How to Travel the Philippines on a Budget
We entered our trip to the Philippines believing that it would be easy to travel on a budget. We were in for quite a shock. After 6 weeks in the Philippines, we had spent over $3500/month for two people (more than double the amount we spent in Thailand).
We started our trip with incorrect expectations and made quite a few costly mistakes along the way. With a few adjustments, we could have easily saved hundreds of dollars. So if you’re planning to travel the Philippines on a budget, here are some tips to help you avoid our mistakes, and save loads of money.
Get Travel Insurance
Visiting the Philippines requires much more travel than most countries. Traveling between locations often requires one or more ferries and flights, any of which could be canceled unexpectedly. With so many moving parts, a single canceled journey could cost you hundreds in rebooked flights and accommodations. Even if you normally like to live on the edge and travel without insurance, the Philippines is one country that we very strongly urge travelers to get travel insurance for. We always choose World Nomads as they process claims incredibly quickly and with almost no questions asked.
While we were in El Nido, the ferry to Coron was broken for the entire week after New Years. This meant thousands of travelers had to buy last-minute flights from the Puerto Princesa airport (6 hours away) and/or rebook their entire week of accommodation. Only $30 USD of these costs were covered by the ferry company. In moments like these, you’ll be so glad to have travel insurance cover any unexpected travel and medical expenses.
Don’t Check Bags
We spent over $200 in baggage fees just for our one checked-sized bag for our domestic flights in the Philippines. The budget airlines in the Philippines are wonderful, but the baggage fees can be insane, especially if you wait until you arrive at the airport to pay for bags. Most airlines have a baggage allowance of 7kg carry-on. We never saw the weight actually being enforced, so if you can shove all of your belongings into one carry on, you’ll be able to pay no additional bag fees.
Checking a bag will add $6.5 USD for 20kg of checked baggage on Cebu Pacific if you add it as soon as you book your flights. This price steadily increases as your departure date nears. If you wait until you get to the airport to pay for your checked bags, the fee climbs up to $19 for the initial 20kg + $4.75 for every excess kilo on top of that. This might not sound like much, but when your base fare is only $35, the baggage fees can easily double your flight costs. You could try to escape the bag fees by storing your bag at the airport, but even that is $10/day. The easiest solution is to pack light, swimsuits are small anyway!
Traveling to the Philippines? - Check out our Philippines Packing Guide to know what to bring.
Visit Fewer Islands
We incorrectly assumed that domestic travel in the Philippines would be cheap. Flights between Cebu and Siargao were $50 each way while flights from Cebu to Puerto Princesa were $60 one way. This was much more than many international flights we’ve taken in Asia. And of course, the bag fees mentioned above made our flight costs much worse.
Another incorrect assumption we made, was that we could save money by taking ferries between islands instead of flights. Our ferry from El Nido to Coron was $33 while the ferry from Coron to Manila was $43, not much cheaper than flying. On top of that, the taxis and tuk-tuks going to and from the ferry ports and airports were shockingly expensive, usually $5-$10 on either end. We had to pay $4 for a taxi just to switch terminals at the Manila airport.
All of these small costs add up really quickly, so switching islands every few days isn’t the best idea if you’re traveling on a budget. Pick a few of your favorite Philippines islands and spend more time in each.
Travel With Friends
The Philippines are so much more fun, and cheaper, with friends! The main reason for this is the boat tours. Whether in Siargao, El Nido, Coron, or most other Philippines islands, the main tourist activity usually involves going island hopping on a boat tour.
For these tours, you usually pile into a fishing boat with 10-15 other strangers. As you arrive at each stop, the tour guide gives everyone only 30-45 minutes before you have to return to the boat. Your boat tour is likely on the same schedule as tens or even hundreds of other boats, making all of the sites overcrowded with tourists in bright orange lifejackets. If you’re traveling solo or as a pair, you can expect to spend about $20-$40 for each of these suboptimal tours.
However, if you travel to the Philippines with a group of friends, or make some friends once you arrive, you can book private boat tours for less than half the price (per person) of the group tours. Not only do you save money, but you also have full control of your route and schedule, making it easier to avoid the crowds and enjoy the beautiful islands and lagoons on your boat trip.
Book Your Accommodation Early
We love to leave our plans flexible, so we usually only book our accommodations a few days in advance. This was such a struggle in the Philippines. In many Philippines islands, the ratio quality budget housing to tourists is extremely low. If you have “high” standards for your stays, like wifi or air conditioning or hot water, book your accommodations as soon as possible! Otherwise, you’ll be paying a hefty price for these luxuries or won’t be able to find them at all. Another bonus tip on accommodation is that Agoda often offers flash deals in the Philippines, where you can find prices much lower than those you would get if you booked in person.
Always Carry Exact Change
This tip isn’t going to be life changing, but it will save you a few dollars here and there. We’re still not sure if this is a common scam or if really no one in the Philippines has change. Countless times after taking a taxi, tuk-tuk or even ordering at a restaurant, they would say that they didn’t have change for our bills. If we didn’t have any smaller bills, we would have to sadly leave our money behind. This probably only cost us $10 USD total, but its one of the most frustrating ways to needlessly spend your money.
Know the Price of Your Rides
As soon as a taxi or tuk-tuk driver singles you out as a tourist, they will try to charge you the tourist price. If possible, always ask a local about how much your ride should cost beforehand, then you can just hand your driver the exact change at the end of the trip. If you have no idea what the ride should cost, ask the driver before you enter the vehicle and haggle down the price they initially give you. We always found that we’d get charged more if we asked the price at the end of the trip. Knowing the price before you get in the car is especially important for longer and more expensive rides! Write the price down on your phone and show it to the driver so that everyone is on the same page. We ended up paying $40 for what we thought was going to be a $20 ride due to a miscommunication with our taxi driver.
Don’t Go Too Crazy on the Diving
If you’re not a diver, you can skip over this one! If you are a diver, make sure to set a budget for your diving before you get to the Philippines, and make a list of your must-see dives (Coron and Apo Island near Dumaguete were our favorite, and we would love to visit Malapascua next time). Otherwise, you may end up signing up for every cool dive you see as you walk down the street like we did. Typically, one dive in the Philippines will cost you $25-$35 USD including equipment rental.
Make the Most of Your Visa Extension
As a U.S. citizen, you can travel to the Philippines visa-free for 30 days. If you choose to stay in the Philippines for more than 30 days, you’ll need to get an extension on this visa waiver which allows you to stay for up to 60 days. This extension costs almost $60 (and in our experience takes several hours in the visa office to process), so if you choose to get it, stay for the full 60 days if you can to get the most out of the fee! Or at least, don’t pay $60 just to stay in the Philippines for 31 days.
Where Did All Our Money Go?
Food - $27/day
Travel (flights, ferries, long rides) - $25/day
Diving - $25/day
Accommodation - $19/day
Activities - $16/day
Local Transportation - $6.4/day
Visas (to stay longer than 30 days) - $116
SIM card - $21
Total - $121.7/day… yikes.
We hope this post helps you save some money while you’re traveling in the Philippines! If you have any questions or money saving tips, let us know in the comments.