5 Travel Tips for first timers in The Philippines

By Jason Rittle 9/17/2019

The Filipino embraces civilization and lives and thrives in every clime, in contact with every people.

— Jose Rizal

Let’s face it. The Philippines is not France, Italy, Japan, or some other high-profile country that doesn’t need to try and entice people to visit. We are an underrated country that many foreigners are still quite clueless about. Whether you are an American who married a Filipina, a curious traveler, or a 2nd generation Filipino American curious about your roots, these are some important tips that you will need to know when traveling to this pearl of the orient seas.

1. Bring Cash

If you aren’t shopping at an SM Mall or checking out of your hotel, chances are, you are going to need cash. The Philippines is still very much a cash society. In the US, we’re too used to being able to swipe our cards everywhere we go and for the most part, prices for activities are all inclusive and therefore we simply pay, they hand us a receipt, and we are on our way.

With the majority of Filipinos living on the equivalent of $2-4 a day, Philippine society is geared primarily with poor people in mind. That means every little thing you do will be meticulously itemized and broken down with very specific prices. You want to go on a leisurely canoe ride around a lake? Expect to pay a fee for parking, an administrative environmental fee, a fee to wear a life jacket, a fee for paddles, on top of the fee to use a canoe. And every single of these things must be paid in cash upfront. In the Philippines, every THING costs something. As a westerner, you may struggle to find the point in something so painfully inconvenient but the concept exists really to give the more-than-likely not-wealthy consumer the power to omit specific items they don’t want to or can’t afford to pay for. The concept of “All-inclusive pricing” rarely exists here. So find an ATM and make sure you have some Pesos in your wallet.

2. Don’t Sweat The Language Barrier

The Philippines has the largest English speaking population in Asia. Whether you are a foreigner who thinks the word “Tagalog” rhymes with “Dialogue,” or you are a 2nd generation Fil-am like myself who is a bit self-conscious of your mastery of the language, there is comfort in knowing most Filipinos speak English as a 2nd or 3rd language and is more than happy to communicate with you in your native language.

This doesn’t mean trying to speak Tagalog isn’t appreciated. Filipinos love catering to visitors but extra brownie points are given to foreigners who say “Salamat Po” (Thank you) or “Kamusta po!” (Hello). If you are outside of metro Manila, keep in mind, Tagalog may not be the majority language spoken in that area. The Philippines is a heavily multi-lingual country with Tagalog and English serving as the primary languages spoken throughout the country but many other languages or dialects are also spoken depending on what island or region of an island you are in.

Either way, when in doubt, just speak English.

3. Don’t bother renting a car unless you have a death wish

Drivers in the Philippines make New Yorkers look tame. The first time I set foot here and took a taxi from the airport to my hotel, I immediately knew I never wanted to even attempt to navigate this country by car.

Driving here is somewhat of an art with more unspoken rules being practiced than spoken ones. With every literal inch of space being utilized to pedestrians blindly darting out into traffic to four-way stops looking like those big red octagons are just obstructions rather than instructions, it can be quite difficult to figure out what to do when behind the wheel of a car in the Philippines. Unless you are an experienced driver here, I highly recommend sticking to other methods of transportation.

Public transportation is quite literally swarming here. Jeepneys and Tricycles are the most common and most affordable method of getting around. No app and no searching for a designated stop needed. Simply find one driving around, wave it down, and tell them where you want to go. No set price is ever given so always agree on a price before you get on. Uber and Lyft are also used here if you are looking for something more modern. The price will be more expensive but at least you will be able to do everything from an app like you do back home.

4. Brush up on your haggling skills (Be Firm)

Aside from typical chain stores where you see specific prices for products, many places in the Philippines — primarily open air markets or road side stands — rely on the good ol’ fashioned bargaining system. If you find yourself in a public space that sells goods and you are unsure of what the price is, chances are, the price is determined based on how good you are at arguing.

Many places still do what is called a “Suki” system. In order words, you have your favorite butcher stall or favorite produce stand that you frequent. Over time, you build a relationship with that merchant. As your relationship builds, the merchant is less likely to give you bad product and more likely to give you the best deal. This doesn’t exactly translate well for tourists just passing by. It is important to understand the exchange rate and to be mindful of what you are actually paying for a product otherwise you may fall victim to being ripped off. If you aren’t confident in your bargaining skills, you may want to stick to chain stores or malls for your shopping. That is if you don’t have a reliable companion that can do all the haggling for you.

5. Have a go-with-the-flow Attitude

Time goes by much slower in the Philippines compared to the US. The Manana habit is very strong here. Everything takes longer to get done here than what Americans might be used to. This can be driving, waiting for your food at a restaurant, or waiting in line for any activity; Filipinos tend to take their sweet time do anything and no amount of huffing and puffing or giving people an attitude is going to change that. Being here simply requires a lot of patience and a more passive “Bahala Na” (It’s God’s will) attitude.

Overall, the Philippines is a very welcoming place for tourists and it is definitely one of the easier countries for foreigners to adjust to when visiting. Locals are quite warm and friendly, English is widely spoken, and there isn’t a super strict culture that you are required to conform to or be snubbed by locals. If you can follow these simple tips, use your common sense, and not take yourself or anything else too seriously, you will be sure to have the time of your life in this pearl of the orient!

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