A transit of the Panama Canal is unforgettable, and you don’t have to buy a cruise to have the experience. These days the most popular way to do it is with Panama Marine Adventures (tel. 226-8917, www.pmatours.net ) on the Pacific Queen. This is an air-conditioned 119-foot vessel equipped with a snack bar, souvenir shop, and television monitors on which cruisers can watch documentaries on the canal when they need a break from the action on deck.
Transits take place on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays during the high season (January through March). The rest of the year transits are Saturday only. Transits do not normally go all the way through the canal from ocean to ocean. Instead, they go through two sets of locks, Miraflores and Pedro Miguel, and Gaillard Cut .
Transits begin or end at Gamboa , depending on whether it’s a north-bound or south-bound transit. (Direction of the transit is marked on the company’s website calendar.) Customers check in at Isla Flamenco on the Amador Causeway  at 9 A.M. The tour includes land transportation between Isla Flamenco and Gamboa. The partial transit takes 4–5 hours and costs US$115 for adults, US$65 for children younger than 12. The price includes pickup at the Flamenco marina on the causeway, lunch and soft drinks, and a bilingual guide.
One Saturday a month the company offers a full transit. This starts at Flamenco at 7:30 A.M. and goes through the entire canal, ending at Colón after exiting Gatún Locks . The transit takes 8–9 hours and costs US$165 for adults, US$75 for children younger than 12. It includes all the partial transit services plus a continental breakfast and land transportation back from Colón  and Isla Flamenco.
Another group that offers transits is Canal and Bay Tours (tel. 209-2009 or 209-2010, www.canalandbaytours.com ), with a similar schedule and identical prices (except for the partial-transit kids’ fare—it’s US$5 cheaper). It uses the 96-foot-long Isla Morada and 115-foot-long Fantasia del Mar, old ferry boats that made the run to Isla Taboga  for many years. The company has spruced them up. They recently introduced a partial Friday-night transit, which gives a very different perspective on the canal. The locks are brightly lit by high-mast lighting, turning night into day, and the rest of the canal is lit well enough to see what’s going on.
Note: Transits generally start early in the morning, but it’s impossible for either company to promise exact end times. Scheduling is entirely up to the Panama Canal Authority, and since these are smaller vessels they have to make way for larger ships.