Panama spoils its visitors with cosmopolitan cities, incredible stretches of sand and wild countryside that is a gift to adventure tourism.

But this doesn’t mean it’s only for those with deep pockets – prices here are cheaper than traveling in Europe, Canada or the United States, but a little pricier than Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador. 

So is Panama expensive? Well, it's not the most expensive country in Central America – that prize goes to Costa Rica, closely followed by Belize – but thrifty travelers will need to plan carefully and sacrifice a few home comforts to keep costs down. 

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to save on food, lodgings, transport and excursions. The beaches are free, and there’s no shortage of outdoor activities in Panama’s extensive and affordable national parks.  Here are our top tips for making your Panama adventure bueno, bonito y barato (good, nice and cheap).

Daily costs

  • Dorm bed in a hostel: US$10 to US$20
  • Basic hotel room for two: US$30 to US$50
  • Self-catering apartment (including Airbnb): US$70 to US$100+
  • Public transportation in Panama City: US$0.25 to US$0.35, or US$1.25 for toll roads
  • Coffee: US$1 to US$3
  • Lunch for two: US$10 to US$20
  • Dinner for two: US$20 to US$40
  • Beer at the bar: US$1 to US$3
  • Average daily cost: US$70 to US$90
A kid from Cayo de Agua Island gets the laundry from the outside, Bocas del Toro, Panama
The wet season in Panama is much cheaper but still has plenty of sunshine © Gustavo Gutierrez / Getty Images

1. Visit during the wet season to start saving money

The cheapest time to visit Panama is during the wet season which runs from May to November. Hotel rates can drop 10% to 30% compared to the high season (December to April) but you will have to contend with bursts of torrential rain.

Most downpours are quite brief, erupting in the afternoon and clearing an hour or two later, but there can be days of continuous rainfall. Certain activities, such as birdwatching and white-water rafting, are much better in the rainy season. 

Bocas del Toro has a highly changeable microclimate; the province is frequently wet when the rest of the country is dry, and sometimes vice versa. International flights to Panama are usually cheapest towards the end of the wet season, from September to November.

Yellow city bus in Guabito (Panama) on the border to Costa Rica
Flying to Costa Rica and getting the bus over the border can be cheaper © Rainer Lesniewski / Getty Images

2. If you only intend to visit western Panama, consider flying into Costa Rica

Many of Panama’s best attractions lay in the western provinces of Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro. If you don’t intend to travel beyond these areas, it’s sometimes (but not always) more economical to fly to San José in Costa Rica and then travel overland to Panama, especially if you're a backpacker. 

The direct bus from San José to the international border at Paso Canoas (on the edge of Chiriquí) is an hour or so longer than the bus from Panama City to David (the second-largest city in Panama and capital of Chiriquí). You’ll have to pass through immigration, which can be time-consuming. 

The journey to Chiriquí is quicker and cheaper if you use intercity buses rather than international ones like Ticabus, which typically means longer commutes and higher prices, but it doesn’t stop in David.

Passengers travel on a subway train in Panama City
Get the Metrobus to/from the airport © Kryssia Campos / Getty Images

3. Take the bus to and from Tocumen airport

Official taxis from Tocumen International Airport to downtown Panama City can set you back US$30 to US$40. A shared taxi is cheaper at around US$15 per person if traveling solo.

The cheapest option is the Metrobus. A bus ticket with them costs no more than US$1.25. Before leaving the airport, be sure to buy a rechargeable Metrocard, suitable for use on all Metro buses and trains. They cost US$5 and are good to go with US$3 of fares included.

Note you will need a Metrocard to access long-distance services at Albrook bus station.

A view of Selinas hostel on the island of Bocas del toro in Panama.
Backpackers or single travelers should stay in hostels © undefined undefined / Getty Images

4. If you’re single, stay in a hostel dorm

Single travelers will find the cheapest digs in hostel dorms. Depending on location, you'll get a few amenities and clean quarters for US$10 to US$20 per night. 

Hostels are widespread in the major tourist hubs of Panama City, Boquete and Bocas del Toro, but less common elsewhere. They are a great way to meet fellow travelers too.

A couple in a larger hotel room in Panama with the woman staring out the window and the man pulling a red suitcase
If there's more than one of you traveling, book a hotel © Cavan Images / Getty Images

5. Couples and groups should stay in hotels

A private room in a cheap hotel is roughly the same price as a private room in a hostel, around US$30 to US$50 per night. In terms of comfort, however, hotel rooms are usually superior. 

The cheaper, more spartan rooms have fans and cold-water-only showers (air-conditioning can bump up prices by US$15 to US$20). 

Some hotels have a handful of extremely basic, ultra-cheap rooms (US$15 to US$20) with a shared bathroom; ask reception if they have algo más económico (something cheaper) or un quarto con baño compartido (a room with a shared bathroom). 

Of course, the main disadvantage of using hotels as cheap accommodation is that you won’t have a shared kitchen at your disposal. 

Tourist relaxing in the hammock on beautiful lonely beach in Caribbean San Blas island at politically autonomous Guna territory in Panama
A hammock can be the cheapest way of grabbing a bed for the night © MarcPo / Getty Images

6. If you really want to save, sleep in a hammock

If you don’t mind roughing it or sleeping in a homestay, a hammock is the cheapest option. Hostels typically charge US$2 to US$5 per night for a pitch, and you may find locals prepared to offer the same service from their family home. 

Use mosquito repellent, nets and/or insecticide coils, especially in the wet season. A warm blanket or sleeping bag may be necessary as temperatures can drop markedly at night, even in the steamy lowlands. Note it’s unsafe to sleep overnight in public spaces, including the beach.

A taxi waiting outside a building in Panama City
Be careful which taxis you use if you want to save some money in Panama © Jeremy Poland / Getty Images

7. Use public transportation in Panama City 

Panama City taxis are notoriously wily. Drivers overcharging is the norm, especially if you appear to be foreign. Worse yet, the city is frequently gridlocked, making travel by car slow and inefficient. 

To save money and hassle, use Metro buses and trains to get around (US$0.25 to US$0.35 per journey). If you must use taxis, try to agree on a price before getting in. And if your driver turns out to be a good one (many of them are), get their cellphone number for future use. 

Avoid tourist taxis and taxis that wait outside hotels. They will definitely overcharge you. In Panama, Uber is usually cheaper and easier than taxis.

8. Opt for buses over domestic flights 

Domestic flights are undeniably fast. You can cross the entire country from Panama City to David by plane in about an hour. But with most round-trip fares exceeding US$120, domestic flights are not cheap and carry a hefty carbon footprint too. 

Although significantly slower (the same trip from Panama City to David takes seven to nine hours), Panama bus travel is far more economical and environmentally friendly. Catch a ride from the Terminales David-Panamá (TDP) on the Padafront buses.

Latin American women stylish friends having fun walking on the street of Panama City drinking coconuts
Panama sells plenty of cheap, fresh fruit such as coconuts © Pedro Merino / Getty Images

9. Gorge on fruit for breakfast

Fresh fruit in Panama is nutritious, delicious, ubiquitous and cheap. Options include a rainbow array of locally grown produce like pineapples, papayas, avocados, bananas, watermelons and oranges. 

Get fruit from street vendors, local markets or supermarkets (a fruit breakfast in a restaurant is relatively poor value). Smoothies are another healthy and economical option.

10. Feast on carbs for lunch

If you intend to eat out a lot, lunch is the most economical meal of the day. Street food is thin on the ground in Panama, but cheap sit-down eateries abound and usually offer inexpensive set menus and/or carb-rich lunch buffets for around US$5 a head.

A typical Panamanian lunch consists of a fatty meat or chicken main with a generous side of rice and beans plus a few slivers of (sometimes sweetened) plantain and a sugary drink. Sadly, vegans and vegetarians are not well-served in Panama.

Young hispanic men with a bottle of water standing by a blue door, Panama
You can drink tap water in most places in Panama, but not all © NTCo / Getty Images

11. You can generally drink the tap water 

With the exceptions of Bocas del Toro, Guna Yala and other remote areas, the tap water in Panama is generally safe for consumption. Save on dollars and plastic waste by refilling reusable water bottles at a kitchen faucet.

Wide Angle Image of Fashionable Afro-Descendant Black Woman Giving a Walking Tour to a Well-Dressed Couple in the Streets of the Huerta Sandoval Neighborhood of Panama City,
Sourcing your own guide can be cheaper than using a tour operator © Jeremy Poland / Getty Images

12. Choose guides and excursions carefully

Unless times are very tight, you will want to splurge on one or more tours. If you speak Spanish reasonably well, sourcing your own local guides can work out cheaper than using a tour operator. 

It’s best to seek solid recommendations from your hotel or hostel as they typically know where the best daily deals are. Most towns have an office of the National Environment Ministry, Mi Ambiente, and will point you in the right direction. 

    This article was first published Jul 27, 2022 and updated Dec 3, 2023.

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