When I look back on my time in the Philippines, I am left speechless at the beauty of the rivers, the lush green rice fields and clear turquoise waters. I picture the jeepneys with bold, clashing colors and Bible quotes painted on their sides and hear the twang of old American country music coming from some homes and shops in smaller towns. I smile when I remember the uninhibited karaoke singers and the good laughs I shared with a guide on Maosonan Island and fellow travelers in Donsol. And then, of course, the Philippines is the only place where I have received not just one but two (!) compliments on my nose (“I like your nose,” a store clerk whispered behind me. “That is the first time I’ve ever heard that. What do you like about it?” “It’s big.”). So many good memories we shared, Philippines, so many good memories. But you were not supposed to cost me so much!
While the monthly budget I have had in mind for Southeast Asia is $1,200 U.S., I spent a total of $2,370.99, or $51.54 per day, for my 46 days in the Philippines. (At the time of my visit, the exchange rate was roughly $1 U.S.=46 Philippine Pesos.) That puts me at a monthly budget of $1,546.20. It was not a complete blowout, but it was not ideal, either. Thankfully, for you—and for any future visits for me—there are some simple ways to do better. Here is where my money went, along with some travel tips and recommendations.
Other than in Manila, accommodation in the Philippines was reasonably priced and, in many cases, downright cheap. I paid as little as roughly $5.50/night for a single room at a homestay in Batad with a shared bathroom, and as much as $33/night for a single room with a private bathroom and air conditioning my first two nights in Manila. In total, my accommodation cost $631.31, for an average of $13.72/day. I slept mostly in single rooms, though I slept in a dorm for four nights on Bohol and for two nights in Manila. I had air conditioning and a private bathroom in roughly one-third of the places I stayed. All other nights, I shared a bathroom with other guests and generally relied on a fan to keep me cool.
Some of My Favorite Places to Stay:
Nuts Huts (Loboc, Bohol): I spent four nights in the four-person dorm at Nuts Huts for 400 pesos/night ($8.70 U.S.). I generally avoid dorms, but I wanted to save money. The dorm had only four beds, each on the floor (no bunk beds). And at least while I was there, everyone tried to be quiet and respectful of anyone who was sleeping. As dorms go, it was the best it could be.
Some of the things I liked about Nuts Huts: From the Loboc River to the jungle of trees surrounding the area, there are beautiful shades of green everywhere. The lack of wifi made it more conducive to soaking in the surroundings and meeting people. The restaurant served some of the best food I had in the Philippines. They also have books with several suggestions of things to do in the area that you might not otherwise know about.
Please note, though, that if you have physical limitations, Nuts Huts may not be the place for you. The one dorm as well as the private huts are all down near the river, and the restaurant is up a very long stairway. There is another very long stairway to reach the access road, though when you are arriving or departing with your bags, you also have the option to take a boat that will drop you right at the “huts” so you would not have to haul your bags up and down the steps. While I was there, one woman arrived who had torn ligaments from a particularly high cliff jump. She had to leave because the stairs were too much for her.
Coconut Garden Island Resort: CGIR is on Cacnipa Island, which you reach by boat from Port Barton, on the island of Palawan. With no roads, restaurants or particular sites to visit, Cacnipa Island is a place you go for quiet, easy days of snorkeling, swimming and relaxing. There is a colorful garden on the grounds of the resort, the staff is very friendly, and the restaurant serves good food. The resort has limited wifi hours, which was a refreshing break that contributed to the relaxed atmosphere. CGIR offers various cottages. I went with the budget option (600 pesos/night during the off-season), which meant I had no fan in my room. I slept with no sheet and the door wide open to give myself as much breeze as possible, but it was uncomfortable. If you can swing it, I would advise going for a room with a fan. Other than the heat, my room was simple but had all I needed, and of the three island places I went to “get away from it all” in the Philippines, I felt that CGIR was the best overall. I would happily return.
As a side note, I heard from fellow travelers that another excellent spot on Palawan for getting away from it all is Modessa Island. If I return to Palawan, Modessa Island will be on the list.
Other recommendations? Third & Sean’s Place in Legazpi for a delicious breakfast and warm staff with a good sense of humor. Baguio Village Inn for a clean, comfortable budget option in Baguio City. The Charm Guest House in Puerto Princesa as a good budget place with very welcoming hosts. And, last but not least, BNKY Bed and Breakfast in El Nido town, a lovely and inviting home where the staff went above and beyond to be accommodating.
Food & Drink
I spent a total of $563.13 on food and water in the Philippines, for an average of $12.24/day. As a reminder, I do not drink alcohol and generally do not each much between meals, so I have some built-in savings in my lifestyle. I ate most of the time at small local restaurants. Breakfast was included at roughly one-third of the places I stayed. Otherwise, I had to pay for breakfast separately.
Everything was going so well until now. Can we just ignore transportation? Sadly, no, because it is perhaps the biggest culprit in my overspending. I spent a total of $700.02 on transportation, for an average of $15.22/day. This includes the roughly $20 I spent on my flight to the Philippines from Myanmar (I used frequent flyer miles to pay for the flight, so the $20 was what I paid in taxes). Transportation costs included tricycle and jeepney rides around various towns, an overnight bus I took to Banaue, as well as other buses and a minivan to get me to Sagada, Baguio City and then back to Manila. All of these were low-budget forms of travel.
So how did the total get so high? Internal flights. There are long distances between many of the various islands in the Philippines. The shortest way to get to them is to take a flight on one of several budget carriers that operate in the country. I flew mostly on Air Asia and once on Cebu Pacific. The lowest ticket I bought totaled $74.39. The most expensive ticket was $131.68. I flew from Manila to Tagbilaran, Bohol; from Bohol to Puerto Princesa, Palawan; and from Palawan back to Manila. I also made a return trip from Manila to Legazpi. In total, the five internal flight days cost me $423.78. I bought some tickets within roughly two or three weeks of the flight and made a change of date on one ticket, at a cost of $32.91. You can pay less for your flights by booking farther in advance—I was told that booking at least 30 days out will give you the cheaper fares—as well as, of course, making no changes to your itinerary.
I also discovered in hindsight that there was perhaps a cheaper way to fly to Palawan from Bohol than the Air Asia flight I took. I booked a ticket from Tagbilaran, Bohol, to Puerto Princesa, Palawan. That flight routed me through Manila and then to Puerto Princesa. Instead, I could have taken a ferry from Tagbilaran to Cebu City and then flown on Cebu Pacific directly to Puerto Princesa without going through Manila. I did not find out about this option until after I had already booked my ticket with Air Asia, but it may have been the cheaper way to go.
Other ways to save? You can take ferries between many of the islands. This is time consuming and in some cases may give you only minor savings over a flight, but if you have the time, it may be worth it to you. I did meet some people who took the ferry and enjoyed it.
Finally, I flew from Manila to Legazpi to attempt to see whale sharks in Donsol. I could have taken a bus from Manila either to Legazpi or directly to Donsol. It would have taken 12-13 hours each way, assuming there were no breakdowns or other delays. I had only three days between my travel days to Donsol, as well as more travel directly before and after the travel to Donsol, so I opted to take a flight at a cost of $98.78. The bus would have been significantly cheaper. While I have seen a range of fares, I was told it would be 800 pesos ($17.39 U.S.) each way.
The Philippines offers tons of adventure activities, and depending on how much you indulge—and what you indulge in—this is a category that can easily run high. I spent a total of $336.63, or $7.32/day. These expenses included guide fees for some trekking in the rice fields of Banaue and Batad, four island hopping tours on Palawan, kayaking to see fireflies on Bohol, a fabulous flying zip line on Bohol, touring the underground river on Palawan, renting snorkeling gear in several places, a boat trip to look for whale sharks in Donsol, a guided trek into a deep cave in Sagada, as well as rock climbing in Sagada. In this category, I also included some nominal charges for visiting local waterfalls, such as a 10 peso charge to visit Pangas Falls on Bohol.
Some of My Favorite Activities:
Firefly Watching on the Abatan River (Cortes, Bohol): Everywhere I looked, the light was dancing. I tilted my head up from my seat in the kayak to see fireflies darting in and around the branches of mangrove trees in swarms so big that it seemed as though the branches were breathing. If I looked up further, the sky overhead was filled with twinkling stars. And when I looked down, I saw the dark and silky waters of the Abatan River filled with plankton that lit up with every stroke of the oar or swish of my palm. It was so simple and, yet, so magical. As a solo traveler, I paid 700 pesos for the guide and kayaking trip. I also had to pay for a tricycle driver to take me to Cortes from Tagbilaran, though I do not recall the cost. You have options to see fireflies in other parts of the Philippines. From what I saw, it is more expensive to see the fireflies on Palawan and less expensive if you see them in Donsol. Since I had already seen them on Bohol, I did not go in Donsol, but a fellow traveler also loved her experience there.
Duli Beach (El Nido, Palawan): Most people go to El Nido to do the island hopping tours. I went on two of them, and each had stunning scenery that I would not have wanted to miss. Still, some of the stops on those tours could be packed with tourists, and I always long for the spots where there are fewer people. Near the town of El Nido, my favorite of those places was Duli Beach. As I signed in when I first arrived around mid-afternoon, I counted about 10 names of other visitors that day. The scenery reminded me of California—tall rocks surrounding a more active surf than I had seen at other beaches in the Philippines. I splashed in the surf and jumped in the waves. The best part? Getting close views of good surfers passing by me on their boards as they rode the waves to shore. If you want to surf yourself, you can rent a board at a small shop on the beach, and I saw several people getting lessons from the more experienced locals. There were two 50 peso fees to visit the beach, and I also paid 750 pesos for a motorbike taxi to take me to both Duli Beach and Nacpan Beach that day. The 750 peso fare was a generous deal, so I would expect to pay more if you hire a motorbike or tricycle driver. If you are comfortable driving a motorbike on rocky and potholed roads, you can also rent a motorbike and drive yourself at a cheaper cost.
Island Hopping from Sibaltan, Palawan: I stayed at Tapik Beach Park Guest House in the Sibaltan area of Palawan for four nights after my time in the much busier El Nido town. Tapik offered their own island hopping tour, which took me and another guest to two snorkeling spots and a beach where we had lunch. Unlike the island hopping tours from El Nido town, there were not only very few of us on this tour, but we were the only people at the snorkeling spots we visited. We stopped for a long lunch break at Maosonon Island, spending most of our time there by ourselves. The clear turquoise water, powdery white sand and absence of other tourists made it the most beautiful beach I visited in the Philippines. At the snorkeling spot after lunch, we also had the great luck to see two reef sharks, which I had not seen snorkeling anywhere else in the Philippines. Despite some rain, I enjoyed it all so much that I repeated the same tour two days later. The first tour cost 1,500 pesos, and the second tour cost 1,200 pesos.
Sagada, in the Mountain Province in North Luzon, is a place many come for adventures such as caving, rock climbing and trekking to waterfalls. While those appealed to me, I also love simple walks and having time to myself in nature, so in my week in the town, I spent many mornings or afternoons exploring the area on my own on foot. My favorite walk was to go from town to the area near the entrance to Sumaguing Cave. I walked on the winding road with fields of pine trees on my left and lush rice terraces far below on my right, stopping on my way back to sit on a ledge and look out at the rice fields. It was quiet, calm and beautifully green. Cost: Free!
Another favorite afternoon in Sagada was at the Bokong Falls. I arrived after a short walk from town that eventually leads you through a rice field and to the falls. The water poured from the rocks above, sparkling a rainbow of colors in the sunlight. A small group of people was there, and we took turns encouraging each other to climb the small falls and jump into the pool below. After a while, the group left and I had the falls to myself. I sat in the sun and let the water rush over my toes. While the Bomod-ok falls are the bigger tourist attraction, you are required to have a guide to visit them. I had a delightful afternoon at the Bokong Falls and enjoyed being able to do it easily on my own. Cost: Free!
I heard about the Pangas Falls in Bilar, Bohol, while I was staying at Nuts Huts. It is a spot frequented mostly by locals, as well as the few travelers who have found out about it at Nuts Huts. You can swim behind the falls, let the water from the falls massage your back and climb into tiny caves where water is pouring out from the rocks. Some of us jumped off the rocks above the falls into the water below. It was relaxed, playful and so enjoyable that I came back for more another day. The entrance fee to Pangas Falls was 10 pesos each day. I also paid a motorbike taxi to take me there, wait for me and bring me back. I believe I paid 200 pesos one day and 300 another (one day from Nuts Huts and another day from a spot closer to the falls).
I bought a SIM card for 80 pesos and paid 300 pesos for minutes and data that I added along the way. The total was $8.26 or $.18/day. There are options in the airport for getting a free SIM card. I had not yet researched which company I wanted to choose—in the end I chose Globe—so I bought a SIM card later at a mall in Manila.
Included in this category are “environmental fees” paid in some locales for visiting a particular area, laundry charges, towel rental at some places I stayed, some supplies I needed (a face cloth, scissors and a pencil sharpener), as well as postcards and stamps. The total miscellaneous costs was $131.64, or $2.86/day.
The biggest cost in this category was my visa extension. As a U.S. citizen, I got a free 30-day visa in the Philippines. I paid roughly $68 to extend the visa to 59 days. I researched the visa a bit in advance but did not find many precise details online. I discovered the cost once I arrived at the visa office and already had plans to stay past the 30 days. Looking back, I wish I had researched it more in advance, if even just to avoid the shock of the big expense when I got to the visa office. Contrary to some information I found online, if you plan to extend your visa, you will need to bring a passport photo and a photocopy of the information page of your passport, as well as a photocopy of your 30-day visa with you. You also will need to fill out a visa extension form, but you can get that at the visa office.
The next most expensive item in this category was a haircut in Manila. You can get a haircut in the Philippines for very, very little, but I decided to pay more in the hopes of getting a better cut than the hatchet job I got in Aqaba, Jordan. For me, it paid off with a cut I liked (Salon Beauvoir in Makati). The cost was $26, including tips. Salon Beauvoir also has options for less expensive cuts. I paid more to see one of their senior stylists, Monette.