Should I Rent a Car in Costa Rica?

If you’re planning your vacation it’s fairly likely that you’re questioning whether or not to rent a car in Costa Rica.  On one hand, you have the freedom of driving your own vehicle, on the other, you have the responsibility that comes with it.

Rental car versus chauffeured transfers
Should you rent a car in Costa Rica? Flexibility or responsibility?

Rental car versus chauffeured transfers

There is a solid tourism infrastructure in Costa Rica, so you have the choice of reserving chauffeured transportation at a reasonable price or renting a car and experiencing a little more freedom.

Private chauffeured transfers are available to all road accessible destinations.  They’re usually offered in 6 – 12 passenger specialized mini-buses or larger buses for bigger groups.  Some of the better companies that offer this service include Ride CR, Jacamar, and EcoTrans.

Shared shuttle transfers are more affordable but more limiting as they are only available on set routes between popular destinations and at predetermined times.  Interbus, Graylines, and Ride CR are all good companies for shared transfers.

Once you arrive to your destination, taxis are usually readily available at a reasonable price.  Hotels can help with this, or you can arrange them on your own.  Licensed (non-airport) taxis are colored red and have a yellow triangle on each front door as well as a yellow light on top.  When you use a taxi, make sure the meter is turned on to ensure you receive a fair rate.

The majority of professionally operated day tours from popular tourist destinations include round-trip transportation from your hotel at no additional cost.  Some day tours that you would likely want a guide and transportation provided for include: safari float, whitewater rafting, canyoning, stand up paddle boarding, catamaran cruises, scuba diving, canopy tours, sport fishing, wildlife hikes, kayaking, mountain biking, etc..  Of course, these are only a few examples, but the majority of similar tours in popular destinations are operated in the same manner.  If you elect for a guided excursion, I’d recommend checking with the operator to ensure that it’s being offered with small group sizes.  If not, just call the next one.  There are a lot of good tour operators to choose from.

Of course, some of the activities mentioned above can be done on your own and there are many options throughout the country with varying policies and inclusions.  You’ll find that many off the beaten path sites and attractions do not include transportation, so a rental car is beneficial in these cases.

La Fortuna Waterfall
Many professionally operated tours include a guide for safety or to enhance the experience along with round-trip transportation for convenience, but it’s not always needed. Some attractions such as waterfalls can be more affordable and possibly more enjoyable when you go on your own.

Pros and cons of renting a car in Costa Rica

Rental car pros

Convenience & flexibility:

  • You can go on your own schedule without a timetable.
  • You’ll have the ability to pick up and go where you want when you want.
  • You can stop anywhere along the way (or out of the way if you prefer).
  • You can visit off the beaten path attractions without arranging potentially expensive transfers.

While this may seem like a short list of “pros”, it’s hard to place a value on the convenience and flexibility of being able to pick up and go or stop anywhere you like.

Rental car cons

Cost:  You’ll usually end up paying more for a rental car than provided transfers.  Before continuing, I recommend doing your own cost comparison before making a final decision.

Some costs can easily be forgotten about:

  • Insurance is mandatory by law and typically costs 30 – 80% of the cost of the car (dependent on the provider and season).  This is rarely mentioned until you arrive to pick the car up and have to foot the bill or walk away.
  • Be prepared to pay a 10 – 13% Airport Convenience or Concourse Fee if you rent from the airport.  This can often be avoided if you ask in advance and are willing to do a little legwork to avoid paying it.
  • A good map ($15) is necessary whether or not you get a GPS ($12 per day).  Free apps such as Waze can be used, though they require a steady flow of data (not free) and should be used with a windshield base.
  • $1.99 per day LPF tax
  • Gas hovers anywhere from $4 – 6 per gallon.  The roads here are mountainous and windy meaning you’ll use more of it than expected.  As of this writing, gas prices are the lowest they’ve been in a few years at just under $4 gallon.

It’s not the easiest place to drive:  Anybody that has driven in Costa Rica will tell you that it’s not the easiest country to navigate – at least on your first trip.  It’s fairly easy to get lost as there are few road signs and even fewer signs that you would understand.  There are not many major highways, so drive times are often longer than you would assume.  Many secondary roads are in poor condition and are often narrow and windy.  One lane bridges and sharp bends frequently come up without warning.  There are few streetlights and combined with the road conditions, many people are not comfortable driving at night.

Accessibility of destinations and hotels:  There are are a handful of destinations that are not accessible by roads including, but not limited to, Drake Bay, Tortuguero, and Pacuare River lodges.  This means that you will have to leave your car behind at a parking area as it accrues cost.

Theft:  Theft from vehicles (theft of valuables, not the car itself) is common in some areas, so you should never leave valuables in your car unattended.  If it does happen and there is damage to the car, you’ll assume responsibility.

Here are a few good Costa Rican rental car companies that I would recommend

Adobe Rent a Car – They seem to have the newest and best fleet in Costa Rica.

Vamos Rent-A-Car – Good customer service and reasonably priced cars.

Mapache Rent a Car – Good prices and in my experience an honest company.

Driving in Costa Rica
Driving in Costa Rica can be quite an adventure!

Advice for anybody that rents a car in Costa Rica

Be sure to review every detail prior to sending credit card info.

  • Is CDW insurance included and if not, how much is it?
  • Is the license plate fee included?
  • Is airport pickup and drop-off included?
  • Are children’s car seats included?
  • Is GPS included?

Never take for granted that the scratch on the door or ding on the bumper has been recorded.  Take photos or video of the entire car before you sign for it.

Do your homework on the company you intend to reserve with.  Read reviews, check certifications, and never assume that just because it has an international name, that you’ll receive world-class service.  Many of these companies are actually independently run franchises.

If you purchase CDW insurance in advance, you won’t be able to use your credit card insurance program.  Not all credit cards offer this, but it will save you money if yours does.

Check the off-road insurance clauses if you are going to destinations with unpaved roads or river crossings.  You may be left without coverage.

Summary

In my opinion, renting a car in Costa Rica is not always the best option for first-time visitors.  However, if you do your homework and take precautions, a rental car can enhance your experience by allowing you the freedom to come and go at will.  I personally could not go without one.  But at the same time, I’ve hiked across the country, coast to coast, and through some of the most extreme mountain covered jungles in the Americas.

Please leave your comments below about renting a car in Costa Rica.  We’re always happy to hear new tips and suggestions to share with our followers.

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Comments

  1. Hattie says

    I totally disagree with your premise.

    If you run the numbers, you will see that renting a car, while expensive, is actually budget friendly. If you figure the cost of private transportation or shared van shuttle, plus local taxis plus the transportation charges for organized tours, you come out either the same or better renting a car. Do the numbers.

    For two people, the transportation charges for two organized tours can equal one week’s car rental.

    Plus you have the freedom to look around, pick restaurants that appeal to you, visit places that organized tours don’t go with — and — have the pleasure of doing it without a group.

    Which would you rather do: Go on a tour bus that goes to their schedule and probably picks up other people at other locations, traipse through a rainforest with 20 other people, all talking, all smelling of mosquito repellant and wondering why they are not seeing any wildlife? Or — get up really early, drive yourself to the National Park and have a quiet, and relaxing walk with a much greater chance of seeing wildlife.

    As for the roads — just get over it. Do you think that no one has ever driven on an unpaved road? That people are too stupid to figure out one-lane bridges? Hundreds of thousands of people rent cars every year in Costa Rica without a hitch. And no, they don’t get their vehicles stolen! It is actually very rare that a rental car vehicle gets stolen — you need to actually spend some time with Costa Rican news sources. It’s not that difficult to get around, especially with free or cheap apps such as Waze or maps.me.

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