Island Hopping in the Philippines? Which boat tour should I choose

 
The Philippine archipelago is made up of about 7,641 islands – so when you stop by on your tropical holiday adventure, make a plan to tick off a few. You’d be remiss to skip a day or two of island hopping in the Philippines as it’s on these small isolated isles that you’ll truly discover paradise.

Palawan’s El Nido and Coron are two of the most popular tourist towns best situated for days snorkelling above coral reefs, scuba diving with marine life, swimming in hidden coves, kayaking through wide lagoons and lazily sunbathing on pristine white sands. We visited El Nido for three days and Coron for 1.5 days. In this time, we participated in three boat tours; one private boat tour and two group boat tours.

Your choice of private or group boat tour will depend on your budget as well as your interests. Some tours feature a lot of swimming and snorkelling while others are focused on taking you to the best beaches. We recount our experiences of our private boat tour, our group tours and provide detailed information of how much we spent to help you make your decision when planning your Philippines vacation.
Rows and rows of boats docked in El Nido harbour at dusk

ISLAND HOPPING IN THE PHILIPPINES
PRIVATE BOAT TOUR VS GROUP BOAT TOUR

El Nido Private Boat Tour

Our trip to the Philippines included 3 full days in El Nido. Before arriving, we planned to book one private boat tour. Based on our research, we budgeted approximately 7,000 PHP for the two of us which would include boat hire, environmental taxes and lunch.

On our first night in El Nido, we decided to try our luck wandering into town and searching for a boat captain who would be willing to take us on a private tour. Walking along the beach between El Nido Beach Hotel and El Nido ferry terminal, a gentleman approached us offering private boat tours. 

El Nido has recently introduced set itineraries to control the operation and number of boats visiting the nearby islands. Tours A, B, C and D offer something different from one another with Tours A and C being the most popular.

Quick Summary of El Nido Boat Tours 

  • Tour A – beautiful lagoons and snorkelling sites
  • Tour B – white sand beaches and cave discoveries
  • Tour C – hidden beaches and the uncanny Mantiloc Shrine
  • Tour D – pristine beaches and idyllic swimming spots

We opted for Tour B, knowing that Tour A and Tour C would be more popular and crowded. We were hoping to also visit Big Lagoon (available on Tour A) but only a limited number of permits are granted each day. In comparison to the private operators we spoke to in Coron, it seems that El Nido boat captains can only follow four set itineraries (Tour A, B, C and D).

Sunbaking on Pinagbuyutan Island, El Nido

We agreed on a meeting time of 8.00am. We hoped to leave early to snap many landscape shots without the crowds. We were collected at around 8.15am by the gentleman friend and ferried off via motorcycle to Bacuit Bay. In a side alley close to the harbour, a woman was waiting for us. She was “the Boss Lady”. Turns out, she had heard that we wanted to see the Big Lagoon on our private tour and with her connections, we would be able to visit that morning – at an extra cost, of course. 

We quickly agreed on the price before speed-walking down to the harbour to board our boat, but we didn’t leave as early as we had hoped. There was a period of waiting while the captain obtained clearance from the harbourman and purchased our environmental passes. This took some time so if you can organise these in advance (you only have to pay the tax once and your pass is valid for 10 days), we would highly recommend this. We learnt later on that the Philippines government had introduced new laws from 1 January 2019 restricting the number of tour boats that could leave before 9.00am.

Tour B included Entalula Beach, Snake Island, Cudugnon Cave, Cathedral Cave and Pinagbuyutan Island. With the last minute added addition of Big Lagoon in the morning; subsequently, all other destinations on Tour B felt quite rushed. After our experience, we would have elected to skip Cathedral Cave to allow more time on Pinagbuyutan Island.

At lunchtime, we were spoilt for choice as the crew had cooked and served up grilled fish, chicken, pork, rice, mussels, salad and an array of fruit. It was too much food for two people and we hate to think how much of it went to waste!

El Nido Private Boat Tour​ Total Cost - 9,050 PHP
  • 7,000 PHP (private boat with lunch)
  • 400 PHP (200 PHP per person for environmental tax)
  • 1,400 PHP (700 PHP per person - extra visit to Big Lagoon)
  • 250 PHP (kayak hire at Big Lagoon)
Boats in between the trees from the top of Snake Island, El Nido, The Philippines
El Nido Private Boat Tour​ Lessons Learned
  • Don’t book your private tour last minute

If possible, give yourself and your chosen boat captain a day in advance so that your early departure clearance can be pre-arranged and you can outline your selected itinerary.

  • Negotiate leaving before 8.00am to beat the crowds

Otherwise request that your boat captain completes your tour in reverse order.

  • Always negotiate your fee and be clear on what is included and excluded

At the end of the day, the private tour operator tried to get us to pay an additional 300 PHP from us for the hire of snorkelling masks. Yet we had been told the day before by her agent that snorkelling masks were included in the original private tour price.

  • Don’t try to squeeze too much into a day

Adding the Big Lagoon to our itinerary meant that our day felt rushed between locations. Plan your itinerary to visit the spots you really want to see and experience and request to skip some spots to spend longer at others.

In hindsight, we should have verified how long the private tour boat hire was for. We focussed on what time the tour would leave but not what time it would return. So, if you know you have got a private boat for 8 hours, you can decide which stops you really want to visit and choose those you would rather miss.

  • Adjust your expectations to the seasonality of the tides

The best time to visit the Philippines is between December – March when the tides are low, there are fewer visitors and more of the beaches are exposed.

Drone view of Pinabuyutan Island, El Nido, The Philippines

El Nido Group Boat Tour

After our private boat tour experience, we were unwilling to spend the same amount of money on another private tour that didn’t seem to offer an all too different experience from group boat tours. We decided to participate in Tour D. We were informed that Tour D tends to be the least popular tour, which was suitable for us as we were hoping to travel with a small group.

We booked our group boat tour with ArtCafe, opting out of the added kayak experience as we had spent the day earlier paddling around the islands by ourselves. Tour D takes island hoppers to some of the most idyllic beaches in the area, with opportunities for snorkelling and kayaking. We were two people of a group of 8 and we were the only pair who chose not to kayak. Our pit-stops were Bukal Beach, Nat Nat Beach, Paradise Beach, Serenity Beach and Cadlao Lagoon.

Of all the boat tours we did in the Philippines, this boat tour was by far our favourite. The pace of the tour combined with plastic conscious initiatives and a friendly crew made it a fun, memorable day out.

El Nido Group Boat Tour Total Cost - 2,400 PHP
  • 1,200 PHP per person (includes lunch and drinking water)
A girl in a black bikini and sunglasses sit smiling on the tour boat moored on an island in El Nido
El Nido Group Boat Tour Lessons Learned
  • Don’t book your group tour last minute either

If you want to have your choice of tour and tour operator, it’s best to reserve your place ASAP. Many operators run on a minimum number basis for the less popular tours, although most of the boats we saw looked closer to capacity. During peak season (April – June), boats are crammed full.

  • Just because you’re on a group tour, doesn’t mean you won’t find solitude

If you’re seeking your own slice of paradise, then Tour D might be the tour for you. The boats docking at each of the beaches on the Tour D itinerary hardly ever looked full. Boats come and go at different times so there was hardly a time when the beaches felt crowded. The last stop, Cadlao Lagoon was the busiest given it was the last stop of the day.

  • Choose a reputable boat tour company

If you are planning on visiting El Nido, don’t be surprised if you only read glowing reviews of El Nido Boutique & ArtCafe. The management of their boat tours is highly efficient, from the booking process to the on-boarding protocol, their environmental initiatives and the overall boat tour experience.

A woman wades through the turquoise water at the entrance of Big Lagoon, El Nido
A man sits at the helm of a boat with a towel draped over his shoulders, El Nido

Coron Group Boat Tour

Due to time restraints, we had to make the difficult choice between private or group boat tour for our one full day in Coron. 

We enquired about private boat tours from the operators closeby the Calamian Tourist Boat Association but we discovered that these tours cost more than private boat tours in El Nido. Our theory is that Coron is a smaller town and some of the islands are further away than in the El Nido area, so the time to travel to and from islands plus less competition may explain the higher cost of private tours. Given our less than ideal experience in El Nido and because we didn’t want to withdraw cash from the ATM on our last day in the Philippines, we opted to go with another group tour instead.

We selected the Ultimate Island Escapade Tour which visits some of the most picturesque islands in the area known for its natural beauty; Bulog Dos Island, Banana Island and Malcapuya Island

In hindsight, we would have preferred to pay the extra money for a private boat tour in Coron as it appeared that there were no harbour restrictions to departure times. We later heard from other travellers that they had managed to leave at 4am one morning on their particular private boat tour! Unfortunately, we were two people of 21 crammed onto the boat which made the 90 minute journey to the first island a tad uncomfortable. Furthermore, after being told to be ready for pick up at 7.30am, we waited almost 90 minutes for the tour operator to collect us from the hotel on departure morning, which did not leave us impressed from a customer service perspective.

We chose not to do any snorkelling again on this tour (additional cost to hire snorkel masks and fins), preferring to laze in the sun and bathe in the crystal clear water of the beaches.

Coron Group Boat Tour Total Cost - 2,400 PHP
  • 1,200 PHP per person (group tour with hotel pick-up and lunch included)
Aerial view of Bulog Dos Island during the Ultimate Escapades Tour in Coron, The Philippines
Coron Group Boat Tour Lessons Learned
  • Don’t settle for the first offer

If you arrive to Coron via ferry, you will be bombarded with flyers from tour companies offering boat tours. In comparison to the four set island hopping boat tours in El Nido, there are about a dozen tour options in Coron.

Should you have time (but not the patience to deal with a large boat tour group), go around to some of the tour operator offices to enquire about prices and availability on tours. When we booked our spots on the Ultimate Island Escapades Tour late in the afternoon on our arrival day, the tour operator informed us that 8 people had booked the tour so far for the following day. We had hoped for a small group much like our group boat tour experience in El Nido. So we were quite surprised to discover twice as many people on the boat the next morning.

  • Choose wisely

If you do visit both El Nido and Coron and you only have the budget for one private tour, we would recommend doing your private tour in Coron over El Nido.

Kayakers enjoying Cadlao Lagoon surrounded by jagged rocks, El Nido

Here is a quick summary of each tour style to help you make your choice.

Private Boat Tour

Pros

  • Room to move

You’ll have the boat to yourselves to spread out, leave your bags on board and not worry about anyone else.

  • Flexibility

You’ll have the ability to dictate your itinerary. Negotiate with your boat captain the order of your stops and request more time at certain destinations. Reflecting on our experience, we would have removed certain locations and tried to plan better in advance.

  • Early birds

You can negotiate your departure time with your boat captain. We suggest leaving as early as possible in the morning to beat the crowds.

Cons

  • Price

The cost of a private boat tour is x2 – 2.5 times more expensive than individual group boat tour prices.

  • Limitations

You are still restricted to set El Nido itineraries however you may be able to pay extra to include additional stops (semi-pro). In Coron, the private boat operators appeared to be more flexible to itinerary adjustments but you will still need to consider the practicality of visiting your desired locations before trying to bundle them together.

  • What a waste

A lot of food was wasted from our lunch. There was far too much for the two of us and the menu appeared to be hardly any different to the food served on group boat tours. Across the tours lunch generally consisted of grilled fish, another meat such as chicken or pork, rice, roast vegetables or salad and a fruit platter. You can negotiate to exclude lunch from the cost of your private tour but we found that many of the island stops had limited places to purchase food, so you’d be best to BYO your self-prepared lunch.

Group Boat Tour

Pros

  • Affordability

The price is much lower and affordable with most tours in El Nido and Coron ranging from 1,200 – 1,800 PHP per person (lunch included).

  • Everything is (usually) covered

Group tour prices are generally all-inclusive. Entrance fees, environmental taxes and kayak hire are usually known upfront, which is beneficial to you for staying within your budget. It also means you’re not sprung with unexpected extra costs (i.e. renting snorkelling gear is an extra cost).

  • Lots of choices

There is no lack of availability; boat tours are the lifeblood and main industry for local economies. Make sure to do your research before choosing an operator. Customer reviews offer the best guidance on what to expect once onboard.

Cons

  • No earlier departure time

Group tours leave at a set time or later as you’re reliant on everyone being onboard the boat before you depart. The same applies at each stop along your trip as you are given 30, 45 or 60 minutes to explore the location before hopping back onboard and jetting off to the next stop. Going private gave us a little more leeway with the amount of time spent at each location.

  • Set itineraries

We wouldn’t have been able to add the Big Lagoon to Tour B, C or D in El Nido had we chosen a group tour. Similarly in Coron we wanted to also visit Kayangan Lake but had to make the choice to forgo seeing this as the Ultimate Island Escapade Tour did not go here.

  • Risk of joining a large group and being crammed onto a boat

Despite our best intentions to choose an operator in Coron with small numbers, we ended up on a boat with 20 other people. If you want to avoid the crowds, then choosing a private boat or less popular tours is the best option for you.

Your experience will hardly ever be the same as another traveller’s. Our best advice is to do your research, have a plan but visit the Philippines with an open mind. Reality may not always meet your expectations due to reasons out of your control (e.g. weather, high tides), so be prepared to adjust your plans or expectations accordingly. If you have a budget, stick to it. Don’t be swayed by all the added extras if you feel that they are not suitable for you or your holiday. We found the Filipino people to be warm and hard working but concurrently, competition is tough and the locals are all trying to earn a living too.

The landscapes of the archipelagos are breathtaking and gobsmacking. The Philippines possesses some of the most raw natural beauty you’ll ever witness. Do your part by visiting respectfully, contributing thoughtfully to the local businesses and departing with a beautifully bronzed body and vivid memories.

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