The islands of the Philippines are linked by an incredible network of ferry routes, and prices are generally affordable. Ferries usually take the form of motorised outriggers (known locally as bangkas), speedy ‘fastcraft’ vessels, roll-on, roll-off ferries (ROROs; car ferries) and, for long-haul journeys, vast multidecked passenger ferries. It's worth highlighting the mega company 2GO Travel (www.travel.2go.com.ph), which serves the majority of major destinations in the Philippines.
Most ferry terminals have a small fee (P20 on average); Manila's is P95.
You can check out the real-time locations of the various larger ferries plying the waters at www.marinetraffic.com. The website www.schedule.ph is not entirely comprehensive but it’s a good place to start for ferry schedules.
Bangkas The jeepneys of the sea, also known as pumpboats. They are small wooden boats with two wooden or bamboo outriggers. Bangka ferries ply regular routes between islands and are also available for hire per day for diving, snorkelling, sightseeing or just getting around. The engines on these boats can be deafeningly loud, so bring earplugs if you’re sensitive to noise. They also aren’t the most stable in rough seas, but on some islands they're preferable to travelling overland. Time schedules should be taken with a grain of salt.
‘Fastcraft’ These are passenger only, and are mainly used on popular short-haul routes; they cut travel times by half but usually cost twice as much as slower RORO ferries. One modern convenience used to excess on these spiffy ships is air-conditioning, which is permanently set to ‘arctic’ – take a sweater or fleece.
ROROs Popular on medium-haul routes, especially along the so-called ‘Nautical Highway’ running from Manila to Davao in southern Mindanao. ROROs are slow but, in good weather, are the most enjoyable form of ocean transport, as (unlike most fastcraft) they allow you to sit outside in the open air and watch the ocean drift by.
Passenger Liners Multidecked long-haul liners, which carry up to 4000 passengers as well as cars. They are pretty reliable but you’ll need to be prepared for changes in itineraries due to adverse weather conditions or maintenance.
- Booking ahead is essential for long-haul liners and can be done at ticket offices or travel agencies in most cities.
- For fastcraft and bangka ferries, tickets can usually be bought at the pier before departure (exception: book El Nido–Coron ferries ahead in the high season).
- Passenger ferries offer several levels of comfort and cost. Bunks on or below deck in 3rd or ‘economy’ class should be fine, as long as the ship isn’t overcrowded. First class nets you a two-person stateroom.
- Before purchasing your ticket, it pays to ask about ‘promo rates’ (discounts). Student and senior-citizen discounts usually only apply to Filipino citizens.
For the most part, ferries are an easy, enjoyable way to hop between islands in the Philippines, but ferry accidents are not unknown.
In May 2008 a Sulpicio Lines ferry went down off Romblon in Typhoon Frank; fewer than 60 passengers survived and more than 800 perished. A large 2GO Ferry vessel collided witha cargo ship off Cebu in August 2013, resulting in more than 115 deaths. And in 2015 more than 60 people were killed when an overloaded bangka ferry bound for Pilar, Camotes Islands, from Ormoc, Leyte, tipped over in relatively calm seas.
Sulpicio Lines was also responsible for the sinking of the Doña Paz in 1987, in which almost 4500 people are believed to have perished. It's still the largest peacetime maritime disaster in history.
Bad weather, lax regulations and maintenance, equipment breakdowns, overcrowding and a general culture of fatalism are to blame for most accidents. It’s best to follow your instincts – if the boat looks crowded, it is, and if the sailing conditions seem wrong, they are. Bangkas during stormy weather are especially scary. It’s always worth checking that life jackets are on board.