North America > Panama > Panama City
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Panama City is in car rental price band: 8/10 (1 = cheapest car rental location)
General comment - based on price alone, is it worth renting a car in Panama City?
No. Car rental is very expensive by global standards.
Can you expect big swings in car rental prices in Panama City between the peak and the off peak season?
5/10 (0 = stable prices)
Driving score: 2/10
Non car score:6/10
(0 = car hire not advised / 10 = rental car essential)
General comment -
So what are the best ways of actually getting around Panama, including getting around the urban jungle of Panama City itself, travelling along the Panama Canal and then also getting lost inside some of Panama’s heavily forested interior?
Panama City is one of those cities that has done a lot of sprouting upwards rather outwards in recent years, given the various constraints of the local terrain, and the city has also invested heavily in a range of public transport schemes, including most notably the first heavy rail metro system in Central America.
Panama City has historically been served by two different airports, with the main international airport being situated at Tocumen. Although the metro doesn’t extend out this far, various different local buses are available, as are taxis.
Note that taxis in Panama City operate on a zonal system, rather than by metered fare.
Panama Canal – Car or no car?
It may come as a surprise to learn that there is a railway which was also built running alongside the Panama Canal, and this has been used for various different logistical purposes over the years. Now it also runs as a passenger service, aimed largely at tourists, but still passing through breathtaking landscapes and man-made wonders at the same time!
Various different options are also available for cruising on the Panama Canal, and sometimes these can even include Panama packages on full sized oceangoing cruise ships that then head off elsewhere. You can still just about squeeze in a partial trip as a day excursion, but for a full trip in a cruise liner, most people will instead choose to start their itinerary in a place like Miami or San Diego.
There is also a major highway running alongside the canal from Panama City to the northern port of Colon, and regular buses are available here as well.
For venturing anywhere else within the country of Panama, a hire car might be moderately useful, and it’s the same old question about cost versus relative flexibility and convenience. However, there really are very few roads in Panama outside the capital Panama City, and you might find it almost as easy to get around using a bus of some form, whether it’s an organised tour or scheduled service.
There’s no shortage of day hiking opportunities which can be done as an out and back trip from Panama City, but we really don’t think a hire car is necessary for this. Your own decision here will depend on how deep into the interior want to go, and what other local options are available at the time.
The adventurously minded might also want to head out to the Pearl Islands by boat, direct from Panama City. This island group has been popular with a number of survival reality TV programmes, and it is an easy excursion from the city.
Why? Visiting Panama City using a hire car
Why do you need a car in Panama City ?
Why not? Visiting Panama City without a car
Why don't you need a car in Panama City ?
No need for anything relating to the Panama Canal.
- Take to the waters – either on the canal itself (see above), or to various offshore islands.
- for a truly unique experience, see the Panama Canal by train – although this is popular with tourists, it’s also a commuter route (no need to get a packaged tour).
- Endless excursions available from Panama City to explore natural wonders – no car needed!
- Zoned taxi services in Panama City – can often be very good value.
- Ample bus services in Panama City, including some express bus lanes.
- Panama City metro – largely useful for commuters, but can also give access to some tourist sites.
So, ultimately, should you rent a car in Panama City? There’s certainly no need for it, and you may well find that you can see a great deal more without bothering. This makes Panama City one of our more surprising “no” verdicts.
Ratings: How does Panama City compare?
Is it worth hiring a car in Panama City? TBC
This is based on a rough consideration of the costs of renting a car in Panama City, and how this compares with the costs of using public transport. The answer to this varies hugely from one destination to the next, based on a wide range of factors. It's based on renting a car at the airport (TBC), and driving for an average of 2-3 hours on open roads on most days.
How does this compare if:
You are travelling:
Solo / As couple / small family / larger family / senior couple etc
Does car rental make sense on different budgets?
Do you need to hire a car in Panama City? TBC
This is based strictly on whether or no we think it's possible to visit Panama City (and the surrounding area) without using a car. Of the three key questions, this one is the most likely to be a "no".
Should you rent a car in Panama City? TBC
This is a balance of all factors. Remember this is an answer to the question for people who are already asking it. That's why the answer might still be a "yes", even when public transport is good.
See global comparisons
Hiring | Driving | Parking
Trains | Buses | Local travel
Car hire basics:
Public transportation basics:
Regular bus services: YES
Coach (inter-city): YES
High Speed Rail:
Rail type (end stub / through / junction / hub):
As you start ....
Does Panama City airport have a direct rail link?
(Yes - within terminal / adjacent / short walk) (Yes - bus transfer / other) No
Has our advice for Panama City car rental changed over time, or has it been pretty constant?
2017 - 3
2019 - 3
2021 - 3
Average score - 3
Do you or don't you need a car in Panama City ?