Travelling the Philippines using public transport

Travelling the Philippines using public transport is not hard, but it is cumbersome. If you get used to the system, or lack there-of, it’s not very complex. It’s cheap, and you get to see a lot more than flying or taking a ferry.

I don’t really understand why people prefer ferries or airplanes so much. Ferries aren’t even faster. And both are much more expensive. Both are generally not much safer.

Common types of transport

My transport of choice usually is a (coach) bus a white van or a Jeepney. In that order, too. Coach buses usually go further, some have airconditioning and do not necessarily stop every 100 meters to pick up people. It’s sort of like a mass-transit express service between cities and municipalities.

White vans go the same distance as buses usually, between all towns and cities and noteworthy areas. They’re a bit more cramped and have less space for luggage. Especially if there is no roof rack. The vans are considered 12 seaters, but expect no less than 18 people in there. Many times it’s not very comfortable.

Jeepneys go to many nearby places, say up to about 50-70km from it’s starting point. You’ll find them pretty much everywhere. They generally drive a bit slower because they stop everywhere, all the time. Jeepneys are fine to get to a nearby town or inside cities. You could compare them to city buses in Europe.

And then some…

Inside towns and in most barangays you’ll also find Tricycles. Motorcycles with sidecarts that carry people around. You could compare this with a city taxi but cheaper. Prices are usually negotiable and you should always agree on a price before getting in.

Some cities have actual taxis. Most have meters, most are honest with their meter. The prices are fixed and you pay per kilometer and time spent – Just like in the west. But, if the taxi driver refuses to use his meter for no good reason – Which is not all that uncommon. Find another taxi.

Safety and scams

Many people like to think that public transport is unsafe. Stories of stolen luggage, pickpockets, kidnappings. Scams and conning taxis and more of that stuff. Sure that happens. And probably more often than I want to know.

However, in my experience none of that seems prevalent. Not in the provinces anyway. Maybe in places like Cebu City or Manila that happens more often. But even there, just keep an eye on your stuff and think about what you’re doing.

I’ve travelled many thousands of kilometers using buses, taxis, jeepneys, vans and a bunch of ferries and I’ve been treated like a tourist for sure. Some ripped me off for a few euros. But I’ve never felt unsafe or in need of any kind of protection. To the point where sometimes I wasn’t even paying attention to the luggage hold anymore to see if someone would take my bag. Which is of-course silly…

Sometimes a tricycle driver will agree on a price and then when you arrive at the destination he’ll want more money. Or we, the white guys, pay a luggage fee in the bus where others don’t. There may be a pushy porter carrying your bag and before you realize it you owe him 20 pesos. Stuff like that happens, and it happens on almost every trip. Don’t be bothered with that too much.

I usually argue for a second to try and find a middle ground. But also to see if they’re serious about what they’re doing and then grudgingly agree to the new price or extra fee. What’s the point really to get into a fight or waste your time on a proper argument – He just wants 50 pesos (one Euro-ish) more. No big deal.

Getting places

Unlike most western cities, there is usually no “central” terminal. And if there is, it goes only to one direction. Northbound, southbound, some place. This basically means, for example in the city of Bacolod, if you arrive at the north end of the city, you get out of your bus or whatever and have to find your way to the southbound terminal, at the south end of the city and then find a new mode of transport that goes where you want to go. Most bigger cities work like that. Iloilo City has 3 terminals. Cebu City has a few. Manila has many terminals. Batangas has 3 bigger areas for transportation. Some companies have their own. You’ll find street corners full of tricycles and jeepneys that then count as terminals – And so on. If the city or transport hub is near the coast there will be one or two ports, too. Adding to the clutter.

This sometimes is confusing. This brings extra costs and risk to your travels and mostly it just takes time. A lot of time. I always find it useful to bring a city map with me so I can prepare for that transfer a bit. Then if you don’t know the city you can somewhat see if the tricycle or taxi is taking a too long road. But also you can see if there actually are multiple terminals. So that when you arrive in a terminal you know what to do. Change bus, or change terminal. Coming off as a clueless tourist only attracts all the wrong people.

Plan ahead

While not always possible. Planning ahead can safe you a lot of time and aggravation. Plus, knowing what you’re up against is just useful. Try to get departure times, travel times and if you’re lucky you can make a sort of schedule with connecting modes of transport. This, again if lucky, minimises waiting in terminals and stuff – Which is just boring.

I put my schedule in my calendar app and make sure my phone is synced. You’ll see 2 calendars here, the yellow one is me going to Puerto Galera, Mindoro. The reddish one is my mom going to Siquijor Island back in November last year. You’ll notice that we include every mode of transport, approximate travel times and leave some white space for delays. This is of-course useful for if you loose your head. But also just to see how far along you are.

Note: In my experience travelling using public transport in the Philippines has been pretty safe so far. However, always take precautions. Use your common sense, make conscious and smart decisions and travel safe!