Reprinted with permission from Billy and Akaisha Kaderli of www.RetireEarlyLifestyle.com Commentary in blue about driving in Panama added by Jackie Lange of Panama Relocation Tours
Most people in the U.S. and Canada own their own cars. Wherever we want to go, whether it’s to the grocery store or the next town, we simply jump into our cars and start driving. There’s no second thought about traffic rules, which side of the road to drive on, the language of the land or whether the car is in working order.
Generally, mass transport options are scarce for everyday getting around (unless you live in a city with a subway or airtram) and the use of taxis for transport can add up.
The situation is different in a foreign country. Taxis are cheap, and there are other transport choices like tuk tuks, local buses or bicycle driven taxis. Uber is available and very affordable in Panama City. You can even request an English speaking Uber driver.
Still, even with the abundance of affordable selections for getting around, some still prefer to rent a vehicle.
If this is your choice, below you will find nine useful tips for driving in a foreign country.
- Think twice about renting a car. Hiring a driver is an affordable option in many countries. These personal drivers know where they are going, they know the best sites to visit, and will assure your safety. It is a stress-free option. Many car rental places in Panama will not accept your insurance and force you to buy very expensive insurance.
- Become familiar with a rental car by driving it around the parking lot. If you do decide to rent a car in a foreign country, become familiar with the vehicle by driving it around the parking lot. Check that the seat belts are functioning, that the car is equipped with airbags and make sure the brakes and windshield wipers work. Try the headlights to verify they light up, and confirm that the turn signals blink. Check your fluids and fuel levels. Make sure you have Whatsapp on your cell phone and a cell number for the car rental place so you can call them if you have a problem with the car… know that they may not speak English.
- Plan your route ahead of time. This is very important. Know where you are going, and what stops you can make along the way. Weather conditions or even a local political protest can interrupt an otherwise easy trip and turn it into a nightmare, so have a secondary location where you could stay the night. Are you going through mountains? Do you want to avoid big cities or go right through them? Have a list of hotel choices in your destination place as well as your possible secondary stop. Always have plenty of water and snacks in the car just in case you are delayed.
- Get the latest maps and know the metric system. If you don’t know where you are going, how far it is to get there, or what the speed requirements are you are at a disadvantage. Going too slow or too fast, and not knowing what to expect on the roads ahead can create safety problems. Your car might have a GPS, but if you are going to less populated areas, or off the beaten path, those roads will not be registered in your device. You can’t buy a good map of Panama in Panama. Buy your map from Amazon before you come to Panama.
- Read up on the road laws and know the road culture of the country you are in. Stop signs and speed limits can be meaningless in some countries. It behooves you to take this fact seriously. In some countries like Thailand, the one with the larger vehicle pays for the damage, even if it’s not your fault. If a motorcycle driver runs into you, you are liable for the repair of his bike and his medical coverage. Be aware of your surroundings on the road. In Panama, the maximum speed is 100km or 60 miles an hour and it is strictly enforced. There could be police check points anywhere. The police will want to see your passport and driver’s license. They will check the entry stamp in your passport to make sure you have not overstayed your time in country as a tourist – which is a maximum of 90 days if you are driving.
- Avoid driving at night. Road cultures differ from country to country, and besides the fact that stop signs and speed limits can be meaningless in some countries, there are drivers who choose to turn their headlights off “to save battery power.” As astonishing as this might seem to you, it is often done, especially in rural areas. If you cannot see the car in front of you or the one behind you, this places your safety in jeopardy. If you are driving through a rural area at night, there can be cattle, donkeys, horses and other animals roaming the roadways. They are harder to see at night, and running into them is a rude surprise. I would add, try to avoid driving in the rain, especially hard rain, because it’s hard to see.
- Lack of enforcement and bribery are commonplace in many countries. This may or may not be to your advantage. Especially, if you have an accident with a local driver whose brother is the mayor or police chief! Try to keep your cool in any situation. Demanding, screaming and the flailing of arms will only place you lower on the totem pole of getting anything done in your favor. Don’t assume you have rights. Remember, you are in a foreign country. Move the situation forward with politeness and respect, and take care of your complaints later. If you get a ticket in Panama, you’ll have to go back to that province to pay the ticket. Do not drink and drive, or use your cell phone while driving.
- Don’t be afraid to use your horn. Americans are among the most polite drivers in the world, but it gets them in trouble. In many countries, using the car’s horn is a normal function of driving and is a form of communication. Using your horn can be effective in reducing crashes. Always toot your horn when you are passing someone on a road in Panama.
- Use public transport as often as possible. Public transport is often very good in foreign countries. Bus, air, ferry or rail passes make traveling from place to place affordable and less stressful than renting a car and having to remember on which side of the road to drive. You won’t have to be responsible for the vehicle’s safety or fret about where the next fuel station is. You can catch a snooze, watch captivating scenery or read a book while being transported to your next location. Public buses are readily available and very affordable in Panama. Uber is available in Panama City.
Relax and enjoy yourself!