Uber, the rapidly growing, sometimes controversial ridesharing service, has been operating in Panama since March of 2014. In that time, it has grown from a niche luxury car service to a multi-option car service and legitimate competition for the taxis (just don’t expect them to admit that), that is the preferred method of travel for most expats and a growing number of Panamanians. My wife and I (who still live here without a car), now use Uber for about 90-95% of our transportation within Panama. I have written two previous articles on Uber in Panama, but the service has changed and grown so much and so rapidly, that those articles are pretty out of date to what the service currently looks like in Panama. I decided to write this one as an up to date article to give you all of the details of what you need to know about Uber in Panama, and I will continue to update it as Uber makes changes to it’s services.
What is Uber?
For those who haven’t heard, Uber is a transportation service that operates out of an app in your cell phone. Users download the app for the Apple or Google Play stores on their phone, and then create an account. The app uses their phones GPS (with a location confirmed by the user) to call the nearest driver to them when requested (the drivers are independent contractors who do not work for Uber, but pay a percentage of their fares to Uber to use the app), who will come pick them up and take them to their destination. Unlike taxis, Uber operates on a metered basis for both time and distance, which will calculate the fare of the trip. The fare is usually charged directly to the user’s credit card (although there are now more ways to pay, more on this later), so there is no need to carry cash when you travel with Uber.
Uber provides several benefits over traditional taxis, including generally better car quality and better service, more security, as you are provided with your driver’s name and details, a metered fare so no need to worry about getting ripped off by taxi drivers who try to “gringo” you, and the ability to go cashless. It also in many circumstances, especially when taking UberX, be as cheap if not cheaper than traditional taxis.
Uber Services Categories and Prices
When Uber first launched in Panama, it started with a single service class, Uber Black. Since then, the service has grown to now have 5 different service categories, UberX, UberBlack, UberSUV, UberXL, and UberBici. Each service has a different price to it, but all have the same component. There is a small base fare, as well as a meter for time AND distance. So if you have a ride that is 5km and 10 minutes, you are charged for the 5 kilometers and the 10 minutes. There is also a minimum fare in each category, which if your meter is below that rate, you will be charged that for your ride.
UberX: This is Uber’s lowest cost option, and the one we use most frequently. To be honest, we almost never request another car type besides UberX, except in very rare circumstances. There is just not a noticeable difference in other categories (such as UberBlack) to make up for the cost difference. UberX is considered the lowest category, because the drivers do not have to have professional drivers licenses, and can have cars that are slightly smaller and not quite as nice as cars in the other services. But that hasn’t translated to a noticeable difference in service level. Especially considering that drivers can list their cars in multiple categories, so you can often get a car that fits categories such as UberBlack and UberSUV, but for UberX prices. The only thing is that you are not guaranteed a car that fits those classes, but I’d say probably 50% or more of the UberX cars I get are also UberBlack cars, or UberSUV cars, or UberXL cars. You are guaranteed a car that will seat at least 4 passengers with 4 doors (no coupes of convertibles), and some of them are quite nice (while you are more likely to get a Kia Rio, I’ve ridden in multiple BMWs in UberX).
Base Fare: $0.80
Distance: $0.20 per kilometer
Time: $0.10 per minute
Minimum Fare: $2.00
UberBlack: This is the original Uber service, and considered a service level above UberX. Drivers are required to have their commercial drivers licenses, and are required to have cars that are of a nicer class than some of the UberX cars. But it shouldn’t be confused with a luxury car service. You are not guaranteed a Lexus. Just a slightly higher caliber of car than UberX guarantees you, but still likely a Kia or Toyota. Due to the fact that it is more than twice the price of UberX, without much additional benefit, I almost never find a reason to take UberBlack.
Base Fare: $1.85
Distance: $0.47 per kilometer
Time: $0.21 per minute
Minimum Fare: $4.20
UberSUV: UberSUV gives you the ability to request a 4 wheel drive SUV, that meets UberBlack standards. This service is more expensive than UberBlack, but can be useful if you are trying to go to locations such as San Blas, where you need a 4 wheel drive car to use the roads. UberSUVs are still only seat 4 passengers, so this isn’t the category to choose if you are travelling with a large crowd.
Base Fare: $2.20
Distance: $0.55 per kilometer
Time: $0.25 per minute
Minimum Fare: $5.00
UberXL: This is Uber’s newest category, and the one that is most useful outside of UberBlack. UberXL allows you to request a mini-van type car, that will hold at least 6 passengers, instead of the 4 passengers for the other services. This is very useful if you are traveling with a group of 5 or 6, as before you had to request 2 separate Ubers to take you to your destination. UberXL is also the second cheapest service Uber offers, at prices 1.5x the price of UberX, but cheaper than UberBlack, UberSUV, or UberBici.
Base Fare: $1.20
Minimum Fare: $3.00
UberBici: If you want to take your bicycle with you to wherever you are going, such as the Cinta Costera, UberBici is for you, as all of their cars come equipped with a bike rack on the back to carry multiple bicycles. UberBici is tied with UberSUV as the most expensive fare class.
Base Fare: $2.20
Distance: $0.55 per kilometer
Time: $0.25 per minute
Minimum Fare: $5.00
No More Flat Rates, but a Distance Surcharge.
Until recently, Uber had “flat rates” for certain trips, such as those to the airport and the beaches, where the user would just pay a flat fare, regardless of time and distance, for travel to those areas. These fares were usually more expensive than what the meter would be for a ride, so they helped compensate the drivers for longer trips or certain in demand areas, that helped them supplement their earnings from what are the fairly meager regular meters.
However this did cause some issues, as not every location had a flat rate, and so sometimes longer trips that didn’t have a flat rate would be more expensive than shorter trips that did. For instance, trips to Panama Pacifico had a $15 flat rate from the city, but areas such as Arrijan and La Chorrea, which are further outside of the city, did not, so they were usually cheaper (my wife and I would visit her mother in Arrijan for around $7-8).
Uber has now replaced flat rates with a distance surcharge, which accomplishes the same spirit of the flat rates but applies it evenly across the whole country. The way the distance surcharge works is this: for any trip longer than 20km, the distance fee for every km over 20 will be applied a surcharge to the distance fee, making it more expensive. So if you had a 25km trip, the distance fee would be applied to 5km of the trip. This distance surcharges for the different fare classes are as follows:
Uber X: $0.45 additional per km (for a total of $0.65 per km).
UberBlack: $0.20 additional per km (for a total of $0.67 per km).
Uber SUV: $0.30 additional per km (for a total of $0.85 per km).
Additionaly, Uber also charges an additional fare, on top of the meter and distance surcharge (if applicable), for trips going to or originating from Tocumen Airport. The additional fare is $14 for UberX, $18 for UberBlack, and $20 for UberSUV.
I don’t have any information for UberXL and UberBici, as this information was not provided by Uber (UberXL hadn’t even been released yet when Uber announced the new distance charges). My guess would be that UberSUV would be around UberX and UberBlack, while UberBici would be the same as UberSUV.
If there’s one thing that every Uber user hates about the service, it’s their surge pricing. How surge pricing works is that at certain in demand times, Uber will add a multiplier on their existing fare, raising the cost of the trip. The multiplier can be anywhere from as little as 1.2x the fare, to 3.0x the fare or more. So if your Uber ride would normally by $4, but there is a 3.0x multiplier, you would pay $12 for the ride instead. This can turn Uber from a relative bargain to a very pricey service. They say they do this to encourage more drivers to get on the road, so that there are always cars available. But it can definitely be an unpleasant part of the service.
There’s no definite time of day that Uber is on surcharge, it can be applied any time based on Uber’s algorithm. But in general, during workday rush hour and times of heavy rains seem to be good bets for high surcharge.
Uber will show that a fare is on surcharge (each fare class will also have their own surcharge. One may be on surcharge while another is not) by putting a little lightning bolt next to service type. When you click on it, it will let you know at what multiplier the surcharge is at. It will also ask you to confirm the surcharge before you request your ride, so there is no way to be “tricked” into taking a surcharge ride.
Usually surcharges will dissipate after sometime, so if you are not in a hurry to get where you are going, it’s generally a good idea to wait them out. But if you are in a hurry, you may have to suck it up and pay the higher price.
Another fairly new option that Uber is offering in Panama is UberEnglish, where for a $1 surcharge on top of the normal fare, users can request a driver in either UberX or UberBlack who is at least proficient in English. This is especially helpful for tourists or those who have just moved here. Even though you request a location based off of a point in the map, drivers often call to confirm your location, and if you don’t speak much Spanish, this can lead to communication difficulties. So for those who are not proficient in Spanish, this is a good option. But if you speak enough to get by, you are better off saving the $1 per ride and just requesting the regular service.
More Ways to Pay
Reversing the long standing policy of only accepting credit and debit cards, Uber is now very controversially accepting cash as payment for rides. This has caused Uber a fair bit of trouble with the Panamanian government, who until now, has been generally supportive of Uber operating in the country, despite strong opposition from the taxi industry. President Varela has said that Uber serves a different market than taxis, and shouldn’t be considered direct competition. However he and others have been sharply critical of Uber’s decision to accept cash, as they see it as an attempt to compete directly with the taxis, and it may lead to regulation/restriction of Uber in the country.
From a logistical standpoint, accepting cash also seems like a bit of a nightmare for Uber drivers. They are now required to carry and make change for riders, and with fares that are usually not nice rough numbers (making change for a $2.87 fare is a pain), this has got to be a burden on the drivers. My suggestion, to make life easier both for yourself and the drivers, is to stick with using a credit or debit card whenever possible. Uber also now allows users to pay by PayPal as well, so this is another option users who want to remain cashless.
Using the Map
Uber allows you not only to put in your pickup location, but also put in your destination into the app as well. This is helpful, as it allows the drivers to use Waze for turn by turn directions to get to your location, reducing the risk of getting lost. In general I’ve found that one areas that Uber drivers are not as good as taxi drivers is knowing their way around the city. Most of the drivers, especially UberX drivers, drive for Uber part time, so they don’t have the general knowledge of where everything is that taxi drivers do. Putting in your destination will help with this, although to be honest, I do find that sometimes drivers don’t use it, or still ask you for directions/your preferred route.
It is also helpful to the driver if you put your location in the map, since the Uber app will use their drop off location to send them new ride requests when they have almost completed their trip. This way drivers can get continuous fares without downtime, which makes the s.ervice more beneficial to them. This helps users, as there will only be a good selection of drivers like there is now if the service remains beneficial for them to use.
FREE RIDES (MULTIPLE)
One of Uber’s biggest marketing tools has been it’s referral program, where current users can give a unique referral code a new user, and when the user uses that code and takes their first ride, both the new user and the person who gave them their code get’s a free ride (up to $10). Literally the day before I wrote this, Uber has sweetened the pot and announced that for the rest of 2016 and all of 2017, referral codes will now grant both the referrer and the new user TWO free rides. This is a great opportunity for people who would like to try Uber out to get a feel for it, without having to spend any money (outside of a trip to the airport or long distance, it’s pretty hard to get an UberX fare above $10). If you are new to Uber and would like to try it out (and support this blog along the way) you can use our code 2ZH9A to get your two free rides.
When you sign up for Uber, you will be added to their email list, where you’ll get notified from time to time about other promotions Uber is running. This can include several limited run services, such as UberHelado (they deliver ice cream to your house), UberBurger (they deliver a cheeseburger in fries to your house), and UberCopter (they take you on a helicopter ride over the Panama Canal). Uber runs these gimmicky services from time to time, and they’ll always announce first in their emails. They also offer limited time promotional codes occasionally that can be used for discounted or free rides. Sometimes they are for rides to or from certain places, other times it for using a certain payment method (they recently had 50% off a trip for using a Visa). Sometimes they just offer free rides with no strings attached. These codes usually only last for a day or two when they are issued.