Today I think it is time for a little rant about car rentals here in Panama City. For the traveller, unfamiliar with car rental rip-offs in Panama, I will give you an actual example of what we have experienced here. Most agencies are the same because they can get away with it. Caution, never believe the booking information, including the rates, when you book an online vehicle! We have been renting cars here by the month until we can find a suitable used car to buy.
Over the years we have travelled here, we have used several agencies and I can tell you that they are all pretty much the same. The biggest problem is that, with one exception, you get a big surprise when you arrive to pick up your car. That nice rate you were quoted is for the car only! Here in Panama you must have liability insurance by law and the rental agencies charge it to you. We have seen rates up to $22.00 per day for the minimum liability insurance, which is not very much ($10,000). So if you are a budget conscious vacationer expecting to get the car for the rates that are quoted to you, forget it! Your car rental cost will be up to double what you expect! (The exception is Sixt who include your insurance choice in the booking process so the prices are included)
For a car rental here, you need to book it on line and in advance. If you do not, you can expect walk up prices to be up to double the rate you will get online. My biggest complaint is about directly misleading advertising. This example is a real transaction with Payless. Here is an actual screen shot of an online car search on RentalCars.com. We were looking for in an intermediate sized car for a month and I was drawn to the ad for a Volkswagen Passat. This is a pretty nice car and we know it from Canada. See the small print on the ad that says “or similar”? We booked it online and when we went to pick it up, we were told that they did not have that brand of car here and Head Office in the US placed the ad. We were offered the two brands that they have here, Hyundai and Kia. Now I don’t know about you but I could never in a million years equate those brands with a Volkswagen Passat. Now because the car is different, the insurance is different and so on and on it goes! The quote you got is not worth anything. Now this screen shot if for next month but the ad has been in place for several months now so it is not an isolated example.
Our next problem was with the condition of the cars available to rent here. Most rental cars here are the most basic models and maintenance is not up to North American standards. This was our experience with both Sixt and Payless. Be very careful about checking the car our during your acceptance inspection. Be sure to fill the damage sheet up with all of the dings, scrapes, and scratches, because there will be lots of them. More importantly, check the tires and wheels closely. All of the tires we have seen should have been replaced long before we rented them. Uneven tread wear and lack of tread is very common. I would not drive tires like most of these at home. Next, check that all the wheel nuts are present and there are no broken studs. We had one car with a missing wheel nut and broken studs. Check out the windshield washers too. It is common to be given a car with nothing in the washer reservoir. Now you may think that you can just fill it yourself from the water hose at the service station but in our case, when we tried to do that, it leaked out the bottom as fast as we put water in the top. Then there was the car that was issuing scrape sounds from the wheels! Yes, the brake pads were low enough that the warning scrapes were pretty obvious, oh, and that one had an air conditioner that could not keep up too!
Here, in summary, are my six tips to survive renting a car in Panama, particularly at the Airport:
- Make on line reservations with several different car agencies before you travel. This will give you the ability to walk away from one agency without suffering the wallet abuse of walk up pricing at another;
- Expect and try to find out the prices of the insurance surcharges when you book. You will have to dig on the website but sometimes you can find them. The exception is Sixt, who states the charges openly. Print the insurance rates off, if you find them, and take them with you. They are often not kept up to date. Also, don’t phone the agency’s toll free number to check on insurance prices. It will be a call center somewhere with staff unfamiliar with the insurance requirements out of the US;
- Be ready to spend an hour or so at the car rental desk while you check in, more if there are people ahead of you. We have seldom experienced less time to check in;
- You will get an emergency number to phone if you have difficulty with the car. Assume it won’t work. That has been our experience;
- Don’t be afraid to refuse a car that does not meet adequate safety standards; and
- Be very careful about doing your acceptance inspection and include things that you would not need to include if renting at home. Be sure to cover scrapes, marks, dings etc. on the body in detail. Check tire wear and expect to find below standard tire condition. Check that all the wheel nuts are in place and that there are no broken studs. If the brake tabs are scraping, continue driving around the airport back to the agency and demand a replacement vehicle. If you are renting during the rainy season, be sure the washer system is full and working! You will need it.
Well, that is the long and short of car rentals here. Pay attention to the details and you shouldn’t find it too bad. We have had to return every single car we have rented on this trip for some problem or other. Some were replaced more than once. Just drive it back to the airport, show them the problem and ask for a new car.