We recently spent the better part of a week in Panama City, Panama. We loved it and we can’t wait to go back! That being said the one black eye of our trip was upon our arrival, transportation leaving the airport. Here is a quick guide and horror story we wish we had read before landing at Tocumen International airport in Panama.
For those looking for the key information:
- Open Uber app on a phone
- Order ride.
Our transfer was $17 door-to-door on Uber and about a 25-minute journey with very little traffic.
Panama uses the US dollar as its physical currency and though you may see prices in $B (the Balboa) the exchange rate is 1:1, pegged to the US Dollar. The ATMs dispense US dollars and while I never saw a paper Panamanian note, we did collect a couple of Panamanian Balboa coins intermixed with US change.
When Uber says that your ride to the old city is $2.32, that is literally all it costs and you can, of course, utilize your current payment cards on the app. This is about as cheap as you can find for Uber and comes highly recommended by just about everyone with the exception of the taxi drivers and touts.
Do not pre-book an airport transfer unless you can fill a van. Options we saw were expensive from $39-48 each way. You will generally overpay or wait for others to fill the bus in a shared ride situation for less money. You will also pay per person on a shared ride so for our party of three it really only made sense to get a private car.
Hotel cars may be reasonably priced by US standards, but Uber is undoubtedly faster and cheaper (though who doesn’t love someone at the airport waiting for them with a sign?) Our hotel charged $40 one-way for an airport pickup.
The absolute focus and reason for writing this post is to warn you of the taxi touts (some of whom are also drivers and some are not) these are some of the worst we have encountered in the world. Wearing Panama tourism shirts (which may or may not mean anything at all), they shout at passengers who are clearly looking for a taxi rank.
This is totally normal in many countries (even some airports in the US) and we have on occasion taken up a driver who offers an advantage to us (cheaper, nicer car, no line, etc.). In Milan, we got a decent fare in a Mercedes that we could call on demand during our stay and while it was more than a normal taxi, it was only slightly more expensive but much more value.
In New York City (especially at LaGuardia) touts wait in baggage claim and call to their partners in black SUVs making their way through the arrivals pickup line. After 55 countries and hundreds of cities, I know a dishonest taxi driver by looking at them and I didn’t see an honest one among them. [I await the comment section on that last statement]
But in Milan, New York City, and Bangkok, Thailand for example, the touts know they are in violation of the transit laws and could be expelled from the premises if they become too obvious, invasive or aggressive. Simply nodding “no” and walking past them does the trick and a formal taxi rank awaits just outside the doors.
At Tocumen International in Panama City, following signs for a taxi rank will lead you right into the tout’s hands. Expecting to see yellow and black checked cabs when we left the terminal we instead met these polo-clad negotiators all speaking excellent English offering a ride. There are airport shuttle services and hotel transfer services but why bother when it’s cheaper to get a private car with Uber?
The tout approached, and asked if we were looking for a taxi, we said yes, and he nodded “yes” as in he was a taxi driver and motioned to a line of vehicles that looked lucky to still be in driving condition. He didn’t offer a price and there was clearly no meter in the vehicle. We declined and moved towards the public buses where an experienced traveler had told us to go to secure a cheaper cab.
However, we went too far and ran out of taxis returning back to the terminal. Of note, we did see a traditional-looking taxi near the buses but could not source a formal taxi rank. We never saw more than the single yellow cab.
A rotund tout approached exclaiming that he had a taxi, how did I know he would be dishonest? He asked me if we were going to a hotel or hostel. While my wife loves that we are still being confused with broke kids, I am annoyed that we still look like the shared bathroom type.
We say “hotel” and get a once over followed by a price of $30. He asks us which hotel, we tell him, Waldorf-Astoria and a look of self-disappointment comes over his face as he realized he should have asked for more.
We decline regardless; if the price is variable based on a hostel or hotel then we know we aren’t getting the right price no matter what.
We cross the busy terminal pickup lanes to where the cars and vans are parked in a line; perhaps we will cut out the middleman by skipping the touts altogether and going straight to the drivers. Then some NBA-level tout greets me and offers me a car instead of a van. I had hoped this was because he heard the exchange and can deliver a lower price.
Knowing the hotel rate, I offer $20 (I will pay a little more but we need to start somewhere). I am laughed off while the driver moves his car up in the line and get back out to go fishing for a sucker.
At this point my daughter, in her Pockit stroller is being pushed anywhere the wind blows as my wife follows behind my failing negotiations. My wife’s disdain for me is edging higher than usual and it is time to land at a decision.
Getting Ripped Off
Sometimes it costs $60 to get into the city from the airport. That’s just a cost of doing business in the travel world and I am fine with that. My contention with this process had nothing to do with the money –I just hate getting ripped off.
This has caused me problems in the past as I get emotionally set down a track of frustration and can’t get back to a productive outcome. I don’t mind paying more if something costs more, but I do mind paying more because you think you can get away with it.
It’s not that I am cheap, well, that could be part of it, but really it’s that I always want to see value. I will spend plenty of money (more than I should) on luggage when I see a value for what I am paying. However, charging me more than the going rate just because of the address of my destination, or the way I look (I couldn’t get away with being a local Panamanian) is ripping me off and that’s something I just don’t stand for.
I head back to the door with my family’s luggage, my wife in tow with our daughter in the stroller and make for the building. My wife is mad – she knows I am this way and we will surely lose the $10 difference between what they are asking and what we want to pay – JUST PAY IT (she says with her eyes alone).
I prepare to relent when the first tout/driver asks me again. He suggests $25, I say $20, he shakes his head no, I continue walking and he says, “Ok, ok, $20” We get into a van with three other parties. A family of four piles in the back, and a solo male in the front, we were on our way shortly thereafter.
Having forgotten where we specifically are going, the driver asks at which hotel (not hostel) we are staying. I remind him Waldorf-Astoria, he is pissed and huffs back to the wheel muttering towards the windshield.
I must have not been the only spouse who waited too long to execute the negotiation because the Italian bloke in the back was getting the business from his wife for the entire ride. He, maybe, said a sentence or two but she did not stop the entire ride and while she wasn’t shouting, it’s not hard to imagine how the conversation was going for him.
We pulled up to their hotel first, the Radisson, and we determined that they had paid $40, we were careful not to disclose our amount.
Less than five minutes later pulled up to our hotel and got out but our fun wasn’t done yet.
I handed the driver a $20 bill (fresh from the Panamanian ATM at the Aeropuerto) and he decided to renege on our agreement and now decided that the price had jumped back up to $25.
There are two key elements of negotiation, 1) Whenever possible, play on your home turf, 2) Hold some sort of bargaining chip. This fool had neither.
He waited until after the service was completed and my bags were out of his vehicle to try to renegotiate the price. Had he done so while we were driving there would be nothing I could have done, and while it would have technically been kidnapping, I don’t really have a bargaining chip and am definitely on his home turf – his country, his car.
I declined his request to re-open negotiation, he persisted and we moved on, the bell staff brought our bags inside and we followed. He then split with us at the door and headed to the bar for a glass of water. He loitered for some time watching us. He was assuming that I would be more embarrassed about not paying an extra $5 in the hotel lobby and making a scene that I would cave and just give him the money.
He was wrong. For the three or four minutes he was inside he left his final paying passenger in the front seat of his van parked at the hotel with no idea if or when he would return. He tried one more time on me and I said no loud enough that he understood I am not going to be embarrassed about saying no to what I consider theft.
He wasn’t on his home turf anymore, I had the support of the hotel staff who were fully bilingual (fluently, not the elementary Spanish I employ) and the assumption of my (valid) innocence as not only a paying guest, but a Diamond member.
My wife asked me what was going on and I told her. She would always just prefer to save $5 elsewhere than have a confrontation in a hotel lobby and there is a lot of sense in that logic. However, that wasn’t going to happen, we made a deal and I expected it to be honored whether he had any intention of honoring his end of it or not.
We will definitely return to Panama, we loved our time there even if the Panama Canal was a bit of a letdown, but we will only use Uber in the future and why not? It was cheaper, easier and safer.
Panama is doing themselves no favors by allowing this as their principal introduction to visitors. If Thailand can get it under control, Panama can too. While this post is not an Uber plug, if you want $20 free you can use my referral link – we both get $20 if you use it and ride.
Have you been in a similar situation to this? Do you follow my wife’s rational approach or my stubbornness when faced with petty extortion by Panama’s airport taxi system?