The Philippines is a relatively easy travel destination by Southeast Asian standards. English is widely spoken, and the country has an endearing don't-worry-be-happy vibe, soothing for first-time visitors. Alas, volatile weather and natural disasters can mess up trips in a hurry, while a menu of 7000-plus islands creates itinerary headaches for even the most seasoned travel planners. Increase your chances of a smooth trip by avoiding the following first-timer fails.
Fail #1: buying into the fear factor
Someone back home said you'd be robbed blind, kidnapped or worse if you dared set foot in the Philippines. So you booked yourself into an all-inclusive resort and didn’t venture out for the whole trip (or worse, decided not to go at all).
Big mistake. The Philippines has an unjustified reputation for being a 'dangerous' place – a myth fuelled both by frequent Western embassy warnings and some skittish Filipino expatriates. But the Philippines is as safe as anywhere in Southeast Asia. And while there has been violence in a few remote provinces in the southern region of Mindanao, it rarely spills over into other parts of the country or affects tourists. Check and be aware of the latest travel advisories, of course, but once you get to the Philippines you’ll likely soon be glad you didn't let any worries hold you back from this experience. Relax and explore.
Fail #2: neglecting to study the weather
You showed up and spent 10 days battling epic monsoon rains – hardly the vacation in paradise you'd banked on.
A common misconception about the Philippines is that the entire country has the same weather. It isn’t that simple. The Philippines has four distinct climate zones. Study the regional forecasts carefully, research when to go and choose your destination accordingly. Manila has a particularly severe wet season (peaking July to September). However, many other areas of the country are dry during this time.
Typhoons are the big wildcard. They typically affect huge swathes of the country and can occur outside the typhoon 'season' (which is roughly June to December). Keep an eye on sites like Typhoon2000 to make sure you're not heading into the teeth of one, and, if you are, reroute.
Fail #3: overplanning
The first rule of travel in the Philippines? Assume things will go awry. Boat and bus schedules are notoriously unreliable and can change at a moment's notice. Weather can throw a damper on the best-laid plans, or maybe the beach you hastily chose just wasn't for you (don't worry, there are thousands of others).
Stay flexible so you can easily go somewhere else if your trip goes pear-shaped. Outside of the two 'super-peak' periods (New Year's and Easter), it's rarely difficult to find a room, and indeed you'll generally get better hotel deals at the last minute. Boat and bus tickets can almost always be bought at the station at the time of departure, and a plethora of domestic budget airlines means relatively cheap plane tickets even close to your day of travel.
Fail #4: dissing a person’s karaoke skills
Karaoke is the national pastime in the Philippines and at some point you'll find yourself mic-in-hand making a lame attempt to croon out 'Yesterday' or 'My Heart Will Go on'. Don't worry about sounding like a chicken being strangled. Filipinos aren't judgemental when it comes to singing and will respect your attempt at cultural immersion.
Of course, it goes both ways. Seasoned karaoke practitioners should not dismiss those with inferior skills. Karaoke is serious fun in the Philippines. Have a laugh with it, but don't disrespect it.
Fail #5: losing your cool over a few extra pesos
As in most Asian countries, raising your voice and showing outward frustration in the Philippines causes both parties to 'lose face' and could be taken the wrong way. The Philippines is among the cheapest places in the world to travel, especially when compared with Europe and the US. Dwelling on whether you’ve paid too much for your transport or accommodation after haggling over what might amount to a couple of dollars is hardly worth the anxiety. So when that taxi driver taking you through Manila’s brutal rush hour asks for an extra US$1 to US$2 – a not uncommon peak-hour surcharge elsewhere in the world – it’s best to simply pay up and keep your cool.
Fail #6: arriving on time for a social engagement
A friendly local invited you into their home for dinner, but when you showed up punctually they suddenly seemed less friendly.
There is a reason for this: it's considered impolite to arrive on time in the Philippines. If you do, don't be surprised if you are the only one there and your host seems far from ready. About 15 minutes late is the socially acceptable arrival time.
Fail #7: assuming private accommodation is a better deal than hotels
Trying to save money, you paid US$50 for an AirBnB apartment in Quezon City (a far-flung suburb of Manila).
Bad call. Don't assume big-city Western prices when visiting the Philippines' two major urban hubs, Manila and Cebu. Accommodation in Cebu is exceptional value – think P1500 to P2500 (US$30 to $50) for excellent midrange accommodation. Manila prices are just a notch higher at about P2800 to P3200 for a decent double. Also keep in mind that Manila in particular is a huge, intimidating place for first-time visitors. You'll probably be happy to have a concierge on hand rather than be left to your own devices in a private apartment.
This article was first published in August 2015, last updated August 2019.