If you have the chance, you should definitely visit the Philippines. It’s an incredibly diverse nation, with thousands of islands and indescribable beauty. Here are seventeen things you should know before you land:
1. Everyone speaks English, but not everyone…
Filipino children learn English in school, but Tagalog and other local languages are widely spoken throughout the islands. Especially for people in the islands like Habal Habal drivers, you might not get someone who speaks English. On the whole, you will generally be able to find someone around who does.
2. Each island is unique – with both beauty and safety
I know this sounds like a “duh.” But each island has its own character, and its own way of being. Check on which island you’re going to before judging it based which state it’s in. For instance – Siargao is technically in Mindanao, but is very isolated from all the problems on Mindanao island. El Nido is quite safe, but heading down south can get you into trouble (specifically taking boats out into the sea.)
3. The meat will be overcooked
At least by US standards! The Filipinos are all about the barbecue (especially barbecuing things on sticks), but they cook it until it is DONE. On the plus side, this really mitigates the risk of food poisoning.
4. You will not get a knife
Filipinos seem to have mastered the art of using a fork and spoon to cut up just about anything they come across, and knives do not appear to be part of the normal table setup. If you’re North American, this will feel odd at first, but is pretty easy to adjust to. There are rarely big portions of meat that require cutting with a knife!
5. The food is incredibly international, especially on resort islands.
I had one of the best wood-oven cooked pizzas of my life on Siargao. The toppings were all imported straight from Italy! Siargao also had amazing smoothie bowls. Coron has all sorts of cuisines to pick from. The Philippines is a place you will not go hungry! The cooking standards are also quite high, which helps with the risk of food poisoning.
6. Not all islands have beaches!
This is especially important to know in Palawan. For Coron and El Nido, you’ll generally need to book a day trip to get somewhere with a beach. The beaches on the day trips are amazing, but they can add to the cost of your trip!
7. Bring good water shoes
I’m a Florida girl, so I’m not used to the idea of needing to wear water shoes at the beach. But every beach I was at in the Philippines had at least the risk of sea urchins – and stepping on one without shoes will spoil a good part of your vacation! Make sure the soles of the water shoes are plastic. Also, in case you’re thinking of bringing your Chacos or Tevas – don’t. You’ll want closed toed shoes because they’ll be far easier to walk in through the water.
8. Catcalling is common
I hate to say it, but for ladies traveling alone (especially blondes), catcalling is pretty common. I even got catcalled by a six year old… It’s harmless, but be prepared for it. You’ll also get many marriage offers.
On the whole, I felt the Philippines was incredibly safe to travel alone in. Even with the catcalling, I never felt threatened.
9. The people are incredibly friendly
I feel like it’s cliche to say about a place, but it’s true – the people are so incredibly friendly! I think I made more friends with Filipinos when I was in the Philippines than locals anywhere else on my trip.
10. Any beach activity you want, you can do. But plan ahead!
If you want to surf, Siargao is amazing. If you want world-class diving, there’s Coron. If you want beaches, well, there are lots of options. If you want incredible limestone karsts, there’s El Nido (and Coron). Basically, any water sport you want is open in the Philippines, but not all islands offer all activities! In Siargao, the surfing is awesome – the diving, not so much. The reverse is true of Coron. If you want to party until dawn, Boracay is your place! The best plan is to decide the island activities you want and then pick your islands!
11. Consider flying into Cebu
Especially coming from abroad, it seems more natural to fly into Manila and then fly to the islands from there. Check flight prices to Cebu, though. It can be much cheaper, faster and easier to fly into Cebu and skip Manila. You’ll miss some chaos, and Cebu is a great island itself! Most island flights connect in Cebu (if you go through Manila and go to islands, it’s likely you’ll have to make a stopover in Cebu at some point), so you’re also one step ahead there.
12. Bring twice the amount of sunscreen you think you need
You’ll need it all.
13. Check the weather seasonally before going
The Philippines is a year-round destination, but not all islands are great year-round! Boracay gets hit with winds and monsoon in the summer (Siargao gets none of it), and given the spread of all the islands, there are different weather considerations at different times of the year. But there are always islands it’s a good time to visit!
14. Cash is king
Credit cards are not a thing here, and they’re only accepted at super high-end places. So if you’re somewhere they accept cards (at least in the islands), you might be overpaying.
15. On smaller islands, don’t be overly concerned with how you’re getting from the airport to your hostel or hotel
Airport transfers are one of those things I invariably worry about arranging – getting it right, and at a decent price, can be hard. On the smaller islands, there are groups of shuttle drivers who wait outside the terminal to take you wherever you need to go. These prices are almost all set (and not especially haggle-able), but it’s reasonable for the distance covered. In both Coron and Siargao, I think I paid less than $10 for each airport transfer, and they were at least 45-minute drives.
16. You will feel like you fell into a Windows Desktop/Screensaver
Remember that Windows background where the water goes up onto a deserted and gorgeous beach? The one with the giant starfish on the sandy bottom? The one that looks so perfect it can’t possibly exist in real life? I’m now fairly certain that was taken in the Philippines. It’s just that beautiful. (And those starfish are real!)
17. You will want to tell everybody and nobody about this place
It’s a paradox – you’re going to want to tell everyone you meet about how amazing the Philippines are. But you’re also going to want to keep it a secret so it stays the way it is now!