Tag Archives: rental cars

Adventures in Panama

We have just returned from a ten-day trip to Panama. We had been eyeing a golf resort near the beaches of this Central American country and finally decided to book the resort and travel there. The planning for this trip was a bit different than others we’ve taken because we knew we were going somewhere that didn’t have a great tourist infrastructure. Our first step in planning this trip was to book the resort and our transportation.

Traffic in Panama City
Weaving through Panama City traffic

After we booked our resort stay through our timeshare company, we started investigating transportation needs as well as potential side trips and excursions. Although it’s possible to take a shuttle to the resort near Coronado, about an hour’s drive from Panama City along the Pan-American Highway, we decided we would rent a car and drive ourselves. We wanted to have the freedom of moving around the area without relying on public transportation or taxis. We’ve never rented a car in a foreign country before, nor have either of us driven outside the U.S. and Canada.  We were assured the car would have a GPS system when the reservation was made.

Since we were getting into Panama City after dark, we decided to taxi into the city, and rent a car near downtown instead of at the airport. Rumor had it that traffic in Panama City is awful, and it didn’t seem like a good idea to drive at night in a strange, foreign city. This turned out to be a very good idea, and we’d do it again. We were prepared with maps of the area, and had the concierge at the hotel call the rental car agency to get the address.

Getting around Panama City is not an easy task for an outsider. The roads are jammed with many more cars than is reasonable, and there are very few street signs. It is not unusual for taxis to go the wrong way down the street. Traffic signals are grudgingly adhered to, usually. Stop signs are only suggestions. The roads in the city are decent, but unexpected potholes loom.  We took all this in on a walk after breakfast, going from our hotel and finding the rental car office a few blocks away. In fact, after checking out of our hotel, and getting a cab back to the rental car office, we found it would have been faster to walk to the office than take the cab.

Panama City traffic
A quiet time on the streets of Panama City.

In any case, we made it to the office and handled the transaction. Unfortunately, they do not offer GPS systems in their cars – contradicting the information I had received from the customer service agent I had talked with earlier. Since there were few street signs anyway, how well would a GPS system work? We were undeterred, took the LDW insurance, and after waiting about an hour for the car to arrive from the staging area a few miles away we headed out of the city. The rental agent did create a Google Map for us from the rental car office to Coronado – in Spanish of course.

Panama City is not a large city by our standards, and we managed to get to the right road, get over the Bridge of the Americas and on our way to Coronado. Once out of the city, we did fine – although we took a detour we didn’t mean to take through a town that really wasn’t that interesting. But in about 1 1/2 hours, we were at our resort and checking in.

We’ve learned a lot from this experience. It’s great to be able to control where and when you explore an area by car. In Panama, there are many cars, but not much parking. On a trip to Farallon, we would have stopped and spent time on the beach, but there was nowhere to park the car. Driving is much slower there, mostly because the roads are not great, narrow, and often don’t have shoulders. You’ve got to “go local” and drive like they do or you’ll never get anywhere.

We took the Collision Damage Waiver insurance, something we’ve actually never done before. Our car insurance doesn’t cover us outside the U.S. or Canada, and although we could have covered the LDW under our credit card, we decided to just take the rental company insurance. The car was not damaged while we had it, but the roads were not great and an unnoticed pothole could have done major damage. In fact, when we returned the car, the agent didn’t really even look at it.

This is the first in a series of articles on our trip to Panama. Stay tuned for the next installment!

Five money-saving tips for travel budgets

Now that you have your budget estimate, it’s time to see how to bring it in line. There are lots of ways to do this. Here are my top five tips to saving money when planning a trip.

Keep your travel dates as flexible as possible.

Hotels and flights eat up most of your travel dollars. By keeping dates flexible, you can arrange travel on the least expensive dates for your trip. In general, traveling in the middle of the week is cheaper than the weekends. Traveling mid-winter is often cheaper than traveling mid-summer, and with fewer crowds. Sometimes, seasons make the difference. For example, we had planned a trip to Puerto Vallarta with another couple in October when the flights were in the $600 per person range. Unfortunately, something came up and we needed to re-book the trip. We ended up re-booking for the week before Christmas, and the flight costs dropped by half. We ended up having a marvelous time in the Mexican town, joining the Saturday night street fair and parade celebrating Advent. There were fewer people on the beach, and the weather was great.

Use rewards points or mileage accounts

I’m not a big fan of spending money just to accumulate rewards points. If it’s convenient to use that credit card or that rewards account, by all means carry on. I know that many folks are corporate travelers, and this is how they build up those points accounts. If those accounts are yours, use them. The airlines have a habit of reducing the value of the points over time, so accumulating points is not always the best move. I’m planning a trip to Panama in October, and we used my husband’s points to get him there and I paid for my ticket. Once there, we’ll use my hotel points for at least one night stay in the city. These two accounts save us nearly $1000 between the airfare and the hotel stay.

For accommodations, look beyond hotels

Hotels have gotten into the business of “fees”, the most noxious being the “resort fee.” Las Vegas hotels love their resort fees, charging as much as $50 extra per day over and above your room rate for amenities such as pools and fitness centers.  The most noxious part about this is that guests have no choice whether to pay this fee – but that’s another post. Check out other available accommodations such as VRBO.com or Airbnb.com. These options can be very cost-effective, particularly for larger groups or multiple night stays. In Spain, my friend and I stayed in two bedroom apartments, complete with kitchens, living rooms, and washing machines for less than it would have cost us to stay in a hotel. We were very comfortable and the hosts made a little extra money. Everyone wins! Pay attention to locations. It doesn’t save you any money of if you spend lots of time and money getting to and seeing the attractions you want to experience.

Do you really need a rental car?

In many parts of the world, renting a car is more of a hassle than it’s worth. Here in the United States, it’s almost a given that you will need a car. I’ve traveled in Europe and in Latin America, having never rented a car. In Europe taxis and trains are usually much more cost effective, particularly if you’re staying in one place for awhile. For our trip to Panama in October, we will be renting a car for the first time outside the U.S. We’ll be driving from Panama City to Coronado, using the car for day trips. Since neither my husband nor I speak good Spanish, we didn’t want to brave the bus system quite yet. Rental cars pose their own set of issues, and there are plenty of complaints about overcharging for extra insurance and phantom damage to cars. If possible, take time and date-stamped pictures of your rental before you leave the parking log, including the windshield. Return the car to the agency during the day, when you can talk with the staff and get a signed statement that the car was returned in good condition.

Travel light

Avoid overpacking. Most people take too much on their travels. There are many different sites, including www.onebag.com, that explain how to get the most from the room you have in a roll-aboard or carryon. In the United States, most folks are spending about $25 one way to check a bag, depending on the airline. At the end of the flight, folks are milling around a luggage carousel instead of hopping in a cab or on a train and starting their adventures. I spent 10 days in France in May taking just a carryon.  Most places have laundry facilities close by or in your hotel. In Spain, I rented apartments that included a washer and dryer. You don’t need any many things as you think you do. Or take your older clothes, wear them overseas, and then throw them away or donate them. Get rid of clothes you no longer want and lighted up your suitcase as well.

How do you save money when travelling? Let us know in the comments below.