7 tips for traveling to the Philippines

The Philippines is a beautiful, diverse and culturally rich place to visit. It’s popped up on traveler’s radars significantly more in recent years and has seen a huge influx of tourists. While visiting my family there this year, I saw a Western tourist in the area for the first time in all 20+ years that I’ve been visiting!

Philippine culture is vibrant and strong, and it can be a bit of a shock to someone who hasn’t been there before. When traveling, it’s important to be aware of culture customs and quirks.

Here are a few quick tips that will make your trip to the Philippines a little easier to navigate!

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Cash is the name of the game

As is true for most non-Western countries, using cards as a form of payment is pretty rare in most parts of the Philippines. Even in major malls and tourist areas, cash is still the number one form of payment.

There are many places you can transfer your money, or you can make withdrawals (fewer, bigger withdrawals will give you less overseas fees, if that’s applicable to you) from any ATM. ATMs are typically located in major banks, which are often guarded.

If you are planning on relying on a credit card for making your way around the Philippines, you won’t go very far. Every form of public transportation only takes cash — so come prepared with a couple thousand Philippine pesos ( $100 or so USD).

I usually withdraw a good amount and keep it safe with me before I travel, then exchange it as soon as I’m in the country, which usually means heading to an exchange booth at the airport. Some say it’s more expensive, but I find that it’s pretty consistent in the Philippines. It’s the people on the street that will try and scam you with a bad exchange rate, so try and stick to major institutions.

Getting around is easy

Figuring out how to get from point A to point B once you’re in a country can be some of the trickiest parts of planning. Public transportation varies widely around the world, as do pricing and availability.

Thankfully, the Philippines is not short on options for getting you around. All of them take cash, and all of them are widely available. I would NOT recommend renting a car in the Philippines unless you’re trying to get somewhere remote - there are very few driving laws and things can get aggressive. Leave it to the locals.

There are tons of options for getting around, from going a couple blocks to needing a whole day of transportation. I broke them all down in this post, since there’s too much to talk about here.

Don’t be afraid of the shop assistants

Shopping in the Philippines is a bit different than how we do it in the states. It’s a much more…interactive experience. I find that, here, most people prefer to shop on their own, choose their own items and make their own decisions. Having an employee follow you around and make suggestions or be responsible for getting items for you might sounds completely intrusive or bizarre — but that’s just how it works there.

There’s nothing intrusive about it. They’re really just there to help. Help you find the best item, the right size of clothing, and to help keep your hands free while you look at goods.

It might seem weird at first to have someone hovering around as you browse, picking stuff up that you set down, asking you about finding the right sizes…and a lot more. But there’s a reason that most stores in the Philippines are so immaculate, and it can actually be a really helpful, genuinely good experience if you let it be.

Just know that it’s likely and don’t be surprised when a well-dressed shop assistant starts following you around when you set foot in a store. Filipinos are known for their service and hospitality, and this is a great example of it.

Bring your own toilet paper (and other bathroom supplies)

While toilet paper is around, it’s not super common, especially in public bathrooms. Even in public bathrooms, any toilet paper is regulated by an attendant, who may hand you three little squares if you’re lucky.

Your options are to go about it the Filipino way and not worry about toilet seats (squatting preferred) or toilet paper and soap, or you can bring your own supplies with you. A little roll and some hand sanitizer have saved me from some unpleasant situations.

Of course, I’ve also gone about it Filipino way when in a pinch. But if, like me, western plumbing is always at the top of your gratitude list, bringing a little with you won’t hurt.

Use your hands

In many spots in the Philippines, you best utensils are the 10 you always carry with you: Your hands. This isn’t as true as it used to be, but there are many places where cutlery isn’t a given, especially if you’re dining in someone’s home, not a restaurant.

If you don’t feel like eating with your hands all the time (though there is a very good method to doing so, and anyone can teach you how to make ‘the shovel’), then just bring along a little reusable cutlery set.

Understand how to ‘shower’

Running water is available in all the tourist areas, but water pressure in the Philippines is subpar compared to what one might be used to.

Because of this, showers often have a bucket and little ladle in them. The drip from the faucet fills the bucket, and then you use the ladle to clean yourself from the reserve of water. It might take a little getting used to, but it gets the job done (albeit a little slower than a normal shower!).

Know the rules of the road (or lack thereof)

Take it from me: Do not try and drive in the Philippines. There are a lot of countries where driving is unpredictable or rules are a little different, but the Philippines is notorious for being more of a free for all. There is a sort of communication system, done entirely through honking.

It’ll probably seem a little scary and heart attack-inducing, but just don’t pay too much attention and you’ll be fine. Probably.

If it’s any consolation, I’ve only seen one ‘accident’ during all the years I’ve been traveling to the Philippines, and it wasn’t even something you’d call the police over in the states.

What sort of insider tips do you have for the Philippines or any other countries? What things have surprised you about places you’ve been?

I love getting to know a place inside and out. These days I’m not usually in a country long enough to learn all I would like to, but it’s still possible to learn little how to navigate the basics of a new culture if you just learn to look and listen. And maybe read up on it beforehand. (wink)

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