While upmarket resorts in the Philippines can be as expensive as anywhere else in the world, for anyone with modest spending habits and tastes, the country is inexpensive. You can get by on a frugal budget of around P800 per person (£13/US$20/€15) a day, but you might need to avoid the most popular tourist destinations such as Boracay (or visit during the off-season), and you’ll be limited to bare-bones cottages and pokey rooms in basic hotels, usually without air conditioning or hot water. On this budget you’d also have to confine your eating to local restaurants and carinderias, with little leeway for slap-up meals in nice restaurants. You’d also have to plan any flights carefully, only buying the very cheapest tickets online or limiting yourself to buses and ferries. A budget of P1600 (£26/US$40/€30) a day will take your standard of living up a few notches, allowing you to find reasonable beach cottage and hotel rooms and have enough left for modest eating out, drinking and budget flights.
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On P3200 (£52/US$80/€60) a day, you can afford to stay in solid, reasonably spacious cottages on the beach, usually with a veranda and air conditioning, and have plenty for domestic flights and good meals in local restaurants.
Crime and personal safety
The Philippines has a reputation as a somewhat dangerous place to travel (at least in the US and UK), but if you exercise discretion and common sense this really isn’t the case. Politically the Philippines is a volatile place, with secessionist movements present in Mindanao and communist guerrillas active in a number of areas. Insurgency rarely has an impact on tourists, but you should avoid troublespots. Updated travel advisories are available on foreign office or state department websites including wwww.state.gov in the US and wwww.fco.gov.uk in the UK.
There are occasional reports of thieves holding up vehicles at traffic lights and removing mobiles and cash from passengers. If you’re in a taxi, keep the windows closed and the doors locked, just to be safe. In the Malate area of Manila, the so-called Ativan Gang has used the drug lorazepam (Ativan is one of its proprietary names) to make their victims drowsy or put them to sleep. Several members of the gang were arrested in 2010, but similar cases have been reported in Baguio and Banaue, and it’s best to be on your guard if you’re approached by people who seem unusually keen to offer you assistance.
Drug laws in the Philippines are stringent and the police are enthusiastic about catching offenders. No one, foreigner or otherwise, caught in possession of hard or recreational drugs is likely to get much sympathy from the authorities. Carrying 500 grams or more of marijuana is deemed to be trafficking and carries the death penalty, while a lesser amount will usually result in a prison sentence. The 24-hour emergency number throughout the Philippines is t 117.
Usually 220 volts (similar to Australia, Europe and most of Asia), although you may come across 110 volts in some rural areas – it’s best to ask before plugging in appliances. Most cell-phones, cameras, MP3 players and laptops are dual voltage (hair-dryers are the biggest problem for North American travellers). Plugs have two flat, rectangular pins (same as the US and Canada). Power cuts (known locally as “brownouts”) are common, especially in the provinces. If you are worried about using valuable electrical equipment in the Philippines – a laptop computer, for instance – you should plug it into an automatic voltage regulator (AVR), a small appliance that ensures the voltage remains constant even if there is a sudden fluctuation or surge in the mains.
Most tourists do not need a visa to enter the Philippines for up to 21 days, though a passport valid for at least six months and an onward plane or ship ticket to another country are required.
You can apply for a 59-day visa from a Philippine embassy or consulate before you travel. A single-entry visa, valid for three months from the date of issue, costs around US$40, and a multiple-entry visa, valid for one year from the date of issue, around US$90. Apart from a valid passport and a completed application form (downloadable from some Philippine embassy websites) you will have to present proof that you have enough money for the duration of your stay in the Philippines.
Your 21-day visa can be extended by 38 days (giving a total stay of 59 days) at immigration offices (see relevant chapters). The charge for this is around P2000, and you may be asked if you want to pay a P500 Express fee that is supposed to guarantee the application is dealt with within 24 hours. If you don’t pay the fee, the process can take at least a week. Note that it pays to be presentably dressed at immigration offices, as staff might refuse to serve you if you turn up wearing a vest, shorts or flip-flops.
Many travel agents in tourist areas such as Malate in Manila and Boracay offer a visa extension service, saving you the hassle of visiting immigration centres. Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to use one of the fixers that hang around immigration offices, particularly in Manila. The “visa” they get you is often a dud and you run the risk of being detained and fined when you try to leave the country.
Visitors are allowed to bring in four hundred cigarettes, two tins of tobacco and two bottles of wine and spirits not exceeding one litre. If you arrive with more than US$10,000 (unlikely) in cash you are meant to declare it, and you won’t be allowed to take out more than this sum in foreign currency on leaving. Note that not more than P10,000 in local currency may be taken out of the country, though this is rarely, if ever, enforced.
A typical travel insurance policy usually provides cover for the loss of baggage, tickets and cash or cheques, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey. When securing baggage cover, make sure that the per-article limit will cover your most valuable possession. Most policies exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid: in the Philippines this can mean scuba diving, whitewater rafting, windsurfing, trekking and kayaking.
If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment, and in the event you have anything stolen, you must obtain an official statement from the police. In the Philippines this is sometimes a slow process that involves the police officer copying, by hand, the details of your loss into what is known as the police “blotter”, or file. Once this has been signed by a superior officer you’ll get an authorized copy.
Major cities have dozens of internet cafés and even in small towns and isolated resort areas you can usually find somewhere to log on and send email; wi-fi is becoming more common in cafés and hotels throughout the country. The cost of getting online at an internet café starts at around P40–60 per hour in the cities, while in the provinces it can be as cheap as P15–20 per hour.
There are no coin-operated launderettes in the Philippines, but there are laundries all over the place offering serviced washes for about P150 for an average load. Most of these places will iron clothes for you for an extra charge. It’s also possible to get clothes washed at pretty much any guesthouse, resort or hotel.
Living and working in the Philippines
Opportunities to work in the Philippines are limited. Most jobs require specialist qualifications or experience and, unlike other parts of Asia, there’s no market for teaching English as a foreign language. One possibility is to work for a diving outfit as a dive master or instructor. Rates of pay are low, but board and lodging may be provided if you work for a good operator or resort in a busy area (Boracay or Puerto Galera, for instance). For more on learning to dive. Some international organizations also offer voluntary placements in the Philippines.
Study opportunities are also limited. There are a number of language schools, mostly in Manila, where you can learn Tagalog; one of the biggest is Languages Internationale at 926 Arnaiz Ave in Makati (t02/810-7971, wwww.languagesintl.com).
Mail and couriers
Airmail letters from the Philippines (wphilpost.gov.ph) take at least five days to reach other countries, though in many cases it’s a lot longer. Postcards cost P13 while letters up to 20 grams cost P30 to P45 depending on the destination. Ordinary domestic mail costs P20 for letters up to 20 grams. Post offices are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
If you have to post anything valuable, use registered mail or pay extra for a courier. DHL (wwww.dhl.com.ph), Fedex (wwww.fedex.com.ph), and the locally based LBC (wwww.lbcexpress.com) and 2Go (wwww.2go.com.ph) have offices throughout the country, listed on their websites, and can deliver stuff internationally. Sending documents overseas this way will cost from around P1000 (US and Australia) to P2000 (UK) and take two to three working days.
The best maps of the Philippines are in this book, but many smaller towns and cities in the Philippines haven’t been mapped at all. The best map the Philippine Department of Tourism (DoT) offers locally is the free Tourist Map of the Philippines, which includes a street map of Manila, contact numbers for all overseas and domestic DoT offices and listings of hotels, embassies and bus companies. Road maps and country maps can be bought at branches of the National Book Store in all major cities and towns, although supply is unreliable.
Many bookshops sell the Accu-map range of atlases (wwww.accu-map.com), A to Z-like pocketbooks that cover the whole of Metro Manila and detailed maps that cover Baguio, Subic Bay, Cavite, Angeles City, Puerto Galera, Boracay and other destinations. United Tourist Promotions publishes a range of decent maps called EZ Map, covering Manila and the country’s regions, with each sheet featuring a combination of area and town maps.
If you want to seek out Philippines maps at home, you’ll probably only find maps of Manila and Cebu City, in addition to country maps. Nelles Verlag (wwww.nelles-verlag.de) publishes two good maps – a country map with a scale of 1:1,500,000 and a Manila city map. They are sometimes available in Manila bookshops, but can be hard to track down. The 1:1,750,000 Hema map (wwww.hemamaps.com.au) of the Philippines is another to look out for before you arrive.
For a more varied selection of area maps and sea charts of the Philippines, try the National Mapping and Resources Information Authority (t02/810-5466, wwww.namria.gov.ph) in Lawton Avenue, Fort Bonifacio, 10 minutes by taxi from Makati.
The Philippine currency is the peso. One peso is divided into 100 centavos, with notes in denominations of P20, 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1000. Coins come in values of 25 centavos, P1, P5 and P10. At the time of writing the exchange rate was around P43 to US$1, P67 to £1 and a little less than P58 to the euro.
It’s best to arrive with some local currency. Otherwise you can easily withdraw cash at ATMs found in cities and tourist destinations all over the country, but not in less visited areas such as the interior of Mindanao, the northern mountains, areas of Palawan outside Puerto Princesa and Coron Town, and in remote parts of the Visayas. It’s best to use ATMs at major banks, and preferably in big cities, because these machines tend to be more reliable than provincial ones, which are often “offline” – because there’s no cash in them, the computer has crashed or a power cut has affected their operation. Credit cards are accepted by most hotels and restaurants in cities and tourist areas, though the smaller hotels may levy a surcharge if you pay by card.
Travellers’ cheques are safer to carry than cash, though note that you can only change them at a limited number of banks in Manila and in a few tourist haunts such as Malate and Boracay. It’s best to bring US-dollar denominations from the major issuers – Thomas Cook, Visa or American Express.
Banks are normally open from 9am to 3pm, Monday to Friday and all major branches have ATMs and currency exchange. The best established local banks include BPI (Bank of the Philippine Islands), DBP (Development Bank of the Philippines), Metrobank and Equitable PCI; Citibank and HSBC also have branches in major cities. Most banks only change US dollars, and though many hotels will change other currencies, they offer poor rates. It’s easy to change dollars in Manila, where there are dozens of small moneychangers’ kiosks in Malate and P. Burgos Street, Makati, offering better rates than the banks; ask around at a few places and compare. In rural areas there are few moneychangers and banks don’t always change money, so if you’re heading off the beaten track, be sure to take enough pesos to last the trip.
Opening hours and public holidays
Most government offices are open Monday to Friday from 8.30am to 5.30pm, but some close for an hour-long lunch break, usually starting at noon, so it’s best to avoid the middle of the day. Businesses generally keep the same hours, with some also open on Saturday from 9am until noon. Banks are open Monday to Friday from 9am to 3pm and do not close for lunch, except for some of the smallest branches in rural areas. Shops in major malls open daily from 10am until 8pm or 9pm, later during the Christmas rush or “Midnight Madness” sales; the latter take place every two weeks, on the first Friday after each pay day. Churches are almost always open most of the day for worshippers and tourists alike. Typically, the first Mass of the day is at around 6am, the last at 6pm or 7pm.
Government offices and private businesses close on public holidays, though shops and most restaurants remain open except on Good Friday and Christmas Day. Holidays are often moved to the closest Friday or Monday to their original date so that people in the cities can use the long weekend to get back to the provinces to spend a few days with their families. This moving of public holidays is done on an ad hoc basis and is announced in the press just a few weeks – sometimes only a few days – beforehand.
The Philippines has embraced the mobile-phone age with vigour, partly because sending text messages is cheap and because mobile networks provide coverage in areas where landlines are limited. If you want to use a cellular phone bought abroad in the Philippines, you’ll need a GSM/Triband phone and to have global roaming activated. Ask your service provider what the charges are for making and receiving calls when abroad. For local calls it will probably work out cheaper to buy a local SIM card, available at dozens of mobile-phone outlets in malls for any of the country’s four mobile networks: Smart Communications, Globe Telecom, Talk ’N Text and Sun Cellular. Local SIMs start at just P55–200 and you can top up your credit for P100 to P500. Note that your phone must be “unlocked” to use a foreign SIM card (this can be done at local electronics shops). Standard-rate domestic calls from mobiles cost from P6.50–7.50 a minute (US$0.40 per minute for international calls); there are no charges for receiving calls. There are card outlets and dispensing machines in malls and convenience stores and at airports.
Basic mobiles in the Philippines are inexpensive, starting at less than P3000, so it can be worth buying one if you plan to stay for any length of time. Unless you have a permanent address in the country for home billing, you’ll be funding your calls with prepaid cards.
The Philippines is eight hours ahead of Universal Time (GMT) all year round.
Keep your purse or wallet well stocked with P10 coins and P20 notes for tips. In cafés, bars and hotel coffee shops many Filipinos simply leave whatever coins they get in their change. For good service in restaurants and bars you should leave a tip of about ten percent. In more expensive restaurants where the bill could be a couple of thousand pesos, it’s okay to leave a somewhat smaller tip in percentage terms – P100 is a reasonable amount. Bellhops and porters get about P20 each and taxi drivers usually expect to keep the loose change.
The Philippine Department of Tourism (DoT; wwww.wowphilippines.com.ph and wwww.tourism.gov.ph) has a small number of overseas offices where you can pick up glossy brochures and get answers to general pre-trip questions about destinations, major hotels and domestic travel. These offices are not so helpful, however, when it comes to information about places off the beaten track. The DoT has offices throughout the Philippines, but most of them have small budgets and very little in the way of reliable information or brochures. The best source of up-to-date information on travelling in the Philippines is guesthouses and hotels that cater to travellers, most of which have notice boards where you can swap tips and ideas.
Travelling with children
Filipinos are extravagant in their generosity towards children, but because so much of the country lacks infrastructure, specific attractions for them are often hard to find. Major hotels in big cities such as Manila and Cebu City have playrooms and babysitting services, but even in popular tourist destinations such as Boracay there are few special provisions in all but the most expensive resorts.
This doesn’t mean travelling with children in the Philippines is a nightmare – far from it. Filipinos are very tolerant of children so you can take them almost anywhere without restriction, and children help to break the ice with strangers. They’ll be fussed over, befriended and looked after every step of the way.
Supermarkets in towns and cities throughout the Philippines have well-stocked children’s sections that sell fresh and formula milk, nappies and baby food. Department stores such as Rustan’s and SM sell baby clothes, bottles, sterilizing equipment and toys. And travelling with children in the Philippines needn’t be a burden on your budget. Domestic airlines give a discount of around fifty percent for children under twelve and hotels and resorts offer family rooms, extra beds for a minimal charge, or don’t charge at all for a small child sharing the parents’ bed. Most restaurants with buffet spreads will let a small child eat for free if he or she is simply taking nibbles from a parent’s plate. Try asking for a special portion – the staff are usually happy to oblige.
One potential problem for young ones is the torpid climate. You’ll need to go to extra lengths to protect them from the sun and to make sure they are hydrated. A hat and good sunblock are essential. If your child requires medical attention in the Philippines, there are good paediatricians at most major hospitals, in five-star hotels and many resorts.
Travellers with disabilities
Facilities for the disabled are rare except in the major cities. Taxis are cramped, while bangkas are notoriously tricky even for the able-bodied. For wheelchair users the pavements represent a serious obstacle in themselves. Often dilapidated and potholed, they are frustrating at the best of times and simply impassable at the worst, when pedestrians are forced to pick their way along the gutter in the road, dodging cars and motorcycles.
In Manila, Cebu City, Davao and some other big cities, the most upmarket hotels cater to the disabled and so do malls, cinemas and restaurants. Elsewhere, the good news for disabled travellers is that Filipinos are generous when it comes to offering assistance. Even in the remotest barrio, people will go out of their way to help you board a boat or lift you up the stairs of a rickety pier. Of course once you’re on board a ferry, for example, ramps and disabled toilets are likely to be nonexistent.
The government agency the National Council on Disability Affairs or NCDA (t02/951-6033, wwww.ncda.gov.ph) is mandated to formulate policies and coordinate the activities of all agencies concerning disability issues, but it doesn’t have much practical advice for disabled travellers. Staff at the group’s Quezon City office can give general pointers on transport and where to stay.
More useful are local websites such as Cebu on Wheels (wwww.cebuonwheels.com.ph), and Handi Divers (wwww.handidivers.com) of Alona Beach (Panglao Island, Bohol), which specializes in scuba diving for disabled travellers.