Navigating New Developments for Panama Travel
By Susan Kraus
Panama has several developments and updates — air, land, and sea– for travelers, all of which are helpful to know about when planning a trip.
COPA Expands U.S. Destinations
The Panamanian airline, COPA, is expanding its U.S. destinations this summer, with non-stop flights to Panama.
“In the U.S. we currently fly to 13 destinations,” Jose Montero, Chief Financial Officer for COPA, shared. “They include Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Ft. Lauderdale, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York JFK, Orlando, San Francisco, Tampa, and Washington Dulles. And we’ll start service in June and July to Baltimore and Austin. In Canada, we serve Toronto and Montreal. All of these flights are non-stop to our Hub of the Americas in Panama City.”
But it is the rest of the COPA destinations that will grab your attention once I explain a COPA perk, the “Panama “Stopover.”
COPA Stopover Option
COPA has a free “Stopover” option if passing through their hub in Panama City.
Book a flight to anywhere COPA flies, and you can stop over in Panama City (and the country – it’s compact enough to explore a lot in a week) for 24 hours up to 6 nights/ 7 days for no extra charge (well, about $50 in extra taxes but they’re folded into your ticket when you opt for this perk.)
You have to book your “Stopover” at the time of booking (cannot add it later) and it’s available on all levels except a few promotional fares. You can schedule a Stopover on either your outbound flight or return.
“Our hub in Panama’s Tocumen International Airport connects 80 cities, and we serve many of these cities with multiple frequencies per day,” Montero continued.
“We pride ourselves in delivering our service to our passengers with the highest levels of customer service. For example, we have been awarded multiple accolades for our world-class on-time performance throughout the past several years.”
Do you want to go to Santiago? How about Peru? Ecuador? Argentina? Costa Rica? Islands in the Caribbean? Cuba? All of the above and more?
“We believe the Panama Stopover program lends itself well for travelers seeking to combine some of the great attractions that Latin America has to offer with the wonders of our country of Panama,” Montero concluded. “Latin America, and Panama in particular, have a lot to offer to the U.S. traveler.”
Go to this website for more info. I suggest that, for at least the first time, you talk with COPA Reservations to get all of your questions answered, and no misunderstandings. If you prefer online, use the ‘stopover’ link.
The “Metro” (underground and elevated) finally reaches Panama City’s Tocumen Airport:
Starting March 15th, 2023, Tocumen Airport has a Metro (a combined underground and elevated subway/train) connection to downtown Panama City – and any stop on the two existing lines.
The Metro is beautiful: clean, quiet, smooth, bright, air-conditioned, safe, and cheap, and this is coming from someone who grew up thinking that all subways were like those in New York City.
Panama’s Metro reminds me of Japan’s. Much better than NYC! The wait times for trains are shown on platform screens, and trains are frequent. Route prices vary but all are under $1.00. Some are 50 cents. Yes, welcome to Panama! Senior citizens are (I’m laughing as I write this) 24 cents.
The Tocumen line is an extension and requires a change of train to reach downtown, but it’s an easy shift. It would help to ask your hotel in advance for the closest Metro stop to avoid having to figure it out once you arrive. Purchase a $2.00 Rapi-Pass card at the airport (cash useful) and then upload more money on the card.
Members of a family do not require separate cards as a card will subtract per ride. The cards are “passes” good for Metro and buses. You can google for guidance (or just watch what locals are doing) but I found this website helpful.
Consider Traffic in an Uber
While tourists just arriving at Tocumen may prefer to not navigate a new system, and just grab a taxi or Uber, I offer this caution: Consider traffic! Traffic in Panama City is intense.
Many routes and roads are being expanded, and one accident can bring traffic to a halt.
If you arrive during what could be “rush hours” which extend for 3-4 hours, the Metro is not just the most economical choice but the smart choice.
One caveat: large luggage is frowned upon if it blocks other passengers.
The Metro is also good if you’re continuing your journey by bus or from the downtown (regional) airport.
The Albrook Metro Station is the last stop and lands you in both Albrook Mall (an expansive shopping mall with many restaurants) and the major bus terminal usually referred to as the Albrook Terminal serving both Panama City and the rest of Panama.
Here you can also grab a quick Uber to the second airport in Panama City, also called Albrook International Airport or Marcos A. Gelabert Airport. It serves mostly domestic flights around Panama.
Terminal Two at Tocumen International: New Moving Walkway
Tocumen Airport entered the 21st Century with the opening of Terminal 2 in late June of 2022. Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 are connected by a long moving walkway for tired tourists. It’s filled with natural light and high ceilings: shining, spotless, and lots of signage.
There are a few challenges that I expect will be addressed, such as a lack of device-charging options at each gate, and, hopefully, water fountains (I could not find one.) The Mercato Bar is an open, inviting space, centrally located, with takeaway sandwiches, but may be hard to get a seat.
An Olive Garden is scheduled to open at the end of June, and there are several ‘spaces’ on hold that will eventually open as shops and eateries. Overall, the new Terminal is a huge improvement and reflects the investment in infrastructure that Panama is making as it positions itself to be a model for Central and South America.
The Metro has been a significant step in that direction. One caution: the cost of basic food in either Terminal is unusually high. Heathrow is a bargain in comparison.
Both Terminals are still being used for COPA, although COPA intends to shift all of its services to the new terminal. All departures and security are through Terminal 2, but do not assume your flight will arrive in Terminal 2.
Getting to Customs from Terminal 1 is… an adventure? Use the bathroom on the plane before landing in Terminal 1 as no bathrooms are available for a while.
A Head’s-Up About Security
Departing Panama to the U.S. involved a second security check, at the specific gate–I’d never experienced this before–where no one is a “Trusted Traveler.” The water or coffee you just purchased, after going through ‘Security,’ and were happily sipping while already seated at your gate? Kiss it goodbye.
After lining up again, you’ll have to dump it. Security will also confiscate your empty water bottle. Don’t try to get a ‘reason’ for any of this as the employees don’t know. To be fair, however, the second check may be a stipulation that the U.S. has imposed.
Just be prepared: tuck an empty personal water bottle into your carry-on so you can ask the cabin stewards to fill it once seated. Also, after the second security check you cannot leave the gate for any reason – and the gate area has no bathroom access.
The Panamanian Bus System could be a smart choice
Asking for info or directions to the ‘Metro’ may be confusing as the city bus system has traditionally been called the ‘Metro’ as well. ‘Metrobus’ is the name of the larger transportation system in central Panama.
While there are still ‘Diablos Rojos’ – brightly painted, decked-out, very-basic-buses (many were old U.S. school buses, used now more on rural routes), most have been replaced with more modern, air-conditioned buses.
There are also private bus companies that cover routes from Panama City extending throughout the country.
Buses are the Local Way
Various websites such as www.Rome2Rio.com can provide more information on the companies, routes, times, and amenities. Buses are the primary means of transportation for locals, and they are very inexpensive by U.S. standards.
All the long-distance coach buses have comfortable raised seats, air-conditioning, and a restroom on board. Some also have Wi-Fi, individual power outlets, and even snacks. It’s fun to travel “First Class” for so little extra expense.
Personally, I like buses: I see more of the region, and it is less of a hassle to grab a bus. You just slide your luggage into the luggage compartment and know that it will be there when you step off. Easier than going to the airport, lining up for tickets, checking bags, going through security, all the time hoping the flight will be on schedule.
A bus may take more hours than flying (probably less than you’d imagine) but it’s way less stressful. Seriously: Driving or grabbing an Uber to the airport and having to be 2-3 hours ahead, lines for ticketing, lines for security, hoping the flight leaves on time? Those hours alone are enough to get across half of Panama!
Panama’s Cruise Ship Terminal
At the same time that the Metro was being constructed, a massive cruise ship terminal /berths project was also underway. The Terminal de Cruceros de Amador has berths for two mega-liners with plans to expand that to five berths. In the past, cruise ships that stopped in Panama City had to tender into port.
With the Terminal, and berths, more cruise lines are present: Holland America, Princess, and Royal Caribbean (also Azamara, Ponant, Seabourn, Viking, and Silversea) now have Panama City as a stop.
Buses run regularly from the cruise ship Terminal into downtown, and Ubers are ubiquitous. The Red Hop-On-Hop-Off buses stop at the terminal as well, but make sure you return with ample time in case of traffic.
“The biggest news around Panama City, cruise-wise, is that Royal Caribbean is basing a ship there at the end of the year,” Chris Gray Faust, Executive Editor of Cruise Critic, shared. “It’s an older ship, Rhapsody of the Seas, but the line is putting it there not just for traditional Panama Canal cruises, but Southern Caribbean cruises. In addition to attracting the traditional English-speaking market, the hope is that these cruises will also extend the line’s reach to also appeal to the Spanish-speaking market.”
Susan Kraus is a therapist, mediator, novelist, and travel writer in Lawrence, Kansas, who is getting more cranky as she ages. For more of her work, go to www.susankraus.com or visit Wabi-Sabi Journeys’ on Medium.
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