Traveling to and from Panama can get tiring when you go through Panama City during rush hour, over and over, to get to Tocumen Airport (PTY). It takes me about 2 1/2 hours to get to the airport in medium to low traffic. It sometimes will take me over 3 hours to get back home to El Valle, depending on what time I arrive back in PTY.
And immigration and customs lines are a madhouse.
So, when I had the opportunity to fly into the brand new Rio Hato (Scarlet Martinez International) airport near Playa Blanca, I jumped on it. This is the new airport that just opened August 2014 for international “charter” flights.
Currently Sunwing Airlines is offering vacation packages with charter flights direct from Toronto, Canada. In November they will be offering them direct from Montreal as well, and then sometime later, from Quebec City.
I did not buy a vacation package that included a hotel, but just purchased a round trip ticket directly from their website. I will not be using the return ticket. I flew one way to Canada, knowing I would fly direct back to Rio Hato. It all worked out to be about the same price either way, so I won’t go unto detail about all my flights, but just the thought of heading back to Rio Hato and avoiding Panama City had me giddy.
Here is my experience:
Early this morning, I tried to do a web check-in on their website. I was unable to find the flight, which scared me a little! So I left for the Toronto airport a half hour earlier than planned, just to make sure.
Leader board showing Rio Hato as a destination at the Toronto airport
Here is our plane on the tarmac
Thankfully everything was fine. I was able to check in and get through security easy enough. Once on the plane, we left on time (a big plus in my book!) and it was announced that we would be in the air for 5 hours before landing. That is awesome, only hours from Canada to Panama.
I did ask about changing names on my itinerary (for example, to offer someone my return flight if they could use it). You cannot do that unless you purchased flight insurance when you purchase your ticket. Otherwise it is non transferable and non refundable.
The price of the round trip ticket was $530. It reminded me a bit of Spirit Airlines – they are notorious for “nickel and diming” you – trying to get you to pay for upgrades, extra inches of leg room, etc. I got about 10 emails from them (about 2x per week) since I made my reservation.
My single checked bag was free, but they made me weigh my carryon, and had a limit of about 7 or 8 kg for a carryon. I had never heard of that before. It was just my laptop bag, which I would have refused to check, so I am glad they allowed it on. Another guy who had a small carryon (suitcase) had to check his, he told me. I am not sure if you get all your baggage free.
They offered a free in flight movie with headset, a free “lunch” that consisted of either a turkey sandwich or a calzone type vegetarian sandwich, and something that looked like Banana bread. (I am gluten-free so I usually bring my own food on the plane).
We landed and I got my first glance at the airport and what it looked like. We walked down steps to the tarmac, and the airport itself reminded me of David or Albrook airports a little (except the only plane at Rio Hato was the 737 we just got off).
The best part of this flight? Immigration took two minutes! YES! That is all. I zipped through to get my luggage in no time at all and was out the door and on the road so quickly.
My flight was scheduled to arrive at 3:05pm. We arrived a little early, but nonetheless, I was back at home in El Valle by 4:00pm.
If that was PTY, I wouldn’t have been home until 6:30pm at the earliest, if there wasn’t any traffic, but more likely close to 7pm.
This is going to be great for all our Canadian friends who want to come to the beach this upcoming season.
I recommend calling Sunwing Airlines at 1-877-SUNWING to ask them about different options other than what is available on their website. (www.flysunwing.com) – when I purchased my ticket online I found the airport under the name “Playa Blanca”.