Panama Canal: the cost for a big shortcut

Totem enters the Pacific

Totem rocks gently at anchor on the Pacific side of the Panama canal. There’s more to share about our transit, but “how much does it cost?” comes up frequently. Here’s what we paid to transit the Panama canal, with a breakdown of fees to help estimate what it could cost others.  It’s a lot of money, but let’s face it: Cape Horn and the Northwest Passage present inconvenient alternatives for sailing to the Pacific.

Fees levied by Panama’s canal authority, the ACP:

  • Transit toll: $800 (same all boats up to 50’) [6/19 update: effective Jan 2020, toll increased to $1,600 for boats up to 50′]
  • Inspection by an ACP Admeasurer: $54 (fixed by ACP)
  • Security charge: $130 (fixed by ACP)

Fees for Panama formalities:

  • Panama cruising permit: $197 (fixed)
  • Panama visas: we paid $315 ($105/adult). Panama since stopped levying this fee. bummer for us!
  • Other formalities: $55

Other canal transit costs:

  • Agent fee: we hired Erick Galvez from Centenario for $350
  • Line handlers: four required in addition to the skipper/helmsperson. Our friends volunteered. $0
  • Lines/fenders: Rented four lines of 125 feet, and large fenders, through our agent for $75
  • Bank commission for ACP payments handling: $60
  • Water taxi tip for collecting lines/fenders: $12

Total fees necessary for Totem to transit the canal: $2,048.

You can pay a little less, and you can pay a lot more. Here’s how:

Boat size: The 50’ cutoff for $800 is a hard one. There is no lower cost bracket for shorter boats. From 50′-80′, the fee is $1,300. The Admeasurer brings a tape and measures the vessel’s extreme length. Got a bowsprit? Anything sticking off the transom like a solar arch? These are included in the length. We deflated our dinghy tubes to keep them on the davits (thinking a clear foredeck was safer for line handlers) and stayed barely below the 50’ mark.

6/19 addition: graphic below shows proposed toll increases anticipated to be effective in January 2020:

This is the first increase since 2012, and while it doubles for boats up to 50′, increases more incrementally for 50-65′ cruisers.

Agent fees: You can save this expense and arrange transit yourself. Not rocket science, just takes time, and some precautions. Agent fees vary. We picked ours based on a mix of glowing referrals and competitive rate. An agent saves money in some ways (no buffer paid- more on that below; no taxiing around to visit officials – you don’t walk / take public transportation in Colon with a pocketful of cash, it’s not safe). Our primary purpose in hiring the agent was to have an advocate for our transit timing, so our friends visiting from the US could transit with us. That didn’t work, but once we were in Colon, he was an excellent advocate and presented short-term openings for us twice in our first week there (the waiting period during our peak-season stay ballooned to as much as 21 days from measurement to transit; we got through in 10).

Line handlers: Hiring a handler is $100+ and hires sleep on your boat overnight. Cruisers often try to transit on another boat ahead of their turn in order to see what it’s like, a nice tradeoff for everyone. You should pay their taxi fare in the opposite direction. Do make sure they know how to tie a proper knot and have basic boat sense, and will be ready to work instead of take pictures. A guy next to us worrying about his big DSLR nearly lost his fingers because he wasn’t paying attention.

Lines & fenders: we have line of sufficient strength and length on board, but it would have to be cut for canal use. The lengths are intended for use with our sea anchor, and then we’d want to replace that line. Standard dock fenders are not strong enough for the forces the canal may impose (also: having seen the concrete walls, would not want to subject them to it!). It’s possible to pay less (I heard $50) and get tires instead of fenders.

At least the tires are usually well-wrapped in plastic, and certainly durable

Bank fees: if you walk around and get all the cash (US dollars, and you do need cash, and it isn’t easy to get to ATMs in Colon, and you cannot safely walk for one block in Colon with that kind of money on you), you can probably save some of the bank commission (which you’ll then pay in taxi fees). We were happy to let the agent handle this.

Water taxi: your rented lines/fenders have to be returned, and the launch crew at Balboa Yacht Club on the Pacific side handles it for $12. One of the boats rafted with us stiffed them. Not cool.

Panama visas and cruising permit: the visa fee was eliminated about two weeks after we checked into the country. If we weren’t such rules followers, and sailed through Guna Yala without clearing in and waited until we reached the canal zone, we could have saved $315! Oh well.

Clearance fees: Outbound clearance fee: $35; “document fee” to crooked port captain in Colon: $20. Well hopefully you won’t have the unscrupulous Colon port captain who charged us a “pena” (penalty) I’m pretty sure was not warranted, to prepare a maritime authority document which our inbound clearance port that had not provided. The $35 outbound clearance fee is fixed, however.

Buffer fee: In addition to the other ACP fees, all paid in advance of transit, you must pay a nearly $900 “buffer fee.” This is a bond to ensure you don’t rack up charges from missing your slot, being too slow, needing a water taxi for your line handlers or whatever. If you hire an agent, he takes care of this buffer fee. That fee is eventually returned by the ACP, but between general distrust of the efficiency of the system, our intention to sail north from the canal ASAP instead of sticking around to make sure we got our money back, and a desire for advocacy in our timing and procedure for transit – we picked hiring an agent.

I wished to have a simple breakdown of the costs and how they varied to estimate our fees (we ballparked higher, but were basing off a boat that paid more – partly based on LOA, as their LOA crept over 50 although it’s “46 feet”, and partly based on agent charges). I actually expected our fees to be at least $3,000, so as bad as this sounds, it’s “good.” Although even if we paid less, the canal fees still make Panama the MOST expensive country we have cruised in to date – by a margin of hundreds of dollars!

That’s OK. We didn’t have the warm enough clothes to detour the long way in either direction anyway.

Tristan and Niall contemplate the Bridge of the Americas from the Pacific


18 Responses

  1. Very helpful — thank you! I’m curious: WOULD you take Totem through the Northwest Passage?

    1. I would love to sail through the NW passage! Totem is set up for temperate/tropical sailing: she’d need mods before it made sense.

  2. What a great report. I’ve been wondering about the costs and the process for a while.
    Yes, it could be considered a high cost – but the service offered seems well thought out and relatively efficient.
    The alternatives could cost as much or more and over a much longer period.

    This article certainly encourages us to do this when we are ready to revisit some Pacific islands we first visited by air.

    Thanks for yet another good read on a rainy night in London. :o)

    Enjoy the Pacific.

    1. I agree Ade – thought out and efficient. And spot on re: the alternatives! Glad you enjoyed this. We’re so happy to be back in the Pacific.

    1. It’s a bit more than stocking up on clothes but with the right boat and time for the right seasons, I’d love to go around S America! But no regrets on the canal, it was an incredible experience to go through.

  3. It was 1997 when we crossed the canal and the cost was $400 for our 43 Feet boat. Thank you for the article.

  4. Really great, detailed post. I was under the impression the cost was less than half of the actual cost, so this was an eye opener. Considering American taxpayers already paid $375 Million to built the Panama Canal, the expense is a complete ripoff 🙁

    1. I’m glad you liked the post- thank you! I don’t feel like we were ripped off at all, though, or feel entitled to a free/cheap passage just because of the US role in the history of the canal. While I’d happily have it cost less, it is pretty tremendous to see the engineering, staffing, and safety in place to move a large amount of shipping traffic seamlessly.

    2. and lets go back in time to see which president GAVE away our 375 million dollar canal and who knows how many lives..
      now we all have to pay $2K to get thru instead of fifty bucks.
      pisses me off…

  5. Awsome info and thank you for the time doing it
    I have a high lattitude vessel and wish to sail around nova Scotia and west coast Canada

    So north west passage is looking good for me ….
    2000 dollars goes a long way on beer ?

  6. Hey Behan – Great stuff, looks like you had fun. One note for others looking to transit – you don’t need to use cash. We handled all the transactions with the ACP via bank wire, which was easy, and cheaper than an agent. Always another way to do it!

      1. I heard that if you visit Panama that you have to get vaccinations for Yellow Fever if you want to visit neighboring countries or they won’t admit you. Is that true or is it true for visiting Panama or is it NOT true if just traversing the canal?

        1. We don’t have yellow fever vaccinations. We’ve never been asked, except in Colombia, which DOES have yellow fever… and when I said we didn’t have the vaccination, the customs official didn’t even blink – he just carried on. YMMV. Always good to research this based on your own plans, and use dependable sources like embassy or government websites and not a dodgy sailing forum where everyone’s an expert.

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