One of the most common questions travelers ask when visiting Costa Rica is, Should I rent a car? Nothing beats the freedom that comes with traveling in your own car. Feel free to leave when you wish, arrive when you wish, change your mind about where you want to visit, and even backtrack!
Car travel is also great for families or groups who have a lot of gear and don’t feel like carrying it from bus to bus or airplane to airplane. Furthermore, if it’s the rainy season, you’ll be eternally grateful when you can jump into your car to avoid getting wet.
Traveling in Costa Rica without a car, however, is possible and relatively easy, and there are different options to choose from that can accommodate almost every budget. Drawbacks to traveling without a car are the increased travel times between destinations and the elevated cost if you choose to fly.
To drive or not to drive?
There are a few important factors that will help you decide if renting a car is right for you. First off, nothing beats the ease and flexibility that having your own car offers, especially if you have limited time. Some of Costa Rica’s most beautiful national parks lie off the beaten path, so if you’re inclined to explore and want to see some unforgettable scenery, you won’t be disappointed.
It’s true that driving in Costa Rica can be challenging. Although international driving laws apply, not everybody follows the same set of rules, and road conditions can be spotty. Nonetheless, for those brave and patient enough to give it a shot, driving in Costa Rica is a great way to experience the country.
Advice for driving in Costa Rica
As a rule of thumb, the best advice for foreigners driving in Costa Rica is to take it slow, expect the unexpected, use a GPS application such as WAZE, try to avoid driving at night, and when in doubt – ask.
Advantages of renting a car in Costa Rica
If you’re traveling as a family or a group of 3 to 5 people, renting a car is probably your most economical option. Choose from a wide range of vehicle sizes, models, and makes to fit your needs.
If you’re wondering how much a rental car costs, keep in mind that there’s a difference between renting during the high season from December to April, and the green season from May to November. It’s also a good idea to ask about any additional fees before renting.
Before looking into alternatives to renting a car in Costa Rica, take a close look at your anticipated itinerary and the amount of time you want to spend traveling. Then determine if renting a car is right for you or not.
Getting around Costa Rica without a car is certainly feasible, but it’s likely to be either expensive or time-consuming. So, if you prefer to relax and enjoy, rather than hailing a taxi or waiting for your drop-off in a shared shuttle, renting a car is right for you.
Where can I rent a Car in Costa Rica?
Adobe Rent a Car has offices throughout the country, including San José, the Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) in Alajuela, and the Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (LIR) in Liberia. Take note that dropping your car off at a different location than where you picked it up may incur an additional fee.
Adobe Rent a Car is a national favorite. Our company is locally-owned and we have over thirty years of experience in the transportation industry. We earned our reputation as one of Costa Rica’s best by offering competitive rates, no hidden fees, quality vehicles, and professional customer service.
How to get around Costa Rica Without a Car
If you’re short on time (one-week average) and have two or three destinations that you’re set on seeing, then flying is probably your best choice.
Costa Rica has several options for air travel out of both the SJO Airport near San José, and the, including Sansa, Aerobell, Green, and Skyway. They offer daily flights to just about every popular tourist destination during the high season and slightly reduced flight service during the green season. Take note that tickets are significantly higher during peak months and each company has its own schedule and rates. Privately chartered flights are also available at a higher price.
One downside is that even though the flight itself may take only minutes, the overall travel time from point A to point B will be at least two hours longer when you take into consideration the taxi ride to and from the airport or landing strip to your hotel. Also, if you’re traveling in a family or group, multiple flights to and from your destinations can get extremely pricey.
Private and Shared Shuttles
Many visitors swear by Costa Rica’s shuttle services and say it’s the best way to see the country in stress-free comfort. Most shuttle buses accommodate between 5 and 14 passengers and their luggage. If you’re running with a larger group, then you’ll likely be taking a Coaster or small-size bus.
Shared shuttles run on a set schedule and provide door to door service for their clients, which is convenient and saves taxi fare, but may mean your trip is longer to accommodate several drop-off locations.
A shuttle for one person traveling from San José to La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano during the high season costs between USD $50 and $65 depending on the company. Longer distances will naturally incur higher prices. Children under 12 (or under 8 in some cases) pay half price with the car and booster seats provided. Remember to let your provider know if you will need a car seat ahead of time.
Private shuttles are great options if you’re in a big group and can share the rate. For example, a private shuttle service taking the same route costs between $195 and $210 for four people (additional $10/Pax after four passengers for some companies). Private service also usually means you can determine the relative departure time barring its not at night or coordinates with a ferry crossing.
Private shuttles will also pick you up at the airport when your flight arrives. Generally, the driver wearing the company logo will be waiting for you at the exit with a sign bearing your name (some shared shuttle companies offer this service depending on your arrival or departure time).
Public Buses – how people get around in Costa Rica
Taking public buses is a great way to experience the local culture and see the countryside at a relaxed and leisurely pace.
Not only is the bus system to travel the cheapest option for solo travelers, but service is provided to virtually all popular destinations – both for tourists and nationals. Keep in mind that buses take approximately 20% longer (or more) than traveling by car. Also, if you plan on visiting multiple destinations, like Monteverde and Manuel Antonio, you’ll probably have to return to San José to catch the connecting public bus.
Numerous companies run out of San José and Liberia and provide service to major locations all over the country, so you’ll need to be informed regarding the whereabouts of the bus station serving your particular company and destination, in addition to the departure times.
If the company you’re traveling with doesn’t provide online purchase options, you should arrive early to ensure you get a seat. During the high season and on weekends buses to popular destinations are likely to be full and its best to buy your tickets ahead of time. The same goes for return tickets, often you’ll need to buy your return ticket from the station at your final destination.
Another option for getting around Costa Rica without a car is by using the national taxi service. Look for the official red taxis, which are nationally registered and insured. Taking a “taxi pirata,” or pirate taxi is not recommended as you never know if the driver is insured or even trustworthy.
In general, taxis are great for getting around town but can be quite expensive for traveling long distances. If you have the extra cash to spend, ask your hotel or tour agency to recommend a private driver. Many such private services can be hired by the day (or days) and the driver will most likely be bilingual and can double as a tour guide offering interesting information about the country.
Uber is up and running in San José and is a great alternative to the more expensive taxi option. If you use Uber back home, your app should work in Costa Rica too. Unfortunately, Uber has yet to provide services outside of the Capital except for a few drivers in Jaco and Manuel Antonio. This is likely to change in the near future, however, so try it out as you travel. Popular locations like Tamarindo and Arenal are likely spots for eventual service.
Motorcycles, ATVs, and Bicycles
If you’ve visited Costa Rica before you will have seen the odd, luggage-laden motorcyclist traveling the country’s highways. Although the novelty of such an adventure is attractive, it’s not recommended. Poor infrastructure, unpredictable weather, and dangerous drivers make long distance trips on two wheels a potentially hazardous undertaking.
Your best bet is to rent a motorbike or ATV once you’ve reached your final destination. Numerous providers rent an assortment of vehicles and protective gear, and it’s a popular alternative to walking in most beach towns – especially in the popular beach towns of Guanacaste. Remember that you’ll need to have a motorcycle license to drive legally.
Biking is a wonderful option for getting around town and a great ecological alternative to renting motorized transport. Many high- and mid-end hotels in places like Puerto Viejo, Santa Teresa, Tamarindo, La Fortuna, and the Osa Peninsula offer complimentary bikes or rentals for a low daily fee.
Last but not least – tour connection travel
Obviously, if you book a pre-packaged vacation from a travel agency your transportation will be included. However, for those savvy travelers who are good at planning ahead and enjoy taking organized tours, you can arrange for your tour provider to pick you up at one location and drop you off at another.
For example, if you book a whitewater rafting tour on the Pacuare River and you’re staying in Cahuita, you can arrange for the shuttle bus to drop you off back in San José or even another destination where they have clients. This option may require some flexibility on your end but can result in a fun and cost-free travel alternative as you explore the country.