The Philippines: Know Before You Go

The Philippines: Know Before You Go

It’s never a bad idea to try and properly set your expectations before boarding that plane to wherever. The key word being properly. And scouring the internet does a great job of this, as there are countless articles out there detailing the most excruciating minutia of travel.

This is not one of those articles.

No, this is not intended as a definitive guide. There are no “5 places you must visit” and no “top 10 things to look out for.” What follows is simply a short list of observations gathered firsthand over 10+ years of traveling to (and through) the Philippines.

With any luck, this will help the beginner as well as the seasoned traveler avoid quite a few headaches.



Manila: Love it or hate it, you will be dealing with it. If it’s simply a layover while waiting to head elsewhere then stay nearby. If, however, you choose to give the metro area a go then you’ll want to limit the time spent sitting in traffic as much as possible. Traffic has always been bad in the capital city, and it’s only gotten worse these last few years. So, if your plan is to spend the majority of your stay eating and drinking in the Makati–Greenbelt area or in Taguig–Bonifacio Global City then definitely get a room there. Don’t be fooled by looking at a map and thinking to yourself “well it’s just an extra mile or two.” This will add hours each day stuck in gridlock. Nobody wants that. Stay where you play.

No matter what time you arrive, there will be a bank counter open (just past immigration and customs), so there’s no need to worry about how you’re going to get pesos. While the rates here are better than expected, there’s no need to exchange everything you brought. You’re only looking for enough to get you through the first day or two, so maybe US$100–200. Or you can just hit up an ATM.

Purchase a local SIM card for your phone at the airport. Booths are located outside customs in the arrivals area. Smart and Globe are the country’s two main telecom providers. While Smart is a personal preference (out of habit more than anything else), Globe does have its Traveler Sim. Various load denominations are available, and additional load is readily available at corner shops almost everywhere throughout the country. But do yourself a favor and just get the P500 (US$10) card, which includes the new SIM, call minutes, a number of free SMS messages, etc., at the airport. You are better off doing this here and now as it allows you to focus on more pressing things.

Getting from the airport to wherever you’re going can be a bit overwhelming. Touts for “coupon taxis” will most likely descend upon you. Simply walk past with a polite “no thank you” (“hindi po” in Tagalog) and out the glass doors. Look around for an overhead sign showing “Metered Taxi” and then make your way in the direction of the yellow taxis. Yes, there are other options, but this is the most convenient, and it costs only slightly more than the absolute cheapest while still being less than half the price of the most expensive. Before dismissing this suggestion and looking instead for cheaper, you might want to keep in mind that you’ve just arrived in a new country after a long flight and are now standing around with all your cash and valuables. Take the yellow taxi.

(UPDATE: Grab (on iPhone and Android) was recently granted permission by the airport authority to service all terminals. Booths are available for those who don’t have the app or internet connection.)


Day to Day

For getting around, taxis are really all you need to know. Message boards post endlessly on taxi scams, but a simple “boss, meter please” after getting in is usually all that is required. If the reply is ever “the meter is broken” then just get out and get another taxi. That’s it. There’s no need for a diatribe on the matter. During rush hours, this might be easier said than done, though, as taxis often turn down passengers if the destination is “too far” or “too much traffic.” Filipinos experience this the same as foreigners, you aren’t being singled out. Be sure that you have Grab for times such as this. Yes, Uber is in Manila, but it’s nowhere near as convenient, as Grab lets you choose from nearby taxis, private cars, private higher-end cars, and motorbikes. Without either app, expect to find yourself stuck in long taxi cues at malls and events or in the lobby of the Airbnb you booked in Bonifacio (as the area can be desolate of taxis late at night).

For the most part, changing money is pretty straightforward. Overseas remittances are a huge part of the Philippines’ economy and as such money changer booths and counters are prevalent throughout the country, and certainly throughout Manila. With daily rates clearly posted, a receipt showing the exchange amount multiplied by the daily rate, and the freedom to count your cash there at the counter before moving to the side and leaving, the whole process is relatively stress free. Having said that, never change money on the street or go with a street tout telling you of a better rate “just over there.” This is not so much dangerous as it is foolish. You will lose a good chunk of money. In the past, several Fil–Am friends have insisted they “have it under control” only to realize moments later that they were somehow fast-handed out of almost 40% of the amount changed. Even when fully aware of the risk and fluent in the language it still happened to them. So what do you estimate your chances to be? Don’t do it.

Always carry small change. Not coins per se but P10, P20, and P50 notes. This will save you from hearing “sorry, ma’am/sir … no change” ad nauseam throughout the day. Jaded travelers often view this as an attempt to keep the extra amount. While this is definitely a possibility, years of traveling have shown instead that it’s more likely they simply don’t have enough small bills to make change.

So this is your first time visiting the Philippines? No … it isn’t. You are mistaken. Here are several stock replies that will let whoever know that you aren’t a complete newbie (read as someone ripe for scamming: “Hey hey, money for everyone!”):

First time in the Philippines?    
“No, I have been here two / three times before”

How long have you been here?    
“A few weeks”

How long are you staying?    
“Maybe a month. More, I hope.”


Limit yourself to only one “why” question per day. “Why is it like this … why is it taking so long … why don’t they just.” The Philippines is still a developing nation. Either learn to go with it or quickly find yourself stressed the F out. Besides, isn’t the fact that things are not “just like back home” a large part of the reason you’re going in the first place?

At some point, you will be approached by street vendors selling anything and everything. Some can be pretty persistent. Try not to lose your temper. A lot of them have almost nothing, and probably never will. If you aren’t interested, just smile and/or look off into the distance and say “hindi po” while you keep walking. You may need to say it several times, but again, do so while walking. Breaking your stride signifies intent to buy.

In certain areas, beggar kids can be a problem. Giving cash to one quickly makes the situation worse as others will now swarm you. If there are enough around, expect to find a few things missing later on as they can pretty much take whatever from your pockets without you even noticing. That alone should be warning enough not to start doling out coins, but more important to consider is that there’s usually a “wrangler” just around the corner. Someone waiting to take his or her cut from whatever these kids get. So giving cash isn’t a great option, but other than ignoring and brushing past is there another option? Yes. Maybe pop into a carinderia (there are usually several every block or so) and order a piece of chicken and two scoops of rice for each, perhaps even a liter of cola for them to share. Total cost will be roughly US$5 for 4–6 kids. Not likely that you would do this? Another option, and one that wouldn’t cost anything extra, is to just have whatever restaurant leftovers wrapped up to go. Hand this off in lieu of cash, or just leave somewhere on the street—a car park, on top of a bench, wherever. There’s nothing wrong with a little good karma.

This last one should be common sense, but here it goes anyway: Never pick a fight or glare at a local. If you are ever stupid or drunk enough to pop off, you will quickly realize that there is no such thing as a fair fight. Your size isn’t the advantage you might think it is. Rather than being a deterrent, it will more likely only encourage others to join the fray. Never a good thing. This is not meant to frighten. It has never happened to me, and I have really only ever seen it go down once. (And if I’m being totally honest, the guy kinda had it coming.) Still, it’s not a bad thing to be reminded of.


Some Common "Getting Around" Terms

Kumusta po kayo?    
How are you?

-  Mabuti ako               

-  Pagod                      
-  Tired

-  Lasing                      

-  Buhay pa rin             
Still alive

Oo / Hindi                     
Yes /No

Salamat po                   

Hindi po                      
No thanks

Hindi ako interesado     
I’m not interested

Pare / Boss                  


Travel tip shared by Henry Cooper