As our recent post Costa Rica All-Inclusive Resort Series – PART 1: Why Costa Rica Is NOT An All-Inclusive Resort Destination explains, Costa Rica is not an ideal vacation destination for all-inclusive resort fans. However, it is so much more for so many other travellers. Not only does the country push the adventure travel envelope in new and exciting directions (gone are the days when a resort’s complimentary banana boat ride would suffice as a vacation thrill), but the country begs travellers to wander outside the box (and subsequently, outside the parameters of a resort’s property) when embarking on their travel journey. Most of us are familiar with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote “Life is a journey, not a destination” and Costa Rica epitomizes this thought. It presents visitors with an opportunity to determine for themselves what they truly aim to get out of their vacation and encourages them to redefine what an “all-inclusive” vacation could (and arguably, ought) to be. It encourages travellers to seek out unique trip experiences for themselves, every step of the journey, and to not merely accept the experiences that are served to them by an end-all, be-all resort destination.
I’VE DECIDED TO SKIP THE ALL-INCLUSIVE RESORT. NOW WHAT?
You’ve thrown caution to the wind, are embarking on a new worldly adventure without a map in hand, and you couldn’t care less where you end up, right? Wrong. Your decision to forego an all-inclusive resort in Costa Rica does not require you to settle for a reckless trip plan. It does not mean that you must sacrifice safety and security for spontaneity, nor must you come to grips with travelling about on a whim. Sure, many adventurous travellers live for such unrestricted travel, but most others want to know the where, what, when, how, and how much of trip planning prior to stepping foot on foreign territory. Since trip planning can be complicated, many travellers settle for an all-inclusive resort – what they believe to be the only (or best) way of obtaining a well organized, safe, and enjoyable trip. What these travellers don’t realize is that there is often more than one means to the same end.
Unlike mathematics or science, unfortunately we cannot offer one proven algorithm or formula for Costa Rica trip planning success given that each traveller varies in their own interests, needs, and budget. Instead, we aim to break down the necessary ‘to-do’ items associated with non-all-inclusive resort travel.
CHOOSE A TIME TO TRAVEL AND YOUR INTERNATIONAL FLIGHTS TO/FROM COSTA RICA
Like all-inclusive resort travel, one of the first trip planning decisions to be made is the time of year you will take your vacation. This decision may be dependent on a number of factors including (but not limited to) your travel budget, the amount of vacation time you have available, and/or your preference of Costa Rican weather. Once you have selected your arrival and departure dates, secure your international flights to and from Costa Rica through a travel agency, online booking website, or the airline directly.
Tip: Looking for recommendations as to the best time of year to visit Costa Rica? You may be interested in reading our related blog post When Is The Best Time Of Year To Travel To Costa Rica?
CHOOSE YOUR PREFERRED COSTA RICA DESTINATIONS
Fortunately, once you have decided to skip the all-inclusive resort for your vacation the realm of Costa Rica destination possibilities are endless. You are no longer confined to the areas in which commercialized properties exist and you are free to choose your own preferred beach and/or in-land destinations according to those that interest you the most. Use whichever means of research you find useful – guide books, websites, blogs, etc. – to decide which locations excite you about your visit.
Tip: Looking for recommendations regarding the best places to visit in Costa Rica? You may be interested in reading our related blog post Where To Go In Costa Rica: Determining The Best Places To Visit During Your Trip
Tip: Travellers need not follow the below recommendations in the order we list them. As we explain in a similar blog post (Planning A Vacation To Costa Rica? READ THIS FIRST!), it is often best to allow your tour and activity or hotel preferences to inform your destination choices as opposed to selecting your destinations first and then filling in the blanks from there.
CHOOSE YOUR PREFERRED ACCOMMODATIONS
As mentioned in Part 1 of our Costa Rica All-Inclusive Resort Series, gorgeous resort properties line some of Costa Rica’s most beautiful beaches and plenty of sustainable eco-resorts hide amongst its in-land rainforest areas. If you are looking for luxury in Costa Rica, it comes in non-all-inclusive sizes so why not try one on? Of course, the country offers countless other types of accommodation options from hostels, hammock hotels, and economy hotels, to standard hotels, superior hotels, and vacation home rentals, so you’re bound to find the perfect fit. Ensure that the accommodation option(s) of your choice have availability for your preferred travel dates and secure each by reserving through a travel agency, online booking website, or the hotel directly.
Tip: Take note of any meals (typically breakfast) that are included with the stay at your preferred accommodation options. The cost of these meals can be subtracted from the ‘meals’ section of your trip budget.
Tip: Learn whether any/all of your preferred accommodation options offer a restaurant on-site. For those that do, remember that you can plan to eat on-site once at the accommodation option (saving you a trip to a nearby restaurant). If any of your preferred accommodations do not offer a restaurant on-site, plan to participate in tours/activities that include meals in their rates during the days/nights you plan to stay at the accommodation to cover the cost of your meals. Alternatively, plan to visit the downtown area of the town/city during the day/night so you can dine while there and to avoid multiple trips to/from town and the accommodation option (for dining and/or any other activities you wish to do while there such as participate in tours, shop, etc.).
CHOOSE YOUR PREFERRED IN-COUNTRY TRANSPORTATION ARRANGEMENTS
Perhaps one of the most common misconceptions we come across relating to Costa Rica travel is the belief that it is difficult to get from point A to point B. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Since tourism throughout the country is booming, Costa Rica offers visitors countless ways of getting around (refer to our related blog post Costa Rica Transportation: 10 Ways To Get From Point A To Point B Throughout Your Trip for a complete list of in-country transportation options). Both shared shuttle services (air conditioned tourism van transfer services that are shared with other travellers) and private transfer services (air conditioned tourism van transfer services that are private to each traveller’s own travel group) are widely available and offer flexible departure schedules. Vehicle rentals are also a popular transportation option (for those travellers who feel comfortable driving themselves around the country) as Costa Rica promotes a number of domestic and internationally-recognized vehicle rental agencies. For a less time consuming (albeit, more expensive) means of in-country transportation than ground transportation, travellers can opt to take domestic (or charter) flights which offer the additional benefit of experiencing the country from a bird’s eye view. Local bus transportation is also available for travellers looking for the utmost authentic Costa Rican travel experience, as are local taxis (including water taxis) to round-out the multitude of in-country transportation options. For securing each, reservations for in-country transportation services can be made through a travel agency, online booking website, or the transportation service provider directly.
Tip: Learn in advance the approximate duration of each transportation service (refer to our related blog post Are We There Yet? Driving Durations For Popular Costa Rica Routes as an additional resource). Choose not only ideal departure times, but also estimated arrival times that work best for your trip itinerary. For example, if you plan for a private transfer service to depart from point A for point B at 8:00am (with an approximate route duration of 3 hours) and the hour of check-in at point B is 3:00pm, why plan to arrive 4 hours ahead of time? Doing so may cause you to wait at point B for hours until check-in rolls around, or else may require you to leave your luggage with point B’s front desk in order to begin exploring the area on your own prior to settling into your room(s). To avoid these scenarios, we recommend that travellers choose transportation service departure times that allow them to arrive as close as possible (or shortly thereafter) to the check-in time at their arrival destination in order to avoid wasting precious vacation time. In the example described above, travellers could have spent the morning (prior to a mid-to-late morning departure) continuing to explore point A or enjoying a leisurely breakfast.
Tip: Costa Rica offers a number of City-To-City Transportation-Inclusive Tours – tours that include transportation between two town/cities with the cost of the tour. Travellers can take advantage of complimentary transportation between two popular areas of the country by opting to get picked up (before the tour) in one city and dropped off (after the tour) in a different city saving them the cost of a shared shuttle service, private transfer service, domestic flight, local bus, or taxi service for the route. A complete list of city-to-city transportation-inclusive tours can be found here.
CHOOSE YOUR PREFERRED TOURS & ACTIVITIES
Here’s one of the greatest advantages to exploring Costa Rica from within the country itself instead of to and from an all-inclusive resort. By skipping the resort you can choose which activities you want to participate in and where you want to experience them at. Sure, all-inclusive resorts list a number of tours and activities on their websites that you are free to choose from (if you don’t mind inflated prices, of course), but what is less likely to be advertised is the quality of the tour/activity being offered. Truth be told, not all tours and activities offered in Costa Rica are created equal – some are more authentic than others and some are run in more favourable areas of the country offering better views or an extra something that makes a particular experience stand out among the rest. More often than not, the tours and activities that all-inclusive resorts offer are not necessarily the best experiences available, rather they are the tours and activities that are either the most accessible given the resort’s exact location and/or that provide the resort with the greatest kickback (in the form of a commission). Surely a resort is not going to recommend that clients take a 4-hour drive from the northern pacific coast to the La Fortuna/Arenal or Monteverde area of the country in order to experience one of the most thrilling ziplining experiences the country has to offer when they can instead choose to send travellers to the zipline tour down the road. Of course, they are justified in opting to offer the closer tour option given its convenience, but this does not change the fact that travellers obtain a mediocre tour experience as a result of this choice. Fortunately, choosing one’s own preferred Costa Rica destinations enables travellers to incorporate the tours and activities they want into their trip. For this reason, many visitors opt to spend the first part of their vacation visiting popular areas such as La Fortuna/Arenal and/or Monteverde in order to take in some of the country’s most well-loved tours and activities before moving on to the coastal destination of their choice.
Unique, high-quality, authentic experiences + the opportunity to experience the sights, sounds, and cultures of a multitude of Costa Rica destinations + rest and relaxation at a beautiful beach? Imagine that. Perhaps it is possible to calculate an enjoyable “all-inclusive” non-all-inclusive resort vacation after all.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Think it is complicated to plan a non-all-inclusive vacation to Costa Rica? Think again. It is not as puzzling as it may look – you’re merely putting the various pieces in place in order to form the picture you envision for your trip. To keep everything as organized as possible, we recommend keeping a detailed trip itinerary. This will not only help you keep the trip planning process on track but it will come in handy once you are in Costa Rica. We also recommend that travellers keep a copy of the following information on file throughout the trip planning process and during your travels throughout Costa Rica.
Note: the below list was created to help ease the Costa Rica trip planning process and is not a Costa Rica vacation packing list.
Airline name & contact information
Exact flight arrival & departure times
Duration of flight (this information will help you plan for meals onboard and/or bring snacks to cover long periods of time without meals)
The exact location within Costa Rica (this information will help you avoid issues described in our related blog post Costa Rica Destinations: Common Name & Location Misunderstandings)
Meals included with the accommodation stay
Availability of a restaurant on-site
Approximate durations between routes (this information will help you plan for meals en route and/or bring snacks to cover long periods of time without meals)
A report of the terrain crossed during each route (this information will help you plan for any medications such as anti-nausea medications needed for travellers who suffer from motion sickness)
City-to-city transportation-inclusive tour options that avoid the need to reserve separate transportation services between two destinations
Meals included with the tours/activities
A general budget (this information will help you budget your trip accordingly and prevent overspending)
Copies of identification, passports, and/or other important travel documents (this information is often requested by accommodations, tour operators, and/or transportation service providers so keeping it handy throughout your planning is recommended)
*Discounts for Costa Rica hotels, tours, and transportation services are available through Pura Vida! eh? Incorporated at: http://www.puravidaeh.ca
QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Did you opt to visit Costa Rica ‘au natural’ (by skipping the all-inclusive resort)? How was the experience?