Many international travelers are hesitant when it comes to renting a car in a foreign country. Language barriers, different customs, and navigating through unknown territory are enough to dissuade some. However, by overcoming the fear of the unknown, most people find that the benefits and freedom that come with having a vehicle greatly outweigh the disadvantages.
Costa Rica is one of the world’s top vacation destinations for numerous reasons. With 28 national parks and over 1,466 km (912 miles) of coastline, the country harbors a huge variety of environments and life zones. Visitors find everything from pristine rain and cloud forests, dry tropical forests, and grasslands, to fiery volcanoes and postcard-perfect beaches.
Advantages of renting a car in Costa Rica
There is so much to do in Costa Rica that renting a car facilitates checking off each location on the “must see” list in a timelier fashion. Nonetheless, packing the trip with too many destinations means spending more time on the road than at the final destination. Two, maximum three, stops during a week-long vacation is optimal for balancing travel time with play time.
Many of the country’s gems – secluded palm-lined beaches, misty waterfalls, and scenic hiking trails are off the beaten path and inaccessible without a rental car (the option would be to pay a private driver or exorbitant taxi fees). National parks as well. unless they’re visited on an organized tour, exploring all the various trailheads, overlooks, and park attractions is impossible without the freedom a car offers.
Speaking of freedom, most rental car clients claim that choosing when and where they travel is the most important reason for renting. Especially when they fall in love with a location and don’t want to explore deeper.
Many visitors with more time on their hands go for the all-out Costa Rican road trip, spending their days experiencing everything the country has to offer. Having a rental car, in this case, means picking up and taking off whenever the mood hits, changing routes, and even back-tracking to revisit a favorite spot.
The country offers much more than just the top tourist destinations – although beauties like Manuel Antonio National Park and Rio Celeste shouldn’t be missed if possible. Countless vistas and stunning sunsets are waiting to be discovered by the adventurous traveler.
Another pro for renting is that families and groups of four to five will find that renting a car is more affordable than paying for individual in-country flights or shuttle bus tickets. Cutting down on common taxi rides to daily excursions to the beach, shopping, restaurants and grocery stores helps too. Families traveling with small children and lots of gear especially appreciate the added ease of having every necessity on hand in their own car. Especially in the event of an unanticipated rainstorm.
Keep in mind, however, that two-lane highways are the norm here, as are trucks and other drivers, so sometimes the going is slow. For example, the 260 km (162 miles) drive time from San José to Tamarindo that would normally take around 3 hours in the U.S., will require about 5 hours here. Visitors shouldn’t be dissuaded however, the journey is a big part of the Costa Rica experience, and the memorable countryside and sleepy little towns dotting the highways are worth seeing.
On the other hand, driving to Jaco Beach or Quepos on the Central Pacific Coast, won’t take much longer than the drive time it would take back home unless it’s during peak traffic hours or there’s road work or an accident. The relatively modern Route 27 connects with the coastal highway, Route 34 (La Costanera), for a smooth and easy drive. Avoid traveling on Friday afternoon or Sunday evening—or the short trip could turn into a bumper to bumper headache.
Disadvantages of renting a car in Costa Rica – should I skip it?
Inexperienced drivers should be a little more cautious when driving in Costa Rica. Some common road hazards to know about, and be prepared for, are potholes, washouts (during the rainy season), narrow and curvy secondary roads, a lack of road signs indicating construction or risks ahead, infrequent guardrails, and a lack of street signs or markings.
Many secondary roads (and even the Interamerican Highway) will narrow down to two- or one-lane bridge crossings, which can be dangerous if unanticipated. See the advice for anyone renting a car below for additional tips.
Costa Rica’s tourism industry is comprehensive, so it possible not to rent a car although the options will be either more time consuming or expensive. Despite the country’s small size, the diverse topography makes traveling from point A to point B a longer endeavor.
The transportation options to choose from are the public bus system, shared or private shuttle bus services, or in-country flights.
Like in most countries, visitors should be prepared to pay somewhat higher rates during the high season. In Costa Rica this is from December to April, July, and August. Some companies add additional fees, which can make traveling by rental car more expensive than anticipated. Adobe Rent a Car, however, promises no hidden fees and the price you’re originally quoted is the price you’ll end up paying (gathering no changes are made after you book).
Watch out for theft
It’s important to remember that rental cars are frequent targets for theft so valuables should never be left in the car, and whenever possible the car should be parked in a guarded lot. Fortunately, rental car license plates aren’t marked differently from other cars like in the past. However, the common model and makes of rentals, in addition to the actual tourists driving them, make rentals readily identifiable.
Most town centers will have guards on the street that watch cars for a tip (usually wearing a fluorescent yellow/orange vest or sash). Depending on the amount of time one’s away from the car, a reasonable tip can range from three hundred (300) colones to a thousand (1,000) colones – approximately $0.50 US to two dollars. Although these informal guards are generally freelance, they do help with discouraging thieves.
How much does car rental cost?
There are numerous factors that influence how much a rental car costs in Costa Rica. Firstly, not all rental companies are created equal. But there are a few tried and true companies out there that guarantee no hidden fees, provide exceptional vehicles, and offer competitive prices. A national favorite, for example, is the Costa Rican-owned Adobe Rent a Car. Adobe has been in operation for nearly 30 years and has the country’s largest and most comprehensive fleet of vehicles.
Secondly, the best time to rent is during the low season from April to June and September through mid-November. Also, manual (standard) transmission vehicles are usually cheaper than automatic options – but they’re not always offered.
A week-long Adobe car rental during May (low season) for a Hyundai Tucson 4WD with manual transmission, Car Protection insurance plus CR mandatory Liability Protection, is approximately $340. The same car with automatic transmission is approximately $385. Jump to December rates (high season), and the cost is $550 for the manual and $685 for the automatic. Adobe guarantees that their rates and services are among the best on the market.
What type of car should I rent – 4WD, 2WD, or a Sedan?
Reviewing the trip itinerary with a car rental agent will determine if a 4WD vehicle is needed or not. Many of the country’s top destinations, such as volcanoes Arenal, Irazú, and Turrialba, and the Central Pacific, northern Guanacaste, and south Atlantic beach towns are all accessible by well-paved roads. In such cases, a regular 2WD or sedan will suffice as well as save considerable money. For example, at Adobe, a four-person Hyundai Accent automatic costs approximately $402 for a weekly rental in December.
On the other hand, if Monteverde, Rincón de la Vieja Volcano, the Osa Peninsula, the Talamanca Mountains, and the southern beach towns of the Nicoya Peninsula or the northeastern Atlantic Coast, are on the list, a 4WD is the best choice.
For those with a specific vehicle make and model in mind, check around to different agencies. Common car types are Toyota, Hyundai, Kia, Ford, Mitsubishi, Ssangyong, Isuzu, and similar. It’s important to ask how old the vehicle is too before renting. Some agencies offer virtually new vehicles, while some of the smaller providers might provide an old car that most wouldn’t want to drive at home. Adobe’s fleet is all under two-years-old, and many options are brand new.
Vehicle sizes and the number of passengers and luggage space are generally categorized with the following descriptions:
- 4WD Full-Size SUV/ Premium/ 7 passengers/ 5 luggage: Mitsubishi Montero Sport, Ford Explorer, Hyundai Santa Fe, or similar.
- 4WD Mid-size/Intermediate SUV/ 4-5 passengers/ 4 luggage: Mitsubishi ASX, Ssangyong Korando, and Hyundai Tucson or Creta, or similar.
- 4WD SUV Economic/ 2 passengers/ 3 luggage: Suzuki Jimny, or similar.
- Sedan Minis, Intermediate and Full-Size/ 4 passengers/ 2 to 5 luggage: Hyundai Grand I-10, Accent Blue, Hyundai Elantra, or similar.
- Minivans/ 9 passengers/ 6 luggage: Hyundai H1, or similar.
Rates can vary dramatically between agencies, and in many cases, the price quoted online is different from what the client ends up paying. In Costa Rica, there are big multi-national companies as well as reputable nationally-owned companies like Adobe. There’s even tiny family-owned economy rent a car companies with just a few vehicles to choose from. Adobe Rent a Car guarantees the online quote, and offers low-priced additions like GPS devices, infant seats, and surfboard racks.
The Cost of Fuel and Mileage
Fuel costs are significantly higher in Costa Rica than the U.S. running anywhere between $4 to $6 a gallon. Expect to pay around $45 to fill up the tank of a Hyundai Tucson or significantly higher ($65 or higher) for a premium full-size SUV like a Ford Explorer. The mountainous topography also means frequent refueling. Fortunately, petrol prices are regulated by the government so drivers will pay the same price throughout the country.
Renters should check if the rental agency charges for mileage. Some companies have a limit of 200 kilometers per day limit for rentals under 3 days followed by unlimited mileage, and some companies offer unlimited mileage for the entire duration of the rental.
Mandatory Coverage and Insurance
Costa Rica requires that all renters pay a mandatory liability protection insurance (PLI, SLI, TPL, SLC, or API). This can run between $10 to 20 dollars per day depending on the type of car. This mandatory fee provides up to $20,000 in limited liability coverage for third parties with a 20% deductible or a minimum fee of $250. In the event of injury or death of a third party not traveling in the rental car, the PLI covers up to US $100,000 per accident with no deductible. It does not cover any damages to the driver, passengers, or the rental car itself.
LDW or Full Coverage
In addition to the PLI, renters must choose an additional coverage, either a Collision Damage Coverage (LDW or CDW) provided by the rental car agency, their major credit card’s policy, or a full-coverage (extended) protection, zero liability option.
Those who choose to use their major credit cards LDW coverage (Mastercard, Discover or Amex ) over coverage provided by the rental agency, should keep in mind that they will be financially responsible for all the damages incurred to the car until they are later reimbursed by their credit card provider. This means all the vehicle’s repairs while in Costa Rica – which can get expensive if the damage is extensive.
Additionally, to waive the LDW and use a credit card provider’s service, it’s necessary to present a letter from the credit card company explaining that the driver is indeed covered in Costa Rica. Furthermore, if the LDW insurance is accepted when reserving online, it might nullify the renter’s credit card insurance.
Efective October 1st, 2021, VISA will not offer to its cardholders of Gold and Platinum cards the benefit of the collision damage waiver for the rental cars in Costa Rica. Therefore, if they wish to decline our LDW coverage, they will not be able to do so with a VISA credit card.
If travel insurance is purchased for the trip to Costa Rica, the insurance might apply to the car rentals as well. Saving considerably on the daily rate.
Take note that driving through rivers or on the beach (any “unofficial road”) will render coverage obsolete. Even if the road dead ends into a river runoff, drivers should think twice before attempting to drive across.
Required Deposits for Car Rentals
Different companies require different deposits on their car rentals ranging anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000. These variations can be due to how young the driver is or what type of coverage is purchased. Deposits essentially ensure that if there are damages incurred to the vehicle, parking tickets or infractions were issued, or if the car was returned empty, the rental agency would have the funds needed at hand.
Adobe Rent a Car asks for a $1,000 flat-rate deposit, which is returned to the renter’s credit card within 24-72 hours following the rental termination, barring no damages or fines incurred.
Most deposits must be made with a major credit card. This can be tricky if you have a low credit amount on your credit card and need the card’s funds for your vacation. Adobe suggests that renters use a credit card to cover the required $1,000 damage deposit. The refund for the deposit will be issued within 72 hours of the rental termination if no fees were incurred.
How old do you have to be to rent a car in Costa Rica?
Most rental car agencies require their drivers are at least 23-years old to rent a car, while others hold 25 as the minimum driving age. Companies that permit younger drivers usually charge an additional fee as well as a require a more extensive coverage package.
Additional driver fees work much the same way – some companies cover for each additional driver, and some allow up to two free drivers. Ask around, and you won’t be disappointed you did.
Drop-off and Airport Fees
Adobe Rent a Car offers complimentary vehicle drop off at the renter’s hotel or business if it is within a set radius from their office (such as a 12-mile radius of the San José or Liberia International Airports). This is a great option for visitors that arrive on late flights and plan on sleeping near the airport on their first night. Starting the rental plan one day later will lower the total cost as well.
Visitors should try to avoid working with the rental car agencies set up inside the airport because of the additional “airport tax” of up to $40. The same goes for the shuttle service from the airport to the rental car office. Some companies charge for the service and others don’t. Adobe, for example, provides complimentary pick up and drop off services. More so, if clients provide their travel itinerary ahead of time, they will be met by an Adobe representative at the airport gates.
Dropping off the rental car at a different location than where it was picked it up can be extremely convenient but is likely to incur an additional cost ranging anywhere from $10 to $200. The same goes for having a rental car waiting at the landing site you when you fly in-country. Travelers should check before-hand what the difference in price will be between picking up the vehicle at a nearby office to having it delivered to the flight’s landing site. Adobe has 16 offices strategically located nationwide.
Extras and Additional Fees
With some rental car companies, items like additional drivers, GPS navigational devices, infant seats and boosters, internet hotspots, cell phones, coolers, and even surfboard racks are included as a bonus to the client. Most companies, however, charge a daily rate for each item, which adds to the final total cost.
If you want to save money, look for outside websites, that offer free-perk incentives or discounts on these often-essential items. Also, if your agency doesn’t offer complimentary infant seats, bring your own from home.
Most tourists new to the country find there are a couple of these extras that you shouldn’t go without. A GPS navigational device, for example, is indispensable. To rent one will cost between $9 and $14 per day in addition to a damage deposit. Drivers traveling on back roads or to remote destinations like the Osa Peninsula will be thankful their GPS knows exactly where they are where they need to be.
Internet hotspots (average $10 to $15 per day) work quite the same, constant internet access means drivers can count on Waze or Google Maps for their navigational needs. And up to five devices can connect simultaneously, making those extra long drives with kids more manageable. Some rental agencies offer a Waze phone for navigation purposes. This is basically a regular Costa Rican cell phone with internet service.
Where can I rent a car in Costa Rica?
Most car rental companies are either in San José, near the Juan Santamaria International (SJO) Airport and downtown or in Liberia near the Daniel Oduber Quirós (LIR) International Airport. Many larger agencies have additional offices strategically located around the country and near in-country flight landing sites. For example, Adobe Rent a Car has offices less than five minutes from both the Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) in San José, as well as the Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport in Liberia, as well as 14 additional offices throughout Costa Rica.
Advice for anyone renting a car in Costa Rica
The following tips will further ensure each traveler’s vacation in paradise is a good one – whether it’s soaking at a hot spring resort under the Arenal Volcano in La Fortuna or birdwatching along the Savegre River in San Gerardo de Dota. Here are a few more pros and cons to consider before hitting the road.
Rental car inspection:
Accompany the rental agent for the car’s inspection during both the rental onset and return. Take pictures or a video of any dents or scratches beforehand to avoid charges for damages that weren’t incurred during the rental.
Avoid unwarranted fees or hassles by choosing a reputable rental company. Not all Rent a Car Agencies are created equal, and visitors to Costa Rica may be extremely pleased or extremely disappointed by the options that are out there.
Take it slow:
Most traffic accidents occur when unfamiliar drivers encounter an obstacle or unexpected hazard at high speeds. Taking it slow means taking it safe.
Expect the unexpected:
From amazing panoramic vistas to a cattle herd in the middle of the road. Everyday life isn’t controlled and regulated in Costa Rica the same way it is in the United States, Canada, or Europe. The unexpected happens regularly, and drivers should be prepared to react safely.
Weather is unpredictable:
Costa Rica’s weather is unpredictable even in the dry season. Changes in elevation, climate, and humidity provoke rainstorms, intense fog, and high winds. Drive cautiously and avoid driving at night if possible.
Gas stations are frequent around the Capital, Liberia, and major towns, but are less common in rural areas. As a rule of thumb, fill it up when under half a tank and traveling on back roads. It’s better full than sorry.
Travel with cash and colones:
A few of Costa Rica’s major thoroughfares (Route 27 and 32) require tolls, many small towns don’t have ATM machines, and banks hold limited business hours – so, always have some cash handy. A “No Credit Cards Accepted” phenomenon also applies to many restaurants and tourist attractions, be prepared.
- Documentation – Visitors should always carry a copy of their passport and other important documents on their person during day trips. When traveling from one destination to another, all originals should be in a secure place away from potential thieves.
- Accidents – If an accident occurs or the vehicle is damaged in any way it should be reported to the rental car agency immediately for guidance on how to proceed.