Are you thinking about renting a car in Costa Rica for your vacation? I’ve often though the same thing myself. I’ve been lucky because I usually have my tour operator do all my airport transfers. Where I am located I can easily walk to food stores or take the local bus to some areas. I’ve known people to reserve a house in a remote location that could be 4 hours away. This can get costly with transfers and you may need a vehicle for shopping & excursions. Should you rent a car, can you take a taxi or perhaps hire a driver to get you from A to B are things to consider when deciding to rent a car in Costa Rica.
We’ve put together some tips for renting a car in Costa Rica as well as share our personal experiences taking local transportation around the country.
Why do you need to rent a car?
Renting a car in Costa Rica gives you the freedom to go wherever you want. Taking the local bus is definitely cheaper but it takes a long time to get to your location. They make tons of stops along the way. I took a local bus to San Jose & to Quepos with both trips taking over 3 hours one way. By car, this could be 1 hr & 30 minutes to 2 hours depending on traffic.
Some beautiful places to see like waterfalls are more remote and off the beaten path. For these types of excursions, I would suggest renting a 4×4.
If you rented a villa, house or condo that is not located in town and want to visit the hot springs, volcanoes, or national parks renting a car is a great option. Most of the interesting things to see are located far from local towns.
Private shuttle services can add up in a hurry adding to your vacation costs. You also have to pre-arrange for a specific time.
I rented a car for 9 days because I had many places to go from Puntarenas to Playa Conchal to Tamarindo and then to Jaco so it didn’t make sense to hire a driver and shuttles or buses would have made it inconvenient for me to be on time.
I rented a small automatic car from Adobe Car Rental in Puntarenas. I didn’t need anything bigger because it was just me and a few small bags. I also knew the roads I was going to travel on so a 4×4 wasn’t necessary for this trip.
When I plan my next trip to the southern region of Osa Peninsula I will be renting a 4×4 for sure as the roads conditions are not the greatest, hilly in areas to see the waterfalls, and who knows what else I will come across in my travels.
- Most car rentals companies require the driver to be 25 years or older to rent a car.
- You will need a valid passport with a stamp when you entered the country.
- You can drive for a maximum of 90 days in the country on your passport stamp.
- A valid driver’s license is required.
- A credit card is required for renting a car in Costa Rica. You will have a deposit held on your car and will be credited about 72 hours after the rental is returned. This will depend on if there is any damage to the car. All car rental companies have different policies, prices, and deposits amounts. You will need to check this out before booking a rental.
Costa Rica has a mandatory insurance policy so the only way not to pay is having a letter from your credit card company stating you are covered.
We have a discount on car rentals at the end of this post with special benefits and a reduced deposit amount.
Rental car tips
There are many car rental companies as well as types of vehicles to rent in Costa Rica. It’s important to read all of the information as some prices don’t include the insurance so it looks cheaper.
During busy season Easter, Christmas & New Years the car selection will be limited so it’s important to make your reservation early and not be disappointed. You may also find that prices are higher during these times.
At the Liberia & San Jose airports, car rental companies are off-site and provide a shuttle to their office. You will need to factor in this extra time, so you don’t miss your flight. In the airports after you have collected your bags and exit the building look for a person holding the sign with your car rental company name. Shuttle service is complimentary from the car companies for airport pick up & drop off to their offices.
There is no smoking in the vehicles so be aware an extra fee for cleaning should you smoke in the car while renting will apply. There is also an extra charge for any mileage used over the allotted amount. Please read the form thoroughly. For Adobe Car Rental the mileage is 3500 km with a charge per km over this. A rental period is considered 24 hours. If you return it later there will be an extra charge.
When you pick up your car rental you will be asked to go over the vehicle with the staff. Make sure to look for any dents, scratches or anything unusual and point this out. I would suggest taking some photos on your phone as well. When you return the rental, you will go through the same process of checking to make sure everything is ok. Remember to fill the gas tank full just before. They will check over the car to make sure there is no damage other than what was originally found at the time of rental.
Some extra replacement charges will incur for lost or damaged items
- lost keys or remote
- Baby seats or other equipment that is damaged
Hyundai Accent 4door automatic [it was clean when I picked it up]
Tips for driving in Costa Rica
• There are many places to park your car when traveling to beaches, National Parks, and remote areas.
• It’s not uncommon to see people asking you for money to watch your parked car. The charge is not too much and usually well worth it. You will need to pay in colones or USD. The staff always help guide you into the parking space & when you are ready to leave should help with getting out of the space should need assistance.
• If the car gets broken into or damaged by another driver you are required to pay for the damages.
• All gas stations in Costa Rica charge the same price. The government regulates the prices for gas as well as the toll booths.
• There is regular, super, diesel
• Learn a few basics Spanish words (fill with regular – llenar con regular)
• Try to stop for gas at a larger location the odds are better for staff to have a little knowledge of English
Costa Rica is notorious for bad roads. On many of the larger highways in Guanacaste, we found the roads to be in much better condition. In small towns & beach areas, you will find that there are lots of potholes on the roads. I drove on the road along side the beach in Playa Flamingo and the whole road was dirt with nothing but potholes.
If you see the car in front of you swerving, chances are there is a large pothole ahead. Don’t take these lightly, they are much larger than you think, and it can really damage your rental car.
Animals on the road
Always stay alert when driving in Costa Rica. I have personally experienced many times where animals have crossed the road in front of us. This road trip to Guanacaste I had a raccoon run out in front of me. He was pretty big too!
I also was driving home from Guanacaste on the major highway and saw a white horse just at the side of the road. In fact, right between the separated roads.
We’ve also been driving along a country road and out of nowhere came a horse headed straight for the van. Luckily the last minute it decided to turn running alongside us for a bit. Seriously that was pretty scary as it was right beside me on the passenger side.
Costa Rica also has sloths in some areas trying to cross the road. They move so slow you need to give them plenty of time to cross.
If you receive a ticket while using the rental car this must be paid before leaving the country. Otherwise you will not be allowed to leave.
When you enter school zones (escuela zona) you will see signs just before the school and after you have passed. Really watch your speed in this area and sometimes you’ll find speed bumps or there could be an overhead light. Every town has at least one school in it and larger towns with have many schools.
It seems workers in Costa Rica are always fixing the roads, cutting the grass or something. Please be aware of the road signs, speed limit, and workers who could be standing on the road or walk around a parked vehicle.
Roads sign will often tell you if you need to yield to traffic (cedo del Paso), intersection ahead (interseccion Adelante) or at a small bridge which is common throughout the country you need to yield to traffic as only one car can cross at a time.
People crossing the road
In Costa Rica, pedestrians don’t have the right of way. Often you will see people standing waiting to cross. If you choose to stop and let them be careful sometimes a driver coming in the opposite direction will not stop for them.
It’s not uncommon to see many locals riding bicycles almost everywhere. On my recent trip I was driving along and someone on a bicycle decided to cross right in front of me without looking.
Motorcycles are a cheaper mode of transportation in Costa Rica. Many locals will weave in and out of traffic. When driving your rental car, you need to always check both sides of your car. They come upon you quickly and you may not always see them in your mirror. Almost every day you will see or hear about motorcycle accidents in the country.
Helpful apps for driving
The Waze APP is the best I’ve found in the country. I use it all the time even when I’m walking in an unknown area. I wanted to put it to the test this road trip going to Guanacaste. One of the roads I needed to make a left turn in town. I would have missed it if not for the APP.
There are very little street signs in Costa Rica. They don’t even have addresses. What they do is use a major point like a bank, stadium, school or whatever is close by.
The Waze APP even warned me of police ahead or vehicles at the side of the road. This helps to avoid speeding tickets and alert you about other vehicles that are on the non-shoulder of the road.
Most roads in Costa Rica don’t have shoulders to pull over so often you will find cars blocking the lane. Be prepared to move over and give plenty of space often people will just walk out around their parked car without even looking.
This APP can be downloaded on your iPhone or android prior to traveling. It’s a great option if you lose cell reception in remote areas. We lost our cell reception many times going to eco-lodges in the country. You can use this app to help with directions. There are lots of categories, so you can choose restaurants, banks for example and it will tell you the distance.
Traveler Tip: I brought with me from Canada two small devices for the car. One was a magnetized holder that grips on the vent to hold my phone & the other was an outlet plug with 2 USB ports to charge my phone while driving. Just remember to remove them from the rental car before you return it.
Need more inspirations to go to Costa Rica? Check out a few popular articles
- What you don’t know about day tours & shore excursion in Costa Rica
- San Jose International Airport Tips
- Things to know about hiking at Tenorio National Park
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