A Month-Long Panama Trip for 3 for an Unbeatable Price of Less than $1,500!


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A Month-Long Panama Trip for 3 for an Unbeatable Price of Less than $1,500!

I’ve been excited to talk about this for a while now, but I wanted to hold back until we were sure it was going to happen. Well, it’s now official…

We’re heading back to Boquete for a month-long Panama trip!

After just shy of 3 years of living in Boquete, Panama, we moved back to the U.S. last spring. We thoroughly enjoyed our time there but it was time to come back. A lot of folks continue to ask us why we decided to return to the U.S. so here’s a post I wrote about that if you’re interested: The 2 Big Reasons We’re Moving Back From Panama… and What’s Next!.

Now I’m excited to say that we just finished booking a Panama trip consisting of a whopping 30 days! The kicker is that this awesome vacation for the 3 of us is going to cost less than $1,500 for the flights and lodging.

How is that even possible? Keep reading and find out!

Our plans for our trip to Panama

We’re still working on some of the fun details, but the bulk of this trip to Panama is already set!

We’re flying out from Cleveland in late June and we won’t be returning until late July. The majority of our time will be spent in Boquete but we’re already planning on spending a few days at a resort a couple of hours away for some beach and ocean time.

Boquete’s such a beautiful spot in the world. This Panama trip will give us a chance again to take in nature and the wildlife, visit old friends, head to our favorite restaurants, do some hiking, and so much more!

Boquete, Panama - Rainbow and Palm Tree

We have some other ideas in mind as well but we’re going to leave things pretty loose on the agenda since we’ve got so much time there.

How we paid so little for our flights

Hopefully, by now, you already know how we’re paying so little for our Panama trip – or to any other place for that matter.

The answer, of course, is credit card travel rewards. We’ve been benefitting from this “game” for years now and it’s been such a great asset in our lives. We’ve saved thousands upon thousands of dollars and we’ve been able to enjoy more traveling just because of it.

So how did we pull this one off for our Panama trip?

This time around, the Capital One Venture X card took care of us. I applied for and got this card in September and I really like the benefits it provides. It’s got a hefty annual fee but we’re definitely making that back multiple times over with the perks we’re getting.

You can read my thoughts about this card in my post, Is It Worth It to Open a Credit Card With a Huge Annual Fee?

With the spending we did on this credit card and the bonus miles we received, we accrued 96,864 miles with Capital One in just a few months to put toward our flights for the Panama trip. So let’s talk about this a little.

First things first – flying to Panama City (Tocumen International Airport) is one thing but flying to David (the airport closest to Boquete) is another. All flights to David that I’m aware of pass through Panama City first so you’re stopping there regardless.

However, if you book a reservation from the U.S. all the way through to David, I’ve noticed there’s generally a nice premium added to the price. But if you book a reservation to Panama City and then a separate reservation on Copa Airlines from Panama City to David, you’ll tend to come out hundreds of dollars ahead.

So for this Panama trip, we were focused on getting to Panama City first. Flights from Cleveland tend to run around $600 – $850+ each for the trip.

I used Google Flights and Hopper to keep an eye on the flight prices and to notify me when to book. I would recommend setting alerts on Kayak too because you can do +-3 days which would have worked well to account for our flexibility. Down the line, I had actually thought of doing that and then I got the Google Flights notification on the low price on the same day as that idea – weird, right?

The flight had dropped to around $1,400 total for the three of us on Delta, which is a fairly good price as of late.

But, there’s another important piece to things. One of the benefits of the Capital One Venture X card is a $300 annual travel credit when booking through their portal. So rather than transfer miles to a different airline or reimburse ourselves for the travel (a cool perk of the card), we wanted that bonus $300 credit.

So I went to the Capital One portal and found the same flights for $1,406.25.

After using up the 96,864 miles we had, that left a remainder cost of $437.61 which we paid by credit card. Subtract out the $300 travel credit and our total price to fly to Panama City was $137.61. That, to me, is pretty incredible and demonstrates just how valuable credit card rewards can be.

That doesn’t get us completely to our destination though. We still need to get from Tocumen International Airport (PTY) in Panama City to Enrique Malek International Airport (DAV) in David (about a 45-minute to 1-hour flight).

Copa Airlines is the only option for flights directly between these two airports. As a side note, Air Panama offers flights to David as well from the nearby Panamá Pacífico International Airport (PAC) as an alternative option.

Since Copa is a partner of United, our initial strategy was to rack up some United miles and then book our Copa flight through United. We got the Chase United Explorer Card earlier this month specifically with this plan in mind. We had a big purchase we needed to make and knocked out the $60k bonus in just two transactions.

But… when I went to book the award travel through United’s portal, the total was going to be 60k miles (+$18.75 in taxes/fees) for just one way! We’d be getting about $300 worth of travel for 60k miles. That’s too much for this small flight even if it makes it mostly free.

A point calculator like the one on The Point Calculator currently values these miles at 1.3 cents per mile. That means 60k miles should get you around $780 worth of travel on average…

United Miles point calculator
The Point Calculator

So I decided to just book the travel directly through Copa and pay cash instead. The total cost for the roundtrip flight including taxes and fees was $576.90.

We’ll hang onto our United miles and put them to better use on some other traveling we’re planning to do. In fact, I booked the Copa flights using our United Explorer Card just to bank some more miles with United.

In the end, our tiny one-hour flight within Panama ended up costing us 4x as much out-of-pocket as our international flight to Panama! 😂 I’m ok with this – I think we’re making good use of our travel rewards.

So our total for flights for this whole Panama trip for the three of us came to $714.51 out of pocket… not too shabby! And that’s because I chose to pay cash for part of the trip instead of burning through rewards at a devalued price.

If you pay off your credit cards every month and traveling is something on your radar, I hope you’re taking advantage of credit card travel rewards. It’s truly mind-blowing how much amount of money you can save. Some folks use these to make for more comfortable travel, too (i.e. flying business class). Things like checking free bags, lounge access, priority boarding, and global entry / TSA PreCheck reimbursement are also amazing benefits some cards offer.

I have a list of some of our favorite credit cards we currently have or have used in the past on my Recommended Credit Cards page. You can also get my credit cards rewards tracker just for hopping on my mailing list…

Several readers have also emailed me to let me know how helpful the free service Travel Freely has been that I’ve been recommending. One cool feature is that it’ll help you choose some of the best credit cards to apply for based on several factors. As Zac at Travel Freely puts it:

“The CardGenie does some algorithm magic between your cards, bank rules, and the best available offers. If you can see it, you’re eligible for it. Approval is not guaranteed but you’re in very smart hands.”

It also tracks your cards and bonuses, notifies you of annual fee deadlines with options on what to do, and a ton more. It truly is a great service – and it’s free! Check out Travel Freely here.

Finally, if you’re eager to learn more, here are some of the past travel rewards articles I’ve written that you might find useful:

Free accommodations… mostly

While living in Panama, we learned that many ex-pats (folks living in a foreign country) oftentimes need someone to house-sit. Maybe they’re going back to their home country for an extended period, taking a vacation, or whatever. Regardless, they need someone to keep an eye on their house, maybe water their plants, take care of their pets, etc.

In exchange, they generally allow the sitters to stay at their place for free or next-to-nothing. It’s even possible to get paid to do this in some cases!

Although I knew this idea existed, I didn’t realize how big of a deal it was. Our time in Panama opened up my eyes to this and I’ve learned that it can be a pretty competitive endeavor.

It makes sense though – if you’ve got the time and flexibility to do it, you can save a ton of dough! There’s actually a niche of folks who travel the world house-sitting… what a gig!

Unless you’ve got a lot of connections around the world, most of the house-sitting jobs are handled through a third-party go-between. Two examples are Trusted House Sitters and House Sitters America, both of which are very popular. They both charge membership fees, but if it’s something you’re serious about, it can be well worth the cost.

Ok, all of that to tell you that we scored a gig house and pet sitting for this Panama trip. But this wasn’t through a service – this was from friends of ours we got to know during our time living in Panama. They live in Panama and also enjoy traveling the world. However, they have a dog who needs a little TLC when they’re gone.

They’re also two of the nicest people and thought of us with this “predicament” they had. On this trip, they’re leaving their home in Panama for a few weeks.

And, of course, we jumped at the opportunity that was so generously offered!

So not only do we have free accommodations for a few weeks there, but they’re also going to let us use their car. I told you they’re super nice! That’ll make life much easier while there!

They live in Alto Boquete, which is just south of Bajo Boquete (the downtown area of Boquete where we lived). It’s just a 10-15 minute drive to get there or back.

Now, I will say that our lodging is free during those few weeks on this Panama trip. However, we’re purposely getting there almost a week earlier and staying a couple of days after. That way, we can ensure we get a little time to hang out with them (they are our friends after all!) and we also have some other things we’re going to try to cram in when we’re not dog-sitting…

What about extraneous costs?

We’ll definitely have external costs such as food and entertainment. We’ll be there for a month so groceries will be a routine but I’m sure we’ll do our share of dining out as well. There are several restaurants we’re looking forward to getting back to again!

But we also want to spend some time at the beach during this Panama trip. We loved Show Pony Resort – this was our favorite of the popular beach resorts we had visited while living there.

Initially, we planned to stay there for a few nights, spend a night or two at a hotel or Airbnb in Boquete near our friends, and then do the house-sitting.

However, we’re now considering trying to have our cake and eat it too by possibly squeezing in another bit of fun. We spent An Epic 2 Nights in the Jungle at Rambala Jungle Lodge about a year ago. It was such a cool experience that we’re now wondering if we can squeeze it into this Panama trip.

The problem is that it’s out of the way and we don’t have a tremendous amount of time outside of our house/pet-sitting job. We can easily do the beach or the jungle for 3-4 nights but trying to do them both is going to be a little bit more of a challenge.

Guess you’ll have to stay tuned for the recap of the trip this summer to find out what we ended up doing!

What’s nice though is that because we didn’t drop big dollars on flights and accommodations, we have more breathing room to have some fun while in Panama.


Our flights for this Panama trip came to about $715. Our accommodations for the majority of the trip are free. We’ll even have a car to use for a few weeks!

We still have to determine our plans for the rest of our time in Panama so don’t know exactly what the rest of our lodging will cost, but it’s not going to be anything crazy. Outside of food and entertainment, the total for this 30-day trip should run under $1,500. That’s a steal!

We have a handful of vacations we’re excited to plan for this year but this one to Panama holds a special place in my heart. I’m super excited about it… and the price tag isn’t hurting either!

Plan well, take action, and live your best life!

Thanks for reading!!

— Jim

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19 thoughts on “A Month-Long Panama Trip for 3 for an Unbeatable Price of Less than $1,500!”

  1. Hi Jim, Ian from the UK here.

    I love reading your posts each time, some really good tips although not sure we get so generous points with UK credit cards!

    Quick question. Would love to see a post with a breakdown / details of your monthly spending in retirement, and an update on how yo finance those expenses. Also an idea of how much you budget for a year of retirement would be fantastic. Would this be possible as it would help us retire wannabees plan for a retired future.

    Thank you Kindly,
    Ian

    1. Hey, Ian – thanks for the comments! We really don’t budget, per se, but rather just keep a check on our spending. When we were working, we did something similar with a strategy I dubbed reverse budgeting. The idea was to pay yourself first, then pay necessary expenses, and then enjoy what’s left over. Now that we’re retired though, we just track our spending and let our frugality handle most of the rest.

      That said, I haven’t talked much about what our expenses have actually been too much – just that a theoretical cap on our spending would be about $55k per year. I think that’s a great idea on doing a breakdown of how our spending has been going (both in the U.S. and in Panama). I’ll put that on my list of post ideas… thanks for the suggestion, Ian!

  2. Hi Jim,
    Further to my comment above. It would be really useful to compare your current monthly spending now you’re back in the US, to your spending when you were living in Panama. Thank you, really appreciate your feedback.
    Best regards, Ian

  3. Rich Engelhardt

    I almost feel sorry for people that don’t use credit cards….almost ;).

    Once you get past the “Oh crap, I charged how much??!? How will I ever pay that bill??!?!?!” stage and get a grip on using them, credit cards do so much for people it’s almost criminal.
    😀

    1. The power of credit card benefits can be awesome, without a doubt, Rich! Of course, I was one of the folks who succumbed to temptations when I was young and got myself into credit card debt big time back in college… but at least I got a free t-shirt for signing up! 😉 By the time I started working with you in 1999, I had accrued $30k in credit card debt (over $51k in today’s dollars). Thanks to Quicken though, I worked my way out and got back on top of things and eventually learned to use them wisely instead of them using me.

      PS We’re long overdue to get together for a beer (or a non-alcoholic beer for me!).

  4. Sounds awesome Jim, we’ll be in Panamá February and March and also staying at a friend’s place for very little, and use of one of their cars. Hope you all are well.

  5. Oh thats awesome Jim, cant wait to hear about Panama! Never been there, but I have an acquaintance who just up and moved there after college, and never looked back. That was 30 years ago! He comes back to the states now and then and says he’d never live here again. Anyway, thanks for the update, hope you include lots of pics of Panama in upcoming posts!

    1. I think if I had moved there after college, I wouldn’t have come back either, Jim! That’s really cool though – good for him! I’m sure there will be at least a couple of posts with plenty of pics of this trip. 🙂

  6. RE: Your experience with COPA airlines. I’ve learned the same – sometimes skipping US reservations works well. The last time we booked our own flight to Europe we chose Norwegian Air for LA to Paris RT. We booked using Krona on the Norwegian site and saved about $400 a ticket versus booking in dollars on their US site. Even were able to book in business class for the LA to Paris segment. And way cheaper than the US carriers at the time. Plus we scored lounge access in LA. It pays to look around.

  7. geez, you seem to be a wizard at this credit cards rewards thing, instead of spending thousands & wondering if you can afford it along with other vacations you want to take, you’ve worked it down to a great price where you can afford it & still have a great time. Well done!

  8. So inspiring

    I love reading your blog

    The idea of early retirement is more and more alluring and seems somewhat doable. My (37) and wife (38) have a daughter (2) and I want nothing more than to spend my days with her vs wasting away in the office.

    Together we are at 1.1 million net worth. However, only 500k is invested. The rest is equity in a primary home and 2 rentals. I think I recall you being in a somewhat similar situation with rentals. How did you know when to call it “quits”?

    One thing I do fear is losing the feeling of importance with my job. How did you overcome that?

    1. Hi Jon – appreciate the kind words! Deciding when to bag the rat race is going to be different for everyone. The numbers are one thing, but each of us has a different comfort level, degree of flexibility, and even willingness to work some on the side if needed.

      For those who are considered Fat FIRE, the decision might be a little easier. But for folks who aren’t there, it becomes a little tougher.

      I also know how frustrating it can be when you feel trapped at work… I was there. Some thoughts you’ve likely already been having:

      • You could keep working until you have enough saved up that hits your number on when to retire.
      • You could look at transitioning to a different job if the one you currently have is killing you physically or mentally.
      • You could find other ways to bring in more income through side hustles, more rental properties, etc.
      • You could cut expenses to reach FIRE faster. You need to be careful on this one though – if you cut expenses and base your FIRE number on it, that becomes your new number for the rest of your life (unless you bring in additional income later).
      • You could downsize your house or move to a lower-cost-of-living area to help now or once you retire.
      • You could get in the ballpark of your FIRE number and then cut back your hours at your current job, find a part-time job elsewhere, or start a business yourself to help supplement your income.
      • The list could go on and on but it’s all going to come down to what makes you feel comfortable. I needed to leave my career as it was killing me slowly but surely and my wife recognized that. So we were willing to be flexible, try a cheaper cost-of-living area (Panama, which turned out to be amazing), and work later part-time if needed along the line.

        If your identity is tied to your career like it sounds like it might be to a degree, don’t think of the “RE” side of FIRE so much as the “FI” side. There’s no rule that says you need to quit working once you have enough money. You could cut back on hours if your employer would allow it (side note: the leverage is now on your side once you’re FI), find a job elsewhere with hours that work better for you, or start your own business.

        For me, I started this blog in 2015 – years before I retired. I built it as a bridge to continue to have something that I would be able to work on once I left my job. I can choose how much time I want to spend on it every week and it’s nice that it brings in a little extra income as well finally (not much though!).

        I wish you the best in figuring it out – it can mess with your mind sometimes going against the grain and doing what others aren’t, but it can be well worth it as well!

        PS I did write a guest post at ESI Money several months before I left my job called “How to Get Up the Nerve to Retire” which you might find helpful.

  9. Wow, that’s a very affordable price for a month long trip! I’m impressed Jim! Nice job!

    Our summer plans are nebulous this year (and currently unplanned), but I’ll probably end up booking at least a portion of our travel on credit card rewards. With the CC fees it isn’t *free* of course, but it is often a good way to save some money on travel — if you’re willing to play the game.

    Enjoy your trip to Panama!

    1. Thanks, Mr. Tako! I would imagine that in a way, you’re still on a sort of vacation somewhat while you continue exploring the new area you guys are in. 🙂 Very true that the fees can take a piece of your CC rewards but hopefully you’re playing the game well enough to recoup that cost several times over.

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