This past June my wife and I traveled to the Philippines for a much needed vacation to unwind from the hustle & bustle of daily urban life. We visited Manila, Palawan, and Boracay during our three-week trip. My first experience with the Philippines was back in 1990 after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in which I traveled to Luzon to provide much needed disaster relief. Over the next fifteen years I traveled there while in the military working with the Filipino armed forces. Although I have spent my fair share of time in the Philippines, I never actually spent any leisure time there and never visited the resort islands of Boracay or Palawan. First I want to preface my article with a disclaimer: Neither my wife nor I are in anyway affiliated with the travel/vacation industry. Okay, with that said, this is how it went…
My wife and I hit Manila three times during the nearly month-long vacation; arrival in the Philippines, transit between Palawan and Boracay and finally departure from the Philippines. My advise…spend as little time here as possible. Every-single person we came into contact with tried (some succeeded) to rip us off in some fashion or another. I have been traveling around the world for the past twenty years (mostly to places that are very inhospitable) and consider myself pretty savvy, but the scam artist here are truly first-rate. Be very, very careful when talking to anyone on the crowded streets of this city. In my experience, Manila is one of the most violent cities in the world.
Upon our arrival we stayed at the Holiday Inn Manila for $143 a night. It is touted as a 4.5-star hotel but in my humble opinion, it barely makes three. Although the staff were very friendly, the room smelled foul (we moved twice), was old and the decor was dark and seemed stuck in the 1970s. For the price we paid I definitely do not believe we received our money’s worth.
Cool guy tip#1: Never take a private car from the airport to your hotel, only metered taxies. We paid way too much getting to the hotel.
Our second time to Manila was far better. While in Palawan I was determined to find better accommodations on the Internet and invested some serious time researching hotels near the airport. I came up with the Pan Pacific Hotel which turned out to be a huge blessing. It is rated as a 5-star hotel and earns every bit of that distinction. Immediately upon arrival I noticed a tremendous difference in the staff. They dispatched with speed and alacrity to handle our luggage, were very professional, extremely courteous and knowledgeable. It seemed as though they clouded do enough for us and not once did any of the staff pressure us for a tip. My personal philosophy on tipping is that if you expect it, forget it. If you don’t and do a decent job, I’ll "hook a brother up." The reality is, nearly everyone will put the screws to you to extract some kind of tip. In one instance a taxi driver unsheathed a barong (very big curved knife) and demanded that we pay him a tip on top of the meter because he had to drive us in rush-hour traffic.
Anyway, the Pan Pacific Hotel was fabulous. Upon checking in the staff advised me of a cheaper rate that I was qualified for and also credited my sky miles for me. The room was spacious, extremely clean, new and already had all the amenities that you might require (iron/ironing board, Internet, shaving kit, hair dryer, etc.). You have your own private butler assigned to your room that can even bring a pot of hot coffee to you with your morning wake-up call. The best part aside from the experience was that it cost $120 per night.
Cool guy tip#2: Be absolutely clear when negotiating lodging that you understand whether the charges are per person or per room. On numerous occasions we were quoted prices that seemed great until we discovered that it was per person. Fortunately we never fell for that scam, but definitely came close ($350 a night at a beach resort sounded great until we found out that it was going to cost my wife and I $350 times two which equals $700 plus that 10% service charge and 12% government tax and 8% credit card convenience fee and oh yeah, the 1% tax to save the environment. So 31% times $7000 equals an affordable nightly rate of $917. See the importance of knowing what you are REALLY paying for?).
Cool guy tip #3: Make sure you know the exchange rate and how to convert currency. Carry a small calculator or mobile phone with one on it. A lot of creative accounting can go on at some of the venders or establishments you visit. It may not sound like much, but don’t forget to add in the mandatory 10% service charge for every meal/purchase, 12% government tax and 5 to10% convenience fee if you use your plastic. All those fees and taxes REALLY add up over the course of a week or more.
In general, I would advise you not to spend too much time on the streets around the hotel complex because you will be incessantly hounded by beggars, scam artists, drug dealers, phony money exchangers and ladies (and men) of ill repute. I don’t know if there are any good streets in Manila, but this area certainly doesn’t have them. The only good thing I can bring to your attention is that there is a Muslim Laundromat just outside the hotel’s main entrance that is worth its weight in gold. They washed several pounds of our clothes, pressed and folded it for a surprisingly reasonable price. We were impressed with the service and happy to finally have some clean clothes after a week in Palawan with no electricity to wash or dry our basic garments.
There is a large shopping mall (Robinson’s) less that three hundred meters away from the hotel but I would avoid it unless there is absolutely something you need that you can’t live without. Prices were comparable to those in the States and Europe. The mall is old, filthy and over-crowded with packs of young teenagers hanging out with apparently nothing else to do (not a good indicator). The Fridays restaurant there, I have to say, was good but that’s all I can say about Robinsons. A better option would be to get a metered cab and have him/her drive you to the Mall of Asia which is about 10 minutes from the Pan Pacific Hotel. Same high prices but at least it was a first-rate experience shopping in a modern clean environment.