Philippines Travel Guide for First-Time Visitors

Hiking up from the Batad village
Mike Aquino

The Philippines is part of Southeast Asia, and yet apart from it. It is the only Southeast Asian country with no land links to neighboring countries, meaning that any visit from the mainland is an out-of-the-way one.

But the paths leading to the Philippines are increasingly well-traveled: Manila is now an indispensable stop for many low-cost carriers, and intrepid travelers are discovering the Philippines' beaches, jungles, and culture for themselves... and spreading the word. Find out why you should visit this fun island group... and how you can go about it.

01 of 08

Why Visit the Philippines?

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Mike Aquino

The 7,000+ islands that constitute the Philippines makes it difficult to pin down the singular Philippine travel experience. Dancing and drinking-all-you-can during Cebu's Sinulog festival? Beach fun in Palawan? Mountain biking in Davao? Or getting lost in Manila's walled city of Intramuros?

All of them are so different, yet so typical of the Philippines: a country that needs little excuse to party, a bit laid back, messy and inefficient, and yet so open to fun and adventure. 

The vibe is worlds apart from the scene in Cambodia or Indonesia: the Philippines was a former Spanish colony ruled from Mexico, and a Latino vibe still persists in the local culture. Towering Catholic churches still loom over the heart of the Philippines' oldest cities, and are still packed to the rafters on Catholic days of obligation.

02 of 08

Visas and Other Travel Requirements

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Mike Aquino

US passport holders visiting the Philippines do not need to secure a visa before flying in. Citizens of countries that have diplomatic relations with the Philippines may enter visa-free for no more than 30 days, but must present a passport valid for at least six months after arrival and proof of onward or return passage. 

03 of 08

Weather in the Philippines

sunrise in boracay, philippines
Joyoyo Chen/Getty Images

Located close to the equator, the Philippines is a consummately tropical country; the northern island of Luzon shows three distinct seasons (a somewhat chilly cold season from November to February, a hot, dry summer from March to June, and a torrential typhoon season from July to October).

As you go further south, the distinctions vanish and the weather becomes uniformly warm and humid, with year-round rainshowers. North or south, the same principles apply when packing your baggage: bring rainwear and lightweight cotton clothing, particularly when visiting during monsoon season. .

Typhoons are a big enough deal here, that the Philippines follows its own naming system (the world may call it typhoon "Bopha", but the Philippines knows it as typhoon "Pablo"). The reasons for this idiosyncratic rule can be found here: Tropical Cyclones in the Philippines.

04 of 08

Transportation Options

Jeepney in Cagayan de Oro, Philippines.

Tom Cockrem

Travelers can fly from Singapore's Changi Airport, Hong Kong International Airport and other regional hubs into either Manila or Cebu, two transport hubs that serve international flights from all over the region.

The great majority of travelers fly in via Manila's NAIA Airport, but the capital's less-than-savory reputation might be a turn-off. Luckily, you can fly into the Philippines and avoid Manila and NAIA completely. 

The Philippines is an archipelago, so getting around isn't as simple as boarding a bus from Manila to Boracay. Thankfully, crossing the islands is cheaper and easier than it looks: three major low-cost airlines (AirAsia Philippines, Cebu Pacific, and PAL Express) use Manila and Cebu as domestic hubs that connect to smaller airports throughout the country.

Visitors can also travel by sea: travelers from Manila's Eva Macapagal Super Terminal (location on Google Maps) can sail on RORO ferries to most major seaside cities in the Philippines. Once on the island of your choice, you can go around on the Philippines' ubiquitous jeepneys, or traverse longer distances by inter-provincial bus.

Continue to 5 of 8 below.
05 of 08

Money

Paper money in the Philippines

Mike Aquino

The Philippine Peso (PHP; divisible into 100 centavos) can easily be changed at money changers at the airport and in one of the nation's ubiquitous shopping malls, if you're within one of the bigger cities. These malls are also chock-full of ATMs, in case you want to withdraw cash from your own ATM-card-equipped bank account instead.

A word on travel insurance: the southern part of the Philippines is often mentioned in U.S. State Department warnings. While that does not legally prevent you from traveling to Mindanao, your insurance policy may refuse to cover you while you're traveling in these banned areas.

06 of 08

Food & Drinks

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Mike Aquino

What Philippine food lacks in spice and nuance, it makes up for in heartiness and freshness. Take a look at the Philippines' top ten foods, and you'll find a wealth of influences from Western colonizers (Spain and the U.S.) and Asian neighbors (China and Indonesia), melded into a sublime whole.

Foodies looking for the absolute best of the local cuisine should book a food tour of the Philippines' Pampanga province to get their fix, or follow the path set by this 15-hour Filipino food frenzy.

Travelers are often introduced to the not-so-best part of Philippine cuisine on the street - the oddly grotesque Filipino street food known as balut. Eat at your own risk.

The Philippines also enjoys a robust drinking culture - it brews at least one of the best beers In Southeast Asia, and travelers should expect to be invited to drink by the locals at least once.

07 of 08

Using Your Smartphone

Tourist takes a selfie with her cellphone on Manila Bay, Philippines
Ben Pipe Photography/Getty Images

Bring your GSM-compatible phone to the Philippines - the country's major cities and travel destinations benefit from strong GSM cellular network coverage.

If you have an "unlocked" phone - i.e. it's not locked to your home cellphone provider - you can buy a SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card from one of the Philippines' two major mobile telecoms brands, Globe and Smart - these cards are on sale at the airports, malls, seaports and even in small neighborhood stores.

Mobile internet use is generally faster in the cities - 4G speeds are available in Manila, Cebu, Davao and Boracay, with 3G and lower as you go further afield.

08 of 08

Traveler Safety

Alona Beach as viewed from the eastern cliff.

Mike Aquino

Is the Philippines safe to travel in? Ah, there's the rub. The cities are as safe as most U.S. cities, assuming you follow a number of commonsense tourist precautions. Some dangers are particular to major tourist hubs in the Philippines, such as the "Ativan gang" scam where friendly-seeming locals slip a roofie in your drink and rob you while you're out cold.

Like the rest of the region, the Philippines' laws look harshly on illegal drug use. While the death penalty has been indefinitely suspended, the Philippines Dangerous Drugs Act will still come down hard on any proven drug users - you could be sentenced to at least 12 years in prison for possession of as little as .17 ounce of marijuana.

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