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A Costly Mistake at Tocumen International Airport

A Costly Mistake at Tocumen International Airport

I like to think I have a reasonable amount of travel cred and experience.  Of course, this does not mean that I never make mistakes when traveling.  I definitely do; probably a lot without even knowing it.  However, usually when I make travel mistakes, they are small things which have little repercussions.  Unfortunately, that was not the case on June 28.  In fact, this turned out to be a rather costly mistake.

Originally, I was scheduled to fly on Air Panama from Panama City to San José, Costa Rica at 7am.  There was nothing particularly challenging about that.  I just needed to make sure I got to the airport with a reasonable amount of time.

Panama City has a major problem with traffic congestion.  In fact, I remember overhearing a conversation during the Panama Canal tour that it took a family an hour and half to reach their hotel in the city center during rush hour from the airport.  This family's hotel was actually closer to the airport than mine, so I guess I got lucky that my ride didn't encounter much traffic.  However, in order to play it safe, I made sure to leave the hotel at 4am.  I never like to have surprises when it comes to a travel day and would rather spend more time in the airport than risk getting delayed by traffic.

The morning of departure, I went down to the lobby of the hotel to find everything dark and the desk clerk sleeping on one of the chairs in the breakfast area.  To be fair, this was a small hotel, and once he heard me come down, he got up and unlocked the door when the car arrived outside the hotel.  The driver who took me to the airport was the same guy who had originally picked me up.  We then headed to the airport.

Since it was still very early, there were very few cars on the road, but I did notice that the merchants at the fish market were already up and unpacking the day's catch.  The drive to the airport was silent, and I was relieved that everything had run smoothly.  However, this was not to be the case.

Upon arrival at Tocumen International Airport, the driver asked me the airline, and I said "Air Panama."  As we drove past the doors, not a single one said "Air Panama."  This is when I started to worry.

Descending into Costa Rica on Copa

Once we reached the end of the drop off point, I had a pretty good idea of what had happened.  I paid the driver the agreed-upon amount of $30 and headed in hoping for a miracle.  It was not to be.  I did not see Air Panama at all; only Copa Airlines and a few other international airlines.  By now, it was pretty obvious what had happened.  I went to the wrong airport.

Panama City has two airports.  Tocumen International Airport (PTY) is the larger international airport whereas Albrook "Marcos A. Gelabert" International Airport (PAC) is the smaller airport west of Panama City that serves mostly domestic flights and a handful of international flights.  When I looked on my itinerary, it sure enough said "Air Panama (PAC)." 

Since it was still early (5:30am), I went up to a Copa Airlines worker and asked him how long it would take to get to PAC.  He told me it would take about an hour if the taxi hurried and there was not much traffic.  However, by this time, rush hour was starting and remembering what I had heard from many people about the infamous traffic congestion of Panama City, I was now faced with a situation.  I had two options and needed to make a decision quickly.

My first option was to get a taxi, speed over to PAC, hope traffic was still light, and barely make my flight.  This would require me to cough up more money for a taxi.  In addition, assuming I would make it there without traffic jams, I would still have to check in, go through security, and go through immigration.  If everything went perfectly, I estimated that I would have maybe 30-45 minutes to do all that upon arrival at the airport.  In addition, I would not lose the cost of the flight.  However, this was a very risky move.  If anything went wrong, I would be stranded since I would need to go back to Panama City and find a new hotel.  This would cost me even more money, and I would need to deal with the hotel in Costa Rica as well along with booking a new flight.

My second option was to write off the Air Panama flight as a loss since I would not be able to get a refund and book new flight to San José with Copa Airlines.  This had its own risks.  There was a chance there would no flights on this day or no seats available.  This would mean I would not get to Costa Rica on schedule, and I would lose a day.  I would then have to contact the hotel and revamp travel plans.  In addition, purchasing a new ticket would not be cheap.

Even though neither option was preferred, it took me only five minutes to decide that option two would be the most palatable.  I calmly got into the Copa Airlines check-in desk and thought of how I would explain this.  When my turn came, I went up to the clerk, explained my situation, and asked if there were any flights to Costa Rica that day.  Thankfully, there was one seat left on a flight that would depart for San José at 11am.  In a way, this was better since it would get me in a little bit later, and I would not have to worry about arriving at the hotel too early.

The price was not cheap.  It came out to $338 for a one way trip that would only be an hour long.  However, I was in no position to argue, so I calmly agreed to pay that price when another challenge arose.  The clerk said she could not sell me the ticket one way unless I had an onward ticket to somewhere else or unless I Costa Rican citizenship or residency.  Obviously, I did not have either of those.  Thankfully though, I had all my itineraries with me, so I showed her my departing flight to the Dominican Republic, and that was enough to get the ticket.

Once I got the ticket, I checked my bag and made my way through security/immigration.

The Hotel Balmoral in San Jose

While I was frustrated with myself for confusing the call letters of the airports, I was surprisingly calm and not stressed.  It was my mistake, and I knew I would need to pay for it.  That definitely happened.  Not only did I lose out on the $155 Air Panama flight, but I also had to pay an additional $338 for the Copa Airlines flight.

I did eventually get to Costa Rica a little later than expected and $338 poorer.  Luckily for me, the transfer from Juan Santamaria Airport in San José went smoothly, and I got to Costa Rica as planned with no other issues.  Upon arrival at the hotel, which is in a main pedestrian zone in the center of the city, I settled in and then walked around downtown San José for a bit to get my bearings for a more detailed exploration tomorrow.

Ultimately, did I make the right decision in choosing to do what I did?

I think so because purchasing the new flight meant I would not have worry about traffic and getting through airport procedures with little time to spare...assuming I even made it to the airport on time.  The option of purchasing a new ticket seemed to be the best one considering the circumstances.  While I still feel foolish for messing up the call letters of the airports, I guess it was bound to happen to sooner or later, but being 100% honest, I definitely do feel stupid that after 77 countries, I screwed up something major like this.  I don't how it happened, but it did, and the best thing to do in the future is make sure the call letters are correct and take this whole experience as a unique, stupid, and funny mistake.

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