Asia / Personal Finance / Philippines / Travel

What you need to know about Manila Airport (MNL)

During our recent trip to Asia, we spent a lot more time than I would have liked in the Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL) – or Manila NAIA for short. We had arrived from Singapore just before midnight, but our flights to Boracay were the next morning just past 6 am, and anyone who knows Manila traffic knows why it just wasn’t worth trying to leave the airport and return for check in time.

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After 2 days in Boracay (which we absolutely loved!!!), we flew back to the Manila airport just past 7 am and had to await our 1 pm flight to Palawan, where we stayed for 2 days.

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Entrance to the Underground River in Puerto Princesa, Palawan.

We then flew back into Manila, stayed in Pampanga for one full day then headed back to the airport at 1 am for our 6 am flight.

Apparently, the last number of your license plate indicates which weekday you cannot drive in Manila. This is an effort to try and reduce traffic in Manila, but even so, you would never guess that a minimum of 20% of cars are not on the roads on any given day. Because our driver’s car was not allowed to be in Manila past 7 am, we had to leave super early to ensure they had enough time to drop us off and get back out of Manila before 7 am rolled around.

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Our flight map, from Singapore to Manila, Manila to Caticlan (Boracay), Caticlan to Manila, Manila to Puerto Princesa (Palawan), Puerto Princesa to Manila, then Manila back to Singapore.

So as you can imagine, we spent way more hours at the Manila Airport that I would have liked. But doing so prompted me to provide a few helpful tips to any other travelers who may be in the same boat.

  • Like most (all?) airports, MNL is divided up into domestic and international flights
  • Upon arrival, don’t leave the terminal until you’re absolutely ready to do so, as you won’t be readmitted back into the terminal. The bathrooms inside the terminal are much nicer and cleaner than those outside, and you’ll be lucky to get toilet paper outside the airport.
  • To reiterate my Asia packing list: bring wet wipes, toilet paper and hand sanitizer! You likely won’t need them inside the airport, but you will the moment you exit.
  • The money changers inside the airport offer quite competitive rates. They were better than all the ones we found in Boracay and was only beat by a local money changer we found outside of a tourist area in Pampanga.
  • The domestic departures area is extremely cold! Despite sweatshirts and sarongs, I was still freezing. Bring sweatpants, thick sweatshirts, and a blanket if you can!
  • If you’re planning on trying to sleep while waiting for your domestic departure, you may need to re-evaluate this plan. The chairs are metal, curved and very uncomfortable, so even with a row of 3-4 chairs, it’s nearly impossible to fall asleep in them because the curved chair puts a metal rod up your back.
  • Food choices in the domestic departure area are somewhat limited, but they do have a handful of stalls which are all reasonably priced (when converted back to Canadian).
  • If you’ve got a lot of time to kill before your domestic departure, check out the massages! It was 300 pesos for a 1 hour massage (roughly equivalent to $9 Canadian!) If you’re lacking sleep like I was and desperate for a comfortable place to lie down, $9 for an hour in a bed while having someone massage you is a very, very good deal.
  • The massage therapists are all visually impaired. They wear sunglasses in the darkened room and there is a sign up front indicating that they are visually impaired, but do not make the same mistake my husband did after I pointed at the sign and read, “ARE YOU VISUALLY IMPAIRED?” out loud. If you’re as unlucky as he was, the therapist will be standing right in front of you and reply, “Yes, sir, I am”, thinking the question was directed to him. 😀 (I couldn’t relax for the entire first half of my massage because I couldn’t stop laughing at him!) massage
  • Just a heads up: don’t expect a private room for your massage. There are multiple massage beds in the same room with just enough space for the therapists to stand between them. Also, be prepared that a visually impaired therapist means they’ll be feeling your body to try and find the right massage points – it’s not bad or uncomfortable, just a different experience from any other I’ve had and thought you may prefer knowing ahead of time.
  • The International Departures area is very different from the Domestic Departures area, and in a good way. The chairs are flat and padded, making it much easier to sleep.
  • The duty free area is very expensive. I was deliriously tired, craving chocolate and didn’t bother trying to figure out the conversion and ended up spending ~$12 on a white Toblerone bar. Oops…
  • Most of the shops/cafes don’t open until a bit later – around 5 am.
  • There used to be a departure tax out of Manila of 550 pesos per person. Although I couldn’t find any definitive information on it prior to our departure, it appears that for tickets purchased after mid-2015, there is no more departure tax.
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