With over 7000 islands and slow public transport, the Philippines isn't the easiest place for which to develop an itinerary. Unless you want to fork over US$75, your visa is only good for 21 days, which further limits what you can, and should, plan to see.
With plenty of flop days, we don't claim to be experts on Philippines travel, but we did try to make the best out of our 19 days in this incredible country. Here's what you should consider when planning a trip:
When Are You Going?
We visited the Philippines in low-season (June-September), which also meant unpredictable weather. With a cancelled 24-hour ferry, inhospitable beaches, and no visibility at some popular dive sites, we experienced plenty of the lows that come with traveling in the "low."
But visiting in the low season does offer some advantages, especially when it comes to bargaining. They key is being flexible. In other words, if you're not okay jumping on a flight instead of a ferry or spending days stranded on a remote island, stick to high season.
If you're okay with cancelled plans, then low season offers rates up to 50% off on hotels, few crowds, and the ability to cut costs for diving and other excursions. Try to stick to more sheltered areas, like the Visayas, and make sure to stay updated on weather patterns.
What Would You Like To Do?
If diving is number one on your agenda, things are easy, as plenty of great dive sites are located along the coasts of easy-to-reach islands. Try Balicasag off of Bohol, Apo Island off of Negros, Moalbaol and Malapascua off of Cebu, and the wreck sites off of Palawan.
Want to see wildlife—in the water and on land? The islands of Cebu and Bohol arguably give you the best options for both. From thresher shark, white tip shark, and whale sharks to huge sea turtles and strange-looking tarsiers, these two easy-to-reach islands are sure to satisfy the animal/fish buff.
Excited to get closer with nature? You have your choice between sandy white beaches or lush green rice terraces. Eventually, we planned to do both, with five days reserved for trekking around Batad and visiting the famous caves and mummified bodies in Sagada. However, with our last-minute ferry cancellation, we realized we no longer had sufficient time to go North. Instead, we decided to stay on the islands.
Want to party? You're likely to find a happy hour scene on every island you visit, but for the real nights to remember there's only one island option: Boracay. On the "mainland," Manila is your best bet.
How Much Do You Want To Move Around?
The Visayas are easy to island hop through, and even though they're close together, each island is remarkably different. We really enjoyed visiting Bohol, Siquijor, and Cebu, and even though Camiguin isn't technically a Visayan island, it's easy to get to on a trip concentrated in that area.
If you want to focus on one area but still have a thirst for adventure, we heard great things about Palawan. You could easily spend a week or two exploring Palawan itself and then do an island hopping liveaboard over to Coron for wreck diving and beach camping galore.
If you don't mind moving around a ton, then you can do a few weeks in the island and one week trekking in north Luzon. But it's a lot of transport, and things don't always work out as planned.
What's Your Budget?
Not only are the Philippines more expensive than other SE Asian countries, but you're also more likely to come here "to do." Diving isn't cheap, especially if you do 2-3 dives per day, and moving around from island to island isn't the most budget friendly thing either.
If you're on a tight budget, consider staying put in one place longer so you can ask for long-stay discounts. Eat at local places and self-cater your breakfasts. Ask for breaks on dive packages and motorbike rentals. And take a few days off. It's amazing how good lounging on your terrace for a few days can be for your budget—and your mind!
Additional Top Money-Saving Tips
Refill your water bottles at the filling stations. It's 1P for a 1/4 liter, which is great for your wallet and the planet.
Eat local. The beach restaurants charge at least 200P a plate. A local place charges from 15-40P, and is a great way to get acquainted with local cuisine.
Talk to the locals. It was amazing being in a country where we could actually have conversations with the local people. Not only did we learn a ton about the culture, but they shared their personal tips for best restaurants, sights, bars, etc. Mingling with the locals may have been our favorite part of an awesome Philippines adventure.
If you have any tips to share, please leave a comment!