Should you rent a car in Costa Rica?
I don’t advise people to rent a car in San Jose, Costa Rica, especially if it’s your first time to the country. It’s best to take an Interbus to your location and then rent a car from there (Guanacaste, Limon, Arenal, Manuel Antonio, or Quepos just to name a few), if possible. If you have not been to Costa Rica before I highly advise you to check out the country first, then determine if you want to drive. If you have been to Costa Rica before or have experience driving in the conditions that I list below, then renting a car is for you.
While the benefits of having a rental car can be awesome, like dictating the course of your day, not being confined to shuttles and stopping when you want, the hassle and potential danger is something you need to keep in mind.
In downtown San José, the government has imposed a law restricting cars from operating on certain days of the week. The last number on a vehicle’s license plate determines which day of the week it can run. This tactic has proven to relieve some of the traffic congestion, but the traffic is still atrocious, especially during rush hour.
Below is a list of things you need to keep in mind if you do rent a car:
Motorcyclists commonly drive without respect to rules of the road. You will see them passing and weaving in and out without warning, and creating lanes where none officially exists. The fatality rate for pedestrians and those riding bicycles and motorcycles is high.
The traffic police are not proactive. They do not regularly monitor the roads; they mainly respond to traffic accidents. If involved in an accident, the law states that you must keep your vehicle in the place where the accident occurred until the insurance company and traffic police reports to the scene, which could take hours.
Driving can be treacherous. Roads often lack adequate lighting, guardrails, and street signs. During the rainy season (May-November), landslides and washed-out roads are common. Two-lane roads often narrow into single lanes over bridges. The reflective paint separating lanes or lining the roads can be faded or non-existent. As I have stated before, signs can be pretty much nonexistent if you see them you are in luck!
Criminals have targeted rental vehicles. A tactic used by criminals is to puncture the tires of rental cars and then follow the car until the driver pulls over to inspect. The criminals under the guise of being Good Samaritans will approach the vehicle to assist with changing the tire and, in the process, steal the tourist’s personal items. This would be very scary for you and your travel companions. So, again I advise taking many precautions when getting a rental car.
- Do not stop on isolated stretches of road. (One method of initiating kidnappings and carjackings is to bump the victim’s car from behind; the unsuspecting victim stops, believing he or she is involved in a minor accident, and is taken hostage or robbed.)
- If you have a flat tire, if possible, go to the nearest service station or another public area, and change the tire yourself, watching your valuables at all times. Most car rental companies will cover the damage to the tire.
- Be wary of strangers offering to help with car problems.
- Be wary of those asking for help, even woman who appear alone or pregnant. It has been said that woman will put a ball in their belly, a Good Samaritan will stop, and then the ambush happens. Don’t fall for this.
There are speed traps in Costa Rica, so drive the speed limit! We have heard that cops will try to give you a ticket for around $120 – $150. If you rent a car in Costa Rica, you will pay the ticket because you sign a form when you rent a car that says any tickets you get will be charged to your credit card. Although we don’t advise that you bring up how you can get out of the ticket, cops are known to be dirty and could ask you for money for not giving you a ticket. In this case, it’s up to you what you think is the ethical thing to do.
Also, some cameras take photos of speeding cars have recently been placed along highways. The cameras automatically issue tickets that range from $300-$600 USD. When you return your car, the car rental company holds your deposit until they have verified you have no pending tickets. If you do have a ticket, you will lose a portion of your deposit. For this reason, we recommend that potential drivers read over our section on Costa Rican driving laws, which follows.
Gas is about double or triple the price that it is in the US. Gas stations – called bombas or gasolineras – are available throughout Costa Rica. Gasoline is sold as “regular” and “super,” both of which are unleaded. Super has higher octane than regular, and diesel is usually sold as well. Most rented cars take super but ask someone at the rental office to make sure. Gas stations are full-service; attendants fill up your tank for you. Gas is more expensive than in the U.S. – a gallon (3.8 liters) usually goes for around $6 USD.
I want to rent a car in Costa Rica, now what?
You know you want to rent a car. Great! Let’s go through what you should rent and information that you need to know.
15 Tips for Renting a Car in Costa Rica
- First and foremost you need to know that 50% or more of the cost of renting a car is hidden in mandatory fees. If you reserve a steal of a deal online for $19.95 a day, you are probably going to end up paying much more when it’s all said and done. A great deal on a rental car, including everything, will be about $50 a day. However, there can be drastic variations in rates and dates between companies. It’s advised to book 6-8 months in advance, then check back in 2 or 3 months. That way if you find a better rate you can make a new reservation and cancel the old one.
- You might want to think about getting an SUV for your trip. There are a few unpaved roads in Costa Rica, but the main thing you get is more suspension and a more comfortable ride.
- Check and ask about 4-wheeling and make sure you understand where you can and can not drive, which should be in your rental agreement.
- Cars rented “from the airport” are subject to an additional tax of 13% (SJO San José) or 14% (LIR Liberia Guanacaste) on the total cost of the rental. There are no rental cars available on SJO or LIR property, but if an agency picks you up at the airport and takes you to their lot they typically charge the tax. To avoid the hassle and cost we usually take a taxi to a hotel and have the rental car delivered the next day (many agencies provide free delivery for nearby hotels, and it saves us the tax plus a day of rental charge).
- Make sure you’ll have enough leftover on your credit card limit as you will be charged beforehand for a security deposit.
- You will probably need a credit card with numbers that have a raised relief number, name and expiration date. You probably won’t be able to use that slick Sapphire Chase card, because the carbon imprint machines are still in use in Costa Rica.
- If you use a debit card, this could cost double the amount you would pay with a credit card. Check the policy and how much it cost per day if you use a debit card.
- Book your car before you go as sometimes rental cars can be totally out, especially during high season.
- All car rentals require you to get the most basic insurance. Talk to the car rental company about what your coverage covers. If you get into an accident, your deposit will be held until the case goes to court. Be very careful driving when driving, since court cases can take months and years to figure out and it’s a messy process in general.
- Make sure you take part in the inspection.Take pictures and I suggest taking video and tell them if you see any scratches, dents, or nicks. I have had arguments even in the US over “damage” to a car that I didn’t do. It happens, so spend the 5-10 minutes inspecting the car and documenting as much as possible.
- You are allowed to drive legally in Costa Rica if you have a U.S., Canadian or European drivers licenses.
- Make sure you return the car on time, you don’t want to be charged for another day. Rental times are defined very rigidly. Failure to return your car on time results in a fine.
- If you have a smartphone download the app WAZE. This app is well known to be the best since Costa Ricans supplement the information and you can see warnings for accidents, traffic, and traffic cops. Or you can rent a GPS from the car rental
- Most of the time special codes, promotions, coupons, deals, and points do not apply in Costa Rica.
- Driving tickets are relatively expensive here, so make sure to pay close attention to the speed limit. If you do get a ticket, you will need to pay it, as there is a law that can prohibit you from exiting the country if you do not.
Your trip should be enjoyable and not full or worry or frustration in getting lost. Renting a car in Costa Rica means you can go where you want, when you want and craft your adventure. However, driving in Costa Rica is something that you need to seriously consider if it’s for you or not. You will have a wonderful trip to Costa Rica no matter what type of transportation you choose.