If you’re going to ride a yacht or transport cargo through the Panama Canal, be ready to pony up some serious cash.
When I first put up this post I had just handed in a magazine story on Panama and was going through my notes from the trip. I visited the Panama Canal for the second time. The first time I actually went through it on a 14-person ship, while this time I just went to the Miraflores Locks visitor center.
I made a third trip to the Panama Canal recently and got new information, so this post was updated on March 5, 2018.
You find out lots of factoids when visiting the canal, but I’m most fascinated by the commerce side of it. Obviously it’s easier for a shipping company to go through here than to spend an additional 22 days sailing around the bottom of South America, so they’re willing to pay. A lot.
There are different fees for different ships and cargo, as in you’ll pay less to transport grain than you will to transport liquified natural gas, then a different fee structure applies if you load Fitbits into cargo containers. Some ships pay by tonnage, but those with contains have a different rate.
You can sort through the tariffs posted online to sort it out, but from what I can tell, cargo ships going through the wider canal are billed a maximum of $99 per full container, $59 for an empty one. (So you really don’t want to have a lot of empties.) Then in a system that seems like it was copied from U.S. airlines, there are lots of extra fees on top of that. A captain has to actually turn over the bridge to a Panamanian lock pilot for the transit and there are robotic guides with cables leading the ships through tight spaces.
The ship passing by in the photo above was loaded with 3,800 containers and going through the original lock system, not the wider one. Here’s what the captain paid when I was there, which was in 2014:
– $321,446 for the containers
– $11,445 for the work of 7 tugboats
– $4,745 for ground assistants
– $3,600 for ground wires
When they exit the other side of the Panama Canal, that transit alone will have added 1/3 of a $million to the cost of the goods on the ship. So if you’re in Boston getting coffee from Sumatra or a car from Korea, keep this in mind when you look at the price. Many people believe that goods they get from Asia travel by land across the USA, but in reality almost everything that travels across or up the Pacific comes through the Canal to east coast ports. That includes wine from Chile and chocolate from Ecuador.
That charge above is chump change though compared to some recent ones hosted by the wider canal. That wider section of the canal was a massive project that now allows full container ships through. This engineering feat cost billions and billions to pull off, so you can bet those ships making use of it are paying handsomely. Before the expansion, the record was $461,000 paid by one ship. Now the record has jumped to $1.1 million. No wonder this canal supplies 12% of Panama’s gross domestic product.
Speaking of prices, you’ll pay a surcharge if you go on a cruise ship through the Panama Canal. Those ships are levied a fee of $138 to $148 per bed (berth). Enjoy the ride that day—you’ve paid handsomely for it. I recently went from the Balboa dock through two sets of locks to the Pacific on a packed tourist boat. Looking at the prices, I know why it was packed: they have to pay $2,000 for that trip, not counting fuel and labor.
Sailing a Pleasure Boat or Yacht Through the Panama Canal
So what about the poor soul trying to live a lifelong dream of sailing around the world?
It’s definitely best to go small than to look like a new money Russian tycoon. If you look at the official toll prices here and scroll way down, the small ships pay $800 to $3,200 depending on length. My local in-the-know guide who updated me in 2018 said there are fees on top of that though—kind of like your airline ticket these days—so here are the total amounts he quoted.
Small ships of less than 50 feet in length pay $880 for the transit. Those of 50-80 pay $1,300. Those 80 to 100 feet pay $2,200. Above that it’s $3,200. But hey, if you’ve got a yacht that big, three grand is probably chump change anyway. You’ll also need the right lines for tie-up and a big enough crew to secure them all. No, you can’t use a credit card. (Or cocaine. Supposedly someone tried that once.) There’s also a damage deposit that you’ll get back later if there are no incidents, but you’ll be out around $800 for a while. You can send it all by wire transfer now though and if you’re short, have some $100 bills on you for the unexpected.
If you’d like to just see a bit of the (slow) action instead, entrance to the Miraflores Locks complex is $15 adults, less for kids and seniors. More info here. The museum has gotten better over the years though and there’s a restaurant and bar on site. If you’re a Panama resident, you only pay $3. That includes entrance to the museum and a guide explaining how everything works at regular intervals outside. The place must be raking in money because when I last visited there were hundreds of people streaming in and out at all times. Later when we passed in a ship there was still no space along the observation deck railings for the people looking out at us.
Keep in mind these rates go up every few years, so check the latest before you pull up to the canal opening in your own boat so you don’t come up short on funds.
If you ask me, a couple days in Panama City is plenty and there are far more interesting places to go within a few hours. So have some fun here then get out into the countryside or to the beaches. See the Visit Panama site for ideas and gorgeous photos.
If you decide you like this country enough to consider it as a place to live or retire, there are a lot of good incentives in place and it’s a relatively straightforward and fast country for getting residency as a foreigner. See lots of details in this post: The Cost of Living in Panama for Expats.