The Philippines: Tropical Island Dreams

When you think tropical island paradise, the over 7000 islands of the Philippines should come to mind. Whether you’re ziplining through the jungle, relaxing on some of the greatest beaches in the world, partying in Manila, or swimming around the coral reefs, the Philippines offers fantastic adventures.


Getting in, out, and about


US travelers coming to the Philippines for the purposes of tourism can get into the country with a US passport that will remain valid for at least six months beyond your scheduled arrival in the Philippines. You will need to furnish proof of either a return ticket or a ticket to a destination beyond the Philippines. Your entry stamp will be good for up to thirty days.


If your travel plans involve a stay longer than 30 days, you can apply for a special 59 day visa through a Philippine embassy or consulate before you travel, or you can apply for a twenty-nine day extension to your entry visa once you are there. If your travel plans include purposes other than tourism, you will need to apply for a specialized visa through the country’s nearest embassy or consulate, or risk being fined or deported from the country.


The Philippines customs requires you to declare any currency that you bring into the country beyond $10,000 USD or its equivalent. In addition, if you bring in more than 10,000 Philippine pesos (PHP), approximately $230 USD’s worth, you need to declare that as well. If you are a traveler under the age of 15 and are traveling without a legal guardian, you will need to apply through the Philippine embassy or consulate for a special waiver called a “waiver of exclusion or you will be assessed a fine of more than $70 USD.


As of this writing (May 2014), the US State Department has issued a travel advisory warning for visits to the Philippines. It recommends that US travelers avoid going to the Sulu Archipelago and the island of Mindanao, where there have been high instances of terrorist activities, including targeting US travelers for kidnapping and ransom. While the Sulu islands are known for this kind of activity, kidnappings occur in Manila and other parts of the Philippines as well, but with not as great a frequency.


Travelers in Manila should be aware that the city has a high crime rate and tourists can be targeted for all manner of scams and petty theft, as well as possible “express kidnappings” where the victim is invited to go off the beaten path and gets drugged and robbed of all their belongings as well as having their bank accounts drained. Traveling by day in groups and remaining constantly aware of your surroundings are good tactics to minimize any problems with crime in Manila.


In addition to being up to date on the common vaccinations, the US Center for Disease Control advises that most travelers should get additional vaccinations against Hepatitis A and typhoid, although these are not required for entry into the country. You should also avoid drinking tap water or using ice cubes made from tap water in the Philippines.


Some travelers may find it advisable to get additional vaccinations against Hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis, or rabies. This will largely depend on your vacation plans, and you should consult your local doctor about your travel plans to determine if any vaccinations fit your needs.


Dengue fever, malaria, and schistosomiasis are also potential diseases you can get in the Philippines. While there is no cure or prophylactic against dengue fever, you can take anti-malarial medicine that will improve your resistance to malaria. If you do so, you will need to plan taking the medicine well in advance of your trip because it involves a three-time application before, during, and after your trip in order to be effective. The only surefire way to avoid malaria or dengue fever is to avoid mosquito bites altogether. Schistosomiasis can be avoided by avoiding contact with fresh water lakes and rivers.


Driving a car throughout the Philippines can be a dangerous proposition since drivers are far more aggressive than in the US and road conditions can vary throughout the country. The inter-island ferries can also be dangerous, so finding alternative ways to cross the islands, such as private boats, trains, or airline travel, is a better option. US drivers with a valid driver’s license can drive in the Philippines for up to 30 days, but in order to be able to drive beyond those thirty days, you will need an International Driver’s Permit.


Upon exiting the Philippines, you will have to declare any money in any currency that’s more than $10,000 USD, as well as declaring any local currency you’re carrying beyond 10,000 PHP. Travelers who overstay past the date allowed on their visa stamp are subject to fines and imprisonment before being able to leave the country.


The traveler’s tongue


The two official languages of the Philippines are Filipino, which is derived from the language Tagalog, and English. Since English is a required course in most schools in the islands, it is widely spoken throughout the country, but in some rural areas, a basic knowledge of Filipino is extremely helpful. In more cosmopolitan areas, you’ll find numerous other languages spoken among various ethnic groups including Hokkien Chinese and Arabic.


Money matters in the Philippines


The official currency of the Philippines is the Philippine peso, with its international abbreviation of PHP or its local symbol, ₱, which is placed in front of the numerical price just like our own $ sign. Bills come in denominations of 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, or 1000, as well as coins for 1, 5, or 10 pesos. Philippine pesos can also be divided into centavos, so additional coins in circulation include 5, 10, and 25 centavos


Outside of heavy tourist locations, it is difficult to find money changers. Beware of black market money changers who might use you to pass counterfeit currency. Your best options for exchanging your money are banks or designated money changers in tourist areas. You will get the best rates and minimal amount of fee by exchanging larger amounts of currency, but keep in mind that there are limits on how much Philippine currency you can take with you outside of the country when you leave.


You can use major credit cards for purchases throughout the Philippines, although many businesses impose a minimum transaction amount before they will allow credit card use. In addition there are numerous ATMs throughout the country. Most of these will charge a fee of around $5 USD in order to withdraw money from them with a foreign card.


Most sit-down restaurants include a 10% service fee which goes to your server, however leaving extra change as an additional tip is common practice. When there is no service fee, it’s common to leave a 10-15% tip for good service. Taxi drivers generally receive a tip of around ₱20-50 or round up their fare to the nearest whole bill amount. The same amount is appropriate for hotel porters and cleaning staff. For parking attendants and security personnel, a ₱5-10 tip is customary.


Prices in the Philippines are inexpensive and your budget can go a long way. Hostels can range from $6 to $50 USD a night per person, but on the high end, you’re actually paying for a fancier experience. Most hostels will run under $15 USD for a night per person. For a more high-end experience, expect to pay around $40 USD and up per person per night for at least a three star hotel. For travelers on a budget, you can reasonably get by in the Philippines for around $40 USD per day, and even less when you focus on using public transportation and limit your activities to free and inexpensive ones. Regardless of your budget, you’ll find the Philippines to be one of the most inexpensive places in the world.


Highlights of a vacation to the Philippines


Since the Philippines have a tropical climate, it’s warm year-round. However, from June through October, the islands experience a rainy season and a peak summer from March to May. You can find numerous adventures to experience in the Philippines, and it would take a life time to explore all the islands. Here are just a few highlights:


  • Manila. The capital of the Philippines is a densely populated, thriving metropolis. Whether you walk the Baywalk, tour the shrines to Andres Bonifacio or Apolinario Rabini, shop for high fashion in downtown Manila, or dance the night away in Makati City, the fast pace and friendly people will charm you.
  • Boracay. The white sandy beaches of Boracay island are some of the greatest beaches in the world. The more adventurous can delve deep into the ground at the Bat Cave, or dive beneath the sea in Scuba gear and check out the sharks and manta rays, or head up to Ariel’s Point and take a dive into the ocean off of a cliff. For Scuba divers wanting to explore coral reefs, you can also head out to Camarines Sur on the island of Luzon or off of the island of Palawan.
  • The rice terraces of Banaue. These 2000 year old rice terraces are a UNESCO World Heritage site and can also be found on the island of Luzon.
  • Vigan. The center of this town is another UNESCO World Heritage site that features amazing displays of Spanish Colonial architecture.
  • Cagayan de Oro. This city is a great embarkation point for white water rafting or kayaking and Macahambus Adventure Park where you can zip-line or rappel through the jungle.

With these and numerous other great highlights, and an experience worth far greater than the miniscule hit to your budget, the Philippines is the adventure getaway of your dreams.