Update: 9/16/16: This article is now pretty out of date. I’d recommend you check out our newest article on Uber: Everything You Need to Know About Uber in Panama.
UPDATE 1/20: Uber has instituted a price cut of about 20% for UberX, making an already affordable service even more so. The new fare are $0.80 base rate, $0.10 per minute and $0.20 per kilometer, with a minimum fare of $2.
In Panama City, those of us who choose to live without a car are already pretty spoiled on our transportation options. Besides most people having basic necessities like supermarkets, drug stores, and restaurants in walking distance of their homes, there are a number of low cost options to get around town. I wrote about this at length in my Getting Around Panama City article. For those lucky enough to live/work near a stop, this includes the Metro system ($.35 per ride). For the rest of us, Panama has a cheap ($.25 per ride) and surprisingly well run and efficient bus system (some Panamanians may scoff at this notion, but they’ve never had a bus system like Tampa’s to compare it with). Cabs to most places around the city are 2 to 3 dollars, and for those who don’t mind spending a couple of extra bucks, services like Uber and and Tu Chofer provide a higher end experience than cabs. Now, with the addition of the new Uber service UberX, people living in Panama City have one more affordable option to get around.
As Uber in Panama continues to grow, they have recently added two new services to the Panama marketplace. The first is UberSUV, which allows you to request an SUV at a slightly higher rate. The SUVs still only seat 4 passengers, so to me this service has limited value unless you need to go somewhere like San Blas or the Darien where you will need 4 wheel drive. Their second new service has much more practical applications, which is their new low-cost service, UberX. UberX is essentially the same exact service as regular Uber, in slightly smaller cars, for significantly lower price. I’ve taken a number of rides on the service now, and have noticed know discernible difference between the service level of drivers and the quality of cars in the Uber and UberX services. I have, however, noticed a big change the amount I’m spending.
Here are the fare comparisons between Uber and UberX.
Fare Type Uber UberX Savings Percentage Base Fare $1.75 $1.00 43% Distance (per Kilometer) $0.43 $0.25 42% Time (per minute) $0.20 $0.14 30% Minimum Fare $4.00 $2.40 40% Airport Flat Rate (Tolls not included) $35 $25 29% Panama Pacifico Flat Rate $20 $14 30% Gamboa/Soberania Flat Rate $40 $28 30% Colon Flat Rate (Tolls not inlcuded) $80 $55 31%
As you can see, on average, a metered fare with UberX will be about 40% cheaper than regular Uber, while flat rate fares are about 30% cheaper. This is a big deal, as it puts the Uber service more competitive with taxi cabs on price, and becomes a cheaper option than taxis in more situations. In a lengthy review I wrote about my thoughts of the pros and cons of the Uber service, cost was the main prohibiting factor from using the service more. While Uber was competitive with taxis on longer trips, on shorter trips around the city, it would usually cost anywhere between $2-$4 more per ride than taking a street taxi. While that may not sound like much, if you use taxis as your primary mode of transportation around the city, switching entirely to Uber would probably raise monthly transportation costs $100-$200 a month, which would definitely add up. However, with the cost savings for UberX, it becomes more financially feasible vs. cabs as an everyday option. Take a look at some of the rides my and my wife have taken on UberX and what their comparative cost via cab would be.
Trip 1: Plaza Edison to Hospital Del Nino. Uber X cost: $3.23. Estimated cab cost: $3
Trip 2: Plaza Edison to Church in Cardenas. Uber X cost: $4.47 Estimated Cab cost: $5-7
Trip 3: Plaza Edison to Arrocha Via Argentina, wait for us, return to Plaza Edison. UberX Cost: $4.30. Estimated cab cost: $4 (without waiting).
Trip 4: Plaza Edison to my wife’s work on Transmistica. UberX Cost: $2.93. Estimated cab cost: $1.50-2
Trip 5: Super 99 on Tumba Muerto to Ciudad de Saber, wait, and then return to Plaza Edison: $11.62. Estimated cab cost ($20)
Out of all of the first five trips, only the one to my wife’s work was measurably more expensive than taking a cab would’ve been, and two of the 5 trips were cheaper. The other two were close in price. This is for a service that is of much better quality than street cabs. They pick you up at your house, the cars are clean and nice, and they will take you anywhere and won’t refuse rides. While there are some downsides to the Uber service with I mentioned in my review, overall, at a similar or cheaper price to cabs, I would take it every single time.
As I mentioned earlier, there is really no quality difference between UberX and Uber. In fact, if I hadn’t know which service I would have requested, I would’ve not been able to tell the difference between the two. UPDATE: (I’ve learned a little more about the difference between UberX and Uber Black (regular Uber). Uber Black drivers are required to professional driver licenses, while UberX drivers can have regular drivers licenses. I’ve heard that a professional licensee is not that hard to get here, but that’s still a difference between the two services. Also, Uber Black cars are held to higher standards than UberX cars. I’ve been in plenty of nice UberX cars, but some are definitely a lower quality than Uber Black cars. They are still all nicer than cabs.) You request it through the Uber app, where you will have a choice on the bottom of the app to choose which service you want to use (UberX, Uber Black, or UberSUV). It charges to the same credit card you have set up on your normal Uber account. UPDATE 2: There are many drivers who work as both UberX and UberBlack drivers. This is not all drivers, but is a good number of them. So when requesting UberX, there’s a good chance you’ll get a car and driver that meets UberBlack standards, but just for the cheaper price.
The biggest downside to the UberX service now is that they are very few cars available. There are many more Uber cars on the road than UberX cars, so sometimes you have to wait a while for one to get online. You’ll usually never see more than one or two available on the whole Panama map at one time, and they may be out of range for your location. They only rolled out the service a couple of weeks ago, so they may be adding more drivers as it ramps up. Or it could be that they are just not finding very many drivers at this cheap a price point. Also, the Uber issue of finding a ride to your location but not back is even greater with UberX, since there are fewer cars on the road. UPDATE: Since this article was written, the number of UberX cars on the road has greatly expanded. There are now as many UberX cars on the road as UberBlack, if not more.
The way Uber works is this: They will take you anywhere you want to go in Panama, so if you get a car and tell them to take you to Boquete, they will. But they only will pick you up from where they have cars in range, which is usually areas that it is a 15 minute or less drive from your location. So the farther you go outside city center, the less likely it is that you will be able to find a car in range to take you back. For example, if you are going to the Miraflores visitors center, you will be able to get there for cheap (probably $6-$8), but unless you get lucky, you’ll be stuck taking one of those canal taxis that want to charge you $20 home.
One way to combat this for trips where you are only going somewhere for a short time is to ask the Uber driver to wait and keep the meter running. You can see I’ve done that on a couple of my trips. You get charged $.14 a minute (UPDATE: now $0.10) for time (whether traveling or waiting), which only adds up to $8.40 cents per hour (UPDATE: now $6). So it may be worth it to have your driver wait for you. I don’t know what a driver would say if you asked them to wait two or three hours, but technically, they are supposed to do it.
It will be interesting to see if the service will be able to keep its prices this low. Because drivers don’t get paid for the time it takes them to get you, plus they have to give Uber a cut, and they can’t do sketchy things that cabs can do like pick up multiple fares at once, turn down routes they don’t want to take, and rip off gringos, I think that UberX drivers probably make less than cab drivers. And they have to be more professional, and maintain their cars to a much nicer level than cab drivers. So there may be some pressure for them to raise these prices in the future.
As of now, I’d recommend using an UberX for your transportation needs almost anytime one is available (places where cheap taxis are easily available may be an exception). It gives the quality service of Uber without the price issues. Plus, if you are a new customer, you can get your first ride (up to $10) free by using our code 2ZH9A (we get $10 too).