Does the idea of taking public transportation in the Philippines scare you? Ignorance is the root of most fears including this one, so here are some general tips and information on what to expect when commuting out of town for the first time, be you a city-raised Filipino or a foreign visitor.

A typical bus terminal in the Philippines. (photo not mine)

Being mostly an introvert, I initially found it hard to commute, as I preferred to keep to my music, my books, and myself. In a developed country, you could probably get away with commu

ting cross-country with minimal eye contact and conversation, but in a third-world country like the Philippines, where transportation information online is scarce and systems are built on shaky ground, the best method to gather information is via word of mouth.

So I learned the hard way, after years of taking long bus trips and sometimes missing stops or getting on the wrong vehicle altogether, that the only way to be on point is to ask, and when you think you got it, ask again.  

Asking is easy! (Photo not mine)

After exhausting whatever you can find online about how to get from one place to another, the next step would be to ask the locals where you’re staying for how to get to your next destination, i.e., your host at your homestay, the hotel / hostel front desk, or the security guard outside that 7/11 store, or even just ask a friend.

Before choosing who to ask, I ask myself if the person might have something to gain or lose from giving me true or falsified information.

If, for instance, I asked a taxi driver where I should go to find a bus to the next town, he would dissuade me from taking a bus and persuade me to hire his taxi to go all the way instead, for 5 times the price. He might lie and say the last bus just left and your only chance of getting there on the same day is to hire his taxi.

Since asking around puts you in a vulnerable position, it is best to ask multiple people the same questions.

Oftentimes, you’ll be faced with the decision to take a bus or a van to go over long distances. Make your way to the local bus terminal and ask around for which bus goes to where you’re going. Take note that some cities have more than one bus terminal, so make sure you start your trip in the right one.

Two things to ask about said bus: “How much will it cost?” and “How many hours will it take to get there?” Next, ask if there are any vans that go through same route, then ask the same two questions. With that information, you’ll be better prepared to decide whether you’d rather take a bus or a van.

Van to Kalibo. (Photo not mine)

The bus and van destinations are written on a piece of paper or wood and displayed on the dashboard for everyone to see. Your particular destination may not appear on the dashboard if the vehicle is going farther than your destination or is stopping by a bigger town or city on its way to your destination. Always ask the driver if he’s going to your destination to double check you’ve chosen the right vehicle.

Take a last supply run for water, snacks and relieve yourself in the toilet (AKA the rest room, the bathroom, comfort room or simply the C.R.). Long-distance trips will usually have a stop over to pee and buy snacks every 3 hours, and usually a longer break for a meal. If your bladder is at tipping point before then, don’t be shy and tell the driver so he can stop at the next possible toilet, banana cluster or rice field for you.

For buses, you don’t pay until the bus conductor (sometimes not in uniform) approaches you with a puncher and ticket and asks you where you’re going. This doesn’t happen until the bus is out of the city limits and everyone has settled down.

Sometimes he asks with a barely audible “Saan ka?” which translates to, in this context, “Where to?” Other times, he implies the question with a simple eyebrow raise in unison with a slight head tilt backwards, which, I imagine, would leave most foreigners confused. Once you give him your destination, he will punch in his ticket the date and the price of your trip. If you can’t read it (it takes some time to get used to), just ask him how much and pay him on the spot.

For vans, you don’t pay until you get off at your stop. While vans save you a lot of time, they pack you in each row incredibly tight like a can of… sauasges. In most cases, the van will leave your body sore because you won’t be able to stretch even a bit during the ride. Leg room is suitable for 5 ft 6 in (165cm) and below. Any taller and you’d wish you took the bus. Best row to take would be the 2nd row, the one right behind the driver: most bang for buck in leg room, luggage and breathing space.

The vans that travel large distances in most of the country do not carry passenger bags on the roof, unless you are in heavily saturated backpacker territory. If so, run the other way, as prices in these areas are sometimes trippled to make (and take) the most of (from) these high-income travelers.

So another word of advice, if you have many things with you, take the bus. I have been charged for an extra seat to put my bags beside me in a van.

Buses and vans are an excellent opportunity to break a big bill, i.e., the dreaded P1,000 note that no one seems to accept in small establishments. Buses stop more often, carry more passengers (obviously), and are much cheaper than vans. Vans will get you to your destination about 60% to 80% faster than buses.

The P1,000 bill is the light blue one on top. Be careful, almost similar in color is the P100 bill. (image not mine)

Depending on the demand for each route, sometimes a bus or van will only travel once a day, so it’s always best to schedule to move early in the morning. The frustration of missing the only trip for the day onward by a few minutes is laughable.

If you’ve decided to visit a small town off the beaten path, moving on would mean you have to wait along the side of the highway at a certain time to catch a bus or a van en route. Asking the locals what time this is is key to travel efficiency, and like I’ve mentioned, it’s best practice to ask more than one person.

Thinking of taking multiple flights within the country in your month-long trip? Take the slower but cheaper way, if you have time! Boats between islands operate under the same systems and are slightly more organized than buses. So if you’ve mastered buses, long boat trips are a breeze!

Only have a weekend off? Don’t want to drive? Take a night bus on a Friday to La Union, Baler, Zambales – learn to surf or just chill on the beach – and then get back home in time for the Monday blues all over again.

It’s cheap, it’s simple, it’s fun! Spend like a local, travel like a local. 

Bangka, a short-distance boat made of wood and bamboo. (photo not mine)

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