Budget Travel – Philippines
Having visited Philippines back in 2016, I have had no doubt I will be visiting this country again. The water in Philippines seems to be the clearest, beaches the most beautiful and people the friendliest. On top of that this is where I first learned to scuba dive so I absolutely had to come back. However, this post is not about scuba diving – it is about traveling on a budget in Philippines. Two months that we spent here allowed us to really get a good feeling for how much things cost. Let us take a look at the four main categories: Food, Accommodation, Transportation and Entertainment.
First and foremost – make sure you exchange cash or withdraw Philippine pesos from an ATM as soon as possible after your arrival. Cash is absolutely the way to go here as only very few places such as large supermarkets, hotels or higher end restaurants will accept credit or debit cards. And even if they do it is always worth enquiring about additional fees which can vary between 0% to 6%.
To make matters worse, ATM withdrawals in Philippines are expensive too. A typical maximum withdrawal of 10000 PHP will cost you around 250 PHP but can be more in some places. That is 2.5% just to withdraw cash which means paying by card (as long as you are not charged for foreign transactions by your bank!) might not always be a bad idea. This will help you minimize the amount of withdrawals that you make and therefore additional fees that will be eaten by ATMs.
Reliability of ATMs in Philippines is another sensitive topic. It was probably the first country where I seriously thought about a possibility of simply not having a way to withdraw cash because ATMs would simply not accept my foreign Mastercard/Visa cards. They work with the local cards but not with the foreign ones – annoying! Luckily in that situation my Revolut card saved the day…
Note: At the time of writing (June 2019) £1 = 66 PHP, 1$ = 52 PHP, 1eur = 58 PHP
The first destination of our trip in Philippines was El Nido – a popular tourist destination which has gained a lot of popularity because of its impressive limestone rock formations (similar to those seen in Ha Long Bay in Vietnam) as well as amazing bays and lagoons with crystal clear waters. Unfortunately, due to the popularity of this town the prices (of everything!) seemed to have skyrocketed. One week was enough for us to understand that the amount of money that we have initially allocated for food will be exceeded very quickly if we keep on eating out.
As you could have guessed, food in Philippines was more expensive then we initially hoped. We even had to readjust this allocation to have a slightly more realistic number in our super-spreadsheet! Luckily as we moved around, we have been able to find out what average costs look like. Let us take a look.
Water bottle (1l/4l/6l) – 20-30 / 60-80 / 100 PHP
San Miguel (local) beer in a shop – 35 PHP
Local Baked goods (common snacks such as rolls with chocolate or custard) – 5-10 PHP per piece
Porridge (large pack) – 120-140 PHP
Bananas – 30-60 PHP per kg
Mango – 70-120 PHP per kg
Pineapple – 70-100 PHP per kg
Meal at a budget restaurant – 100-200 PHP
Meal at a more upscale restaurant – 300+ PHP
Beer at a restaurant – 60-100 PHP
Due to the fact Philippines consists of more than 7000 islands you are very likely to take a boat at some point in time. While boat transport is not expensive, it is sometimes extremely slow. If time is more valuable for you than money then flying might be a better option.
For traveling between cities within islands bus travel is the most popular. Within cities, jeepneys are how locals get around, but their routes might be tricky to crack for visitors. Especially when drivers speak no English. Jeepney journeys cost pretty much nothing. Bus travel is cheap too. Grab is available in larger cities in Philippines and is a little more expensive but it is really affordable even for travellers with smaller pockets.
And lastly, in Philippines there is no need to book stuff online except for airplane tickets. Go ahead if that gives you piece of mind, but keep in mind you are most probably paying more than I do speaking directly to a driver/purchasing my boat tickets over the counter.
Bus Travel in Philippines
We used buses quite extensively for travelling between cities in Philippines. These are some of the journeys we took and prices we paid.
Puerto Princesa to El Nido – 500 PHP per person (same for return)
Cebu to Maya Port (for Malapascua Island) near Daanbantayan* – 250 PHP per person
Tagbilaran Port in Bohol to Panglao Island – 200 PHP per person
Kalibo Airport to Jetty port (for Boracay) – 200 PHP per person
Jeepney Ride in Cebu – 7 PHP
*Note: Ceres Bus from Cebu to Malapascua Island – 24/7 service as told by bus driver, leaves every 30min from North bus terminal in Cebu. We left at 7:30 in the morning from Cebu and arrived to Maya New Port at 11:45. We had to wait for a boat to Malapascua for around 15min. Banka boat ride to the island is around 30 minutes (last boat leaves at 5pm). To get to the shore you will have to transfer to a small flat boat which will feel extremely unstable – don’t panic and trust the boat crew. You will be fine. The flat boat transfer will cost you an additional 20 PHP. It is a bit annoying as only tourists seem to have to pay.
To return from Maya Port from Cebu take the same Ceres Bus. Keep in mind last bus from Maya New Port leaves at 5pm.
Boat travel in Philippines
Traveling by boat is pretty much unavoidable. You cannot take a bus to a remote paradise island where there is only sand and a few palm trees, can you?!
El Nido to Coron Island (Palawan) – 1400 PHP per person
Cebu to Bohol* – 500 PHP per person (AC tourist class) – you can save 50 PHP if you don’t mind sitting outside without AC.
Kalibo to Boracay – 200 PHP per person
Maya Port to Malapascua – 100 PHP per person
*Note: Speed Boat to Bohol (Tagbilaran Port) leaves from Pier 1 in Cebu. This is one of the situations where you might want to use Grab to get to Pier 1. Ticket counter is just outside of the Pier. Once you have your tickets go to the port and pay port fee of 25 PHP per person. Check in and board the boat. Travel time is around 1h and 45min. Be a little bit more careful with this one as boats do fill up. Buying your tickets a day in advance might be a good idea if you are on a tight schedule.
First boats leave Cebu/Tagbilaran at 6am, last boat from Cebu is at 6:40pm and at 6:30pm from Tagbilaran.
Motorbikes can be rented in Philippines for around 300-400 PHP per day although if you are only renting for one day it might be more expensive. Similarly, if you rent motorbike for more than a week you might be able to negotiate a better rate. Riding a bike in Philippines is not more difficult than anywhere else in south east Asia (you can read about our adventures on a motorbike in Vietnam here and here). Just make sure you wear your safety helmet and have your drivers licence on you at all times.
As mentioned previously, traveling by air is quick and comfortable, however it is significantly more expensive. Local flights typically cost between £30 to £70, but actual prices will depend on various factors such as distance and time of travel, season, popularity of the route, etc.
Also, keep in mind June – September is the monsoon season in Philippines. If you hit a spell of really bad weather expect all flights to be cancelled (sample applies to boats). Considering some more remote destinations might only operate flights once or twice a week this might cause some significant inconvenience to you and seriously mess up your travel plans. You have been warned!
Finding accommodation in Philippines will not be any different or more difficult than any other south east Asian countries. The three places where we always check for accommodation options are Agoda, Booking an AirBnB. In Philippines we have had the most success with Agoda. Variety seemed to be the best and prices were the most budget friendly.
Casa Yolanda in El Nido – 800 PHP per night for a double bed (fan)
Strong Tower in El Nido – 1000 PHP per night for a double bed (fan)
8th Street Hostel in Cebu – 500 PHP per night for a double bed in a dormitory
Romantic guesthouse in Malapascua – 700 PHP for a double bed (fan)
Gaeas Guesthouse in Panglao (near White Beach) – 460 PHP for a double bed in a dormitory
Cebu Courtyard – 800 PHP for a double room – great place and really close to Cebu Airport!
Surprisingly in Philippines people behind desks in receptions refused to negotiate on prices. Several times we pointed out that we can get better deals online that what they charge “normally” and that we would be willing to extend our stay if they offered us a better deal, but that did not get us anywhere.
Apart from my scuba diving training we did not do too much in terms of attractions but that does not mean there is not much to do in Philippines!
Scuba diving (Malapascua Island) – 1400 PHP to 2000 PHP per dive depending on shop
Boat Tours (A/B/C/D) in El Nido – 1400 PHP to 1700 PHP
Entrance to Tarsier Sanctuary in Bohol – 50 PHP per person
Entrance to Chocolate Hills in Bohol – 50 PHP per person
Budget Travel Philippines – Conclusion
Philippines is one of those countries that I feel everyone should visit at least once in their lives. There are hundreds if not thousands of islands waiting to be explored and everywhere you go seems to look like a paradise (well maybe not Manila which is super busy!). What makes Philippines different to other south east Asian countries is that people actually speak decent English in most places so communication is not that big of a problem as it is in Indonesia, Vietnam or Thailand.
When it comes to traveling on a budget, it really is not that difficult to travel in Philippines quite economically. This is how a two week visit from the UK would look like for one person (insurance excluded) based on our experience.
Return Flights – £500
Accommodation (budget hotels for 14 days) – £140 ($177)
Food (14 days at 1500 PHP per day) – £320 or $405.
Transportation – £100.
Sightseeing and Entertainment – £150. This should cover you for a few day trips/boat tours, some scuba diving, snorkelling and more.
Total – £1210 or around £86 ($109) per day all included.
Note: Check your personal Visa conditions. For the majority of Europeans free visa on arrival is issued upon arrival and is good for 30 days.