I wrote about Copa Airlines back in 2008, when I flew down to Panama for the MV Discovery Panama Yacht Cruise.

Last month I had the opportunity to fly with them once again, this time stopping in Panama City for a while, then continuing down to Lima, Peru. This trip reinforced my feeling that for much of Latin America, this airline is your best choice, especially if you can’t buy a business class ticket or score an upgrade on one of its competitors. Compared to any U.S. airline flying to Latin America, Copa offers a far better experience in economy, plus you can earn Star Alliance partner miles for your trip. (Including United in the U.S.)

The one drawback to Copa is the consistently long lines to check in. Get to the airport plenty early. This is not unique to them of course, but I heard two frequent travelers grumble that the name should be “Cola Airlines,” the joke being that “cola” is a word for tail or line in Spanish. If you’ve got elite status on a Star Alliance partner, you can jump this line and save a huge amount of time. Checking in online beforehand can help in some airports as that puts you in a different line that may be shorter.

The actual check-in process was simple and friendly for all four of my flight legs, however, and my checked baggage arrived intact on the other end. As I pointed out in my review three years ago, the gate agents are refreshingly helpful compared to their legacy U.S. airline counterparts.

The real payoff is the service on the planes themselves. They are set up like Continental’s, with a rather routine business class set-up and coach seats with average pitch. Seats are usually leather, however, there’s a music and movie system with complimentary headsets, and you get real food with your flight. In every case there was a choice of two dishes (such as pancakes or an omelette for breakfast) and I saw other passengers getting their kosher or vegetarian meal. Pillows and blankets are provided and there is an in-flight magazine in English and Spanish.

On afternoon and evening flights you can get a beer or cocktail gratis, which is always welcome, so you can try Panamanian beer or rum before arrival. (Panamanian rum may just be the world’s best spirits bargain. More on that in another post.)

The flight attendants were friendly, bi-lingual, and attentive on every leg of my trip. They smiled, they communicated, and they seemed to genuinely want their customers to fly with them another time. Again, a refreshing change from the norm these days.

Copa flights go through Panama City, the Hub of the Americas, which is a convenient stop on the way to South America. The airport is getting steadily better all the time, with more food options finally joining the seemingly unending stream of duty-free shops. It’s brighter, cleaner, and more modern than it was last time I visited. There is a Presidents Club lounge there for those who have access.

In theory you can stop off in Panama for free for a few nights on your way to or from somewhere else, but I cannot for the life of me ever get this to work on their online booking site. It always adds $100 – $200 to the flight price no matter what times I pick and what destinations. So you’ll have to call one of their service centers or book with a travel agent to get this done.

Overall, Copa Airlines is a solid, reliable airline that generally offers better service for a better price than its competitors. Often you can find business class tickets for under $2,000 to South America, which is certainly a good value, and a good bit less to Central America. In North America they fly from Toronto and six U.S. gateways, plus three in Mexico. They also operate domestic flights in Colombia and just started flying to Brasilia.

See more and check flight prices at CopaAir.com.