Sunday, October 25, 2015

My crazy weekend(s) trip to Panama! (part 1 of 2)

Why I took a weekend trip to Panama and some highlights of the quick trip.  Read on ...

As you know, this has been mostly a "deals" focused blog.  But, as you may have gathered, my interests have broadened into ways to make travel more affordable (and/or comfortable).  In some circles this is known as "travel hacking."

ships lined up to go through Panama Canal from window of plane

As with most things on this blog, this is going to skew towards being targeted at beginners or non-participants in this space (experts be warned).  And also to serve as a "justification" & explanation of why & what I made this trip ... so that maybe I don't have to tell the story in as much depth multiple times to curious family/friends/readers.

The Trip Details:
Some key details upfront.  First, I made this trip in less than 48 hours (assuming the last leg of my flight home from Chicago, where I am now, doesn't get delayed!) over a weekend, so I didn't have to take any time off from work.  Certainly my personal/family time has value, but arguably not as much as a day off from work! Second, the trip was all flown in First or Business Class on American Airlines (some US Airways planes - as they were just acquired by AA), so I traveled in comfort.

waiting to get on red-eye from PDX on yet-to-be-converted-to-AA US Air plane
I left PDX on Friday night, on a red-eye (overnight) flight to Charlotte.  I had a short layover there before taking a short flight to Miami early Saturday morning, with another short layover before flying to Panama City, and finally arriving just before noon (CT).  On my way home, I left Panama EARLY this morning (Sunday), going home through Miami and Chicago, and scheduled to arrive back to PDX a bit after 8pm.

a view of Miami from the sky
My Day in Panama City:
I traveled alone on this trip and had hoped to connect with an old classmate, but that didn't happen unfortunately.  But he was nice enough to give me his opinions on what to do.  Of course, seeing the Panama Canal is on that list, but I'm saving that for a later date (!!!).  So I went to the Biomuseo, or Biodiversity Museum, and the Casco Viejo historic district of Panama City.  I could write at length about both of these, but there's already lots of better write-ups you could read by Google'ing either.  But I will share some photos ...

animals that crossed the Panama land bridge - at BioMuseo
Plaza de la Catedral and Iglesia Catedral in Casco Veijo neighborhood

view of downtown Panama City from Casco

Iglesia La Merced
At the end of the day, it was back to a hotel near the airport, which fortunately had good wifi.  This allowed me to watch my alma mater get crushed in a late Saturday night football game, using a VPN service and the WatchESPN app.  Then got a few hours of sleep and headed to the Panama airport, arriving WAY too early due to unnecessary warnings to arrive early for international flights.

WHY do this trip? (i.e. - the "deal" angle):
It's going to be impossible to go into great detail on anything here, so I'll just scratch the surface and you can feel free to contact me via email or twitter with any questions.  This (unfortunately) is not a how-to tutorial, as many aspects of this "deal" are no longer available.  But great deals come around from time-to-time, so maybe it piques your interest to learn more for future opportunities.  Or maybe it will just confirm for you that I'm crazy.

The primary driver behind this trip (and a nearly identical one I'll be taking in a few weeks - stay tuned for "part 2") were 3 factors:

1) Going after the HIGHEST level American Airlines status!  On a total whim (but acting fast - as is often the key in this "game"!), I recently signed up for an American Airlines "fast track" (to elite status) promotion that my friend Shawn posted at Miles to Memories.  As you can read there, it allows a person to earn AA status for flying FAR less miles than usual.  I won't go into many details here, but there's some great benefits to having elite status (and especially so at higher levels), most notably earning extra miles (when you fly) and the ability to get upgraded to first class even when flying on cheap economy fares.  A key factor towards this aspect of the deal is that travelers earn at least 1.5x "elite qualifying" miles/points (won't get into the distinction here) when flying first class on AA.

mmmm ... first class breakfast ... better than it looks! :)
2) CHEAP first class airfare! Keeping track of various travel-related blogs, I recently became aware of some amazingly cheap first class fare to Panama.  This is key because it allowed me to make this crazy long/fast trip in comfort, while earning elite status at least at a 1.5x faster pace (in addition to the "fast track" deal I mentioned, above).  Why Panama?  Because it just so happened to be the place to which this cheap first class airfare was available, and also happened to be just the right distance to meet my mileage-run goals via two trips.  I've also been interested to go there for a while, especially after reconnecting with an old classmate recently who is from there.  The cherry on the top of the deal on this airfare was that I was able to completely pay for the tickets (both round-trip tickets) using Citi(bank) ThankYou points, earned by signing up for and using various Citi credit cards.  (That's a topic for a different blog post.  Or feel free to ask.  But suffice to say that I was able to fly for effectively nothing out-of-pocket, and at a very good value "redeeming" those points - due to the AA sale price I found.)

[UPDATE: Forgot to note that I'm also going to be earning over 40k AA miles on these two trips, as you earn miles on Citi ThankYou or Chase Ultimate Rewards trips. Usually you don't earn miles on "reward" bookings, at least ones made directly with airlines. So those 40k+ AA miles I'm earning offsets a good chuck of the ThankYou points I used to book my two trips to Panama!]

spa at the Miami Centurion lounge - nice complimentary back massage!
3) The EXPERIENCE (and comfort!) of the trip.  Unfortunately, I am only able to spend a half-day in Panama on both of my trips.  But I am able to do it without missing work (albeit missing a weekend!) and I get to experience a country and culture for the first time.  (My first time traveling alone to a country where I do not speak the native language!)  As I mentioned previously, the fact that I was able to do it all in first class (for effectively very little out-of-pocket, other than a cheap night hotel stay and some Uber fares) made it a reasonably comfortable trip.  What made it even more comfortable and affordable (lots of complimentary food and drinks) was being able to use the AA Admirals lounge (available to first class flyers and/or people with the right credit card) in each airport through which I flew.  (Also got to visit the American Express Centurion lounge in Miami twice, where I enjoyed a 15 minute complimentary back massage!)  Between these lounges and being fed in first class, I may have eaten a bit too much this weekend.  :)

[UPDATE 2:  I just had my first-ever ice cream sundae in the sky. Typically served with dinners in first class on AA flights. Just made it all worthwhile! :) ]

where I am now ... watching football in the Chicago airport AA Admirals lounge
I think I'll stop it there for now.  As my friends and co-workers know, it's tough for me to be brief.  I'll probably have more to post after my second trip next month (which I will be making with a friend).  At which time I will return to PDX with my highest-level AA status (Executive Platinum), which will be good through February of 2017.


  1. I loved the report. I was curious if you found the deal through Flightdeals or MightyTravels? I am also based in PDX, so I would love to find a deal like this

  2. Thanks for the comment. Glad you loved it. I honestly don't remember where we (Shawn from Miles to Memories) and I found the great fares. May have been Flight Deals. But the tough part was two-fold: a) getting it to work from Portland (much easier from AA hubs), and b) getting it to work being paid for with Citi ThankYou points. Finally found a good combination. I've noticed a few times since that flying to Panama on AA in biz class seems to be reasonably priced on quite a few dates (at least as international biz class flights go).