let you connect to their wifi. The internet can be pretty slow in the Philippines, especially if you’re uploading large files. Do all your uploading and downloading before you travel. Time to go off grid!
When in doubt, opt for a hotel
In the Philippines, hotels are often nicer than Airbnbs - especially in Manila. Hotels are extremely affordable and have food, service and help at hand. If you go for a rented apartment, you might end up in a remote part of the city without a clue of what to do or where to go, and end up paying more in the long run. Philippine cities can be pretty tough and intimidating to get around if you’re not in a walkable district like Makati. If it’s your first time in the country, you’ll likely be happier staying in a hotel at least for the first few days. Plus you’ll be able to ask the staff for advice.
Chat to the locals
Filipinos are renowned as one of the friendliest, most good-humoured countries around. They’re always laughing and joking around - don’t be sensitive! Why travel unless you’re going to connect with another culture? Roll with the punches and make the effort to learn some Filipino words or phrases (in whichever dialect the region speaks - e.g. Cebuano in Cebu, Tagalog in Manila) - locals will be delighted. Some starter words: kumusta (hello), salamat (thank you), masarap (delicious), maganda (beautiful), mainit (very hot [in terms of the weather]).
Don’t be scared - enjoy yourself!
So many people I know have told me that the Philippines was one of their favourite countries to visit, and I’m always overjoyed to hear it - it’s one of the most beautiful archipelagos in the world! Even though I might be biased, Philippine islands were voted best in the world not once, twice, but three years running, so that speaks for itself. Ignore the hearsay about being robbed or kidnapped in the country - and definitely don’t stay holed up in a resort! The country is just as ‘dangerous’ or ‘safe’ as any other. Whilst there’s violence in southern Mindanao, it rarely affects tourists. Enjoy yourself.
Salamat for reading! If you've got any questions, or any other tips, drop me a comment - I’d love to hear from you.
Mel left London to chase summer around the world, one country at a time. She loves the ocean, writing postcards, and solo exploration. Travel with her on Instagram.