El Nido is a place I’ve wanted to travel to ever since I saw stunning photos of the Philippine island a year ago. It’s bright blue and turquoise waters with jagged rock formations jutting up from them had me mesmerized and reminiscing about the time I went to Ao Nang, Thailand.
But El Nido, and the Philippines in general, never seemed like a place I’d be able to afford. It was mostly because I thought flights would be too expensive, and also because I thought El Nido would be more of a luxury resort destination than a place I could easily afford on my own. That being said, you can probably imagine how stoked I was when I went there and realized it was DEFINITELY an easily affordable place to travel to!
I say that also as a late twenty-something-year-old, and as a somewhat particular traveler too; meaning I’m 28 and not down at all to sleep in a mixed-dorm hostel or carry a massive backpacking backpack rather than just rolling a small carry-on, but I still like to keep an extreme budget while maintaining my comfort level.
So this information isn’t just for people in their 20’s, it’s for anyone looking to travel to the beautiful area of El Nido, on a do-able budget! Here’s my tips:
(Note: $1 USD = 46.21 Philippine Pesos)
If you haven’t already heard about the treacherous 6 hour bus or shuttle ride most people take from Puerto Princesa to El Nido…well, I guess you just did. But many people have not heard that there is now the option to fly directly to El Nido from a few other areas in the Philippines, like Manila or Cebu, for about $60-70 more than what you’d pay for a flight to Puerto Princesa plus bus or shuttle ride.
The flights are daily on Air Swift, just make sure you book the right date…I’m an idiot and booked the wrong month and ended up having to bus out instead of fly out, although I did get to fly in.
PS, once you arrive in El NIdo, have your hotel/hostel/AirBnB name ready, and ask for a tricycle which will take you there for about 150 pesos.
When I first started looking into accommodation in El Nido, I realized that there were a ton of affordable hotels, hostels, and inns…but there were also a bunch listed on AirBnB with the added perk of one of the tours!
I booked one that said it was a “simple accommodation, don’t expect much, but it’s on the beach and includes Tour A or C” for $28 per night for a minimum of two nights. Since the tours alone are around $14-20, this was a pretty good deal, especially considering the view I had from my little beach-shack room.
Yes, it was a beach-inn, which meant I only had a fan and no AC…but I stayed there for 3 nights and really have no complaints… I just slept in my underwear or bikini most of the time anyway.
If you can’t get a flight into El Nido, or don’t want to spend the extra money, you’re going to have to get a bus or shuttle from Puerto Princesa. The reason why the ride sucks isn’t because it’s 6 hours…I’ve taken plenty of long buses and overnight buses to complain about the time…but 6 hours on a constantly bumpy roller coaster is another story.
Since the shuttles are smaller, the ride is bumpier, which is even worse in a confined space. So instead, take the Cherry Bus, which is a chartered bus, most with AC, wifi, and fairly empty spaces for 500 pesos. It wasn’t insanely horrible since I was able to work for the majority of it, plus they play pretty good movies non-stop and give you a few breaks for the bathroom, snacks, and to stretch.
Sidenote: I didn’t take the night Cherry Bus, but I read in someone’s blog post who did that it arrives at 3am but they will let you sleep on the bus for a few hours after you arrive instead of just dropping you off in the city in the middle of the night.
Hopefully you’ll get an accommodation that includes Tour A like mine did, if not, definitely book one anyway. There are tons of websites that offer them, but also tons of travel booths on the main street in El Nido, which may be cheaper if the website charges a fee.
Since my place, Ogie’s Inn, was right on the beach where all of the boats pick up and drop off people, all I had to do was walk downstairs and hop on the boat, which was full of other travelers from all over the world, plus an English speaking tour guide, boat driver, and two assistants.
We went to six islands in total and had an incredible lunch at the third stop, which included shrimp, crab, grilled fish, fruits, and chicken for people who eat meat (AKA not me).
Also definitely bring cash, because on some of the islands you can buy a coconut or beer, and on the last island, Small Lagoon, you can rent a kayak for 300 pesos so that you can row into it instead of having to swim.
El Nido is such a beautiful place, so it would really be a shame if the water became polluted with the harmful toxins that are in regular sunscreen and insect repellent. However, you definitely need a lot of both, because you WILL get burned, AND bitten if you don’t.
Although I’m the queen of forgetting to bring things like natural sunscreen and bug repellent, I distinctly remembered this time, partially due to my Instagram comments whenever I get a sunburn, and also because I remembered reading how bad regular sunscreen is for the water and marine life. Actually, in some areas that are marine-protected, you’re not allowed to wear sunscreen UNLESS it’s made from natural ingredients.
I use a natural sunscreen brand called Sunology because not only is it made with natural mineral ingredients, but it also has skin-enriching ingredients in it, doesn’t absorb into your body, and comes in a TSA-size approved bottle!
There will be tricycle drivers all over the streets in El Nido constantly asking you if you need a ride. Sometimes they’re your best bet price-wise, especially if you’re with multiple people, or you have your luggage with you.
But, when I wanted to go to a beach that was about an hour away, the tricycle drivers all said it would be 1000 pesos round-trip…however when I walked a little further down the street and stopped at one of the many motorbike rental shops, they offered me one for only 400 pesos (since it was already 3pm, for a full day it’s around 600 pesos).
Oh by the way, I had never driven a motorbike before, and they barely showed me how to use it, but I got the hang of it in just a few minutes. Also, it was SO FUN!!!! Like literally so fun that I stayed longer in El Nido the next day just so I could rent one again and explore more!
Another suggestion I received for El Nido, was to visit the twin beaches called Nacpan Beach and Caitalang Beach. To be completely honest, the first day I had my motorbike the goal was to go there, but I totally missed the turn off and ended up at the further-North Duli Beach which wasn’t nearly as impressive.
Nacpan Beach and Caitalang Beach are a straight shot North of El Nido, but there’s two left turns you’ll need to look out for; the first is a bridge that you’ll see when the road comes to a fork, and the second is a turnoff where there’s a fairly large sign that says “Nacpan”, but it’s kind of old, so somewhat easy to miss.
So of course with my extreme budget attempts, I ordered a sketchy no-brand “waterproof iPhone case” off of Amazon, and of course…it didn’t work. Halfway through my El Nido island tour I decided to attempt SnapChatting underwater since the case was seemingly doing its job, but nope. Didn’t work, and my newish iPhone 6 shut off forever. Fail.
Anyway, that’s not the case in the photo…that’s a case that actually did work underwater, and is still fairly cheap although equally risky to use. The rest of the products are what I normally use, which I’ll list below:
Fun fact: when I travel, I ONLY use wifi. I don’t get a SIM card, or have an international data plan that I use (I DO purchase a small international package in case of emergencies), so for the most part, I’m fully dependent on finding wifi. That being said, I’m really, really good at it.
You can find Wifi in El Nido at most of the hotels and restaurants, but just to warn you, it isn’t that great. In fact, it’s pretty normal that the power goes out on the entire island multiple times a night, so don’t expect to always have wifi…or even wifi that works well.
Just like any tropical, local-run destination, El Nido has people constantly trying to overcharge and up-sell tourists and travelers who don’t know how much things typically cost. To avoid that, learn the currency exchange rate, and learn it well. $1 USD is equal to 46.21 Philippine Pesos, and you shouldn’t really be paying more than $10USD for anything besides tours and hotel rooms.