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When promoting Costa Rica, we always explain to travellers that two of the best things about the country are its small size (geographically-speaking) and the fact that there is so much to see and do. For these two reasons, it is easy for travellers to plan to visit more than one popular Costa Rica destination during their vacation, as tourism throughout the country is designed to assist travellers in getting from one area to the next. Gone are the days of week-long vacations spent entirely at an all-inclusive resort (with little experience had outside the parameters of the hotel’s property; see our related blog post Why Is Costa Rica Not An All-Inclusive Resort Destination for more information), as Costa Rica’s network of inner-country travel options makes rainforest, volcano, canal, and beach experiences possible in a vacation as compact as seven or eight days.
To assist individuals with their Costa Rica transportation arrangements (that is, the way in which it is possible to get from point A to point B throughout their travels around the country), we have compiled a list (in no particular order) of the ten most prevalent and popular methods of transportation available to foreign visitors. Each differs in amenities, advantages, disadvantages, and cost–ideal for each traveller’s unique budget, preferences, and needs.
#1. SHARED SHUTTLE SERVICES
Shared shuttle services are one of the most common ways to travel from city to city in Costa Rica. As the name suggests, shared shuttle services are transfers that are shared with other travellers (they are not private services specific to your travelling group). This type of transfer service is a direct one–requests to make stops along the way are not generally accepted by the driver (unless in case of an emergency) as the shuttle service makes one scheduled stop per route for a bathroom break. With this option, travellers are transported in air-conditioned tourist vans typically built to transport eight to twelve occupants. Carry-on luggage is kept with the occupant and checked luggage is stored at the back of the vehicle or secured on top of the vehicle. According to the shuttle service provider’s specific policies, there may be a limit to the amount of luggage travellers are able to bring with them per route. Reduced rates for child travellers are typically available, and children up to the age of ten travel with a car seat (if your family does not plan to travel with a child car seat, they are available upon request to the transportation service operator and are usually free of charge provided the request is made in advance). Pets of any kind (with the exception of guide dogs) are not permitted in shared shuttle service vehicles.
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Shared shuttle services are reasonably priced. Transfers are priced per person and per one-way service.
Shared shuttle services have set departure times. Depending on the degree of popularity of the route you are interested in, one or two departure times may be available per day (there is usually at least one departure set for the morning and sometimes one set for the afternoon). Departure times are set by the transportation service provider and cannot be negotiated by travellers.
#2. PRIVATE TRANSFER SERVICES
Private transfer services are a popular way to travel throughout Costa Rica, especially for larger groups (typically comprised of four or more travellers). Unlike shared shuttle services, private transfer services are not shared with other travellers; they are private to each travelling group. The type of transfer service is a direct one, however requests to make stops along the way are accepted by the driver (some private transfer service operators limit the amount of stop time along each route to one hour and charge a small fee for additional stops in order to cover the cost for the driver’s time). Such stop time can be used for bathroom breaks, to eat a meal along route, to take photos, etc. Offering similar vehicles to those used for shared shuttle services (air-conditioned tourist vans typically built to transport eight to twelve occupants), vehicles equipped to transport upwards of thirty passengers are also available to accommodate larger groups travelling together. Pets of any kind (with the exception of guide dogs) are not permitted in private transfer services.
Private transfer services are priced per group (and per one-way service)–not per person. This means that the cost of private transfer services can be divided among the number of travellers who occupy the service (such as your family and/or friend group travelling together). For this reason, although private transfer services are priced at a higher rate than shared shuttle services (in order to cover the cost of the entire tourist van rental and the driver’s service), depending on the number of people in your travelling group who will be using the service, the calculation of cost per person for private transfer services may end up being more or less expensive than the cost per person for shared shuttle services.
Private transfer services do not have set departure times. Instead, travellers are free to select their own departure time for each and every route (some private transfer service operators offer departure times available twenty-four hours per day and others limit the departure time selection to their regular operating hours–such as from 6:00am to 7:00pm–with a small fee applied on top of the private transfer service cost for departure times selected outside of these hours). For this reason, private transfer services are the preferred mode of transport by travellers who need to depart from or arrive at a particular location at an exact time (most notably, at either of the country’s two international airports in anticipation of an upcoming flight), as this transfer service type provides individuals with the most flexibility to arrange their transportation services around their travel needs.
#3. PRIVATE CAR TRANSFERS
Like private transfer services (which are provided in tourist vans), private car transfers offer similar flexibility, however the service is conducted in a rented vehicle. For this reason, private car transfer services are best for small travel groups (consisting of one or two passengers with limited luggage), given the space restrictions of small, mid-size, and intermediate size vehicles. Apart from the transport vehicle size differences (i.e., vans vs. cars), private transfer services and private car transfers offer many of the same amenities–both are private to one’s travelling group, allow stops to be made en route, permit travellers to select their own departure times, and restrict pets of any kind (with the exception of guide dogs) within the vehicle.
Private car transfer pricing is designed in the same way as private transfer service pricing (see above).
Private car transfer scheduling is designed in the same way as private transfer service scheduling (see above).
#4. VEHICLE RENTALS
Vehicle rentals are ideal for travellers who wish to explore the country at their own pace. They free travellers from the set departure times that shared shuttle services offer and the popular routes that private van/car transfer service drivers take. Vehicle rentals provide travellers with an opportunity to “get lost” in Costa Rica, discovering unique and authentic areas of the country otherwise missed when the most direct routes between cities are taken via alternative modes of transportation. Vehicle rentals should be utilized by those travellers who feel comfortable driving abroad, who are knowledgeable and cautious of Costa Rica’s roads and driving laws, and who have access to (or plan to rent) a GPS system for navigational support. Small, mid-size, and intermediate vehicles (as well as vans) are available to rent. As with all other transportation service options, pets of any kind (with the exception of guide dogs) are not permitted in rental vehicles.
Planning on renting a vehicle for your Costa Rica trip? Don’t miss our exclusive free promotion code that awards travellers with anywhere from a 25%-50% discount off all of Mapache Rent-A-Car’s vehicle rentals! Click here to obtain the promotion code and additional discount information.
Vehicle rentals are priced per day or per week (depending on the duration of your preferred rental period). Rates are typically calculated on a twenty-four-hour basis, with each hour being counted from the moment the vehicle is picked up. Some rental agencies provide a grace period within which travellers are permitted to return the vehicle after their scheduled vehicle return time without being charged for an extra day’s rental service. Since vehicle rentals are priced per vehicle according to the duration of the rental period, this allows the cost of the rented vehicle to be divided among the number of travellers who share the vehicle (such as your family and/or friend group travelling together). For this reason, although vehicle rentals can be one of the more expensive transportation options (according to the size and model of vehicle you choose and how many days you need the vehicle for) depending on the number of people in your travelling group, the calculation of the cost per person for vehicle rentals may end up being more or less than the cost per person for shared shuttle services, private transfer services, or private car transfers.
Vehicle rentals do not have set pick-up and return times. Instead, travellers are free to select their own pick-up and return times (within the regular operating hours of the rental agency chosen for the rental, which can vary from one agency to the next). Like private transfer services and private car transfers, vehicle rentals provide individuals with flexibility in arranging their transportation services around their travel needs.
Read our related blog post: Costa Rica Vehicle Rentals: Should You Rent A Car For Your Costa Rica Trip?
Read our related blog post: Costa Rica Vehicle Rentals: How Not To Fall For A Car Rental Scam
Read our related blog post: Costa Rica Vehicle Rentals: Credit Card Insurance Coverage & Declining Part CDW
Read our related blog post: Costa Rica Vehicle Rentals: Good Car Rental Agencies Are Hard To Find. Here’s Where We Choose To Look.
#5. DOMESTIC FLIGHTS
Domestic flights can be one of the most expensive means of transportation in Costa Rica but they can also significantly minimize travel time between destinations. Although not all popular cities have a domestic airport, fortunately many do which makes the option of flying from place to place a common one. Domestic flights to/from Costa Rica’s neighbouring countries (Nicaragua and Panama) are also available to assist travellers who plan to visit other areas of Latin America.
Domestic flights are priced per person and per one-way service. If you are interested in taking multiple domestic flights around the country, multi-flight passes may be available to help you save more overall. Flight prices also vary according to the specific type of ticket purchased. Airlines may enforce specific luggage (carry-on and/or checked luggage) requirements according to each fare type, as the most expensive type of ticket typically affords travellers the maximum amount of luggage per flight (usually 40lbs) and the least expensive buys them the minimum (usually 15bs). In addition, some domestic airports require travellers to pay a departure tax (cash only) when exiting the airport, so it is important to verify with your ticket provider whether the airport you plan to fly into will expect payment for this fee.
Domestic flights have set departure times daily. Depending on the degree of popularity of the route you are interested in, one or more departure times may be available per day. Departure times are set by the airlines and cannot be negotiated by travellers.
#6. CHARTER FLIGHTS
Charter flights are fully-rented domestic flights. They offer the same means of transportation throughout the country that regular domestic flights do, however charters allow travellers to rent an entire plane and pilot for their own personal use.
Charter flights are undoubtedly the most expensive means of transportation in Costa Rica, however they provide the greatest amount of flexibility and can save travellers precious vacation time.
Charter flights offer the most flexible flight plans as they allow travellers to choose their own routes and flight times.
#7. OFFICIAL TAXIS
“If you want to feel popular in Costa Rica, drive a red car. Everyone on the street will wave at you, because that’s the color of all Costa Rican taxis.”
I once read the above quote on a Costa Rican website and it made me laugh because it is true. Red taxis are not only Costa Rica’s official taxi service (with the exception of some orange taxis that service the airport), but they are all over the country. There are also many unofficial (pirata) taxi services that use red cars–our guess is that they aim to be mistaken for the official taxi service by travellers. To save yourself the confusion, look for the yellow triangle on the side of the vehicle containing a code written in black; if the vehicle has one, it should be an official taxi. Otherwise, it is likely a pirata. For locating official taxis in town, larger city centres have a parada (taxi stop) where you can quickly and easily find a red taxi if you need one. Alternatively, you (or your hotel’s front desk) can call one to a particular pick-up location if need be.
Taxi services vary in price from route to route, however they are generally regarded as inexpensive means of transportation in and around metropolis areas. As the majority of other Costa Rica resources mention, remember to ask the driver to start the meter (maria) before entering the vehicle so you are not left paying the driver’s spur-of-the-moment haphazard price at the end of the drive.
Taxi services are available throughout the day. This being said, many official taxi drivers continue to work throughout the night by arranging transportation services on their own outside of their regular work hours (without the assistance of the official taxi service’s radio). In these cases (if you happen to require a taxi service in the wee hours of the morning), since you may not be able to call a driver through the official taxi service as per usual at this time of day, have your hotel a custom pick-up for you ahead of time (such as during the previous day’s regular operating hours).
#8. BOAT/WATER TAXI/FERRY
Although not an overly popular means of transportation in Costa Rica, a few watercraft services (i.e., boat services, water taxi services, and ferry services) have been created to help minimize travel distances between particular routes. For example, individuals wanting to travel to Monteverde from La Fortuna/Arenal would normally need to drive around Arenal Lake (which lies in between the two destinations), but in order to reduce the amount of travel time required by ground transportation for the route, the popular van-boat-van service (otherwise referred to as the jeep-boat-jeep service) combines ground transportation from La Fortuna/Arenal to Arenal Lake, boat transportation across the lake, and ground transportation from the lake on to Monteverde which reduces the total amount of travel time overall. Similarly, a ferry between Costa Rica’s port in Puntarenas and its ports on the Nicoya Peninsula (Paquera and Naranjo) help eliminate ground transportation around the peninsula on to popular destinations such as playas Tambor, Montezuma, Mal Pais, and Santa Teresa. Lastly, a water taxi service between Montezuma (on the Nicoya Peninsula) and Jaco (in the Central Pacific region) helps connect travellers to two separate areas of the country without needing to make a long drive around the coast.
Boat/Water Taxi/Ferry tickets are reasonably priced. Each is priced per person and per one-way service.
Boat/Water Taxi/Ferry services have set departure times daily. Depending on the degree of popularity of the route you are interested in, one or more departure times may be available per day. Departure times are set by the transportation service provider and cannot be negotiated by travellers.
#9. PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION
Only a small percentage of international visitors use public transportation (likely due to the various safety concerns it poses). A good option for individuals travelling with strict budgets and/or looking for a truly authentic Costa Rican experience, fortunately Costa Rica offers quite a developed and intricate public transit system to those who wish to use it given the high percentage of residents who rely on the service for their daily routine (no, Costa Rica does not use “chicken buses”, despite some people’s ignorant use of the phrase). For this reason, hundreds of buses run to and from popular destinations daily, offering a variety of departure times and the option to select direct or collective routes. Of course, because a large number of Costa Ricans rely on public transit to go about their daily routine, finding availability for a particular route can sometimes be a challenge. And, since tickets with specific seating are not always assigned, some travellers have no choice but to stand in the bus aisle for part (or the entirety) of the trip.
Public transportation is certainly the most cost effective means of travelling around the country. Tickets are priced per person and per one-way service. Some tickets can be purchased in advance and others must be purchased on-site at transit stations.
Public transportation has set departure times daily. Depending on the degree of popularity of the route you are interested in, a number of departure times may be available per day. Departure times are set by the public transportation provider and cannot be negotiated by travellers. For the most time efficient means of public transportation, take direct routes wherever possible (collective routes make numerous stops along route in order to pick-up and drop-off individuals in less popular areas).
#10. CITY-TO-CITY TRANSPORTATION-INCLUSIVE TOURS
City-to-city transportation-inclusive tours allow travellers to get from point A to point B the most time and cost efficient way possible by taking advantage of city-to-city transportation included with a number of great tours. There are countless tour opportunities available in multiple areas of the country (including, but not limited to, La Fortuna/Arenal, Monteverde, San Jose, Liberia, Playa Samara, Playa Nosara, Playa Tamarindo, Playa Langosta, Golfo de Papagayo, Playa Hermosa, Playa Ocotal, Playa Panama, Playa Puntarenas, Playa Jaco, Playa Manuel Antonio, Playa Cahuita, Playa Puerto Viejo, Playa Manzanillo, Sarapiqui, Guapiles, and Siquirres), so if you plan to visit any of the above mentioned locations in Costa Rica, there is a tour or activity that will take you there for free. Such tours combine the day’s activity with a pick-up in one city and a drop-off in another, allowing travellers to not only save the cost of arranging separate transportation to the destination of their choice (which would be included in the cost of the tour), but also save vacation time so that time on a separate day does not need to be spent getting from one city to the next.
City-to-city transportation-inclusive tours are priced per person.
City-to-city transportation-inclusive tours have set departure times. Depending on the specific tour/activity that you are interested in, one or more departure times may be available per day. Departure times are set by the tour operators and cannot be negotiated by travellers.
QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Which type of service is your preferred method of transportation? Why?