The Big Joke: Panama’s Pensionado Program
There are lots of “big jokes” when you adopt an expat lifestyle. That life will be easier and less complicated – generally a big joke. One of the biggest “big jokes” about Panama is something everyone pushes when promoting relocating to Panama. Look at about any Web site about Panama and you will find the “pensionado” or retiree discount program being promoted as a wonderful incentive to move to Panama.
Yes, it IS the law! And it goes like this, courtesy of International Living:
In Panama, qualified pensionados or retirees are entitled to:
- 50% off entertainment anywhere in the country (movies, theaters, concerts, sporting events)
- 30% off bus, boat, and train fares
- 25% off airline tickets
- 25% off monthly energy bills
- 30% to 50% off hotel stays
- 15% off hospital bills*
- 10% off prescription medicines*
- 20% off medical consultations*
- 15% off dental and eye exams*
- 20% off professional and technical services
- 50% off closing costs for home loans, and more…
*Unless insurance applies.
So how does it work in practice?
Yes, you do get a minor discount on energy and phone bills.
Prescriptions: yes, you do get 10%-20% off. Generally at Rey’s it is 20%. Locally with some items where there isn’t even a 10% markup, you might not get anything off. And since medicine costs about the same in Panama as in the States, 20% off is a good deal.
25% off airline tickets – right! You may save a few bucks, but not 25%. for 15 years we had travel agencies, and as a travel agent I could get 50% off. Good deal? No! Airlines have scores of fares. The 50% off was off the “Y” fare which I don’t think anyone has actually flown on since deregulation. It was always cheaper just to buy a regular fare excursion ticket that anyone could purchase. Copa, the biggest airline serving Panama and Panama’s “own” won’t give you the Pensionado discount unless you make a special trip to their reservation office and pay a $25 extra fee for dealing with a real person. So everyone pretty much observes or ignores the law as they wish.
Doctors and hospitals usually tell you “the discount is already figured in”. Whether it is, or isn’t, you’ll never know.
I’ve never tried the entertainment. But just try getting your Pensionado discount at a play put on by our local BCP theater group in Boquete!
Hotels like the airlines have more rates than you can shake a stick at, and there are lots of ways around this for the hotel. My gringo friends who’ve been here a long time and who are fluent in Spanish say the way is to go ahead and book it at the lowest fare you can get and then show up at the hotel and demand the discount off the fare quoted, if necessary pulling out a copy of the law in Spanish.
Restaurants is where it really gets dicey and downright awkward. If you know the restaurant owner do you ask for a Pensionado discount, or do you assume that the owner, being a friend, would give it to you without asking . . . or just assume you want to pay full tariff? A lot of gringos will judge the restaurant, look at the prices (to see if the discount has already been factored into an inflated price), or if it’s really a local place struggling to survive, just pay the check and forget the discount.
I realize it’s a tough call for a restaurant. Obey the law, or don’t. Hmmm. Wonder how that applies to health codes? I would think part of your business plan would be to consider your potential clientelle, and knowing you might have a lot of retired gringos wanting to use the Pensionado discount, price accordingly, which is what I thought the fish guy had done. Is that fair to your other customers? Are you pricing them out? Maybe. So to me the obvious solution is to issue a Frequent Dinner club card that get’s punched for every dinner and the fourth or fifth one is free, but, like all these offers, the offer is “not combinable with any other discount.” So the Pensionados get their discount, and the others get their cards punched which keeps it all even, legal, and builds repeat business.
Bottom line: retiring to Panama isn’t about the Pensionado discounts. There are lots of other, really good reasons to think about retiring in Panama.