Sunday, October 23, 2016

Touring Panama City by Helicopter, and Other Mileage Run Adventures

Heading out- using my one day in Panama well.  
I've written a lot on this blog, and talked to many people in person, trying to explain the nuts and bolts of how and why I fly as much as I do.  There's the usual cost benefit analysis- that of cents per mile, and valuation of elite status.  But really, especially with the changing world of devalued mileage programs, this alone can't be the only reason.  You clearly have to enjoy the process, the concept, the adventure.  These weekend trips across the world have to be an end unto themselves.  And why can't they be?  Brief trips demand encapsulation of experiences.  It's a narrow window into a place, but it can provide vivid memories.  If an airport is a city's handshake, then a mileage run is a first date.  At the end, you'll know if you want to go back for a second. 
This year, I've had the opportunity to experience some new destinations, as well as visit an old favorite or two.  First up was a quick weekend turn around in Panama City in February.  The great thing about this destination, as well as being an interesting place to see, is that it consistently has great flight deals from Los Angeles in business and first class.  This means that you earn double elite qualifying miles for the trip by default.  In short, it takes the qualifying miles of a trip to Europe, and condenses it into a 'quick' 7,000 miles that can comfortably be done in a weekend, with no upgrade waitlist suspense, and time left over to actually visit the destination. 
Newly updated 767-300 1st cabin from LAX-MIA
My flightpath was a no-nonsense LAX-MIA-PTY and back.  Even better, the LAX-MIA legs were on widebody aircraft with very comfortable lie-flat seats!
The view from my room at the Sheraton in downtown PTY.  No complaints about the hotel.  Nice staff, well located, and a great club lounge.
I'm not sure I knew exactly what to expect from Panama City.  With all the excitement at home this year, I didn't have time to do much to research for this trip.  My first impressions were surprise at the scale of the downtown area.  It has a decidedly 'Miami Beach' feel, with a little bit of over the top Gulf-style architecture thrown in.  It's not the overwhelming size and sprawl of a place like Sao Paulo or Tokyo, but it's an impressive city nonetheless. 
A large percentage, almost a fourth, of the population of the country live within Panama City itself, and the revenue generated by the canal is apparent.  You get the sense of a condensation of wealth, as well as people.  In opposition to this glass and steel high rise city, there is also a historic 'old town' section called Casco Viejo.  It's a district laid out with small streets and squares, full of Spanish colonial architecture.  It's been undergoing a revival, with many renovation projects, and has a vibrant restaurant and nightlife scene.  I had a busy day, so I didn't get there until later at night, but even a quick visit was worth it.  Something to keep in mind when visiting this part of town is that it gets very congested at night, especially on weekends.  I'd suggest having your taxi drop you a few blocks outside of the center of the district and walking. 
Casco Viejo at night.
The main event of my stay though, was a helicopter flight over the Canal.  This is a unique experience, especially given both the history and scale of the Panama Canal, and the recent expansion, as well as being able to get a sense of the geography of the country.  It's obvious from just looking at a map of the isthmus that the country is extremely narrow, but it really hammers the point home when you realize you can fly the entire width of it from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, and back again, in an hour and still have time left over to circle the Panama City before you land. 
For the tour, I flew in an R44 helicopter, which is the reliable and economical choice of many tour operators all over the world.   It's a good choice to see something like the Canal, as it's quick and nimble, but not so fast that you don't have plenty of time to see what's going on below, and get some great pictures.
All the way to another ocean in 30 mins or less!
Helicopters can fly at just about any allowed altitude, which gives you the unique experience of being able to descend to get a closer look at the land, skim 50 feet over the water, or say... dive at an alligator if you so wish.  Plus, there is excellent visibility from every seat.
The contrasting old locks (front) and the new (behind).
As was narrated by my pilot, this year for the first time they've filled the new locks with water.  From the air you can get a sense of the scale of the expansion.  The old set of locks are still in place in the background and at the time I was there, were still in use.  As you can see well from the sky, the new locks are not only individually larger to accommodate the bigger ships being built, there are also more of them. 
The canal itself is actually constructed using three natural lakes, which are connected by the locks to make up the full distance of the waterway.  Between the locks, these lakes sprawl out with jungle alongside, and create a beautiful pattern as you fly over.  Our flight was in the afternoon, so many of the ships for the day had already passed the locks, and the lakes were mostly empty. 

The flight ended with a aerial tour of Panama City.  The coastal skyline is even more impressive from the air.  If you take a helicopter tour in Panama City, chances are you won't have to head all the way back to PTY airport.  I flew with Helipan, which is located at the Marcos A. Gelabert Airport, closer to town. 
My day ended with dinner at Playa Veracruz at sunset.  It's a little ways out of town, but if you're looking for a resort style stay, rather than nights in the city, the Westin Playa Bonita is nearby. 
The next morning I headed back to the airport.  Conveniently, Uber serves Panama City, and the fare to or from the airport is about US $25.  Without traffic, the drive takes about 30 minutes.  Check in was fairly easy, but there was secondary screening at the gate, so get there a few minutes early.  There is a nice lounge accessible with Priority Pass.  Clean and simple, with drinks and light snacks. 
The trip ended well, with my upgrade clearing in Miami for the final flight back to LAX.  Since I had purchased a business class ticket, this moved me up into First Class on American's 777-300, which is arguably their best product in the fleet.  Business class on this plane is also lie-flat, and very comfortable, but I had a Systemwide Upgrade expiring in a matter of weeks, so I was excited to get to use it to experience the first class cabin. 
The first class seats are larger than business class, with armrests, and a massage function.
The suites are spacious, and very comfortable.  The food is enhanced over the business class offerings, and the service level is higher, especially since this plane has 52 business class seats, and only 8 in first.  Plus, you get three windows to yourself to take in the view!
Overall, this trip was a good first look at Panama City.  Since this business class mileage run continues to be a good deal for the qualifying miles, I'm keeping it in mind for the future.
Fly Well,
This entry was written for this week's Fly Away Friday, hosted by Time Travel Blonde.


  1. Awesome! I am assuming this was not just a mileage run trip given than you used the previous swu?

    1. This was mainly a mileage trip, since I knew I'd need the miles. It was a good deal for the mileage, and I managed to do a work meeting as well while I was there. My SWU was expiring maybe a week later, so it was also nice to use it for something fun.

  2. What amazing aerial shots! Sounds like you guys have a great time seeing Panama City from above - and to top it all off with an upgrade to First Class? Bliss!

    1. Thanks for reading! It was a fun trip, and I'm hoping to get back there next time there's a good deal. I feel like there's plenty more to see.

  3. Ooooh! I have an affinity for aviation so I loved the photos! An upgrade is always nice! Thanks for joining #FlyAwayFriday - see you in a few days! xo

    1. Thanks so much for reading, it was a fun little trip I'd recommend to anyone needing some miles. Already looking forward to this #FlyAwayFriday, see you there!

  4. This is so cool!! A nice upgrade is always nice and love the views you got while flying above Panama!!!

    1. Thank you! Heli tours are a great way to see new places- you cover a lot of ground, but can get close enough to really see the lay of the land. I'm lucky to get to do them as I travel, but they can be surprisingly affordable for small groups, especially in cities with a lot of operators.