Solo Travel in the Philippines
(c) R.M. Nunes – stock.adobe.com
You might be thinking about traveling to the Philippines but are hesitant about doing it by yourself. Perhaps you’ve got worried parents or skeptical friends who think you’re crazy for traveling alone anywhere in the world. Or maybe you’re not afraid at all, but you’ve got some questions about what it’s like to travel solo in the Philippines. So I’ve created this guide to let you know what to expect and how to have a safe and fun experience traveling alone in the Philippines.
This guide is based on MY experience of two months traveling solo in this beautiful country. If you ask another person, you might get a totally different story. I get that. No two travelers ever experience a place in the same way. If you’ve ever been on one of those Facebook group pages for solo female travelers, I’m sure you’ve seen those heated discussions about what it’s like to travel solo in Morocco or India or Egypt, so you know what I mean. Everyone experiences a country differently.
BTW, if you’re looking for some inspiration or advice on where else to travel to in this beautiful country, check out my 15 favorite places to visit in the Philippines.
You can also find ALL of my Philippines posts on my Philippines travel guide page.
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SOLO FEMALE TRAVEL IN THE PHILIPPINES – IS IT SAFE?
I generally felt pretty safe and comfortable traveling solo in the Philippines. Guys never ogled me or made rude sexual comments about me as I walked down the street.
“Where’s your husband?”
HOWEVER, Waitresses, tricycle drivers, tour guides, hotel staff, etc. CONSTANTLY and I mean CONSTANTLY asked me this one question: “Where’s your husband?” Sometimes “Where’s your husband?” would be the first thing out of a waitress’s mouth as I sat down at my table and the last thing out of tricycle driver’s mouth as he dropped me off. I had NEVER been asked this question any other country in Asia.
For many of the younger travelers I spoke to, they rarely got asked this question, or it simply didn’t bother them.
BUT to be honest here, it bothered me at times, especially when I least expected the question (waitresses and tricycle drivers). I’m nearly 50 and divorced and while it’s one thing for my family to wonder when I’m going to marry again or why I haven’t yet, it was another thing to be reminded of my single status by strangers every single day.
On top of that, I had just done something risky. I had a couple of months previously quit a safe and secure job to start the life of a digital nomad. “WTF have I done?” was a question that crossed my mind more than once. So, yes, the question annoyed the hell out of me.
Another reason it bothered me was that I was unprepared for the Philippines to be such a conservative culture. I expect it in Egypt or Morocco, but the Philippines? Nope. Not in a million years.
Even though It annoyed the hell out of me, I knew I had to get over it if I was going to have a good time in the Philippines. One thing I learned over the years was that if something bothered me, I needed to accept my feelings. I knew that I COULDN’T control how I felt about it and that I SHOULDN’T beat myself about feeling this way. I hate it when women are constantly being made to second guess their feelings (“you’re just imagining it” “you’re overreacting” “you worry too much”).
But I found that it was important that I controlled my reaction. Lashing out at the driver was the worst thing I could do. It just made ME look bad. I tried witty retorts but they just sort of fell flat. I thought about telling them that he had just died, wanting the waitress to feel really bad, but I couldn’t get myself to say it. Sometimes when I felt the question was too inappropriate (in a taxi), I’d tell them that he was in the hotel room or that I was meeting a friend. My best reaction was to roll my eyes and ignore it. It’s not my country. I’m a guest here.
I had to step back and look at it from a different cultural point of view. I’m in a very conservative and traditional culture. It’s rare for women to travel alone and probably do anything alone. More importantly, it’s not common for Filipino women to be in their 40s and single let alone travel alone at that age. Family is important in the Philippines and it’s common for people to sacrifice their dreams for the sake of their family.
The next time I travel to the Philippines, I’m going to expect this question and prepare myself mentally and emotionally for it. Then I’ll be less annoyed by it. and have a better response to it.
Flirtatious Tour Guides
The other thing that I experienced in the Philippines but I hadn’t experienced in other parts of Asia was that tour guides were not afraid to flirt with me and ask me out on dates. This happened three times and each time the tour guide was in their 20s! It was flattering, but at the same time it was annoying because I just wasn’t interested. I just wanted to enjoy the tour.
On the other hand, there were times when this attention benefited me. On one island hopping tour in El Nido, we had to swim and walk over lots of large rocks while the waves were really, really strong. It was so scary and dangerous that some of the children on the tour were crying. Having the tour guide pay special attention to me was great because he helped me get across the rocks before anyone else.
However, I will say that the unwanted attention didn’t happen all the time. I hired a guide to take me around the island of Siquijor for two full days on the back of a motorcycle, and I was treated respectfully the whole time.
MONEY AND SOLO TRAVEL IN THE PHILIPPINES
It’s usually more expensive traveling solo than traveling with someone else. You have to pay for the whole hotel room yourself. You have to cover the whole cost of the tuk-tuk or taxi. If you want to hire a private guide, you have to pay for the whole tour. And some tours require a minimum of two people or else they charge you extra. There’s some good news and some bad news for solo travelers in the Philippines.
Finding Budget Hotels as a Solo Traveler in the Philippines
Even though I generally prefer hotels to hostels when I travel, in the Philippines it was the opposite. I found that budget hotels and guesthouses cost around US$25 – US$40 and were of poor quality and had poor service compared to other parts of Asia like Vietnam or Cambodia.
Often my room consisted of a bed and a plastic chair, making it difficult to find a place to put my stuff on. I often kept my clothes and toiletries on my bed or stacked up on the only chair in the room. There was usually no hot water and there were often strange smells coming from the shower drain. Staff was surly and unhelpful, unable or unwilling to answer your questions about where to get tickets for a boat or bus or where to eat.
Mid-range places were generally not in my budget as well, going for around $75. I did stay in one mid-range hotel in Cebu, but I experienced the same unhelpful and unfriendly service as I did at cheaper places.
I found hostels to be cleaner and more comfortable. Dorm rooms sometimes had privacy curtains with your own reading light. There were always storage lockers so I felt safer leaving my valuables in my room than I did when I stayed at budget hotels. Hostels also had lots of outlets near the bed, so you could always have your phone handy, while the outlets in hotels were often inconveniently placed across the room. I always had space for my clothes and toiletries, so I usually didn’t need to store things on my bed.
Staff in hostels were also friendlier, more helpful, and more knowledgeable than those at budget hotels. They often remembered my name, which made me feel that if something happened to me, someone would notice.
Hostels also had the added benefit of being great places to meet people and thus, help you not feel lonely. They offered tours, arranged guides for you, and held activities in the evenings for their guests to socialize with each other.
Prices were low as well. I paid between US$10 – US$20 per night for a bed in a dorm room.
I also didn’t find hostels any louder than budget hotels. My hostel in El Nido was loud but so was the hotel for US$55.
PRO TIP: No one likes to think about insurance, but accidents do happen. I highly recommend getting World Nomads. This is what I've used for short-term travel. When I quit my job to travel around the world, I switched to Safety Wings. They're very affordable (less than US$100 a month depending on age) especially for those of us who are over 40 years old. They now cover COVID19.
Theft in the Philippines
No matter where you travel, you need to be careful with your money and valuables. Any time and anywhere another tourist or a local could rob you. The Philippines isn’t worse or better than most places in Asia when it comes to theft (Japan is probably safer, though). However, when you’re traveling solo, you’ve got to be more vigilant about your stuff. It’s one thing to have all your money and your passport stolen when you’re traveling with someone else, it’s a whole other can of worms for it to happen when you’re alone.
Before going to the Philippines, I had read that theft was common in Manila, so I was careful almost to the point of being paranoid about my money and valuables when walking around and especially when taking public transportation.
However, I did lose my power pack on one occasion and my Microsoft Surface Pro Pen on a separate occasion. I’m not sure if I just forgot to pack it before I was checking out of my hostel or hotel or another traveler or hotel/hostel employee had stolen it. I hadn’t used the items for a while, so I didn’t know for a couple of days that they were missing.
I also met a guy from Singapore who had his fancy US$2,000-Sony mirrorless camera stolen from a hostel in Manila. The hostel had CCTV but wouldn’t let him watch it himself. They told him that no one had entered his dorm room and that he was probably lying about leaving the camera in his room.
The biggest dilemma facing solo travelers, though, is what to do with your stuff when you’re visiting the beach or a waterfall. If you leave to go swimming, who’s going to watch your bag? That’s why I usually keep my most valuable cards and passport locked up at my hotel or hostel and only take enough cash with me for the day and for emergencies. If my stuff is stolen while in the water, it won’t be great but it won’t be the end of the world.
Don't travel anywhere without packing these essential items to keep you safe and secure:
Combination lock - The one thing you MUST bring with you to the Philippines if you're planning on staying in hostels is a combination lock. Most hostels provide lockers for their guests to store their valuables. But you need to bring your own lock to secure your stuff.
Money belt - I hate wearing money belts. BUT I also hate having my money and passport stolen. Even though these are not the most comfortable things to wear, a money belt is essential. I've tried both these traditional travel belts and ones that runners use. Both have their pros and cons. The ones for runners are easier to put on and take off and they're a little bit more comfortable than the traditional ones, BUT the biggest turn off about the ones for runners is that they SMELL really bad after a couple of days wearing them. The traditional ones also have more pockets with zippers, so it feels like they are more secure.
RFID Blocking Sleeves - Another great item to use is an RFID sleeves for your credit and debit cards and passport. Supposedly, thieves can scan your wallet and extract your credit card numbers. But if you put your cards in an RFID sleeve they can't. I've never personally heard of this happening to anyone, but these sleeves are inexpensive, so I bought them just in case.
Anti-Theft Messenger Bags - Another essential item is an anti-theft messenger bag. These bags are great because they are made of a material that is difficult for thieves to slash. They've got lots of pockets as well and a way to lock the zippers. You can also wear them across your body making it harder for someone to pull it off you. I still keep most of my valuables in my money belt but I keep some cash in my bag for easy access.
Privacy Screen Protector - I got this privacy screen protector for my Microsoft Surface Pro. It prevents people from seeing what's on my screen when I'm working cafes, hostels, or co-working spaces. You can buy one for any type of laptop.
Getting Around the Philippines as a Solo Traveler
Getting around the Philippines isn’t too difficult for a solo traveler. So many people speak English that there’s always someone around to help you if you’re stuck. The biggest downside with getting around is that it’s difficult to find bus schedules online for travel between and within cities. This lack of info did create problems for me just one time, which I’ll tell you about below.
Getting between cities and between islands
Transportation between cities by bus and between islands by boat in the Philippines can be really inexpensive. I paid US$3 to travel 3 hours by bus from Moalboal to Cebu and US$10 to travel from Port Barton to El Nido by van and US$5 for a 3-hour boat ride from Siquijor to Lilo-An. These inexpensive prices are good news for solo travelers.
HOWEVER, it can be hard to find reliable information about transportation between cities. I could never find a bus schedule online.
One time when I was traveling from Siquijor to Moalboal, I found myself stranded in Lilio-an late at night with no buses getting me to my next destination, no terminal nearby, and no data on my phone. My hostel owner in Siquijor had said there would be a bus, but the taxi drivers and the police in Lilio-an said there were no more buses to Moalboal (90 kilometers away) after 7:00 pm (It was 8:00 pm). I asked every foreign and Filipino tourist I felt comfortable approaching if they were going to Moalboal, hoping to share a taxi with someone. No one was.
But when I thought all hope was lost and I’d have to pay for the whole taxi myself, the last passengers to come off the ferry, a German couple, appeared and were also heading to Moalboal. Like me, they were under the impression that there was going to be a bus to Moalboal at the port but were now told that there weren’t any. Luckily, we bargained a taxi driver down to 1,200 pesos (US$24) from 2,000 pesos (US$40) for the 90-kilometer trip to Moalboal (US$8 each).
Flying in the Philippines
Flying can affect any kind of traveler and not just solo travelers. But I’ll mention it here anyway since I’m on the subject of transport. Flying turned out to be pricier than I first realized. When I was first booking my internal flights, I thought they were cheap. BUT the initial price never included service fees, taxes, and checked baggage fees. By the time I was done buying my ticket, the price had doubled. AND I found that when I bought tickets less than a week before my flight, the price doubled as well. Don’t wait until you get the airport to pay for checked baggage. It’ll cost you three or four times as much.
Transportation Within Cities or Around Islands
Transportation by tricycles and taxis within cities was expensive. One-way trips within a city often cost US$3 to US$6. These can add up and end up costing more than what you pay for dinner. When you’re by yourself, you need to take on the entire cost of a taxi or tricycle (tuk-tuks).
I also found that beaches were far away from the center of town where most accommodations were located. In Port Barton, the water in front of the city beach wasn’t a pleasant place for swimming. If you wanted to go to a decent beach, you needed to walk for an hour or hire a motorbike or tricycle or take a boat somewhere.
A lot of people take the rideshare service called Grab. They have an app that you can download onto your phone. You can send info through the app to friends before getting into a car letting your friends know the license of the car and where you’re going.
When taking a taxi in places like Cebu and Manila from malls, ferry ports, bus stations, or airports, there’s often a taxi stand. An official hands you a ticket with the license plate of the driver. If you have any problems with the driver, you can call the number on the ticket.
BUT from my experience, taxi drivers often didn’t know where a destination was located and they never wanted to use their phone’s GPS to find out. They ALWAYS had me use my phone’s GPS. So, make sure to have data on your phone.
An alternative to taxis and tricycles were jeepneys. These are super cheap, but I didn’t like using them if I had my luggage with me or if I needed to get somewhere quickly.
Most travelers in the Philippines rent scooters or motorcycles. This is the perfect mode of transport for solo travelers if you’re comfortable riding one.
Sightseeing as a Solo Traveler in the Philippines
Most of the attractions in the Philippines are hard to get to (on another island) so they require you to go on a tour or hire a guide and transportation. It’s not like visiting Paris or Tokyo where you can buy a ticket for a museum and just wander around on your own. On top of that, the tours in the Philippines are pricey, ranging from 1,200 pesos to 2,000 pesos (US$24 – US$40).
The good thing is that there are usually lots of group tours, so you don’t need to arrange a guide or transport yourself to get to many of these attractions.
Unfortunately, these tours can also be a pain to go on. You’re at the mercy of a set schedule. You might want to stay longer at a place, but you can’t because the tour needs to get to the next stop. You’ll end up visiting a beach or a lagoon at the same time everyone else does, turning the place into Disneyland.
It can be better to organize your own tour by hiring your own guide and boat, but that would be really costly for a solo traveler. You’ll need to get other travelers together to do it and if you’re shy like me, it can be challenging asking complete strangers if they want to join you. You can ask the front desk at the hostel if they know of any other travelers who are looking to join you in hiring your own boat and guide.
What I also found was that Klook often had group tours to out-of-the-way places that my hostel didn’t know about and that were affordable. In Bohol, I wanted to see the waterfalls and rice terraces, but tricycle drivers were asking for more than I could afford to take me there. I found out later that Klook had group tours to these places.
EMOTIONAL CHALLENGES WITH SOLO TRAVEL IN THE PHILIPPINES
Although I’m an introvert and I love my alone time, to be honest, I sometimes get lonely when I travel by myself. Most of the time, I was pretty lucky with meeting people in the Philippines. However, there were times when I needed to be with someone but there was no one I clicked with.
The Philippines attracts a lot of young backpackers in their twenties. I think if you’re in that age group, you’ll have an easy time finding other travelers to hang out with. There were fewer older travelers (not including sex tourists). So for me, it was harder. Sometimes I felt like I just didn’t click with anyone and I would go for long periods of time alone.
You can meet other travelers in hostels and on van and bus rides between destinations. But for me, I had the best luck meeting other travelers on group tours. Palawan is a really good place for that.
I also had an easier time meeting people on Palawan than I did on Cebu and its surrounding islands. I have some theories. Palawan seems to attract a different kind of tourists from Cebu. Palawan attracts those who just arrived in the Philippines. For them, everything is new and a bit scary, so they’re more eager to reach out to others. On the other hand, Cebu seemed to attract those who’d been in the Philippines for a long time already. They were a bit more jaded and more discerning about who they talked to. They already seemed to have found their cliques.
But the Philippines has something that a lot of other places don’t have, and that is the warm, friendly, and out-going people who aren’t afraid to speak English. All of these factors make it easier than most places in the world to meet the local people. Isn’t that the whole reason why we travel to another country?
EATING OUT AS A SOLO TRAVELER IN THE PHILIPPINES
For me, one of the worst things about traveling by myself is eating alone in a restaurant. It can feel awkward sitting alone at a table meant for two people. I look across the restaurant and see table after table of happy couples sharing an intimate moment or groups of friends laughing and having a good time. And it would be nice to share food with someone. I order one dish and my friend orders the other and we share both dishes.
In the Philippines, it’s not common like in Japan to see locals eating alone and it’s not common to see many solo tourists eating alone like in Myanmar.
That being said, I didn’t seem to care so much in the Philippines. I just made sure I had my kindle, phone, or laptop with me to keep me company while I ate.
If I really needed companionship, I just asked people at the hostel or from the tours I went on if they wanted to grab a bite to eat.
PRO TIP: Here's a list of essential items to pack for all of your island-hopping tours while in the Philippines:
- Dry bag - You're going to get wet while in the boat and your things will get wet if you don't have a dry bag. Leave your backpack at your hotel.
- Waterproof bag or pouch for your cell phone especially for your visit to such places as the Big Lagoon and the Secret Lagoon in El Nido.
- Water shoes - It's important to have a pair because sometimes you'll need to be walking on rocks to get to your destination. You'll thank me later for bringing them.
- Sunscreen - Make sure to put it on 30 minutes before being in the sun and/or water. Banana Boat worked the best for me. You can buy it in the Philippines, too, but it's pricey (500 - 700 pesos depending on the store--shop around!)
- Mask and snorkel - OPTIONAL - Most tour companies provide you with a mask and snorkel, but if you want to bring your own, I highly recommend the full face mask and snorkel. It's ideal for those who aren't confident swimmers.
TIPS FOR TRAVELING SOLO IN THE PHILIPPINES
I think most people will be fine traveling solo in the Philippines. The people are friendly and you’ll generally get very little sexual harassment. There are enough tours for you to join and the country has a slew of decent hostels. However, here are some tips for making your solo travels in the Philippines even better.
- Don’t let your fear and anxiety about traveling solo paralyze you and prevent you from meeting people. Of course, you should take precautions more so than you would back home where you’re more familiar with your surroundings (I’ll get to those precautions below). But be open to getting to know the local people and trusting them.
- That being said, if you’re going to hire a guide to take you around for the day, arrange it through your hotel. The hotel should be able to vouch for the person and if something goes wrong, you have somewhere to direct your complaints. You can also write a scathing review of them on the booking site if something does go wrong. Plus: take a photo of the guide and the license plate of their vehicle and send it to a friend or post it on social media.
- When you’re traveling alone anywhere in the world, it’s important to keep your wits about you and always be aware of your surroundings. Don’t get so drunk that you’re stumbling back to your hotel from the bars late at night. You can always wait until you get home to get loaded.
- It’s ok to say no or to be rude if a situation is making you uncomfortable. When I was in Greece, a guy asked me out on a date. He wanted to drive me to someplace in the countryside late at night. I turned that idea down and suggested instead meeting at a restaurant in the center of the city.
- Always lock up your valuables in your hostel or hotel room. Never leave them out on your bed or lying around the room. Also, if going out, especially to the beach or a waterfall, keep your valuables in a safe or locker in your hotel or hostel. Take enough money with you for the day and for emergencies. Buy a good quality lock.
- Take photos of your passport and email them to yourself in case you lose them or they get stolen.
- Also take photos of your luggage so that if your bags don’t arrive with you on your plane, you have a photo to show the lost-luggage people at the airport. When I arrived in Vietnam, my backpack did not. And when I needed to describe the bag to the airport staff, my brain wouldn’t function and I couldn’t remember the brand of my backpack.
- Carry two debit cards with you from two different banks in case one card is stolen. Make sure they are in separate locations as well or that there is some way to access the phone numbers to call the card companies if they’re stolen. When carrying your money and passport with you, store it in a money belt or a runner’s money belt under your clothes and use an anti-theft messenger bag along with RFID sleeves for your passport and credit and debit cards.
- Make friends with the front desk staff at your hotel or hostel. Get to know the staff and make sure you know their names. Most importantly, when you go out, casually drop info telling them where you’re going.
- Get to know the tour guides on your tours. You don’t have to flirt with them, but it’s good to talk to them so that they remember you. Ask them questions and sit closer to the front. They’ll remember you and are less likely to leave you behind.
- I also make friends with my fellow bus passengers when on a long-distance bus journey. My biggest fear when traveling is that the bus driver stops at a rest stop and leaves while I’m still in the restroom. I try to make friends with people on the bus so that someone at least knows that I’m missing if the bus decides to take off without me.
- Finally, always make sure you have data on your SIM card. There are two popular cell phone carriers in the Philippines: Globe and Smart. Both offer SIM cards for tourists at airports for around 10 GB of data for 1,000 pesos (US$20) for 30 days. If you need to top up your data, you can do it at a convenience store. Just make sure you register your load with the company. Ask at your hotel or hostel for instructions on how to do it. If you don’t register after adding more data, your data will disappear.
If I left anything off this list, let me know. And if you have anything to add about your own experience, leave me a comment at the end of this post.
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More Info on the Philippines:
- Learn how to take public transportation and a Grab and taxi around Manila - First-Timers Guide to Getting Around Manila
- Manila Itinerary: 2 Days Exploring the Culture and History of Manila - In this guide, you'll get a detailed step-by-step itinerary for seeing the sights in Manila.
- Port Barton Itinerary: What to do for 3 Days in Port Barton - Find out how to discover the most beautiful beach in the Philippines.
- One of my favorite experiences in the Philippines was an island-hopping tour of Sibaltan. Get the details here: Sibaltan Tour: Finding Your Secret Paradise in Palawan, Philippines
- El Nido Itinerary: An Adventure of a Lifetime - Learn where to go, what to eat, where to see, and of course, what to do in El Nido.
- Bohol Travel Guide: Exploring the Natural Wonder of the Philippines will tell you exactly what to see and do in Bohol, how to get there, where to stay, and much, much more!
- Siquijor Itinerary: Exploring the Island of Fire will give you the skinny on everything you need to know to travel to Siquijor.
- Malapascua Itinerary: Plan Now! Go Later! will help you plan your trip to Malapascua and Kalanggaman Islands.
- Find out what my 15 favorite places to visit in the Philippines are.
- Solo Travel Guide for the Philippines will give you some pointers on how to best travel solo in the Philippines cheaply and safely and still have a kick-ass time!