When planning an island hopping trip to El Nido, most people opt to take the economical route: to fly into Puerto Princesa, and take a van from there to El Nido.
For now, this is still the best way to get to El Nido without dropping some serious money on an Air Swift jet to Lido Airport. The flights are extremely limited, and very pricey in comparison.
So, we’re going to go over the journey between Puerto Princesa and El Nido for the first timers to get an idea of what to expect, and how to plan properly.
You Have Arrived
Upon landing at Puerto Princesa International, passengers will have no doubt that they have just stepped into the terminal at Palawan’s newest, largest, and busiest airport. Opened in mid-late 2017, this modern-styled terminal is built of steel and glass and has room to grow.
Stepping off the plane, you will be guided by the grounds crew to the baggage claim area; it is just a short walk from the plane on the tarmac to the arrivals building. Hopefully you’ve got good weather for this short walk, but the airport staff always seems to have umbrellas ready for the comfort of their passengers on a rainy or a very sunny day.
Once in the safety of the arrivals building, passengers can cool down while waiting on their luggage… if they have any checked bags to pick up. The long, winding, serpentine belt will eventually, return your bags and there are no surprises here. From this location, passengers are able to watch all of their bags come off the plane and be unloaded onto the belt (outside the building). It is quite nice to have that type f transparency, when all you want is your personal possessions to arrive safely and in one piece.
This arrivals building is large enough to accommodate continued growth, as of 2018 only one out of three belts is active. The terminal is also very well cooled, and has several clean bathrooms.
Before leaving the building, this is a great place to pick up a SIM card for (GLOBE or SMART) if you need it. There is typically one kiosk from each company set up here, and if you need it, there will be a currency exchange (Money Changer) outside.
Exiting the Terminal and Navigating the Madness
This is the only part of the journey that intimidates and confuses some folks, because stepping out of the building places you right in front of an energetic crowd of people holding signs and desperately trying to get your attention.
Luckily, since the opening of the new terminal, these salespeople have been limited to staying behind a barricade, across the street. Don’t worry about being stressed out because you now do not have to face anyone until YOU are ready!
From the terminal side of the airport road, arriving passengers can even take a moment to watch the first passengers cross to the other side of the
street and begin to interact with the sales people so you know what to expect.
There really is nothing to be worried about in this situation because the van prices from Puerto Princesa to El Nido have been all but standardized. In the 2016-2018 tourist seasons (which this journey has been made on three separate occasions during that time) even with the new airport terminal building opening up, the price has stayed firmly planted at 500 pesos per person for the journey.
Is there room to negotiate? Absolutely! Large groups that can fill up a van quickly are at an advantage and often get slightly cheaper (per person) rates. Also, being a solo individual can have its advantages are you can fill in a missing spot and get a van on the road right away.
The key here is to understand what is actually going on at the airport with all these vans.
Half of the group of people that you see across the street are actually drivers that are picking up passengers to shuttle them to their hotel. These folks have signs, and are either owned or contracted by the resorts to pick up guests. No need to worry about them unless you’re looking for your hotel transfer.
The rest of the folks looking to flag you down are the sales people and trip coordinators. These are the folks (who are often very polite to you despite trying to desperately win the sale). Basically, they are trying to get a verbal commitment from you to ride with them… and the price negotiation is just the first step.
Once they have a verbal commitment from you to be their passenger, they take you to a gathering area, hopefully a shaded one, and they begin to separate all their passengers into van loads. Sometimes, passengers are taken directly to a van and are asked to queue inside the parked and air-conditioned vehicle while organizing the groups.
The organizers break the groups up into comfortable (van) sizes that take off as soon as they are full. It is important to remember that the organizers want to send you off as soon as possible so, it is important to be flexible and patient during this time. Your money typically wont get collected until the vehicle is ready to depart.
Ask for Details
At this point you have the advantage to ask how new the vehicle is, does it have captain’s seats or benches (benches can be stuffed with people and easily overcrowded while captain’s seats limit the number of individuals sitting inside the vehicle) Is there individual aircon?; Is the vehicle making any additional stops (sometimes they drop off and pick people up along the way), and Can you sit in the van seat that you actually want?
These are all reasonable things to request and it is only at this point that you can reasonable ask to be moved around. If you ask these questions before being placed in a group, the answer will ALWAYS be YES. Be patient, wait, and get the ride that you want.
Time to move on to El Nido! …but since we’re at the airport, lets take a
Sneak Peek at Departures
The departure gates at Puerta Princessa International are separated for security reasons, but they are just next door to the arrivals building. This area also has adequate seating for future growth as well, with 3 departure gates inside a wide-open, modern, air-conditioned building. In this new departure terminal there is a second floor overlooking the whole building, with a coffee shop and a growing number of quality food vendors upstairs. Easily one of the most comfortable and accommodating airports in the entirety of the Philippine Islands! This is good to remember for the return flight, if you are also leaving out of Puerto Princesa.
Enjoy your time in Palawan!