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A Short Guide For First Time Travelers To The Philippines






Introduction

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A member of our team started an E-Book a couple of years ago. His intention was to publish the book online as a guide for foreigner men wanting to move to the Philippines. Most of the content here comes from his book, with some additions and changes.

We are trying to keep this information relevant for anyone coming here for the first time. Whether they are a tourist coming for a couple of weeks or an expat relocating for a couple of years. Here is some helpful information for Philippines “newbies”.

Getting Here

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I assume you have decided where you will be flying in to here in the Philippines. Yeah, there are 7000 islands, but more than likely you are going to pass thru one of the few major ports of entry. Most of you will go thru Manila first unless your destination is Cebu City, then you may be flying directly there. There are also a few other international airports at the time of this writing, but not many.

All international visitors must have an outbound flight departing the country. The airline brining you here will require that before you can get on your flight into the Philippines. If you are a tourist, this is no big deal as you probably already know how long you are staying, and everything that you are doing while you are here. If you are a guy like me, where everything is a bit “open ended”, then you don’t want to be restricted by this requirement and want the flexibility of leaving whenever you feel like it, if ever!

You basically have a couple of options: 1) book a cheap one-way flight to whatever is the cheapest international departure (Check out flights to Singapore). 2) Use one of these online return ticket services that let you purchase a ticket that they will refund for you in 24 hours (I used this site last time: https://onwardticket.com/). I have used both of these options actually and have not had any problems. For the first time traveler here who wants an open-ended return, I would just book the “burner” ticket. Set the flight out for 2 weeks or something like that, just keep it under 30 days because that is what you get on arrival before you must extend your visa. Remember, this country relies heavily on tourism, so they are not trying to make it difficult for you to do what you want.

*No matter how tired and irritable you are upon arrival, don't give any attitude to the immigration officer. The president of the Philippines has given instruction to deny entry to any foreigner that is disrespectful and rude. It seems silly to me that I feel that I have to put this note to everyone here, but a lot of the guys that come here bring a false sense of superiority with them.

Visa on Arrival

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As mentioned above, tourists are granted a 30-day visa on arrival, free of charge. For most tourists, this is long enough but if you are staying longer, do not worry, the Philippines makes it very easy for a foreigner to stay here without scrutiny for a long time. Check the requirements for your country, but countries with good relations with the Philippines can enjoy years of extensions. Now, bear in mind, things do change here depending on who is president, so you will need to do your own research, but I think US citizens can stay for 3 years without leaving at this time.

Money Exchage or ATM

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One of the first things you are going to do when you arrive is to get some local currency, Philippine Pesos. The money changers at the airport don’t give a very good rate, this is true anywhere but if you just need to get enough to get you to your hotel, so exchange the minimum amount you need or hit up the ATM machine. There isn’t any difference with the ATM in the airport but you will pay their bank fee, plus your bank fee so it gets a little expensive using ATM’s over time. I use a wire transfer service like Western Union to transfer an amount that will last me a couple of months at a fraction of the cost. *Note: One trick with Western Union and possibly other wire services is to send yourself YOUR CURRENCY, not Pesos. The reason is because they will hammer you on the exchange rate. You are better off getting the exchange rate at the pickup location. I always send myself US Dollars and save a bundle in exchange rates.

Sim Card - Phone / Internet

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The second thing I do when I arrive in a foreign country is to go find a Sim Card for my phone. Here in the Philippines, everything is pre-paid. Sim chips cost around 1 USD and you just load them at the same place you buy the card. There are 2 major carriers here: Globe and Smart. Depending on where you are, and where you are going will determine which one you will want to get. Most phones here have Dual Sim slots because people need multiple networks as the coverage can vary. If your phone is locked to some carrier and you cannot just stick another Sim card in it, sorry, you are out of luck. Just go and get yourself an inexpensive Android Phone here.

Where to Stay

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Hotel booking apps, (And Airbnb) are the thing you will want to have. Not just one or two either, have 4 or 5 on your mobile phone. Hotel prices and availability are the “wild west” anymore. You can save yourself a lot of money if you have several options to cross check. Also, some places will not be available on some apps, or will have sold out their allotted rooms. Spend some time figuring out the best apps to have on your phone. Get your payment information set up in each app before you come here so it is just a button click away from booking your room. Beware the Pay at the Hotel options that are made available on some of these apps. This is a big problem because they will insist on CASH at the hotel. I have encountered this so many times. Businesses here want CASH, so you show up to your room and they will not let you pay with your card. With that being said, on rare occasion, I have found that they have a “walk-in rate” at a hotel that is better than what is advertised on the apps. It is at least worth checking.

If you are looking for a long-term rental, Facebook groups are the best place to look. The Philippines is ALL ABOUT Facebook. Just search around and join the local {CityName} Rooms, Apartments for rent and you will be in business.

Do not ask anyone to help you “find a place”. You are just asking for problems. The Philippine is a commission-based country so there will be a lot of people who offer to help you, but it is going to cost you. The landlord will mark up the rental to pay the person who introduced you to them. Just do it yourself.

Getting Around

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You will not have any problems getting around, wherever you end up. There are so many ways to travel here.

Taxis When you first arrive, do not even bother trying to figure out bus, jeepney routes or anything. Just hail a cab. Now, one thing is that there are big scammers at all of the ports of entry and tourist places in Manila and Cebu. This means airports and ferry terminals. DO NOT take a taxi for a “fixed rate”. This is ALWAYS A SCAM. Insist that the driver start the meter, if he will not, simply get out of the cab. Walk a little while, away from the fray of tourists and you will be better off. Aside from Manila, where these taxi scammers are everywhere, it really is only around the tourist entry and exit points in other places.

The Philippines uses the Grab app for a lot of things, from rides to food. I recommend you have that on your phone. You can always use that to handle your rides and the good thing is that these apps keep everyone honest.

*If your plan is to spend some time outside of the cities, you won’t find taxis, but don’t worry. There are other options.

Tricycles These will be your #1 option outside of the cities. The entire country is filled with motorcycles attached to covered sidecars that can hold several people. If you just hop on as a regular passenger, a ride on their route is around 10-20 pesos I thin, meaning they go back and forth on a road. They will let you know when the ride has come to an end and they are going to turn around and you can just get on another one. If you know where you are going, these guys will be happy to take you anywhere for a fixed rate, just negotiate how much it will cost before getting on board. These are good guys mostly, but again, a lot of the ones that hang around the tourist spots are not.

Jeepney If you have done any research on the Philippines at all, you know about Jeepneys. It is an icon of transportation here in the Philippines and the main source for locals. You need to know the routes where they go but if you are staying in the same place for a longer period of time, they are an inexpensive and efficient means of transportation. You can just jump on one going in the direction you want and hop on. If it starts to deviate from your destination, just signal to the driver to stop and they will at the next spot they can.

Habal-Habal I do not know exactly what this translates to in English, but I think it means “to pair” or “join”. Basically, you are getting a ride on the back of a motorbike. The driver will provide you with a helmet and is most always a very experienced driver. I have taken this form of transportation many, many times and have never felt like the driver was reckless or crazy or in any way a danger to me. This is a great way to get around, however it is not the cheapest way. Sometimes you can end up paying almost what an air-conditioned taxi costs, but the up-side of riding Habal-Habal is that if traffic is bad you can “snake” through traffic. If you are in a hurry, this is your best option.

Pedicab If you are in one of the sleepy provinces, you will have this option available to you. It is just a guy with a bike and a sidecar attached. It is a good option, at least to try once but not exactly the fastest way to get around as you can imagine. I have no idea what they charge for a ride but I imagine they will take you anywhere you want if you are willing to pay.

Bus Open air or air-conditioned busses run constantly to destinations on the island where you are staying. These are more for traveling long distances but maybe in Manila they are used for inner-city travel. They are a great option for long travel except for the fact that they will stop more times than you imagine was possible.

V-Hire Another long-distance option is a van. It’s basically a 10-person van and you pay for a seat. I have used this several times and I must say that, while it is fast and convenient, these guys are literally the most dangerous drivers in the Philippines. If you take it, just spare yourself and do not watch the road ahead as you will be anxious the entire time. I do not just say this as a passenger but also as someone who has driven a motorcycle all over the Philippines. If I see one of these guys coming up on me, I just get out of the way because they will almost run you off the road from behind or coming at you directly.

Motorcycle If you are an experienced motorcycle driver and want to all the freedom of exploring and doing what you want, when you want, then this is your best option. I am not sure the going rate for daily rentals, but the country is set up for tourists to easily rent a bike. If you are in the city or at a resort in the province, you will not have any trouble finding a bike to rent. The only thing I can say is that if you are not experienced driving in a big city with lots of traffic, you probably should avoid renting in Manila or Cebu City. The province is not a problem but be careful as the road conditions can be poor and the road hazards aplenty. From dogs and chickens and goats in the road to people driving without lights at night, there are all kinds of dangers that you need to be on the alert for.

CarI have never rented a car here and only driven one time. I would say at this point I am much more comfortable on a motorbike than behind the wheel of a car. You can rent a car here, no problem.

*The current law is that a foreign driver’s license is valid for 3 months on arrival. After that you are required to get a local license. Licenses can be obtained the normal route for a foreigner but the rules change from time to time, the last I heard you needed to have a current valid license and 6 months on your visa to apply for a Philippines license.

Extending your Visa

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Make your way to one of the immigration offices a few days before your visa expires and file for an extension. Do a google search for the nearest Immigration office to you and plan accordingly. You will not be able to extend your visa on a remote island if that is your destination. They are all going to be in larger cities so it may be a day’s travel and a hotel stay for you to get this done. Do not overstay your visa, not only is it just not cool to do, it also can be costly and get you sent home, depending on who you are dealing with. Most offices make this process painless, so do not sweat it. Just fill out the form, hand over your passport, pay and then pick up your passport. In Cebu City, you can get this done in about 1-4 hours depending on how busy they are.

*I mentioned earlier, not to give attitude to the immigration officer upon arrival. The same thing goes here. If for some reason, you are having problems with your visa renewal, don't loose your cool. Under the current administration, that alone can earn you a denial of renewal. Just be nice and work your way thru the issue. Remember, you are a guest here.



Foods

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If you are limited by what you like to eat, do not worry, you can find plenty of western food here. I have met some foreigners who say they do not like Filipino food, and maybe on the scale of South East Asian cuisine, the Philippines ranks a little low, but there are some really wonderful dishes here if you have a cultured palate.

Adobo An iconic Filipino food, and something you should try. It is basically a chicken / pork dish sauce containing vinegar and garlic, browned in fat, and simmered in the marinade.

Pochero This is another food that is easy to like. It is basically a clear beef soup with assorted vegetables in it. The beef is especially tender having been cooked at low heat for a long time. Delicious!

Kinilaw Na Isda For the more adventurous, there is their version of Ceviche. Kinilaw is basically a style of food with diced tomatoes, onions, ginger, chilis and vinegar with salt, calamansi (little local lime/oranges), a little sugar sometimes and sometimes coconut milk. Isda means fish, so this is raw fish cooked in the vinegar and citrus. This is probably my favorite food here, but it is more of an appetizer than a main meal. You can also get kinilaw with different types of seaweed, cooked pork, steamed eggplant, and probably other things.

Lechon Baboy Juicy, slow cooked pig. I’m not sure there is a food Filipinos would rather have. If you have a celebration, you can get a whole pig for the party and you will be loved by all.

Tinola Another clear broth soup with thinly sliced onion that can include fish or chicken. It is delicious and uses a local leave from a tree called Malunggay.

Pancit Canton / Bihon / Bam-I Noodles with a variety of vegetables and meat. I think of it as a meal they make with a lot of leftovers and it tastes great. Don’t forget to squeeze a calamansi over the top of it and add some spicy chilis!

Sisig One of any variety of sizzling plates of pork with vegetables or shrimp or eggplant. Get it spicy if you like spicy foods and share it with friends while you are having a few beers.

Halang-Halang Literally means “Spicy-Spicy” Coconut milk soup with carrot and onion and garlic and chicken. I have not seen this too often, but it is a big favorite on Bohol. This soup reminds me of Thailand’s Tom Yum soup and is one of our favorites.

Lumpia If you have had Chinese spring rolls, these are basically the same thing. Dip them in a sweet spicy chili sauce. Deep fried and probably fattening, but delicious.

Sinagang Another soup but this one is tangy and a little sour with vegetables. It is unique, and as iconic a Filipino food as Adobo and can include any type of meat: fish, shrimp, pork, chicken. After sweating a lot, you may crave it!

Kangkong It is a dark green plant a lot like spinach. Very affordable even at a nice restaurant, and as you can imagine, is very good for you. You can get a plate of this done Adobo style or get it deep fried in a Tempura like batter.

BBQIt is everywhere. Chicken breasts and thighs. Pork skewers served with rice and maybe some sweetened pickled ginger root with carrots.

Lechon Manok Another easy thing to like is the rotisserie chicken. These are beautifully brown, incredibly juicy, and delicious. Found everywhere along the road turning slowly behind a pane of glass. Stop along the road and get one.

Dinuguan I am not sure what to say about this soup, which is why I have it last here. When I first tried it, I really loved it and was intrigued by the flavor. The next time I ordered it, the waiter told me it was made from pig blood. Well, I was not able to finish it after that but maybe it is ok for you. Like I said, it is tasty, but I just couldn’t get past what it was made from for some reason.

These are just some of the many Filipino dishes. You can also find a lot of Korean, Japanese and Chinese foods here, basically anything you want as there are a lot of foreigners have moved here to start a new life, or a business.

Shopping

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Grocery Shopping It is about the same except for how busy it might seem to you especially if you go at peak times. One thing that made me laugh when I first got here was how loud they would play the music sometimes in the store. More than a few times, it was like I was in night club and not a grocery store! Do not forget to get an employee to weigh your produce before you get to the checkout line! There are not any scales at the register.

Clothes Shopping Depending on your size, this might be somewhat challenging. If you are just visiting, then you are going to bring what you need. If you end up staying for a long time, you will figure out what works for you. If you are really a big person, then there are some imported goods places that will have your XXL and XXXL sizes. Check S&R and Landers, both specialize in imported goods but operate on a membership plan.

Miscellaneous

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Stay HydratedIf you are not a water drinker, you should become one. With the heat and sweating, it is easy to get dehydrated here. Get used to buying bottled water and making sure you have enough where you are. If you stay somewhere for a while, the 20-liter refillables are the best deal. You can refill them for around 25 Pesos and even have them delivered to you for a reasonable rate.

LaundryDo not worry about getting your laundry done, it is an inexpensive service that is literally everywhere. Typical prices are to have it washed and folded is 25-29 pesos per kilo (2.2 pounds) with next day pick up or around 60 Pesos / Kilo for same day pick up. Wash-N-Dry is a franchise that I always go to and does a great job.

Learn Some of the Local LanguageDepending on where you are, it could be Visaya, Illongo or Tagalog or one of the other many dialects. If you are going to be anywhere on Luzon, learn some Tagalog, otherwise go for the local dialect is my advice. It’s up to you how much you want to learn. You can survive just fine with English wherever you go because there really is no country that speaks English better as a second language than the Philippines. Still, I think it is always good to learn a few words and phrases. It will help to not only protect you from people looking to take advantage of you but also connect you further with the people wherever you are.

"Out of stock"You are going to hear this statement more than you care to, but it is as common as sunshine, or coconuts here. Anything that is good, or a good price runs out fast. Just prepare yourself and know what your second and third choices are because it is highly likely that is what you are going to have to settle for.

Do the OppositeThe Philippines functions as a whole in many ways. Everyone seems to do things at similar times. Gets up at the same time, eats at the same time, goes to the mall on the same days. It is quite a conformist’s place actually. Some simple advice for long term living is to do the opposite of what others are doing. When people are going to work, stay at home. When people are at work, go to the mall and get your shopping done. Take your lunch and dinner in off hours. You can really avoid a lot of the traffic and crowds by taking this advice.

Use SundayThis is pretty much universal in the Philippines. If you have any long traveling to do or just want to do some exploring around on the motorbike, do it on Sunday. There is easily 75% less traffic or more, especially in the bigger cities.

Security GuardsIf you need some assistance finding some place you are looking for or have a question of any sort, I have found that just asking a security guard is better than asking someone else. They are professional and generally knowledgeable of their surroundings and it is completely acceptable to approach them. They have always seemed more than happy to answer any questions I have and can be considered a reliable resource.

TippingI always tip for good service here. 10% and maybe as much as 15% if the person really did a nice job. This is not a tipping culture and you do not need to feel obligated to leave anything, but if someone notices that your glass is empty each time and fills it without you asking, leave them a tip.

Beer and Alcohol Drinking is relatively inexpensive here. You can go to a nice bar and have 60 Peso beers all night, even the most expensive bars in Ayala Mall I have found the beer is 110 pesos a bottle. That is a 12 oz (350 ml bottle of locally brewed San Miguel). San Miguel Light is a great light beer. Red Horse is hands down the local favorite beer. It is strong, 7% alcohol but I’ve heard people say that no one really knows how strong it is. I think that is probably nonsense, but it will feel like a horse kicked you in the head tomorrow. San Miguel doesn’t just produce beers; they also make Rum and Gin and probably and a whole variety of other alcoholic drinks. If it is not imported, it is likely a San Miguel product.

Coffee Over the years, this has gotten better as more and more Westerners come to the Philippines. This is not really a coffee culture country. There local coffee chain Bo’s has lousy coffee. They tend to like the sweet caffeinated drinks. In any case, in the cities you can find major coffee chains like Starbucks and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Tom –N Toms and others. If you are in the province, the resorts that are owned and / or operated by foreigners will have a good brewed coffee but Filipino places, you can expect Nescafe instant.

Smoking Cigarettes are still cheap by western standards, although the taxes on them have increased considerably in the last few years. Smoking laws have also become very restrictive, so you can expect designated smoking areas and also may find yourself in a Smoke Free city, with fines and even jail time for smoking in public places. Bars, especially those owned by foreigners are still allowing smoking but whereas before, you would see people smoking literally everywhere, it has all but vanished.

Karaoke / Videoke They are the same thing, a song playing where the lyrics show up on the screen and you sing the song. If you do not know that this is probably the most popular thing to do in the Philippines, you have not read the right things. You cannot mention the Philippines and not say something about Videoke. There are places everywhere, in every neighborhood on every island. If you live here long enough, you will start doing it also because if you do not, well you will be the only one in the group that refuses to sing! Do not worry about how bad your voice is, you are the only one who cares. This is probably the least self-conscious country I have ever been in!



Conclusion

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These were just some things that we hope help you on your first visit to the Philippines. There is a lot of information out there that you can search on the internet, but what we have provided here comes straight from a guy who moved here without knowing anything, and has survived and thrived here for many, many years.

Lastly, when you come to the Philippines, just relax, and enjoy yourself! There really is not anything you need to be overly concerned about. Pay attention to the world around you and live in the moment. It is a wonderful country, filled with kind and welcoming people!