Have you ever dreamed of traveling to El Nido, Palawan? I know you do, and I certainly know the feeling. El Nido easily became one of my dream destinations the first time I heard about it from my college professor way back then, but the impression as an expensive destination had always scared me off. Anyway, I still placed it on top of my bucket list while wishing and hoping that I could set foot in this place someday.
Fortunately, that dream became a reality last year when I "accidentally" discovered that traveling to this top-notch Philippine destination doesn't necessarily come with a hefty price tag. In fact, I just recently returned from El Nido for the second time, just a year after my first trip, proving that traveling to one of my dream destinations shouldn't be expensive.
So how affordable it is to travel to El Nido? I share some tips below on the cheapest option to get there, food, lodging and basically how much to spend so you can plan your own trip -- on a budget.
Take note though that traveling in a big group is more cheap and getting a group travel package is deemed practical. The tips below will most likely apply to solo travelers or 2-3 persons or those who are going on a DIY trip for the first time.
1. Fly via Puerto Princesa City. Getting to El Nido from Manila can be done in two ways. There are direct flights from Manila to El Nido and vice versa via Island Transvoyager, Inc. (ITI) but each way costs at least P6,000. The cheaper alternative is to fly to Puerto Princesa, the capital city of Palawan, and travel by land to El Nido. Travel time by land takes about 5-7 hours depending on your choice of transportation (van or bus). It's a long trip but since we're after the cheapest way possible, this is no doubt the best option.
Why cheap: The local airlines (such as PAL Express, Cebu Pacific Air and Zest Airways) offer Manila to Puerto Princesa and vice versa as one of their regular routes. On the other hand, ITI utilizes a 19-seater aircraft and operates a private airport at El Nido, which explains the costly airfare.
Note: When planning your trip, take into consideration that the first and last day will be allotted to traveling between Puerto Princesa and El Nido. So make sure to book the earliest and latest flights, if possible, for your incoming and return flights, respectively.
2. Book your flight a few months in advance. Just like any other trip, booking a few months in advance can give you a better chance of getting a cheaper air seat -- especially during seat sales (which are usually announced 3 months ahead of the travel period). On our recent trip to El Nido, we only paid about P1,300 for our round trip airfare. We bought our tickets on February for the incoming flight to Puerto Princesa and March for the return flight, both during a promo sale, while our trip was still in June. That means we booked our flights 4 months earlier.
Why cheap: Spend as low as P1,300 for round trip promo airfare or P1,500-P3,000 for regular airfare (still cheaper versus flying via ITI).
3. Commute by public transpo to San Jose terminal. Once you already flew to Puerto Princesa City, you need to travel to San Jose terminal where the vans and buses bound for El Nido are located. There's no direct public ride so the most common option is to hire a tricycle exclusively for P120 (you can haggle up to P100) from the airport to the terminal. This is practical if you're 5 in a group because you only get to pay P20 per head. However, if you're solo or 2 persons only, taking the public transportation can save you a few bucks -- and it's very easy. Once you arrived at the airport, get out to the main road, take a tricycle and asked to be dropped off at Junction 1. Travel time is just a little over 5 minutes and fare is only P8 per person. From there take a multicab bound for San Jose terminal for P12. Travel time is about 20 minutes.
Why cheap: You only spend P20 each from the airport to terminal versus hiring a private tricycle that costs P50 per head if 2 persons (or P100 if you're alone).
4. Take the bus, or better yet the ordinary bus, from San Jose terminal to El Nido. Aircon vans used to be the only convenient public transportation between Puerto Princesa and El Nido until RORO Bus started serving the same route just last March. I find the RORO Bus better since it's more comfortable and they have more trips including night trips (see schedule below). Most importantly, they're cheaper (P483) than the shuttle/vans (P600-P700). But if you want the cheapest option available and don't mind the dusty road, you can take the ordinary (non-aircon) RORO bus which only costs P367 per way. The only downside of taking the bus is that the trip takes a little longer (up to 6-7 hours as compared to 5 hours with vans) because they would pick up and drop off passengers along the way.
Schedule of RORO Bus (Puerto Princesa to El Nido and vice versa):
4AM / 6AM* / 8AM / 10AM* / 12NN / 2PM* / 4PM / 6PM* / 10PM* (marked with asterisk is aircon bus)
Why cheap: Aircon RORO bus only costs P483 per way per person while ordinary bus costs P367 versus P600-P700 with vans. Whether to get the aircon or ordinary bus is a personal choice.
5. Stay in a fan, non-beachfront room. You don't need to stay in an aircon accommodation (and pay more) when most of the time you're out of the room! What's good is that El Nido offers plenty of budget rooms to choose from. On our recent trip, we stayed at Tay Miloy's Inn which we first heard from Lakas ng Trip, who called it as the cheapest lodging in El Nido. We paid P400 per night only for a fan room for 2 persons. It's non-beachfront but is just 5 minutes walk to the beach. You can find most of the budget accommodations within the town center which is, by the way, just small and very much accessible to the beach. Besides, El Nido doesn't have electricity round the clock. Electricity is out from 6AM to 2PM. By using a fan, therefore, you save money and help conserve energy at the same time.
Why cheap: Spend only P400 per night (or P200 per head) for a decent fan room for 2 persons versus P1200-P2000/night for an aircon room. Tay Miloy's Inn contact numbers: 09297955756 / 09464245953. You may also want to check out Hadefe Cottages that offers an aircon room at P700/night for 2 pax (we stayed here last year). They're beachfront but about 10 minutes away from the town center.
6. Eat in a carinderia, instead of restaurants. One of the challenges mostly faced by budget travelers in an internationally-known tourist destination is how to spend less on food. Restaurants in El Nido offer great food -- but mostly expensive. However, it's a good news that local carinderias are scattered around the town of El Nido to cater to those with tight budget. Based on our experience by eating from one carinderia to another, each serving of dish costs P30-P40 and a cup of rice at P7-P10. Unless you eat like a truck driver, you only get to spend about P50 per meal. :)
Why cheap: Spend at least P50 per meal versus spending at least P150 per meal in a restaurant.
7. For island hopping, ask for discount or rent a boat privately if you're at least a group of 6. Island hopping is an essential activity in El Nido. What I like in El Nido is that the rates for island hopping tours are standard (see prices below) regardless of the number of people in your group. Also, don't forget to ask for discount (I actually didn't know it was possible for some tour operators). I learned a day prior to our trip that Servant Tours gave some of our blogger friends P100 discount per tour per person. We used them and also asked for discount which they willingly gave. :-) Another way that I learned to save on island hopping expenses is to rent the whole boat privately (provided you're 6 persons in the group) instead of signing up individually. Lakas ng Trip blog further explains it here.
Below are the standard rates for the island hopping tours (includes lunch):
Tour A - P700 / Tour B - P800 / Tour C - P900 / Tour D - P700
Tour A - P1200 / person
Tour B - P1300 / person
Tour C - P1400 / person
Tour D - P1200 / person
Why cheap: Renting a boat privately for a group of 6 costs less as explained in the post. If solo or 2 persons, book with Servant Tours (contact number: 09178088599, 09154157245) because they're the only tour operator I know that gives discount. Make sure to book directly with them.
8. Explore the town on foot. As I've mentioned, the town of El Nido is small that almost everything (beach, carinderia, restaurants, convenient stores, bakeshop, everything) is accessible by foot. The only times we took a tricycle was when we needed a transfer from the bus terminal upon our arrival to the town (P50) and back. The terminal of RORO Bus in El Nido is around 10 minutes ride away from the town center.
Why cheap: Do I need to explain more? Walking is healthy too.
9. Travel after summertime or during off peak season. Both of our trips in El Nido fall in June and our tickets were bought on either February or March. Based on my own experience, at the start of summer months airlines are already giving away promo seats for the rainy season (June onwards). You could take advantage of the cheap airfares to plan your own trip. Aside from that, prices of accommodations are cheaper and El Nido is less crowded during this season. Worrying about bad weather? As far as I know, Palawan is rarely hit by typhoon all year round. :-)
These are all the information you need to travel "cheaply" in El Nido. Do you think it's affordable? Do you have additional tips to travel the cheapest way? Share in the comments section below.