Departure – Driving Panama

There are two main types of budget vacation travelers.  The first is the all-inclusive resort beach dweller spending a week where every need and whim is looked after.  The second is the more active and adventurous types who pack a small suitcase or backpack and use hostels or inexpensive private home rentals as accommodations when traveling the world.

Regardless of which type of traveler a person is, the key to traveling on a budget is to pick a destination and a month of travel, then start a daily routine of checking the various online travel sites for prices to change.

It is crucial to remain as flexible as possible with the travel dates and be ready to snatch up a good price at a moment’s notice.  Moving a travel departure or return date by as little as 48 hours can trigger significant savings.

The easiest type of vacation travel is to purchase an all-inclusive resort package that includes flights, the airport to hotel transfers, all the food you can eat and beverages can that can be consumed at no extra cost. A quick 5 to 7-day beach resort getaway can be purchased from most major airports across Canada for as low as $600 per person.

Many family-friendly resorts offer activities for children and day care services when adults need golfing or shopping time. Traveling with an all-inclusive resort company is a great way to see other countries without spending a lot of money.

Staying at all-inclusive resorts is literally a no-brainer vacation.  The only things a vacationer needs to know when they check into an all-inclusive resort is where is the hotel room, which direction is the buffet and at what time does the food come out?  The remaining details are taken care of by dozens of willing and able tour company representatives, hotel staff or other guests.

Welcome to a world where someone can sit comfortably on a lounger, paperback novel in hand while listening to the waves pounding gently on the soft, sandy beach as a friendly resort employee brings a favorite cocktail or a snack on request, and repeatedly, throughout the day.  A vacationer literally does not have to move a muscle while at an all-inclusive resort.

For adventurous vacationers, packing a light suitcase or backpack and heading out to an unknown country is the only way to travel. Moving from one location to another every couple of days is a terrific way to experience the local food and culture while visiting towns and natural locations not found in standard tourist guides.  Thanks to websites such as Vrbo and Airbnb, many accommodation options are available to suit any lifestyle and budget.

The Beard and I have spent many weeks sunbathing on a beach at all-inclusive resorts.  For our next vacation, we wanted to truly experience a country from start to finish.  Travel a country in a way to completely immerse ourselves in tasting authentically prepared local food and participate in exploring the area culture and people without the hustle and bustle that usually surrounds more ‘touristy’ destinations.

Panama has always been on The Beard’s bucket list.  His interests lie in construction and all things large and mechanically complicated.  He is drawn to the skyline of Panama City as it resembles another destination on his list, Dubai.  During one of our discussions around how we would like to experience Panama the decision was made to land at the Tocumen Airport in Panama City, rent a comfortable mid-sized car, pick a general direction of travel and choose our places to eat meals and sleep along the way.

A couple of months later I decided to surprise The Beard with a very special birthday treat in the form of a spring trip to the small country of Panama.  May is not considered an in-demand travel month so right after Christmas a flight deal came up that I could not pass up!  Airline ticket prices had dropped to just $486 CDN return from Vancouver to Panama City per person.

Before I knew what I was thinking I had whipped out my credit card and madly typed in our reservation information.  Passing up such cheap return flights would have left me sleepless with regret for months!

Once the airline tickets were purchased and the rental car was booked, we eagerly waited through the months and counted down the days to departure.  As the day grew closer it became time to think out what to pack.

Our suitcases have become smaller and smaller with each vacation we go on.  We have now both reduced our packing to one backpack and one computer bag each.  This is a stark comparison to the first time I vacationed in Cuba in 2012.

I once crammed 5 pairs of pants, 10 shirts of various styles, 3 pairs of shorts, 2 bathing suits, sarongs, pajamas, and 4 different style dresses into a large, hard-cased luggage cart on wheels. No less than three different pairs of flip flops, two pairs of runners and one pair of aquatic booties accompanied me on that first trip away from Canada.

Most of the clothing I stuffed into that huge, cumbersome suitcase didn’t end up getting worn or used at any time during the trip.  The airport Customs officers must have thought I was moving to Cuba permanently.

In the beginning, my hair care products required their own carry on bag because I truly had no way of knowing how life on vacation actually works.  Since my virgin voyage 5 countries and 7 years later, I can now travel effectively with all of the necessary items in a medium sized backpack.  I cannot remember the last time I used a hairdryer or styling appliance while away on vacation.

It is not that I don’t want to take more things with me while traveling.  There have been times that I truly mourned the absence of my hair straightener.  It is that I loathe waiting in airports for luggage to be taken off the plane and set in motion on the crowded suitcase return carrousel.  With a backpack, all line ups and security checkpoints are fast-tracked resulting in leaving the airport and starting the vacation as quickly as possible.

In a nutshell and after many adjustments to my packing behaviors the following is what I now consider some essential tips for travel:

  • Items such as towels, swimming t-shirts, sunscreen (at a fraction of the price), sun hats and other convenience necessities can be purchased in the country of travel which adds to the local economy.  Most items are incredibly inexpensive to purchase and can be left behind for the resort staff to divvy up and take home for their friends and family’s use.
  • Pack one pair of comfortable flip flops for the beach and one pair of flip flops for walking or going out in the evening.  That is all the footwear needed in a tropical climate.
  • A sturdy pair of running shoes can be worn onto the plane which is always a great idea for those moments where quickly traversing large airports from gate to gate is necessary.  A well thought out running shoe selection can also take care of footwear needed to explore trails and hike through hills and villages along the way without taking up coveted backpack space.
  • Skorts (skirts with attached shorts underneath) go a long way to doubling as casual and evening wear.
  • Thin material tank tops fold easily into a small bag, can be worn with most pants, skirts, etc.
  • A bathing suit can be a great alternative to underwear for day or evening excursions by wearing one under a comfortable and brightly colored sundress.
  • Laundry services are available all over the world and can be used should all clothing end up wet or dirty during a vacation.
  • In 80 to 100% humidity, no amount of conditioner is going to save frizzy hair. Pack hair clips, elastics, a wide tooth comb and a small bottle of argon or coconut oil to help keep hair moisturized and under control.
  • Add in some entertainment in the form of a laptop or book for the various waiting periods that are experienced on the to and from portions of the trip and a person is all set and ready to travel like a pro.

For international flights, that is any flight leaving Canadian borders, it is suggested that travelers arrive at least three hours prior to the departure time on the airline ticket.  For those unfamiliar with the process in which to clear customs to leave the country here are some handy tips:

  • Expect long line ups.  The customs agents move passengers through as quickly as possible.  The hold-ups are because of travelers not knowing the rules.
  • Wait until past this security checkpoint before purchasing coffee, juice, pop, etc.  Liquids are not allowed to cross the checkpoint.  It will have to be consumed immediately or thrown out.
  • Organize things like money, change, passports, and the boarding passes for easy access.  Many delays are due to people having too many items in pants or jacket pockets.
  • There is nothing random about being searched.  It happens more often than not.  Follow the customs officers’ instructions, speak with respect and be honest at all times.  The more cooperative a passenger is, the quicker the process goes.
  • Put liquids in a clear Ziploc type bag so the customs officers can clearly see the size and ingredients of the container.
  • Check the airline websites for guidelines on what is allowed on a plane in carry-on luggage.  Obey the rules and the lines move faster for everyone.

The day to depart had arrived!  Bags were packed, passports and travel cash were safely tucked into our respective zippered pockets, we had checked in with the airline and were ready to leave the security and comfort of our home country of Canada to explore Panama.

At the Terrace Regional Airport, we cleared security without any delays and located our departure gate.  As we settled into the boarding area padded metal seats, our hands automatically found one another and formed a familiar clasp.  With fingers intertwined The Beard looked deeply into my eyes while giving my hand an exuberant squeeze.  In unison, we said to one another, “Panama, baby!”.  The journey had begun.

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