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The large number of budget flights and ferry services between major destinations makes it easy to cover the Philippine archipelago, even on a tight budget, though the main drawback is that everything routes through Manila and Cebu. Long-distance road transport largely comprises buses and jeepneys – the utilitarian passenger vehicles modelled on American World War II jeeps. Throughout the provinces, and in some areas of cities, tricycles – motorbikes with steel sidecars – are commonly used for short journeys.
Airlines and major bus and ferry companies operate to timetables and have published fares, but for smaller ferries, jeepneys and tricycles, it’s often a question of asking other passengers how much to pay in order to avoid being surcharged as a tourist.
Note that holiday weekends are bad times to travel, with buses full and roads jammed – cities start to empty on Friday afternoon and the exodus continues into the night, with a mass return on Sunday evening and Monday morning. Travelling is a particular hassle at Christmas, New Year and Easter with buses and ferries full (sometimes illegally overloaded), airports chaotic and resorts charging more than usual. Almost everyone seems to be on the move at these times of year, particularly heading out of big cities to the provinces, and the transport system can become strained. If you have to travel at these times, book tickets in advance or turn up at bus stations and ferry piers early and be prepared to wait.
Air travel is a godsend for island-hoppers in the Philippines, with a number of airlines linking Manila with most of the country’s major destinations; you will usually, however, have to backtrack to a major hub when jumping from one region to another. Philippine Airlines (PAL; http://www.philippineairlines.com) has a comprehensive domestic schedule, while two of the newer airlines, Airphil Express (http://www.airphils.com) and Cebu Pacific (http://www.cebupacificair.com), offer even more routes and very cheap fares, particularly if you book some way in advance. There are two good smaller airlines – Zest Air (http://www.zestair.com.ph) and Seair (http://www.flyseair.com) – serving a number of popular routes. Zest Air’s network includes Cebu City, Masbate, Virac, Busuanga and Tacloban. Seair flies from Manila to, among other places, Clark, Caticlan (for Boracay), Batanes and Tablas. Cebu Pacific runs numerous flights out of its hub in Cebu City, saving you the effort of backtracking to Manila – you can, for instance, fly straight from Cebu City to Caticlan (for Boracay) and Siargao. Davao is a lesser developed third hub, with connections to Cebu City, Cagayan de Oro, Iloilo and Zamboanga, but even here you’ll have to transfer in Manila and Cebu for other destinations.
There’s not a great deal of variation in domestic airfares offered by the four budget carriers, and PAL is usually the most expensive, being the only one offering traditional cabin service (snacks, drinks etc). Cebu Pacific has been known to sell seats for P1, and regularly offers fares of P499 one-way Manila to Coron (Busuanga) and P999 Manila to Zamboanga. But note that the low prices you see quoted on budget airline websites usually don’t include taxes and unlike most PAL flights, you can’t change bookings once you’ve paid; there are also charges for bags and seat reservations (P100).
Ferries and bangkas – wooden outrigger boats – were once the bread and butter of Philippine travel. Though still important, especially in the Visayas (where there’s hardly a coastal barrio that doesn’t have some sort of ferry service), most of the longer routes have been made redundant by the growth of budget air travel. Not only are flights faster and as cheap (or cheaper) than cabins on longer ferry routes (Manila to Mindanao for example), they are invariably safer. Indeed, despite some improvements in recent years, ferry accidents remain common in the Philippines and even in the dry season the open ocean can get surprisingly rough. The smaller bangkas are often poorly equipped, with little shelter from the elements, while even many of the larger vessels have been bought secondhand from Japan or Europe and are well past their prime. Ferries of all sizes are frequently crowded.
Having said that, for many shorter inter-island trips ferries remain the only form of transport available, and especially in the Visayas, island-hopping by boat can be an enjoyable and rewarding part of your trip.
There’s a hierarchy of vessels, with proper ferries at the top; so-called big bangkas, taking around fifty passengers, in the middle; and ordinary bangkas at the bottom. A number of large ferry lines operate large ships between major ports in the Philippines. They are: SuperFerry (http://www.superferryphilippines.com), Negros Navigation (http://www.negrosnavigation.ph), Cebu Ferries (http://www.cebuferries.com), Supercat (part of SuperFerry; http://www.supercat.com.ph), Montenegro Lines (http://www.montenegrolines.com.ph), Cokaliong (http://www.cokaliongshipping.com) and TransAsia (http://www.transasiashipping.com). These companies have regular sailings on routes between Manila and major cities throughout the Visayas and Mindanao, or on secondary routes within the Visayas. Most post schedules and fares on their websites. On less popular routes you might have to take your chances with smaller companies, which rarely operate to published timetables. In rural areas you may have to ask around at the harbour or wharf as to what boats are leaving, for where and when.
Ferry fares and accommodation
Ferry fares are very low by Western standards, especially if booked in advance, for example Manila–Cebu from P750, Manila–Mindanao for P1150; add on around P1000 for a private cabin. Tickets can be bought at the pier up until departure, though it’s often more convenient to avoid the long queues and buy in advance: travel agents sell ferry tickets, and the larger ferry companies have ticket offices in cities and towns. SuperFerry also offers online ticketing.
The cheapest accommodation is in bunk beds in cavernous dorms either below deck or on a semi-open deck, with shared toilets and showers. Older ships might have just a handful of cramped cabins sharing a tiny shower and toilet. The major operators generally have newer ships with a range of accommodation that includes dorms, straw mats in an air-conditioned area, shared cabins (usually for four) with bathroom. These ferries usually also have a bar, karaoke lounge and a canteen serving basic meals.
Bus travel can be relatively uncomfortable and slow, but you’ll get a real glimpse of rural Philippine life from the window, and meet Filipinos from all walks of life. Buses are also incredibly convenient: hundreds of routes spread out like a web from major cities and even the most isolated barrio will have a service of some sort. You won’t go hungry either. At most stops local vendors will jump on and offer you various snacks and drinks, while on the longer hauls, buses stop every three or four hours to give passengers a chance to stretch their legs and buy some food.
There are some downsides. Though the largest bus companies have fleets of reasonably new air-conditioned buses for longer routes, most rarely have toilets. On shorter routes buses can be dilapidated contraptions with no air conditioning and, in some cases, no glass in the windows. You’ll also need to have a high tolerance to loud music or Tagalog movies played at full blast throughout the trip.
Bus fares and timetables
Fares are low; around P435 from Manila to Baguio and P500 to Naga. Roads can be poor, and even when the distances involved aren’t great, the buses will make numerous stops along the way. Some bus companies advertise express services, but in reality a bus that goes from A to B without stopping is unheard of. Buses that have a “derecho” sign (meaning “straight” or “direct”) in the window usually make the fewest stops.
Published timetables for most bus companies are nonexistent, but departures on popular routes such as Manila to Baguio or Manila to Vigan usually happen every hour or half-hour. The larger operators – Victory Liner (http://www.victoryliner.com), Philtranco (http://www.philtranco.com) and Philippine Rabbit – allow you to book seats in advance, either by telephone (be warned, the lines are often engaged) or at the terminal. For a list of bus companies with offices in Manila.
By jeepney, FX taxi and tricycle
The jeepney is the ultimate Philippine icon, and in Manila, Cebu City, Davao and Baguio, jeepneys are important for city transport, with frequent services between important locations in each city. In the provinces jeepneys connect isolated barrios to nearby towns and towns to cities, but they might run only two or three times a day, depending on demand, the weather and the mood of the driver. There are absolutely no timetables.
Routes are painted on the side or on a signboard in the window. Even so, using jeepneys takes a little local knowledge because they make numerous stops and deviations to drop off and pick up passengers. There’s no such thing as a designated jeepney stop, so people wait in the shade at the side of the road and flag one down. The vehicles are cramped and incredibly uncomfortable, usually holding about twenty passengers inside and any number of extras clinging to the back or sitting precariously on top. It can be a hassle to get luggage on and off – small items might end up on the floor, but larger items will go on the roof. At least jeepneys are a great social equalizer; you’ll soon find yourself involved in jolly conversations with the rest of the passengers about your nationality, destination and marital status.
Fares are low: in the provinces they start at P7 for a trip of a few kilometres, rising to P50 for two- or three-hour drives. In the cities, a trip of a few hundred metres costs around P7, rising to P25 on longer routes. To pay, hand your money to the passenger next to you and say bayad po (pay please). If you’re not sitting close to the driver, the fare will be passed down the line of passengers until it reaches him; he will then pass back any change.
Not unlike jeepneys in the way they operate, FX taxis are air-conditioned Toyota minivans, with signs in the window indicating their destination. They made their debut in Manila in the late 1990s, and now operate in other cities and on some popular inter-city routes. However, routes are often not set, so it takes a little local knowledge to know where to catch the right vehicle. The vans can be a little claustrophobic – the driver won’t even think about moving until he’s got ten people on board, three more than the vehicle is designed for. In Manila most of these vehicles are often labelled “GT Express” and usually charge P2 per kilometre.
The cheapest form of shared transport, tricycles (habel-habel) are ubiquitous in the provinces. In Manila and Cebu City they are prohibited from using certain roads, but almost everywhere else they go where they like, when they like and at speeds as high as their small engines are capable of. The sidecars are designed for four passengers – two facing forwards and two backwards – but it’s not uncommon to see extras clinging on wherever they can, the only limiting factor being whether or not the machine can actually move under the weight of the extra bodies. Tricycles never follow fixed routes, so it’s usually a question of flagging one down and telling the driver your destination.
Fares typically start at P7 per person for a short trip of a few hundred metres. Many tricycles charge a set rate per person for trips within town or city boundaries, usually around P7–25. If you want to use the tricycle as a private taxi you’ll have to negotiate a price – P25 is reasonable for a trip of up to 2km in the provinces. Anything further than that and the driver will ask for at least P50, though you can always try to bargain him down.
It’s possible to rent a self-drive car in the Philippines – a standard saloon car costs about P2000 per day. The question is whether you’d want to. Not only is traffic in Manila and other cities often gridlocked, but most Filipino drivers have a very relaxed attitude towards the rules of the road. Swerving is common, as is changing lanes suddenly and driving with one hand permanently on the horn, particularly with bus and jeepney drivers. On the other hand, if you’re used to driving in London, LA or New York this might not phase you too much, and in any case, once you reach more rural areas – northern Luzon for example – travelling by car can be incredibly convenient and open up a whole range of otherwise hard-to-reach destinations. Many travellers also rent motorbikes, but this is only recommended for experienced riders – the chances of having an accident are statistically fairly high. It’s best to avoid driving at night altogether.
If you do drive you’ll require your driving licence and be prepared to show it if you get stopped (rentals are allowed for up to 90 days – longer stays will require a Philippine licence). Vehicles in the Philippines drive on the right side of the road and distances and car speeds are in kilometres (one mile equals about 1.6 km). The freeways usually have a nominal speed limit of 100kph, but anywhere else you’ll rarely be going faster than 30kph thanks to congestion.
Always drive defensively – cars, animals and pedestrians will pull out in front of you without warning (in many rural areas people are still not used to traffic), and always give way to jeepneys, which will happily drive you off the road. When passing anything, sound your horn twice as a warning (horns are rarely used in anger).
Note that police and “traffic enforcers” – uniformed men and women employed by local authorities to supplement the police – might try to elicit a bribe from you. If this happens it’s best to play the dumb foreigner and hand over the “on-the-spot fine” of a few hundred pesos (make sure you have cash with you). If you take the moral high ground and refuse to play along, you’ll probably end up having your licence confiscated or, in the worst case, your car towed away and impounded until you pay a fine to get it back.
Hiring a driver
For about P1600 (plus fuel, driver’s food, parking/toll fees) you can hire a small car and driver from some car rental agencies for up to eight hours, the extra expense more than justified by the peace of mind a local driver brings.
It can be much cheaper to strike a private deal with a car or van owner looking for extra work. A typical rate for their services is P1500 a day (plus fuel and tolls), although you’ll need to negotiate. A good way to find someone with a vehicle is to ask at your accommodation; alternatively, locals with cars wait at many airports and ferry ports in the hope of making a bit of money driving arriving passengers into town. You can ask these drivers if they’re available to be hired by the day.