When flying to the Philippines, Manila's Ninoy Aquino International Airport, or NAIA for short, is one major hub experienced travelers often try to avoid. With complaints of rampant scams and bribery, as well as overcrowding and lacking infrastructure maintenance, the airport has undergone some major renovations in the past few years to address some of these problems. However, it's still a work in progress.
Many travelers advise others to avoid Manila when flying to the Philippines. For instance, you can fly through Cebu instead – the Philippines' other major international hub and a fantastic beach destination. If you are flying through Manila, you can prepare yourself by reading up on how to navigate this large and busy airport, which serves over 40 million passengers per year.
Airport Code, Location, and Contact Information
The Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL) is located about 12 kilometers south of the city center.
Know Before You Go
Ninoy Aquino International Airport went by the name Manila International Airport until it was renamed after the Filipino politician who was assassinated on the airport's tarmac in 1983.
The single name can be somewhat misleading because it is actually one Air Force base and four different terminals. Considering their distance from one other, each terminal may very well be a separate airport unto itself, but they do share a common runway. Here are some key differences between each terminal:
- Terminal 1 is a huge Brutalist concrete hulk designed by a Filipino national artist and completed in 1981. The first-ever international terminal at NAIA, Terminal 1 serves all international airlines except for a handful that moved their operations to Terminal 3 in 2014.
- Terminal 2 serves as the primary terminal for Philippine Airlines' domestic and international flights. The terminal is shaped like an arrow, with its north wing reserved for international flights and its south wing for domestic Philippines flights.
- Terminal 3 is NAIA's newest terminal and was built to address Terminal 1's increasing congestion. Able to handle over 13 million passengers per year, the 20 boarding gates and 140 check-in counters effortlessly handle 4,000 passengers per hour.
- Terminal 4 is a small, one-level domestic terminal lacking a sky bridge. Passengers exit directly onto the tarmac to board one of the airlines servicing this terminal.
You can travel between terminals via a free shuttle bus, which is scheduled to run every 15 minutes. Sometimes the bus is not so reliable and many passengers prefer to save time by taking a cab to the next terminal.
Each terminal has its own parking system, which you will need to pay for. Terminal 1 has three parking lots with Parking A and B which are mainly used for passengers, and Parking C used mostly by airport taxis. Terminal 2 has two lots (Parking 1 and 2), which offer over 1,000 spaces combined. Terminal 3 has a large parking garage that offers overnight parking and Terminal 4 has one small lot, which can be accessed by a small bridge.
From downtown Manila, you can get on Roxas Boulevard (R-1) and travel south until you begin to see signs for the airport or NAIA Road. Another option is to take the South Luzon Expressway (R-3) and follow signs for the airport.
Public Transportation and Taxis
Travelers can only get to the airport by taking taxis or private cars, with a single bus service only connecting from one bus terminal outside the airport. As you disembark from your NAIA flight, you'll find the following Manila transportation options at your disposal:
- Airport taxis: Each of NAIA's terminals provides for two different kinds of airport taxis: the white coupon taxis that charge a flat rate to their destinations, and yellow metered taxis, which charge a flat fee for the first 90 seconds, with an additional charge for every 90 seconds thereafter.
- Airport buses: The Airport Loop shuttle bus serves as NAIA's single connection between all four terminals, though the waiting time between buses can be slow. However, a new, first-class bus service now services NAIA terminals 1, 2, and 3. The “Ube Express” departs from NAIA to one of two destinations: the Makati Financial District or to hotels along Roxas Boulevard facing Manila Bay.
Where to Eat and Drink
Food can be readily found at NAIA, with options that vary widely from the cafeteria-counter establishments at Terminal 4 to the brand new Food Hall at Terminal 3. If you have a long layover and are unsatisfied with your terminal's food selections, it may be worth it to take the shuttle to Terminal 3 and explore the food options there. In addition to fast-food staples like Wendy's and Starbucks, the food court has full-service sit-down restaurants like Manila Life Cafe by the Marriott Hotel, Ramen Nagi, and King Men.
The roster of food outlets is always changing, but it shouldn't be too hard to find a stiff drink and something good to eat at NAIA. For a local treat, make sure to try the fried chicken at one of the three Jollibee fast-food restaurants.
Where to Shop
Duty-free counters stand ready at Terminals 1, 2, and 3, with Terminal 3's shopping-mall-like layout offering the most and best-quality choices. You'll also find specialty shops where you can purchase souvenirs, cigars, jewelry, and pharmacy products. Many of the stores will accept U.S. dollars, but some may not accept credit cards.
How to Spend Your Layover
Traffic in Manila can be brutal, so unless you have a layover of at least 7 hours or longer, it's not worth trying to go into the city center. However, if you'd still like to spend some time out of the airport, nearby casinos like Resorts World offer free shuttles to the airport and back. Even if you don't like gambling, you can find live entertainment, dining, and a shopping mall. In the mood for something more educational? Take a cab to the nearby and Philippine Air Force Aerospace Museum to learn a little bit about the country's military history and see some of the American fighter jets on display.
If you do have time to see Manila on your layover, don't miss the opportunity to explore Intramuros, the Spanish colonial settlement, go antique shopping at Cubao X, and catch the sunset on Manila Bay. Passengers flying into Terminals 2 and 3 can take advantage of luggage storage facilities before they head out to see the city.
If you have an overnight layover and an early flight to catch, there are a number of hotels within a short distance of the airport like the Holiday Inn Express and the Belmont Hotel Manilla. Many also offer free shuttles, so you won't have to worry about paying for a cab.
If you do choose to spend the duration of your layover at the airport, Terminal 3 has the Passengers Lodging Facility, formerly known as Dayroom. Here you can book a quiet place to recharge and shower without leaving the airport.
Many lounges require that you have a loyalty membership with your airline or at least a business class ticket, but if you are flying economy, it's possible to purchase a day pass for the following lounges in Terminals 1 and 3.
- Terminal 1: The PAGSS Premium Lounge is located next to Gate 2.
- Terminal 3: The Pacific Club Lounge and the PAGSS Lounge can be found in the Departure Area of Level 4. The Skyview Lounge is located in the International Departure Area and the Wings Transit Lounge is also located on Level 4, but can only be accessed before passing through security.
Wi-Fi and Charging Stations
Wi-Fi is free, if spotty, at all terminals. You are limited to thirty minutes at a time, but there is no limit to how many times you can reconnect. Mobile charging stations are scattered throughout the airport.
Airport Tips and Tidbits
If you're making connecting flights between different terminals, schedule a healthy-sized layover in between. You might need an hour at least just to get from one terminal to another; if you're staying at a hotel outside the airport, you may need to leave for your departing flight much earlier due to the capital's notorious traffic.
Part of the NAIA's reputation rests on the proliferation of scam artists inside masquerading as airport personnel. The following make up a short list of the common techniques scammers in NAIA have used to target travelers.
- Tanim-Bala: Literally meaning “bullet planting”, this scam involves a luggage inspector who will smuggle a small-caliber bullet into your luggage, then extort you for cash or valuables. A major media uproar in 2015 may have driven this out of the airport, but there's no telling when these will make a comeback. This scam can be avoided by wrapping your luggage and avoiding baggage with pockets on the outside.
- Tourist Bribes: Corrupt NAIA staff like to give foreign travelers a hard time in a variety of creative ways, such as asking for "exit clearance" and refusing to let you through to the gate until you pay a bribe. If an airport official asks you for money, the best thing to do is to send a clear message about where you stand morally and ask them to prove their claim that you need to pay more.
- “Colorum” Taxis: Yellow airport taxis may refuse to use the meter; unscrupulous coupon taxi dispatchers might take you to an unlicensed car that charges way more than the official rate. Ensure that the meter works just before you leave the airport.