How to Travel the Philippines on a Budget
The Philippines is an archipelago consisting of 7,107 islands located in South East Asia. Its remote location seems less attractive to some backpackers, as these nomads prefer to traverse the popular overland backpacking hotspots like Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Traveling to the Philippines requires careful planning as there are a lot of places to be explored and hundreds of islands to be discovered off the beaten track. So depending on a traveler’s interest, one should travel or stay for some time to truly enjoy this country’s charm. Western tourists find the Philippines a cheap place to live in for sure, but still, for the so-called budget travelers, they might find this country a little bit expensive to travel into in backpackers’ standards.
This idea of backpacking is quite challenging to understand by some locals because stereotyping widely exists; they automatically believe that western people have money to splurge. They don’t know that budget travelers exist, so getting ripped off here and there is a common scenario. As a result, innocent backpackers are becoming victims of this, so the Philippines is becoming less and less appealing. To break this thinking that western people are spoiled brats and have plenty of dollars to spend in a third-world country, backpackers should let the locals be aware that, yes, there is such a thing as budget travelers. To do this, one must have the know-how.
Assuming that the main reason you’re reading this right now is that you’re trying to get some tips from an expert local who knows the ins and outs of getting around. If you really want to travel cheaply, then be aware that safety might be a little at stake, so make sure to be mentally and physically prepared with all the hassles and inconvenience of commuting like a local. If you’re already decided, then, by all means, feel free to follow this guide on how to travel in the Philippines cheaply but safely.
1. So you already have an itinerary, and you’re ready to buy a plane ticket. The cheapest way to go is to take advantage of Cebu pacific airlines’ promotional offers. You’ll save a lot if you book really early, but this is not for the fickle-minded; you will definitely pay more should you decide to change your flight. That will cover the rebooking fee for each flight schedule, which will let you end up paying more than the cost of the promo ticket you originally booked.
2. Upon arriving at the NAIA airport in Manila (the Philippines’s capital) with all your heavy backpacks, the first thing you’re going to look for is a cab that will take you to your hotel or guesthouse. There is no shortage of this as many of them offer rides around the area. Be aware that the yellow taxis are the expensive ones, the flag down rate is $1 and above, worst the drivers might ask you to pay a hefty fixed price. This happens a lot to foreign travelers; they end up paying more than what they are supposed to, considering the location of the guesthouses is just a few kilometers away from the airport. To save, look for the white taxis as their flag down rate is P30, or the fare should not cost more than P150 up to Malate, which is the Khao San Road-like backpackers’ hub of Manila. However, some might still insist on a fixed price for some reason; if you don’t want to pay more, politely ask to be charged by meter. If they don’t, then the best way is to get out and find another cab.
3. The cheapest mode of transportation to get around Manila or in other cities in the Philippines is by jeepney, which will cost you at least P7 to get to the nearest destination. You can also take the jeepney from the airport, which is only if you don’t mind the hassle and inconvenience of putting your backpacks among the other passengers crammed inside. If you plan to stay in Malate, you can save for sure if you choose to take the jeepney. From NAIA airport, just walk outside the main highway, ignoring the cab drivers yelling to offer you a ride. Several jeepneys are going to Baclaran or LRT (Metro). When you get off, either way, be sure to take the next ride with the route going to Quiapo, you will not miss it because there are destination signs clearly posted in front of the jeepneys. Ask the driver to drop you off in Adriatico St. in Malate or near Malate Church.
If you plan to take the jeepney to get around Manila, be sure to research your destinations scrupulously, as getting from point A to B might be a little confusing at first. Ask the jeepney drivers to drop you off specifically to the location you’re headed to. Sometimes, however, if you ask the drivers for the fare, they might look at you first then pause for a while to think of how much they could rip you off. This does not happen all the time, though, but just to be on the safe side, inquire about the fares from the passengers before paying; they know for sure how much the actual cost is to get to your destination. If you’re in a hurry, then it’s best to just take the metros’ or taxis, as the jeepneys can be a little bit annoying when they stop in almost every block to catch passengers.
4. LRT 1 and 2 and the MRT are the fastest way to get around the city to avoid annoying traffic. It will only cost you at least P12 to get to the stations. Traveling by metro is easy; the trick is to be familiar with north and southbound and check where your destination goes. LRT 1 and the MRT might be a hassle if you join the rush hour madness, which usually starts at 5pm during weekdays. Be prepared to be crammed and sometimes be shoved inside by the other passengers waiting in each station.
5. Safe traveling is not an assurance; the same case everywhere you go. It will be a wise choice to leave your expensive jewelry, watches, and accessories at home before landing in the Philippines. Traveling to cities, particularly in Manila, wearing these is definitely an eye-catcher for snatchers and robbers. A foreigner traveling alone already catches attention, so try to keep a low profile by wearing casual or travel clothes with fewer valuable accessories or, better yet, with no expensive jewelry at all. Pickpockets are common in crowded places like Quiapo, Divisoria, Baclaran, and Pasay, where even the locals are getting robbed. So make sure you don’t bring all your money with you and avoid putting your wallet or gadgets in the back pocket of your backpack, as this becomes an easy target.
If you have a body bag or a shoulder bag, make sure you don’t put your valuable stuff in here if you want to avoid getting this snatched away from you. It’s better to put your money and cell phone inside your pockets. It pays to be a little bit paranoid in this case, so be aware of the strangers you’re walking with at all times or those who were following you. Change your walking route from time to time if you feel someone is constantly behind you, and keep away from passing in dark alleys with fewer people. Be aware of those suspiciously eyeing your belongings when you’re inside the public transportations, especially in jeepneys; if you already feel uncomfortable, then get off.
6. If you’re traveling very late at night or going back from a late-night party, it would be best to take taxis rather than risk getting robbed in public transportations. If you’re drunk from clubbing or partying, it would be better to get accompanied by someone you know to get back to your guesthouse. Go with the flow and avoid walking in dark areas with no street lights; ask the traffic enforcer or the police if you’re looking for some directions.
7. In some cities, particularly in touristy places, you will most likely encounter street children or young beggars harassing you for some money. Don’t patronize as they should be in school and not out in the streets begging for money. However, it’s still your prerogative to give or not, but it’s best to just ignore them as some might be robbers disguising as beggars, waiting for the right moment to take advantage of you.
8. When you’re busy shopping in the extreme bargain marketplace such as Quiapo, Divisoria, and Baclaran, just carry enough cash for shopping; credit cards are not accepted in shopping places like these. Pickpockets are widespread in these areas, so just keep your money and gadgets in your pockets instead of inside your bags.
Haggling is expected to be the best way to get highly cheap deals in the marketplace. However, sellers might get a dirty look if you bargain too much. They would probably think that foreigners have no reason to haggle because they have all the money to travel all the way to the Philippines. Be fair and make sure to bargain just like the other locals, no more, no less. Ask the other buyers for the goods they purchased before buying. This way, you’ll know if you’re being overcharged or not.
9. Tricycles are found mostly around small towns and residential areas. A tricycle is a little roofed sidecar bolted in a motorcycle. This is a cheap ride that will take you to the nearest town, around the residential blocks, and to the main street or jeepney terminals. You’ll save money if you manage to find the terminal and wait until the tricycle is ready to go – fully packed with passengers, two people inside, and two at the back. You’ll pay at least P15 to get to the expected destination or to any place along the way. This is faster than sidecars or pedicabs; these are bicycles with attached sidecars that cater to two passengers. This is only common in some residential regions and street blocks.
Some might offer you special trips, especially if you’re alone; this is the best way to get to your destination faster; however, you’ll pay a little more. You’ll pay at least P25 for shorter trips around towns and up to P200 or more for longer trips in the countryside or if you’re headed out of town. Avoid getting special trips when you’re traveling alone at night; it would be better to get accompanied by a local friend or a fellow traveler. Plan ahead and ask some locals about the landmarks of the place you’re headed to; in this way, you’ll know when you’re already at your destination.
10. Aircon and Non-Aircon buses are widely present, especially in Manila. These are slower and often stop to get more passengers. Non-Aircon buses are, of course, way cheaper, you’ll pay at least P15 to go to the nearest destination, but the drivers annoyingly fight their way through the traffic with intense maneuvering. A little bit of a hassle for the first-time travelers in Manila, locals had already gotten used to the noise and quick-tempered bus drivers.
Provincial buses can be found in several areas in Manila. Bus terminals going to the southern provinces are located in Pasay Rotonda and Buendia, while those headed to the north are in Cubao along Edsa Highway. Longer trips ranging from 6-8 hours usually cost around $10, while Non-Aircon provincial buses are cheap and pay a little less for the inconvenience, around $6 to $7.
Keep an eye on your belongings when traveling by bus. When commuting at night, it would be safe to keep from sitting too far at the back and just sit near the driver. Avoid the temptation of checking your cell phone for any text messages or answering calls, especially when you’re inside the bus or any public transportation. Some clever thieves will sit beside you and will watch your every move. The next thing you know is your cell phone has already been quickly snatched away from your hand. Be aware of your seatmates; if you feel that they are suspicious-looking individuals, then, by all means, transfer to another seat or, better yet, get off and take another bus.
These are the basic guidelines for traveling cheaply but safely in the Philippines, which mostly require some common sense. If you want to save money and navigate the metropolis like a local, then feel the pain of the day-to-day average commuters. Everyone is not safe; even the locals are not immune to the dangers and annoyances. Some will rob you, overcharge you or steal your money, but sometimes these can all be avoided by following your instinct. If you can decide quickly with just a little information present or by looking at someone or someplace, then dangers can be avoided. One can travel and enjoy this beautiful country while staying safe at the same time.
Don’t blame the people for not having a safe country; the poor economy and the government can be held accountable. The citizens don’t pay very high taxes to clean the streets or have wide and developed roads. Even if they pay high taxes, where the money goes is still questionable.
For more information on traveling on a budget, please consult the available guidebooks about the Philippines. Do research on the web, or better yet, ask a local friend. Enjoy the Philippines!
Guest Post by Karen Calansingin