The Philippines is a great place to visit. It has some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, English is widely spoken, and everything is cheap. But there’s a few things you should know before your first trip to the Philippines.
Becoming familiar with some of these unique considerations will help ease your transition. The more you know before hand, the more enjoyable your trip will be.
Sometimes you may come across news articles hyping up terrorist attacks, kidnappings, and drug violence in the Philippines. You might be thinking, “Is it safe to go there?”
I’ve been there a number of times, and the simplest answer is yes, it’s mostly safe. For the vast majority of travelers who will never leave the tourist trail, they should never have to worry about safety.
Just like American cities, there are “good parts” and “bad parts”. If you stick with the upscale or tourist areas, you should be fine. If you’re used to the safety and security of a modern western city or suburb, you shouldn’t notice much difference.
Unless you’re a veteran traveler, I’d be more cautious about venturing outside of the nicer areas. But even if you do, you should be mostly safe if you use a bit of common sense. Don’t flash wealth (jewelry, watches), don’t act obviously lost (looking around or confused), and be aware of your belongings. Traveling with a local greatly reduces your risk.
I’ve traveled through extremely poor areas where westerners rarely venture, and haven’t had any issues. The worst that ever happened to me after years of travel was a failed pickpocket attempt.
Where to Avoid
When in Manila, try to avoid squatter areas such as Tondo. While you may be fine, you’re at a much higher risk for minor crimes like pick pocketing or “hold ups”.
For the rest of the country, the only areas I’d consider very unsafe would be those with active Muslim insurgencies.
Groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf have been known to target Western tourists for kidnapping and ransom. The vast majority of negative headlines come from these areas. Definitely avoid Tawi tawi, Jolo, and Basilan. I’ve heard conflicting stories about the safety of Zamboanga City and General Santos as well.
Be wary of drinking water directly from the faucet. If your hotel has it, use a hot water maker to boil water (and let it cool down) before drinking it. Just in case, I bring a water bottle that filters out 99.99999% of all bacteria and 99.9999% of all protozoa for when I’m on the go.
It also helps to keep your tetanus, hepatitis A & B vaccines up to date. Avoid getting a shave with a straight razor at the local barber, or your nails done at the local salon.
If you do get sick, healthcare is generally much cheaper compared to the US. Many common items can be found at the local sari sari store or pharmacy. Calamansi juice, ginger tea, and strepsils are all popular local remedies.
The Philippines can be extremely hot and rainy depending on the time of year. The best time of year is during the mild and dry part of the year, which is between December and March.
Try to avoid monsoon season (June-November), as it may be dangerous in extreme circumstances. Monsoon season can also bring rain that lasts for days, if not weeks. That could put a serious damper on your plans. However, I’ve also traveled to the Philippines during monsoon season out of necessity, and haven’t had many issues.
Before you go, check the exchange rate between your main currency and the Philippine peso (PHP, or ₱). That way, when you arrive, you’ll know what’s reasonable when you go to change your money into the local peso. Make sure the place you go offers a rate that’s within 1 or 2 pesos of the official exchange rate.
For the US dollar, exchange rates generally fluctuate between 40 and 50 pesos to the dollar (it’s currently about 47PHP/USD). To get a rough idea about how much everything costs, just divide the price by 45. This will help you track how much you’re spending, and help you get better deals.
Pro tip: If you travel often, consider getting a Charles Schwab savings account. Their debit cards work all around the world, and the exchange rates for foreign currencies at ATMs are great. The best part: all ATM and foreign transaction fees are reimbursed.
Unlike many places in the West, prices in the Philippines are sometimes “flexible”. Often the product being sold to a foreigner is overpriced compared to what the locals pay. Get an idea of what everything costs beforehand, and don’t overpay.
If you’re at a local market, and you see a pair of shoes for P500, often you can haggle them down, maybe even to P300. Simply say something like “Final price? I only have P350 today. How about P275?” Sometimes they can’t sell it for cheaper, and it’s up to you whether to accept the price or continue shopping. This usually can’t be done at big chains, only at local markets with individual vendors.
Public transportation is much more accessible and much cheaper compared to most places in the West. A 20 minute cab ride is often around $3, and a 2 hour bus ride can be as cheap as $3/person. Most people shouldn’t ever need to rent a car. If you decide to use a public Jeepney or Bus, consider dressing more modestly and not flashing wealth. Sometimes pickpockets will be on board.
To get around town, all you need to do is walk to a main road, wait for a motor tricycle to drive by, and flag them down. Compared to back home, it’s much cheaper than using a taxi, and one of the major conveniences of the Philippines.
Unlike much of the West, a higher priority is placed on “keeping face” than being completely honest. While this will be confusing and frustrating for the average Westerner, don’t take it as a sign of disrespect. Often this is done to avoid offending others, and is actually done out of consideration for your feelings.
As an example, let’s say you’ve agreed to meet up with your new Filipino friend later in the week.
When you first agreed, they said they’d be able to make it. But they didn’t state a specific time or show much enthusiasm. They didn’t tell you they already have plans for that day, but to outright tell you they can’t make it would be perceived as rude and dismissive in their culture. When the day of the meetup comes and you ask to agree on a specific time, they will tell you something urgent came up.
If you’re new to the culture, this can be confusing. You might find it difficult to get clear answers at first. Just try to keep in mind that it’s meant to avoid offense, and they’re not trying to maliciously deceive you.
In the example above, the Filipino doesn’t want you thinking that he’s too important and doesn’t have time for you. By making the failure to meet up a result of unforeseen events, you both save face and no one’s request has been rejected.
Once you become more aware of the practice, it becomes easier to understand. Generally, the more enthusiasm shown, and the more specific the details, the more likely they are to follow through.
Another practice that often frustrates Westerners is “Filipino time”. Filipinos are generally more laid back than your average westerner, and punctuality is not a priority. When making plans with Filipinos, assume that the agreed upon time is the time they leave their house. This doesn’t apply to all Filipinos, but it’s worth keeping in mind.
Filipinos are some of the cleanest people you’ll come across. Often they’ll wash up multiple times a day. The most common method they use is called the “tabo”. The tabo is simply a large scoop, and can be used with a bucket full of water to get a quick shower.
The first time you use it might be difficult. Pouring freezing water over your head first thing in the morning can be shocking. But once you get used to it, it’s actually quite invigorating and helps get the blood flowing.
To use it, simply fill up the tabo with water, pour it over your head to wet your body, and wash with soap. After you’ve washed everything with soap, use the tabo to rinse everything off. While it may be hard to get used to at first, using the tabo saves water, and takes less time.
If you stick to the tourist trail, you shouldn’t have to worry about this one. But it’s better to be prepared. Carry around a small roll of toilet paper (often called “tissue” there) just in case. Some bathrooms, especially where mainly locals go, do not keep toilet paper in the stall. If there is a small bin next to the toilet, throw your used TP in there. Throwing it down the bowl may cause clogging, and is considered a no-no in most of the region.
To use a phone in the Philippines, you’ll need an unlocked phone with a sim card slot. If you don’t have one and you’re only staying for two weeks or so, it’s probably not worth buying it unless you absolutely need it. You can also get a cheap phone for about P800, and use your normal phone when you have access to wifi.
If you’re going to be traveling internationally often, or living overseas, go ahead and buy an unlocked one with a sim card slot. Opt for one with 4G capability if you can, as they have good speeds and coverage in Manila. Once you’ve got the right phone, simply buy a sim card and a “load” (minutes, texts, and data) depending on your needs.
If you plan on leaving your hotel for long periods of time and will use your phone often, consider bringing two batteries. A neat little gadget that’s popular in Asia is a portable charger, which also work well. If your phone is dying and you didn’t bring either, you can also stop into the local 7/11 and charge it at a rate of about a pesos per minute. Always keep an eye on your phone though.
The Philippines has similar outlets to the US (type A & B), and a similar frequency of 60Hz. However, the voltage is 220V, which means many electronics won’t work here without an adapter. Luckily, most devices you would need for travel come with built in adapters, such as your laptop transformer and cell phone charger. But double check before you use them.
Traffic in Manila can be a nightmare. When it’s rush hour, EDSA (the main highway around Manila) becomes a parking lot. Make sure you factor traffic into your plans even if you’re traveling somewhere close by. If you’re stuck somewhere, often it’s better to wait until 7 or 8PM before leaving.
Pro tip: A relatively safe way of getting through traffic during rush hour is hiring a motorbike. They can zip between cars and only need to stop during red lights. As of 2016, there was a service called called grab bike through the grab taxi app. Before you ride, make sure your valuables (phone, keys, wallet) are safely zipped away in a daypack or pouch, otherwise they might fall out your pocket. I’d only recommend this during rush hour, when most cars are stopped.
With these tips and tricks, you should be ready to hit the ground running once you land in the Philippines. Feel free to share these with your friends, or comment below on anything I might have missed.
Ingat ka! (Take care)