Today is January 23, 2019 and I have just arrived in Panama City to begin my latest adventure in Central America. I initially thought I hit the jackpot when I was able to do a last-minute roundtrip flight change for only $80 out of pocket. However, what I didn’t pay in dollars, I paid in time and comfort. What normally should have been a 5-hour flight turned into a 12 hour one because I opted to travel on the cheap.
My trip started at 12 pm when my Uber picked me up from my apartment in Washington DC. Because I am a “budget” traveler, I opted for the Uber Pool because it was $12 cheaper than the straight shot. Well it must have been my lucky day because I ended up being the only one on the route, so it turned out to be a regular Uber ride regardless. I arrived at Reagan National (DCA) Airport at 1pm even though my flight was not until 330 pm and I had technically checked in online. However, I was a little concerned regarding the security lines given that the TSA Agents at many airports are understaffed due to (still) having to work without receiving a paycheck. However, between having TSA Precheck (due to my enrollment in Global Entry) and the professionalism of the agents that are working, it took me more time to dig my passport out of my bag than to go through the security line. Given DCA’s size, it didn’t take me much longer to find my gate. So, I sat and waited for about 2 hours for my flight to Fort Lauderdale. My flight to Fort Lauderdale started out rocky, as I the flight attendant got mad at me for not paying attention to her exit row brief. After loudly making the point that she should actively try get my attention next time instead of coming over and randomly waiving her arms around, I took the opportunity to move right to the first row as I was in the middle seat anyway and might as well get off the plane first. While I was crammed in the middle of two heavier gentlemen during the 3-hour flight, I was the second person off the plane.
Once I arrived in Fort Lauderdale, I found out I had to leave the terminal and take a shuttle to another terminal because I was taking a different carrier to Panama City. Fortunately for me, I had 5 hours to kill anyway. After making my way back through security (also a fairly quick experience), I was able to find an “authentic” Cuban restaurant aimed at tourists. Surprisingly, despite being in an airport, I only paid $15 (including tip) for a raspberry tea, empanada, and Cuban sandwich. Of course, the coffee machine was broken so I couldn’t get the full Miami experience with the café con leche. Regardless, it was better than Burger King. I spent the rest of my wait time, messing around with my travel site and charging my phone.
I arrived in Panama City at 2 am, or muy temprano. Given how early it was, it was not surprising that there was no one in the customs lines. However, what was surprising was that there were about 12 agents on shift processing paperwork. As a result, it took me less time to pass through immigration than it did to get off the plane and walk there. Tocumen International Airport was about 45 minutes away from the city (and my hotel) and I knew that taking a taxi from the airport would run me about $30 USD. However, what I didn’t know (and was pleasantly surprised to find out) was that an Uber ride (yes, Panama City has Uber) was only $13 USD. I gladly ordered the car through my phone, and 10 minutes later I was heading towards my hotel. The drive itself was about 45 minutes, and the same drive in the United States would have easily been over $50 USD so I already had a good impression of the city. As for the visuals, it was way too dark to see anything substantial, but I could sense that Panama City was easily the most developed in Central America. I was a little worried that because I arrived so early that there would be no one at the front desk, however, my concerns were alleviated as I was greeted by both a security guard and a receptionist when I arrived at 330 AM. I immediately went to my room and was asleep by 4 AM.