10 Tips for Budget-Travel and Lessons Learned in El Nido

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Sippin’ coconuts on our first day in Puerto Princessa

Traveling isn’t always all sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes trips are learning experiences. Sometimes they make us more thankful for our home and they even have a way of teaching us more about ourselves. As much as we enjoyed the warm sun and the time away from work, Palawan was one of those places that offered us more lessons than relaxation. We

Before planning our trip, we read an article about El Nido highlighting its undiscovered beaches and romantic sunsets. It didn’t take us long to decide that was where we wanted to spend our second honeymoon. We did our research and read countless backpacking blogs on the area that made it look so easy. We felt that we were ready to see some uncharted territory and maybe even kayak to some private islands. 

Well… apparently everyone with an itch for cheap thrills read the same article and blogs. Soon enough, we were all packing our backpacks and leaving behind the cold weather for some El Nido sunshine. So much for our private island! It was, however, very beautiful and the sunsets were truly breathtaking.

So, if you are like us and like the idea of budget-travel or want to visit El Nido specifically, here’s a bit of our experiences and a few tips (both general and El-Nido specific):

10 Essential Travel Tips That We Have Learned for Almost Every Destination:

  1. If you are a couple, travel in pairs. Why? There are going to be a few tough times while traveling, especially if you are backpacking or exploring unfamiliar places. When you are with a group, we’ve noticed that the bumps in the road aren’t so bad when there are more people to carry the burden together. More company also offers a range of ideas, resolutions to problems, people to talk to and costs are split even further. And when you need some romantic time, you can easily do that too.
  2. Book far in advance using Booking, Airbnb and Hotwire. Compare prices and reserve rooms with a free cancellation window to ensure you get the best location and rates. Just remember to cancel any unwanted rooms before the free cancellation window ends!
  3. Reserve your rooms close to where you want to be. There’s nothing more frustrating than spending your entire trip in transport. Try to sleep close to the things you want to do on a day-by-day basis. If some attractions are far from each other, move your accommodation to follow your desired sights.
  4. Try the hole-in-the-wall restaurants and food stalls. We never regret venturing into the local eateries. They are always the best and usually the cheapest!
  5. Take enough local currency or make sure there will be ATMs or credit-card friendly establishments. We recently got a Venture One Credit Card with miles that allows us to make international purchases with no international fees.
  6. If your hotel offers transportation, like an airport shuttle or taxi service, it’s usually worth taking. Especially if you need a lift late at night or early in the morning.
  7. USE KAYAK to book flights! We have saved HUNDREDS on flights just by using this website. Google Flights is our second favorite.
  8. Always be aware of baggage fees. If the flight is cheap, the baggage fees may be high depending on the weight of your bag. It’s always a good idea to pack as light as possible!
  9. Be willing to be flexible. Plans change, trains are sometimes late and you might get sick. Mentally prepare for anything to happen and hold onto your plans with a light grip. When things go wrong, your attitude can make or break the vibe of the adventure.
  10. If you’re sleeping in airports, NEVER forget an eye-mask and ear plugs. And take a pillow and a blanket if possible.

Going to El Nido?

1. UNESCO Underground River

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Underground River cathedral formations

We stayed in Puerto Princessa for two nights in the beginning with a day trip to the UNESCO Underground River. After waiting five hours for our boat to access the cave, we finally charted our way to the mysterious underground caves. They were magnificent, but probably not worth waiting for five hours. Usually, the wait is about 2 hours but the tours had been cancelled the day before so this was an unusual amount of people. Or so we hope… Tip: Ask your hotel to organize a van tour. They pick you up and drop you off at our hotel and the guide is included for the whole day. Bring anything that you would want to lounge on the beach including swimsuit, sunscreen, towel and a book. No need for food because there is a buffet lunch included and many smoothie stands to keep you going. And if you have enough time, walk down the beach and look for the massage tents.

2. Traveling from Puerto Princessa to El Nido 

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Transportation for the most adventurous

This was a big venture and the best way is highly disputed. We were lucky enough to catch a ride with Annie who is currently living and opening a resort on Corong Corong Beach in El Nido. She let us ride with her and her friend in a hired private van. Now, we would only recommend this if you are not on a tight budget (it’s about 4000php/$80!), have a problem sitting next to strangers or you are desperate for the fastest way. We arrived within under five hours with a lunch break along the way and lots of room to stretch out. On the way back, we joined a shared van for 500php/$10 per person. Yes, it was significantly cheaper but you need to make sure you have enough time. It took about seven hours and we were crammed with little breathing room. However, definitely worth the price if you are adventurous and have time to spare. Tip: If you meet a few people who are traveling on the same day, ask if they want to split a private van.

3. El Nido Water Activities 

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Post-kayaking relief

No doubt, the scenery of this place is absolutely gorgeous. The limestone cliffs and turquoise water did not disappoint. But the idea of a private beach or island was a bit of a stretch for us, however, Corong Corong and Calaan Beach, both within walking distance of El Nido proper, offered some seclusion and amazing sunsets! We even attempted to kayak across the bay to Paradise Beach but it was definitely a task for the more experienced… Tip: Instead of the VERY touristy island hopping tours, take a private tour or do an alternative activity, like Stand Up Paddleboarding with SUPXplore.

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SUPXplore’s 6-person paddleboard. (we managed to get 8 people on!)

4. SCUBA

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Kaya was certified within 2 days!

If you want to get your SCUBA License, El Nido is a great place with so many Dive Shops to choose from offering great prices and quick lessons. We chose Sea Dogs Dive Center because they were flexible with time restraints, very inexpensive and offered both PADI and SSI options. The Open Water Certification course only took two full days out on the beautiful water, with lunch included and a wonderful instructor. Tip: If you take a diving course, there is no point in going on any of the island hopping tours because they will take you diving in some of the most beautiful places! Kaya ended her certification at Helicopter Island a day after SURVIVOR was shooting there! 

5. Hostels and Hotels

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One of our bungalow guesthouses booked on AirBnB

We use booking.com and have been happy with the ability to reserve rooms with a free cancellation window, no extra fees and amazing discounts. We also frequent AirBnB to look for those special places off the beaten path. We booked all of our Palawan hotels and hostels (some better than others) with both of these websites well in advance and are happy we did. While in El Nido, we saw many “No Vacancy” signs in windows, high prices and low value options that are never good for budget travelers. Tip: Reserve many different rooms well in advance and compare your options. Choose your favorite and cancel the rest before the deadline! And always make a note of the location and distance from the city center and transportation to and from your hotel. These little details can make or break any accommodation. 

6. Money

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The ONLY place with a card reader in El Nido

Make it easy on yourself and bring enough PHP. There are little to no ATMs and there was literally one place that took credit cards. And as cheap as the area is, we were surprised how much we spent. It definitely was not our cheapest trip! Everything really adds up in touristy places… Tip: Exchange your money the easiest way using and online service. IF you are coming from Japan like us, the best option is Dollar Euro Currency Exchange. This service is awesome for any trip.

7. Food

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Yummy Italian dinner at The Mezzanine

We are not going to lie… the local cuisine was far from our favorite. And the service was definitely up to Japanese standards. We did, however, find some delicious foreign food, like giant pizzas and supermarkets full of our American favorites (we may or may not have spent an evening in Manila double fisting a pint of ice cream and a bag of tortilla chips with salsa cradled between us…) Tip: We had the most delicious foreign food at the Mezzanine owned by the kindest and hospitable man. Just make sure to make a reservation before 7pm! And for a great local meal, head to the Corong Corong side and try the locally owned Sizzling Republic El Nido. We had our best night here with some fellow travelers. You may even be brave enough to try the tasty crocodile! 

All in all, the trip was fun. It wasn’t our favorite but we always have to keep in mind that we are so fortunate to be able to see so many parts of the world. So we keep the complaints to a minimum. Instead, we learn, take notes and prepare for the next destination with our experiences as our tools. 

And on that note, we are gearing up for some spring break adventures in Vietnam with our friends Nicole and Evan! So stay tuned for that…

Love always,

Jon & Kaya

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