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  • Total days on the road: 586
  • Currently in: USA
  • Miles Driven: 36821
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Panama Budget Recap

Written by Jared on June 22, 2012

This article is part of our Budget and Money Report series.

Our per diem expenses cover food, lodging, gas and other supplies and travel costs for three people. We travel in a 1997 Toyota 4Runner, tent camp in paid facilities roughly 70% of our nights and eat less than 10% of our meals in restaurants. This budget does not reflect personal spending money, which is mostly used to buy souvenirs and booze. We don't track this money, but we do know we have not come close to spending our budgeted amount of $10 per person per day.

This country took our budget, grabbed it by the throat, and chucked it into a dirty Panama City gutter. Then kicked it in the ribs a couple times for good measure. We tried our best, for the most part, to keep things reasonable. Unfortunately, a combination of poor pre-trip budgeting and unforeseen events left us more than $600 over budget after our short stay of 19 days in Panama. Youch.

Panama's not a cheap country by Central American standards, but it's better than Costa Rica. We did great in that country, so it stands to reason that we could have saved money in Panama as well. However, we ended up doing quite the opposite.

Budget Recap

Number of Days in Panama: 19
Budgeted Per Diem:  $70.54
Actual Per Diem:  $94.02
Per Diem Spent:  $1,786.31
Per Diem Budgeted:  $1,340.26
One-Time Expenses Spent:  $2,109.60
One-Time Expenses Budgeted:  $1,945.00
Panama Balance:  -$610.65

Panama uses the US dollar, although they often call it the Balboa. The currency is identical, although they do have some funky $1 and $0.50 coins that aren't minted in the US. ATMs are everywhere and typically charged us a $3 withdraw fee.

Our one-time expenses covered the cost to get our car into a container and shipped to Cartagena, plus the cost of three one-way plane tickets for us. The tickets were $150 more than expected which accounts for the overage. The cost to ship our car was more or less exactly what we expected, $1,050 for a shared container.

However, we failed to account for pricey Panama City hotels and the extra costs of eating out while we were without our vehicle for a couple days in the city. We also had to replace some gear after our stoves and a few cooking utensils were stolen in Costa Rica, costing us over $150.

Per Diem Breakdown

Lodging:  $624.84 37.20%
Groceries:  $314.87 18.75%
Gas:  $278.25 16.57%
Supplies:  $158.23 9.42%
Eating Out:  $119.00 7.08%
Entertainment & Tours:  $75.00 4.47%
Transportation:  $32.00 1.91%
Border Fees:  $31.53 1.88%
Tolls & Parking:  $10.00 0.63%
Phone & Internet:  $10.00 0.63%

Lodging, sitting at the top of our expenses list, pretty much tells the story of our time in Panama. Too many $45/night hotel rooms and not enough cheap camping. Fortunately, groceries were much less expensive in Panama than Costa Rica, which was a welcome change.

The supplies category includes a new stove, replacement utensils, a couple knives, and ten small bottles of propane to replace our gear stolen in Costa Rica. Border fees include the immigration costs to enter Panama, along with roughly $10 in copies we made in preparation to ship our car to Colombia.

The $75 we spent on entertainment constituted the only tourist activity we did in Panama - taking the Panama Canal Railway from Colon to Panama City after loading our car at the port. Well worth the price of admission.

Food & Lodging

  Budget Actual Difference
Percent Time Camping:  50% 31.58% -19.42%
Average Camping Cost:  $15.00 $15.33 +$0.33
Average Hotel Cost:  $25.00 $44.60 +$19.60
Daily Food Expenses:  $25.00 $22.84 -$2.16

Of the 19 days we spent in Panama, six were spent camping, five in a hotel, and eight in a rental house. As you can see, we grossly underestimated the cost of a hotel for three people in Panama. We usually overspend on hotel costs, but make up for it by camping more than expected. That didn't work out for us in Panama.

We stayed eight nights in a rental house on the beach at a cost of roughly $38 per night. We spent the week catching up on work, updating our website, and starting a few new projects. It worked out well for our budget because we didn't go anywhere, and only spent money on groceries, about $100 for the week. It may have cost us $300 to stay a week in the house, but it ended up saving us a chunk of change.


  Budget Actual Difference
Average MPG: 13 18.57 +5.57
Average Gas Price $USD/Gallon: $4.50 $4.40 -$0.10
Miles Driven: 700 1091 +491
Total Spent on Gas: $242.31 $278.25 +$35.91

The gas price of $4.40 is for premium gas, the cost of regular is roughly $0.45 cheaper per gallon. The numbers here don't tell the complete story. We did spend more than expected and drove 500 miles more than planned, but our gas mileage was excellent and we entered the country with an empty tank and left with a full tank. Both of these things make our over budget amount negligible.

One note on our mileage - gas is full service and attendants tend to stop at a nice even number to make change easier to deal with. This artificially inflates our gas mileage numbers, making them look better than they actually are.

Lessons Learned

  • Plan an extra couple hundred dollars to deal with getting your car to South America on top of the shipping fees. Taxis, hotels, and being forced to eat out will add to your per diems over the course of the 4-5 days it takes to deal with the process.
  • Likewise, don't budget for the cheapest available flights (assuming you're flying) to get from Panama City to South America. Due to the uncertainty of the entire process, you are forced to book flights last minute which invariably costs more.
  • Research recent costs for shipping your car to South America. The numbers we originally found were three years old, and prices have nearly doubled since then.
  • Taking the train from Colon back to Panama City after dropping off your car is a great way to see the canal, just be aware it costs $25 per person.
  • Food in Panama, even imported food from the US, is cheaper than Costa Rica. Panama's a great place to enjoy a taste of home, and the variety of international restaurants in the city makes it a fantastic place to grab a bite of something you've been missing.
  • Driving in Panama City is a stressful experience and parking is hard to come by. Fortunately, taxis are everywhere and it usually costs less than $5 to get to where you need to go within the city's central districts.
  • Finding a budget hotel in Panama City with secured parking is difficult. Looking online and calling ahead is a safe bet to avoid having to drive around the city in search of a cheap place to spend a few nights. Don't rely on what the website or guidebook says, it was wrong for us.
  • If you want to stay put for a while, Panama's a great place to find a budget rental house for a week. Ours had two bedrooms, AC, (bad) internet, and a fully stocked kitchen for less than we paid for a hotel room on average.


Jenni Earll
#1 Jenni Earll 2014-02-15 15:45
I love your budget breakdown, thank you for being so thorough. My family and I went to Panama for the first time for 2 weeks in June and also ran into budgeting issues. Ours arose from making our hotel reservations in advance, never having been there, and then once we arrived realizing the distances were much further than they appeared and having to cancel and pay for rooms we couldn't use. Distances were deceptively far and it seemed like every time someone told us it would only take 2 hours to get somewhere it would take 3 - 4 and we were passing cars on the road so I don't think we were driving exceptionally slowly. However, we did find that most locations we visited offered a range of options to fit all budgets, from cheap - $2.50 cafeteria meals and hostels or budget hotels - to high end - steaks and a boutique hotel. So it was all about how much we wanted to spend or not spend.

Thanks for the info, I will be checking your budgets and info on other countries for future travel!

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