Everyone thinks that the hardest part about planning a long-term trip is choosing the places you will visit. While honing in on just one slice of the world can certainly be challenging, harder still is figuring out how much time to spend in each place. Veteran travelers will tell you not to stress out about those details, that you can’t know how much time a place warrants until you get there and see how you take to it, but even in Asia, costs can vary dramatically from country to country, and if you want to spend a month in Japan, that is going to be a lot tougher on your savings than the same amount of time spent… well, just about anywhere else. Though we freely admit that plans can and will change once you’re on the road (boy do they ever!), it’s still a good idea to have a rough idea of how long you’ll stay in each country.
Traveling as a Canadian and an American, we are lucky that many global destinations either require no visa in order us to visit them, or offer (free) visas upon arrival. Although some of the lengths of stays that result are far greater than we would ever plan on using (90 days in Japan would likely have depleted our entire savings!), in certain cases, the free visas you receive are greatly inferior to the one you would be issued if you applied prior to arriving in your destination. Take the Philippines, for example: if you apply in advance, you will be granted a visa that allows you to visit the country for up to 59 days. However, for citizens of most nations, you also have the option of visiting the Philippines under the auspices of a visa waiver. The benefit here is that this route costs you nothing out of pocket. The downside? You only get 3 weeks!
You don’t have to be a math major to know that for most long-term travelers who have an eye on their savings, free will trump “not free” pretty much every time. It certainly did for us, especially as we were feeling a bit gunshy following our time in China. We had no way of knowing whether we would like the Philippines, so it seemed smarter to invest as little money up front as possible and just do as much as we could with three weeks, provided we even liked it there. If not, we’d puddle jump to some other location and be relieved we hadn’t needlessly spent money to authorize an unnecessarily long stay.
Our logic was sound, but here’s the thing that we now know that we didn’t then: three weeks is not enough for the Philippines. Not by a long shot. We liked it quite a lot from the minute we stepped of the plane in Manila, and our affection for it only grew with each passing day. Within our first week we knew that we were going to want to stay well beyond 21 days.
Thankfully, our penny-pinching did not force us to prematurely depart the country we had fallen for so hard and so fast. It is possible to have a Philippines tourist visa retroactively issued once you are already in the country; it is dated from the day you enter, which effectively gives you an extra 38 days on top of your original 21, meaning you have 59 glorious days to explore the 7000+ islands at your disposal!
The process for getting your visa once in the Philippines is pretty quick and painless: just head to any immigration office (you can out which cities have offices here), fill out a form, and they issue it on the spot… or at least that’s how it works in theory. In practice, when we visited the immigration office located in Bacolod, we were told that although the visas were normally processed within 1 hour, there was only one woman who worked there who was authorized to approve the applications, and she was currently on a boat 100 km away. That is a true story. So in our case, we wound up having to wait 24 hours for our extension to be approved. There’s a lot of talk online about the importance of being properly attired when you apply for your visa (in fact, the official Philippines website that talks about extensions expressly denounces sandals and shorts for these visits), but in Bacolod they seemed pretty laid back and I don’t think it mattered what we were wearing. It’s probably not all that surprising given that one of their employees was off gallivanting on a boat instead of working…
Oh, and of course, along with the paperwork, you’ll also have to pay your processing fee. Just when you thought you were getting off easy, you find that your attempt to save some money early on has come back to haunt you, as now you not only have to pay for the cost of the visa, but also a special fee because the visa is being retroactively issued, AND because they do so on the spot (at least in theory), this is considered a rush job, so you pay extra for that too. All told, Tony and I each wound up paying about $70USD to get our visas, which is about double what we would have paid if we had applied in advance. It certainly stung paying that extra money, but when the alternative was leaving a place we felt we were only just getting to know and already loved, the decision was a no-brainer for us.
We want you to profit from our mistake (though, in a less literal way than the government of the Philippines did): when you are planning your trip to the Philippines, unless your vacation time is limited from the very outset, do yourself a favor and get the 59-day visa in advance. You may save yourself some money by limiting your trip to just 21 days, but for the money you save, you’ll lose out on so very much… and you may very well find yourself scrambling to rectify your oversight. Because 3 weeks in the Philippines, is just not enough. Truthfully, 8 weeks in the Philippines is not enough… but at least it’s a start!