About Panama’s Pensionado Program

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.

Examples:

And that’s just page 1 of a Google search on “Panama pensionado discount” but you get the point.

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.

And here, for the record, is the Panamanian law (in Spanish) and an English translation from Don Winner’s Panama Guide: Pensionado & Jubilado Discounts (Translation of Panamanian Law)

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.

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.

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 used to like an Italian restaurant up on the loop road above Boquete.  The food was good, the restaurant was cute, and the folks were nice.  The prices, originally, were high, but the rest was good.  When this gal up the price of a Hawaiana pizza (which in Panama city with the discount was $5) to $21, I decided it was time to pull out my Pensionado card and she gave me the attitude that I was taking food out of her kids’ mouths.  She gave me the discount,  and I gave it all back to her in a tip and have never gone back.

Today we went to a new restaurant that’s opened since I left for months ago for the ship.  Rustic, Panamanian, on the way to David, called, maybe appropriately “Ruins”.   Like many of the restaurants in town that haven’t closed since I left,  this one has a new owner.  Young guy from New York who was working in a deli on Madison Avenue when he was sixteen.  I’d heard they had great fish and chips.  And they were!  Pricey, but good.  $8 for fish ‘n chips is about what I’d pay for the same lunch in Ventura, California, little place on Seaward.  Understand in Boquete $3.50 maybe even, stretching it $5, is what you pay for a good lunch of fried chicken, rice, beans, and salad.   So the food was good, greasy, but hey . . . fish ‘n chips are greasy.   The food came out quickly and . . . a first for Panama . . . both of our lunches arrived at the same time!  One downside: they tried to pass off Coke Zero (foul stuff!) as Diet Coke.   So the check came with, get this, a 10% tip added in for really mediocre service.    At $8 I figured the Pensionado discount had already been factored into the inflated price, so I asked for the discount.   Sure, it’s the law, but . . . like a lot of restaurants in Boquete . . . no 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.

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