The Philippines was admittedly one of the more difficult places to get around that Jess and I have been. However, with a little bit of background knowledge and some negotiating skills you can be zipping around the islands in no time like a pro!
Manila is probably the most logical place to start, as most incoming international flights will have you landing here. If you have never been to Manila before then you should know that it ranks a little higher on the “Traveler Expertise” scale than just about anywhere else in The Philippines. It’s a very densely populated city where the poverty level is pretty high. Scam artists are prevalent, and it’s definitely not the type of place you want to aimlessly wonder around if you don’t know what you’re doing. If this isn’t the type of experience you’re looking for, then I might recommend booking a through flight and going straight to another island. Also the Manila airport is not open 24/7, it closes at night and you will not be allowed to stay so keep that in mind.
This is why having a location app on your phone to help you get around a city is a must when traveling! Check out Destination Addicts post about the best location travel app out there.
If Manila does sound like a place you would like to see then a few quick tips will get you off on the right foot.
First, when you leave the airport get away from the main exit door. There will be a mob of people waiting outside. A decent percent of these people are looking to scam you by drastically over charging for a taxi. Jess and I ended up paying about $26.00 for a taxi ride that should have been less than $4.00. Insisting that your hotel is picking you up is a good diversion for particularly pushy people. If you can actually arrange for your hotel/hostel to pick you up then do that, it will help you tremendously.
Once you get away from the door be sure that you don’t wonder too far, again Manila is not a city for newbies. When you feel like you have room to think away from the crowd then you can begin to negotiate a fairly priced ride to your accommodations. One last note, be wary of people carrying laminated price sheets. They may look official, but that doesn’t mean that they are. The prices on these sheets are often absurd.
Okay, let’s look at The Philippines as a whole.
Most places don’t have them. It’s not that you won’t ever see a “cab”, but it’s typically speaking not the normal mode of transportation.
These for the most part are going to be some sort of dirt bike with a covered sidecar attached, big enough for two, maybe three people. They have three wheels, hence the name trike. They’re very similar to Tuk Tuks you may have seen in other countries. These are by far the way to go, because you will find them everywhere. If you see recommended transportation prices online for a place you are trying to go, you can almost guarantee that estimate is for a trike. Negotiate hard when agreeing to a price with the driver, but know that you’re almost always going to pay more than what a local would pay for the same ride, just look at it as a “tourist tax”.
Final note, don’t try and take a trike from one town to another. The drivers will tell you it’s possible, but the roads in The Philippines can be pretty rough so trying to go long distances in a trike is probably not a good idea.
These are super decked out little bus/truck looking things that look like Cheech and Chong might be behind the wheel. Little fuzzy balls around the windshield and all! These are how most locals get around in the bigger cities and if you can manage to get on the right one they can be a good way to go!
If you are looking to go from one town to the next minivans are a popular choice for a few reasons. First off there are plenty of them. You can catch one just about anywhere on any of the islands going where you want to go. They are also probably going to be your cheapest form of long-distance travel. It’s not all sunshine and roses, however. Most of these vans are on their last leg and breakdowns are not uncommon. You’re going to be crammed in with locals, chickens, spare dirt bike parts and just about anything else that needs transporting. Jess and I spent many hours carsick in the back of overcrowded minivans. But if you need to get somewhere cheap it’s not a bad option.
Make sure you negotiate a price with the driver’s assistant (the guy who jumps down off the roof to come talk to you) before you get in any minivan. You can also flag down one of these just about anywhere alongside the road.
If the minivan experience doesn’t sound like a road you want to go down then you can take a bus. There are two predominate bus companies in The Philippines RoRo and Cherry. They are both about the same and will still be very overcrowded. However, some people feel safer about taking a big bus over a little minivan. They will, however, cost you a bit more and they are far slower. The risk of a break down is a little lower, but they also go to fewer destinations, mostly big town to big town. It is sometimes possible to flag a bus down alongside the road.
Private Vans and Cars
Everything is available for a price. If you really want to travel in comfort you can always hire a private van or car. These will be practically brand new for the most part and typically belong to tourism companies. They will take you anywhere you want to go (without the chickens under your feet), but it's going to cost you. This is by far the most expensive way to travel. They may also only be available if you are starting from a large town and going somewhere else.
Bus stations in The Philippines are probably not what you would expect. They are for the most part less of a bus station and more of a meeting point where the minivan drivers hang out. To be fair you will probably find at least two ticket desks, one for RoRo and one for Cherry. But, other than that you just have to talk to some drivers, tell them where you want to go and they’ll bring you to someone who is going that way.
It’s important not to get overwhelmed in these situations. Put your negotiating hat on and be confident (even if inside you feel anything but confident!) Once you have done it a few times it can actually be a lot of fun!
Never rely on these while in The Philippines. Just because you are told there is a bus that goes where you want to go every day at 10:00am and 2:00pm doesn’t mean that’s actually going to happen. They might leave at 9:30am and 3:00pm or there may only be one. They may also stop going at all without any notice. Just arrive early and always leave lots of wiggle room in your travel plans.
The roads, like most other things in The Philippines, vary drastically. Palawan for example only has one main road that runs North and South. Some parts are paved and some are not. Landslides and flat tires are a fact of life. That is why it is very important not to try and travel back to the town you are flying out of on the same day you intend to fly. There are simply too many variables you can’t account for, and you are setting yourself up for a lot of stress and a very high likelihood of a missed flight.
It’s important to remember that The Philippines are a collection of islands, and as such, they run on island time! The locals are very laid back, fun loving people, but things move a little slower. Embrace that and have fun. Roll with the punches, enjoy the breathtaking views and I promise you that you will have the time of your life!
Do you have a suggestion about getting around The Philippines? Leave a comment below and tell us about it!