El Nido is one of the most stunning places I have ever visited. However, it’s not the easiest place to get to.
The town, located on the north side of the island of Palawan, isn’t serviced by a major airport. Philippine Air only flies to Puerto Princessa, which is located about a 4-6 hour (bumpy) drive from El Nido.
Enter AirSWIFT. AirSWIFT, a small carrier based in Manila that, along with Cebu Pacific, offers the only flights directly into and out of El Nido. From the second you check into your flight, you can see why AirSWIFT’s motto is “Fly with Friends.”
Getting to check-in isn’t the easiest, though. If you are flying into Manila International Airport (MNL), you will need to transfer from the main terminal to Terminal 4, which hosts Air Swift and and a few airlines which seem to be more budget-conscious (don’t let this scare you from booking with AirSWIFT though).
Although there is a free shuttle from the main terminal of MNL to Terminal 4, you will have cab drivers coming up to you, trying to charge you upwards of $10 USD for the ride. I ignored them and took the free shuttle, and when I got out, the driver asked me for payment for the ride. I was upset at the obvious shake-down, paid him about $1 USD to go away, and was upset when I got to check-in, so didn’t think the trip would be pleasant – luckily, I was so wrong!
If you’ve never flown in a small plane before, this might be a bit of a culture shock. Basically, they weigh you and your luggage at check-in. That’s right, you’ll need to step on a scale to fly. That said, only the person checking you in can see the weight and it’s for your own safety, so it’s probably better that they didn’t fly with only self-reported weights and guesstimates.
Terminal 4 is perfectly air conditioned with excellent WiFi (neither of which you’ll be getting when you land in El Nido). After you check in and go through security, you can get massages for around $4 USD and there are a handful restaurants. You should skip both at first, though, and head to the AirSWIFT counter to check in where they will be waiting for you with a sandwich bag of goodies, including a sandwich, chips, and brownies. This was the moment I knew I was in for a good trip.
The crowd flying the MNL to El Nido (ENI) route is generally younger, 20-something year old backpackers, although you’ll see some families as well and perhaps a curmudgeonly lawyer like myself if you’re lucky enough.
When you get onto the plane, you’ll see that it’s small, but comfortable. If you can, try and secure a seat on the left-side of the airplane for the killer approach.
The flight is 1 hour and 15 minutes and is stunningly beautiful almost the entire time, so you don’t need to worry about in-flight entertainment. If you do want in-flight entertainment, be sure to bring a book, as there are no screens, no WiFi, and nothing to read other than safety instructions.
When you land, you are greeted by a group of woman singing a welcome song, and are greeted with free drinks. It takes around 15-30 minutes for your luggage to be brought from the plane, for them to inspect your luggage (they open each bag in front of you), and to go out to find your “cab,” which is really just a motorcycle with a sidecar.
If you can, be sure to book your ride from the airport in advance, as the wait for transportation can be over an hour long, depending on your arrival.
If you are flying to Palawan and particularly El Nido, I would absolutely recommend AirSWIFT, and will hopefully fly them again soon!