To rent a car or not rent a car – that is the question – or is it? I get questioned a lot about car rental in Panama.
1) Should I rent a car for my vacation in Panama, or use the bus system?
2) If I do rent a car, what kind of car is appropriate?
3) If I rent a car, do I need to bother with the insurance?
4) If I rent a car, should I rent one at the airport, or somewhere else?
Questions like these (and others) I get all the time. Although I am not aware of many problems with car rental companies here in Panama taking advantage of clients, it is very possible that with a car rental anywhere in the world, you will run into problems.
Thanks to Chris Elliott for providing yet another saga of a car rental gone awry:
Taking the local buses might be your best option
First of all, if you are considering a vacation in Panama (strictly for pleasure or for scouting possible retirement locations), you may want to consider taking our buses.
You need to understand that driving in Panama City is horrendous at best, and down right treacherous at worst. It is NOT fun for the un-initiated. Think about this: You’ve spent the better part of a day running through airports, being accosted by the TSA and customs and God knows what else. You are tired, and rightly so. Do you really want to try driving in a strange large city and add to your already heightened stress level? There is a better way.
Buses in Panama are cheap, reliable, safe, and can be fun. Panamanians are wonderful people who love to talk (especially to foreigners), so taking a trip from Panama City to Santa Fe can be a great opportunity to soak up some Panamanian culture and perhaps make a life-long friend at the same time.
Once in Santa Fe, we have local “chivas” that can ferry you around just about anywhere you want to go. Again, they are cheap, safe, and fun. Tons of locals ride our chivas, and it’s a great opportunity to meet local folks.
If you decide to rent a car, rent a 4 x4 -it is a must
I get the “what type of rental car” question almost daily. My answer is always the same. Please, rent a 4 x 4. Yes, it is more expensive. But, the alternative can be life-threatening.
Consider this: You have rented a small, 2 wheel drive car. Great for pavement (maybe), but you want to explore outside the city. You decide to drive to Santa Fe, and your adventurous side kicks in and you think you should try to climb that interesting ( but maybe lumpy, gravel) road.
When dry, that road may not present much of a problem. But, as you are far along that road (with ample hills, especially in the Santa Fe area), a sudden rain occurs. Now that gravel road turns into a sheet of red-clay ice, and all of a sudden, you find yourself stuck, because your car will no longer be able to climb the return hills back. Worse yet, you may slide off the road in the slippery mess and now you are really stuck.
Now what? Is saving a few bucks worth this kind of problem? I’d bet the 4×4 upgrade difference or taking a chiva might look pretty attractive right now.
Always take the full insurance on your rental car
This is not something to play with. Driving in Panama, as in any foreign country, can be stressful. Many Panamanians treat most road signs (including stop signs) as only “friendly suggestions.” The probability for an accident to occur is huge, even if you are careful.
It is incredibly easy to get into an accident in Panama. And even if you are not at fault, chances are you will be found at fault anyway. I can guarantee you that if a white face gets into an accident with a Panamanian, the local will win the day every time. Sorry, folks, it’s just the way it is here.
Okay, so you have a minor fender-bender with a local in Panama City (or even Santa Fe), no big deal right? Wrong.
Number One: if you do not have appropriate insurance, you will probably spend the night in jail. That’s after waiting for 3 hours for a cop to arrive to investigate what happened.
Number Two: without proper insurance, your passport is likely to be seized until you can wire funds from wherever to pay for the damage.
Number Three: without proper insurance, you will likely be found liable for all sorts of ancilliary medical issues down the road.
I’d bet that $800 insurance upgrade is looking pretty attractive right now.
If you must rent a car, get out of the City first by bus, rent later
I have already said that driving in Panama City is horrendous. A much better alternative is to leave the city by bus, and stop in a smaller center like Santiago, David, Boquete, Penonome, or others to rent your car.
First, the driving will be much easier.
Second, the rates are likely the same (or lower).
Third, doing this will give you time to relax, enjoy, and you may even decide to forget the car rental altogether.
A word of warning
From my personal experience, I will never reserve a car online again. Why? Because chances are very good that you will not get the car you reserved, and you may find that there is no car available for you when you arrive anyway. This has happened to me before in Panama City, and in Miami. The response from the car rental clerk? “Oh, I’m sorry, but we have no cars available.” (Yeah, I can see that.)
Why is that? I ask. Well, we had an “over-booking” is the usual response. The truth is, car rental companies do NOT generally care about giving good service. They only want to rent out their cars. So, whoever comes through the door first gets the cars. It’s that simple. Is this fair? No. Is it good service? No. Do the car rental companies care? No.
Another common problem is “after-billing” by car rental companies for things like damage, excessive cleaning, and other things. Happens all the time. Just ask Chris Elliott about this stuff. How do you protect yourself against things like this?
Take the time to inspect your car before and after you rent, and, insist that a representative of the car rental company do the same and sign off both before and after. You may even want to go the extra mile and take pictures of your rental car (be sure to get the license plate in the picture) as further proof that all was well before and after you used the car. This way, you can better protect your interest if the car rental company claims damage, excessive cleaning needed, etc. There was a case in Germany recently (I think Chris Elliott mediated this case) where a client was charged for “winterization” of the car. What?
Insist that you be given a rental contract in your native language if Spanish (in the case of Panama) is not your first language. The car rental company should have English translations available, or at the very least be able to translate the contract for you. This way, you don’t end up liable for silly things (like “winterization”) because you signed a contract you could not read.
To sum up
1) Use local buses and chivas: they are cheaper, more fun, less stressful.
2) If you must rent: Use the following guidelines to make your rental experience less stressful:
a) in Panama, please rent a 4 x 4
b) in Panama, take the full insurance
c) in Panama, rent the car outside of Panama City
3) In general:
a) do not reserve online, it’s a useless exercise
b) take the time to inspect your car before and after, and insist that a car rental representative inspect the car with you and sign off that all is well.
I hope my irreverent rant here will help someone down the road have a less stressful experience with car rental, here in Panama, or somewhere else.