Coming into 2017, one of the major gaps in my family travel knowledge was group travel. I’m not opposed to group trips – I’ve done 10 photography trips around the world the past decade – but I hadn’t gone on a family one and had questions. Would my kids be ok with a more structured vacation? Would they get along with the other kids? In short, is this a good vacation option going forward?
The best thing about group travel: everything is arranged for you, from airport transportation to activities to tour guides. The worst thing: if you don’t like the people in the group, or if you want to stray from the itinerary, well, you’re stuck.
So I booked a trip. I chose Thomson Family Adventures as they’re the largest family tour operator, and I had met and been impressed with two of their employees at travel events the past year. But I didn’t make things easy for them. First, I selected a trip to a destination that I considered unexciting from previous travel there, Panama. It’s easy to do an amazing trip to somewhere amazing. How would Thomson do with Panama? Second, I took my most difficult child – my 9-year-old son. He likes structure, but his own self-imposed structure. And he’s typically not social with new kids. If he liked the trip, that would give me confidence in recommending group travel to virtually anyone else.
Thomson Family Adventures
I was impressed with Thomson. The trip signup was easy and the pre-departure information was good. If I had questions, I got answers by email immediately – definitely not the case on several other group trips I’ve done. A week before departure I received a box with trip information, an activity book for my son, water bottles, duffel bags and a mini frog. I packed based on the itinerary and the 25-pound weight limits on the internal flights. Given that it was warm and humid virtually everywhere, packing light was easy.
The other thing I liked: not only did we have the same guide everywhere (again, not always the case), but we had a “Rafiki”, an assistant guide who knew Panama and who was there to make sure the kids on the trip were engaged and had fun. Between the two of them and everything that had been arranged in advance, there were zero glitches over the course of seven days.
The trip itinerary was excellent. It was a good mix of culture, adventure and fun, and appropriate to virtually all ages. We never started too early or returned to the hotel too late. But it was also flexible. Twice we asked to walk around town more after dinner, and our guide Christian and Rafiki Mica re-scheduled our transportation around the later schedule. And my son didn’t feel like taking a surfing lesson with everyone else so, knowing he liked birds, Christian arranged for a boat to pick us up and take us to Bird Island (otherwise not on the schedule) while the others surfed. I was fully prepared to simply hang out watching the surfers, so that was a nice touch.
There were 7 people on our trip – the two of us, a mom and two daughters (6 and 8) from Michigan, and a mom and daughter (10) from Southern California. It was one of my favorite groups ever. The adults got along great, and the girls all hung out. My son didn’t interact with the three girls at all on day one. Then something funny happened – partway through day two we were at the Panama Canal gift shop and one of the girls handed him a kaleidoscope. He took it, and then he started looking at other toys with them, and all of a sudden he was part of the group. It was fun to watch. He and the 10-year-old even asked to sit together on our flights, and on a lot of the bus rides the kids all sat together in the back.
Panama Family Travel Highlights
The schedule never seemed packed, but after seven days in Panama we felt like we had been there for twice that long and had had an incredible range of experiences. Our favorite things:
The Emberá Tribe
Our first day we drove outside of Panama City and took a dugout canoe 45 minutes upriver to visit the indigenous Emberá tribe. While the Emberá village hosts visitors every day, it didn’t feel like a touristy experience, and I always like exposing my kids to other cultures. We had a great lunch of fish and plantains served in banana leaves, learned about their customs, and watched a pickup game of football played by village kids in pouring rain. The canoe ride to and from the village was a lot of fun, with stunning scenery.
We saw animals throughout Panama, including iguanas, dolphins, sloths, several species of monkeys, and dozens of types of birds. Plus the kids had a blast playing with dogs and cats in the streets.
The Panama Canal
When my son and I visited the canal three years ago we saw a couple of ships near Gamboa but were disappointed not to see any going through the Miraflores Locks. Thomson arranged for lunch at an outdoor table at the locks and we were able to watch a sailboat and container ship pass through. So cool! And our guides turned the Panama Canal Museum into a scavenger hunt for us, making the museum visit far more fun (and educational) than the last time we were there.
I’ve snorkeled all around the world, with the kids joining me periodically with varying degrees of success. The snorkeling in Panama was excellent – I could have stayed out all day. The kids on the trip all joined to some extent – some fully snorkeling, some entering the water only briefly, and some floating on tubes to make it a little easier. This was my son’s least-favorite activity since he doesn’t enjoy snorkeling, but at least he tried it. I loved it.
Meals were excellent, and we dined at some really cool places, including a small restaurant in Panama City’s Casco Viejo neighborhood where we had the only table, and two seaside restaurants in Bocas del Toro with gorgeous sunsets and lots of space for the kids to run around. I kept trying to pay for wine and other drinks and was nicely surprised when Thomson covered everything – compared to every other group trip I’ve been on where participants pay for their own drinks at every meal.
Boat rides around Bocas del Toro
We took a boat everywhere in Bocas del Toro – from the pier at our hotel to all restaurants and most activities. Fun to practically live on the water for three days.
So cool to be able to walk into the water and see starfish (sea stars) everywhere! The kids had a great time picking them up – always gently, and never removing them from the water.
In Boquete we did a 4.5km hike through the cloud forest, including passing over six hanging bridges. The kids loved learning about plants and jungle secrets along the way. A very fun afternoon in a stunning setting.
The day after our hanging bridges trek, we zip-lined through the same cloud forest. The zip-line tour consists of 12 separate lines, some of which were extremely long. My son had gone zip-lining on his own various places, but in Boquete he was attached to a guide, as were the younger kids. The 10-year-old in our group was just over 100 pounds so she went on her own, but still got stuck once or twice on the long lines.
The Yaguara Foundation
We closed out the week with a meeting with Ricardo from the Yaguara Foundation, who told us about the importance of the Jaguar in Panama and what his organization is doing to save the animals. This was a nice addition to the trip – inspiring the kids to get involved when they feel like they can make a difference in the world.
I really enjoyed this trip, and wouldn’t hesitate to travel with Thomson Family Adventures again with any of my kids. My son enjoyed a lot of the trip elements, including the hikes, the scavenger hunt, the dugout canoe ride, the scenery and animals everywhere, and several of the restaurants we visited. He didn’t like when the schedule was out of our control – waiting to eat because everyone was enjoying the evenings too much to order right away, waiting for others to finish snorkeling, etc… – which was predicable based on his personality, but was overall a minor issue.
We were both impressed with Panama. We’ve been to Costa Rica several times and Panama is a great alternative – all of the nature, fewer people, less expensive, and it has ships! Panama City isn’t the most interesting place, but it’s worth basing out of there for a day or two to see the canal. Boquete in the highlands and Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean were both great and definitely places for your travel list. I’ve also heard good things about Panama’s San Blas islands – they’ll be on my list when I return.
This was a slightly truncated version of Thomson’s Panama Multi-Sport Adventure tour – one day shorter than the typical itinerary with everything but the whitewater rafting. Pricing varies by date – anywhere between $4,190 and $5,090 for adults and $3,990 and $4,890 for kids under 12. Virtually everything other than internal air ($350) is included in that. If you’ve traveled with Thomson before, there’s a family discount. I received a media discount, but that didn’t affect my impression of the trip.