OFFICIAL IATA CODE
5J49 to Melbourne, economy
I've flown into Manila on a domestic flight from the tropical paradise of Palawan, here for an overnight stay before my 6am flight to Melbourne. My hotel, the new Hilton Manila, is a 15-minute walk from Terminal 3 via the Runway Manila skybridge. On returning to the airport at 4am, a Grab (a ridesharing app, similar to Uber) takes eight minutes and costs PHP127. Despite the hour, a massive queue snakes out the front of the airport, waiting to pass through a painfully slow security screen.
T3 is the newest terminal at Manila's Ninoy Aquino International Airport, and can reportedly handle 13 million passengers annually, so the aim is to shift most international flights from its ageing Terminal 1. With soaring ceilings and plenty of chrome, the four-storey Terminal 3 has departures on one level, arrivals on the next, gates on a third, and the fourth floor is given over to food and retail. Unless you're in a café, there's scant seating. Smokers can find relief at the reeking room beside ChowKing – expect to buy a drink or food to gain admission.
I've already checked in online, but still have to drop my luggage, a painless affair that takes about 10 minutes.
Here, the nightmare begins. Immigration has queues marked for Overseas Filipino Workers, Filipino passport holders and foreigners. The signs are mostly ignored, and my lane is filled with Filipino nationals leaving the country, all being grilled laboriously by immigration officials. After nearly an hour's wait in an unmoving queue ("They're waiting for bribes," mutters one local) and many entreaties to the unhelpful security staff, the screen is flashing final call for my flight. A core group of 20 passengers on Cebu Pacific's Melbourne flight revolt and, finally, the airline staff intervene and shoo us frantically through the empty crew queue. In a hot, sweaty mess, we drop onto our seats three minutes after the flight was scheduled to depart.
FOOD AND DRINK
All the usual international fast-food suspects abound, as well as local hero Jollibee, Wendy's and Kenny Roger's Roasters for chicken lovers. There's some spectacularly ordinary chicken adobe and vivid halo-halo (a dessert of mixed fruit and jelly) being served up in a clutch of Filipino eateries that stay open through the night, and a long string of Japanese and Chinese restaurants that pump in the daylight hours. Those craving non-instant coffee should pop into The Manila Hotel's little airside café – the grand dame lays on a fine flat white in elegant surrounds. It's not cheap, but it's worth every penny.
Snap up essential island-hopping gear including waterproof bags and Haviana thongs from the beach stores, while the toy shop and a government duty-free shop are open 24 hours. Luxury label lovers will find some small joy with a few international luggage, perfume and cosmetics brands such as Coach and Longchamp.
Naturally – this being the beauty-mad Philippines – there's a little spa here offering one-hour massages for PHP675 and manicures for PHP300. There is also a sleeping room. After 30 free minutes, the airport Wi-fi seems to be only for those with a Filipino number. Alternatively, you may be able to find a restaurant where the local Wi-Fi actually works.
ONE MORE THING
Manila is one of the world's most densely populated cities and its traffic – dubbed Carmageddon – is stratospherically bad. As a result, it has more airport hotels than I've ever seen in in any other city, accommodated in the new-build suburb of Newport City, facing the airport. The range includes the new Hilton Manila and even newer Sheraton Manila. Many of the hotels overlook the runway and are within walking distance of Terminal 3.
With cheap sleeping rooms, a 24-hour spa and cafes, this is a great place to lose a few hours while transiting to or from the Philippines' islands. Immigration, however, is an unmitigated disaster unparalleled in all my years of travelling, and drags a perfectly servicable terminal into the mire.
OUR RATING OUT OF FIVE
Belinda Jackson was a guest of Cebu Pacific and Hilton Manila.