Six tips to relaxing on a long flight to Panama

A flight to Panama – or from it – can be an experience if you live in some parts of Canada, although I understand that Copa, Panama's national airline, has been invited to fly directly out of Toronto. What a blessing that will be for many Canadians.

There is also a charter flight to Panama each week that carries 300 passengers each from Toronto and from Montreal to the Decameron Resort (see review) on Panama's golden Pacific shore.

But my flight to Panama from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, was a lengthy trip on February 2, 2006. Halifax, Boston, Atlanta, Panama City. That was Day 1.

TIP: Allow time for problems

My travel agent, bless him, arranged for a lengthy wait in Atlanta in case there were delays along the way. And delays there were, at every step.

The only way to get from Halifax to Panama in one day, at this time, is to crawl out of bed at 3 a.m. (assuming you want to do the normal ablutions, pack those last-minute things, and have a decent breakfast now that most flights no longer supply this).

The Halifax International airport is maybe 30 minutes from where I was staying, but there had been a snowstorm the day before, the first real one of the winter, that had shut down the city. That meant setting out at 4 a.m.

What a blessing it would be if there was a direct flight to Panama from there, but that's dreaming.

The airport opens at 5 a.m., so no two hours of waiting around for my Delta flight to Boston, which left at 6:10 a.m. No, let me correct that. It was supposed to leave at 6:10, but they had to de-ice the wings.

I'm not complaining. I've read what happens when they don't de-ice wings! But this was the first delay and it set the standard for every other leg of the journey over the next two days.

TIP: Stay calm

I didn't pay attention to how late we were when we arrived in Boston. This is when Halifax passengers are reunited with their luggage and pass through U.S. Customs where, on my flight, a wand was waved through each bag to detect explosives.

My delay in Boston was not with the flight I was supposed to be on, but with a much less technical piece of equipment. You see, following multiple back surgeries, I need a wheelchair in large airports. I was asked to wait on the Halifax-Boston plane until the chair arrived.

Then I was escorted off by a wonderful attendant, Carol Fumicello, who could not have looked after me better if she had been paid a million dollars. A new team of pilots and cabin staff were preparing to take the aircraft on to its next destination, and the wheelchair still had not arrived.

TIP: Smiles get far better results

So, off we get and stand in the cold for a while. Next, Carol takes us inside, away from the wind. All the time, she is on her cell phone, telling people of our various movements and looking after me like a mother hen with a chick.

Eventually, during one of her calls, she is told that a chair had come but that the attendant could not find us and had left. Eventually, one chair arrived with two attendants, and I had an impossible 10 minutes to catch the next flight.

Carol arranged for me to be put on the following flight. She told me she even tried to get me upgraded to business class, but the plane was full.

She did manage to install me comfortably with cookies and water (hey, it was before lunch!) in the VIP lounge.

She seemed amazed that I was "being so good" about the experience. But I knew that, with a planned six-hour wait in Atlanta for my flight to Panama, I had nothing to worry about. Enjoy the ride!

TIP: Make sure you have a diversion

When I eventually arrived in Atlanta, the wait was reduced to four hours (a plus). I normally detest waiting in airports almost as much as waiting in service stations while mechanics fix my car.

But my carry-on luggage (reduced to a simple small plastic shopping bag!), contained a steno pad and a pencil along with a novel and a few other necessities for the flight to Panama (including my tickets), and I happily spent the next four hours creating a marketing letter for another business. One of the fastest four hours I ever spent in an airport.

On to the next delay of my flight to Panama: This Delta plane, larger than all the others, was full. The first delay was because it took so long to get so many people settled in their seats. We eventually pull away from the gate … and stop. After a little delay: "Sorry, folks, we have to go back to the gate. There is a piece of luggage aboard without a passenger, and that is against FAA rules."

If we got back to the gate, the movement was so smooth that it was hard to tell. But I suppose we did, because a minute later: "It's okay now, we've found the passenger." An elderly woman with carry-on baggage passed down the aisle. I don't think she climbed up a ladder!

TIP: There's always an upside

The flight to Panama was 75 minutes late leaving Atlanta, and arrived at Tocumen International airport well after 11 p.m. local time. I'll leave you to imagine how long it took to get baggage, get out of the airport, and get to my hotel.

Clue: being in a wheelchair pushed by a young man with another occupied wheelchair in the other hand, I was last.

The busy city is much quieter at that time of the early morning. It's still busy, but there's no gridlock. That was a benefit.

I'll wrap up this tale of my flight to Panama with one more delay that had nothing to do with aircraft. As people familiar with this website probably know already, I live in the mountains in Chiriqui Province, close to the border shared with Costa Rica.

I had a total of 150lbs of luggage with me, and the inter-city airline (Aeroperlas) has a weight restriction of 25lbs, so I decided to take an air-conditioned coach, complete with extremely comfortable seats (airlines could learn something here) and TV. I was in no hurry. I was back among the palm trees.

TIP: Expect the unexpected

Halfway along the route, the bus had a flat tire. We were stuck on the side of the road for an hour while what seemed like a small army of men tried to change it.

Progress was made after stopping a coach from the same firm traveling in the opposite direction to borrow some tools, and after one of the men lugged a huge timber from a house where some construction was taking place.

But, hey, inside, there was an entertaining man who'd got on the bus at one of the earlier stops with a portable display of jewelry – gold chains, earrings, that sort of thing – who was a master marketer as well as a good entertainer.

He was fascinating to watch, and he made quite a few sales. A little like those old fairground people who used to stand on a box and hawk knives and kitchen aids. The time passed quickly with his help.

Total time for my flight to Panama and then on to my home? Eighteen hours the first day, 10 the second.

But don't let that put you off. The destination is well worth it. The secret is to relax and enjoy the journey. Maybe that's the secret to life.

Your flight to Panama might be a lot more direct. Or you may have more sense, and spread the trip to Panama City over more than one day!

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