If you were to ask me the one thing that gets on my nerves most while traveling, it’s public tours. While not *all* tours are always over-capacity, the majority in SE Asia will try to maximise their profits by allowing waaaay too many people on the boat, shoving way too many people in the van, or allowing an insane # of people on the bus.
A prime example is our bus ride from Puerto Princesa to El Nido, where we caught the early van and had the pleasure of sharing 3 seats between 4 of us. A rough four hours, but our neighbors definitely enjoyed the sleeping pills I gave them 😂
But when it came to island hopping in El Nido, I was NOT about to get on an overloaded boat for my few days in paradise. Luckily, there are options other than the public group tours, so I’m going to share exactly how it went down!
PUBLIC BOAT TOURS
Public tours are sold by just about every tour agency here. There is no shortage of tours, and just a simple walk down the main road will get you offers for tour A, B, C, D, or even the mysterious L tour.
The public tours range between 1200 php ($24 usd) and 1500 php ($30), which include lunch and entrance fee to the islands. However, these boats all leave roughly around 10am, so by the time you get to your first destination, there are another 10 boats alongside you.
PRIVATE BOAT TOURS
We opted for a private tour, meaning we got a whole boat to ourselves, and the benefits are pretty self-explanatory:
7,000 php for an entire boat ($130)
Includes a freaking amazing lunch
You can get permission from the coast guard to leave earlier to beat the other boats
You can choose your own schedule and decide which order to visit each island
You can mix and match the islands rather than choosing Tour A, B, C or D
Spacious AF! We had 7 on our first trip (1000 php each), and 4 of us on our second day trip, while some other boats I counted 27 people! That means nobody had to fight to get those perfect front-of-the-boat shots
HOW TO BOOK
As for the private tours, you can go to pretty much any tour agency and ask the cost of a private boat. They will start at 8,000 php most likely, but if you hesitate and chat amongst yourselves about the “other tour down the road who offered 7,000”, you’ll definitely get a deal. We went with a company called Carao-Cao Travel & Tours on the main road located next to Squidos restaurant - and they were great although we were supposed to leave at 8:30 which turned into 9:30 on our second trip. Not a big deal though!
AN EVEN CHEAPER OPTION
If you’re even more stingy than me (if that’s possible), you can try to arrange a local boat from the guys hanging around the pier. Without food included, you may be able to whack off another 1,000 pesos and get a boat for 6,000, so it doesn’t hurt to ask around!
But all in all, if you have a few friends who don’t mind spending a few extra dollars, you’ll get a MUCH better experience and feel like rockstars on your own personal boat.