Costa Rica Day Tours: Should You Book Ahead Of Time Or Wait?

UPDATED: 2017

Ricky & Nikki, with our family rafting the Pacuare River!

Ricky & Nikki, with our family rafting the Pacuare River!

When it comes to Costa Rica vacation planning, here’s the $64,000 question you may ask yourself:

Should I book my desired Costa Rica day tours ahead of time or wait until closer to my desired tour dates?

Welcome to the game, everyone. Are you comfy in your contestant’s chair? Let’s play.

Much like the classic 1940’s game show (and its plethora of remakes), deciding when to reserve Costa Rica tours for your trip has as much to do with risk as it does reward. Sometimes risk pays off. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes people are satisfied with the general experience regardless of the outcome. Others are downright disappointed over the thought of what their experience could have been. In the end, many risk a lot. Most wish they hadn’t.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to booking day tours early. Throughout our experience as both industry workers and Costa Rica travellers, listed below are a noteworthy few we have come across.

ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF BOOKING COSTA RICA DAY TOURS IN ADVANCE

Advantages:

  • Securing availability for your desired tour date
  • Securing availability for your desired tour time
  • Securing availability for transportation included with the tour
  • Securing availability for families or groups to participate in a tour together
  • Securing availability for private tours (when desired)
  • Securing availability for private guides (when desired)
  • Having peace of mind that the tours you want to participate in will be the tours you will actually participate in
  • Having a preset itinerary you can count on while travelling
  • Knowing in advance what the next day will bring
  • Knowing in advance when you will have vacation “down-time” (this is an underrated vacation quality, especially for travellers with children or those who need to ensure they obtain rest and relaxation to balance out excitement and exploration)
  • Saving precious vacation time by researching various tour operators and deciding on the tours you would like to participate in from home
  • Having an opportunity to seek answers to your tour-related questions in advance
  • Having an opportunity to learn which apparel (or other items) are required for tour participation so you can pack accordingly
  • Having an opportunity to make specific requests (such as dietary requests) with tour operators
  • Having peace of mind that the tour operators chosen are well-respected and the tours chosen are safe, as a result of your advanced planning
  • Avoiding booking or payment scams resulting from last minute reservations placed on a whim
  • Avoiding poor quality tour experiences resulting from last minute reservations placed on a whim
  • Saving precious vacation time by reserving, guaranteeing/paying for, and confirming the tours you would like to participate in from home
  • Saving precious vacation funds by researching and accessing tour savings available on advance tour bookings
  • If you opt to pay for your tours upfront, fewer payments (via cash or credit cards) will be required during travel

Disadvantages (essentially, the opposite of the advantages listed above):

  • Inability to secure availability for your desired tour date
  • Inability to secure availability for your desired tour time
  • Inability to secure availability for transportation included with the tour
  • Inability to secure availability for families or groups to participate in a tour together
  • Inability to secure availability for private tours (when desired)
  • Inability to secure availability for private guides (when desired)
  • Inability to guarantee whether the tours you want to participate in will be the tours you will actually participate in
  • Not having a preset itinerary you can count on while travelling
  • Not knowing in advance what the next day will bring
  • Not knowing in advance when you will have vacation “down-time” (this is an underrated vacation quality, especially for travellers with children or those who need to ensure they obtain rest and relaxation to balance out excitement and exploration)
  • Wasting precious vacation time researching various tour operators and deciding on the tours you would like to participate in
  • Not having an opportunity to seek answers to your tour-related questions in advance
  • Not having an opportunity to learn which apparel (or other items) are required for tour participation
  • Not having an opportunity to make specific requests (such as dietary requests) with tour operators
  • Not having an opportunity to learn whether the tour operators chosen are well-respected and the tours chosen are safe
  • Being at risk of booking or payment scams resulting from last minute reservations placed on a whim
  • Being at risk of poor quality tour experiences resulting from last minute reservations placed on a whim
  • Wasting precious vacation time reserving, guaranteeing/paying for, and confirming the tours you would like to participate in
  • Wasting precious vacation funds on tour overpayments as a result of missing out on tour savings available on advance tour bookings
  • If you opt to pay for your tours last minute, a greater number of payments (via cash or credit cards) will be required during travel

Right about now there is a group of travellers who have read the list above and are thinking, but some of those disadvantages are actually advantages… and vice versa.

And, those people too would be right.

The problem with listing “advantages” and “disadvantages” (on any topic) is that the criteria that falls under each heading is subjective. Many parents travelling with little ones would likely make it a priority to know in advance what their next travel day is bound to bring. Some lone backpackers, we guess, would cringe at the thought in favour of free-spiritedness.

Fortunately, if you have read any of our other blog posts, you already know that the advice, tips, and recommendations we provide are far more than surface deep. Our lengthy, detailed, and educative articles (which we are proud to say differentiate us from so many other Costa Rica travel-related blogs) allow us to look further, think harder, and hopefully, help you travel better.

HERE’S WHAT REALLY HAPPENS WHEN YOU BOOK COSTA RICA DAY TOURS IN ADVANCE (AND WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU OPT NOT TO DO SO)

If we look at the advantages and disadvantages noted above in greater detail, we notice a number of key themes: availability, trip efficiency (including itinerary / schedule efficiency and budget / spending efficiency), and high quality tour experience.

Availability

Day tour availability is quite fluid. It comes and goes quickly, and although the direction of its course can be anticipated, it can never be 100% predicted.

For travellers, this means that availability for a tour is never guaranteed until a tour operator has confirmed it for a particular date and time. Although day tour availability is much more likely to be encountered during the low / rain / green season (when less travellers visit Costa Rica) than during the high / dry / summer season (when the country experiences an influx of travellers), it is a coin toss the whole year through.

As a traveller questioning whether or not to book your Costa Rica day tours in advance or wait, with respect to availability, the question to ask yourself becomes:

Are you prepared to risk securing availability for your desired tour date, your desired tour time, tour transportation (if/when it is desired and included with the tour), the option to participate in the tour in the same group as other members of your travel group (i.e., your family members or friends), the option to participate in tour you actually want to participate in (i.e., not a fallback or “plan B” tour), the option to participate in a private tour (if desired), and/or the option to hire a private guide (if desired)?

Trip Efficiency (including itinerary / schedule efficiency and budget / spending efficiency)

Trip efficiency is our specialty. If there is anything we have learned as a result of exploring this country for over a decade it is how to build an efficient Costa Rica vacation experience. We are meticulous planners, cutthroat lawyers, sharp accountants, and life-saving doctors all in one; we can organize, seek out loopholes, find opportunities to save money, and work miracles all at once. Are we being over-dramatic? Yes. But we believe a little acting in action is what separates a good vacation from an efficient one.

If you have already read our blog post Choosing A Costa Rica Hotel: Are You A Knowledgeable Traveller Or An Informed One? you know we do not shy away from drawing a line between having information and using information. In that article we explain how “knowledgeable travellers” know where their hotel is (they can even cite the address if need be), but “informed travellers” have gathered the necessary information to understand how their hotel’s location will impact their vacation experience (either positively or negatively). The concept of not only gathering information but using it to one’s advantage is central to the theme of trip efficiency. Anyone can research day tours for their vacation, but travellers who use the details learned to inform their tour and itinerary choices will design a more efficient trip.

“The concept of not only gathering information but using it to one’s advantage is central to the theme of trip efficiency. Anyone can research day tours for their vacation, but travellers who use the details learned to inform their tour and itinerary choices will design a more efficient trip.”
~ Nikki & Ricky,
Costa Rica Travel Blog

For many travellers, efficiency equals preparedness. It means knowing what lies ahead so experience-altering decisions can be made, such as which clothing or footwear should be packed / worn, how much in-vehicle travel time can be expected, and when meals will be served. It reduces anticipation, anxiety, and chaos, and builds excitement, ease, and confidence. It allows travellers to schedule both adventurous episodes and “down-time”, the latter of which is incredibly important in maintaining health and wellness the entire vacation through.

Trip efficiency can also create a lengthier vacation. No, it cannot negotiate additional days off from work with your boss, but it can help you make the most of the travel days you do have by determining how particular day tours best work together with other day tours or transportation services to maximize experience and minimize lost opportunity. It can also help you avoid wasting precious vacation time on work that could have easily been taken care of from home. Consider all of the time spent researching various tour options, deciding which day tours you would like to participate in during your trip, contacting tour operators (or faithful Costa Rica experts, such as us!) to obtain answers to your tour-related questions, officially reserving the day tours you have chosen, guaranteeing or paying for those tours (if/when any tour operators require payments or credit card information to be provided online or via a printed and scanned/emailed or faxed credit card authorization form; for more information about this please see our related blog post: Paying For Your Costa Rica Trip: What Is Normal, Common, And To Be Expected?), and obtaining the confirmations needed to guarantee the tour reservations. Can each process take place from within Costa Rica if/when travellers wait to book their Costa Rica day tours last minute? Absolutely! Will they waste part of their trip glued to their electronic devices, scouring websites, chatting with resources, and printing/scanning/faxing forms as a result? Of course. We have no doubt about it; it happens all the time.

Assume, for a moment, that we put the above-mentioned discussion aside. If we said it was possible to pay less for your Costa Rica day tours by choosing to reserve them in advance, would you do so? We would suspect that for many, monetary savings would be enough to ignite action. Travel efficiency then, has as much (if not more) to do with budget and spending efficiency as it does itinerary and scheduling efficiency.

At Pura Vida! eh? Incorporated, hundreds of discounts and cash back savings are offered for Costa Rica day tours. However, given travellers’ high demand for the savings and the amount of time needed by tour operators to process reservation requests, in order for travellers to save money they must place their tour reservations in advance. Although the window of time in which tour reservation requests are accepted by Pura Vida! eh? differs from month to month (please see the Request Deadlines page for more information), the point is, once the reservation request deadline has closed, travellers lose access to discounts and cash back savings. Gone are the days when some thought it would be best to wait to place a reservation “later” with hope of obtaining a last-minute discount; today’s savings reward proactive and prepared travellers.

“Gone are the days when some thought it would be best to wait to place a reservation “later” with hope of obtaining a last-minute discount; today’s savings reward proactive and prepared travellers.”
~ Nikki & Ricky,
Costa Rica Travel Blog

Throw in the fact that more tours booked in advance (and paid for in advance, or at least guaranteed via credit card in advance) means either fewer payments made during the trip, less cash-in-hand carried around during the trip, or less out-of-country credit card charges applied throughout the trip (i.e., less credit card company commissions / fees charged as a result of the trip), and it is apparent that opportunities for efficiency (in this case, spending efficiency) exist on multiple levels.

As a traveller questioning whether or not to book your Costa Rica day tours in advance or wait, with respect to trip efficiency, the question to ask yourself becomes:

Are you prepared to risk missing out on experience-altering decisions, precious vacation time, monetary savings, and other payment benefits?

High-Quality Tour Experience

Assume the above two themes have been tackled like a champion, and a traveller is able to both obtain availability for their desired tour and reserve it in the most efficient way possible. Unfortunately, a high-quality tour experience is still not promised. But don’t fret. This is where our knowledge as workers within the industry–beyond merely travellers within the country–can help you see what most travellers otherwise miss.

Tour operators are busy, especially during the tour season. Beyond the general operation of running a business (which comes with its own long list of practices and procedures), they are concerned with the operation of the tours themselves. Although the degree varies from activity to activity, all tours require advance planning. From securing and coordinating tour guides and transportation, equipment and meal preparation, site preparation and on-site management, tour operators diligently coordinate each aspect with every advance tour reservation they receive. On the flip side, with every last-minute tour reservation request that rolls in, tour operators scramble to pull things together.

Like any last-minute decision you have ever made, quality may have been sacrificed and you may not have been pleased with the final result. Did you decide to paint your house and choose a paint chip on a whim? We did once, and we had no idea that the shade of light grey we selected had such prominent blue undertones. We were left with a room that was light blue enough to have been a nursery for a baby we weren’t expecting. We eventually re-painted the room, and we learned our lesson to devote more time and consideration to our selection the second time around. A similar lesson stands to be learned by travellers: the quality of an end result can be influenced by how much time and consideration is contributed to the means. Unlike us, in the case of our paint fiasco, most travellers do not have an opportunity to re-do any trip-planning mistakes. For many Costa Rica visitors, their vacation to the rich coast is a once in a lifetime experience, and it is important they get it right from the start.

“A similar lesson stands to be learned by travellers: the quality of an end result can be influenced by how much time and consideration is contributed to the means.”
~ Nikki & Ricky,
Costa Rica Travel Blog

So, how do you go about obtaining a high-quality tour experience and not sacrificing quality? This is certainly a task easier said than done, as nothing is ever guaranteed, but a good place to start is with advance day tour reservations that give tour operators ample time to gather their very best. Does the day tour you have your eye on include a meal and you want to make a specific dietary request? Great! Chances are the tour operator will be far more equipped to fulfill that request if they are given enough time to purchase and prepare the food you are able to eat. Is your itinerary day comprised of two back-to-back tours (run by different tour operators) that require you to be returned to your hotel immediately following the first tour in order to catch the transportation included with the second tour? No problem! If the first tour’s operator is told so in advance, perhaps they can make a special arrangement with their driver to have you returned to your hotel first. You’d be amazed at the lengths tour operators are willing to go to in order to accommodate travellers’ needs. You shouldn’t be surprised, however, if and when tour operators are unable to be as accommodating when reservation requests are received after the process of making plans for their tours has already taken place.

Let’s put the onus on tour operators aside for a minute. As much as they are responsible for providing a positive tour experience, travellers too play a role in ensuring their tour experience is a high-quality one. Some tour operators are less well-known, respected, or experienced than others and it is the traveller’s responsibility to devote the time and consideration necessary to narrow down which exact tour operator (or tour operators) would be the safest and best to trust. After all, color almost always looks appealing upon first glance; it isn’t usually until after you commit to it and roll it on that you can begin to sense that it is a bit “off”. The good news here, referring to mistakes made in advance, is that typically a “buffer” window of time exists to fix them. Fortunately, with respect to advance day tour reservations, this is true for mistakes made by both travellers (if/when travellers erroneously confirm the wrong tour date, tour time, hotel pick-up/drop-off location, etc.) and tour operators (if/when tour operators accidentally do the same).

As a traveller questioning whether or not to book your Costa Rica day tours in advance or wait, with respect to having a high-quality tour experience, the question to ask yourself becomes:

Are you prepared to risk having the tour operator perform at a level lower than their best, having the tour operator deny or be unable to accommodate special requests, withholding your overall say in which tour operator would be the safest and best to trust, and closing the “buffer” window of time within which mistakes can be caught and problems can be rectified?

WE’LL LET YOU IN ON A LITTLE SECRET (WHICH ISN’T MUCH OF A SECRET AT ALL)…

Costa Rica day tours can be changed and/or cancelled.

Did we blow your mind? Not likely, since it is no real surprise that day tour reservation changes and cancellations can and do take place. Yet for some reason, many travellers forget that this is an option.

Can reservations be cancelled at the last minute? Not usually, at least not without incurring some form of payment penalty by the tour operator according to their specific policy. But here’s what we’ve noticed. Many travellers claim they are hesitant to book their Costa Rica day tours in advance in case they change their minds later. This, too, is what tour operator’s are afraid of, since immediately following receipt of a tour reservation request they begin making arrangements (and in some cases, advance payment for particular items or services) to perform the tour reserved. This being said, so long as advance notice is provided to tour operators (“advance notice” is defined differently by each tour operator), most are willing to accept reservation change or cancellation requests without issue. In fact, the majority of tour operators we have had the pleasure of working with accept reservation change and cancellation requests upwards of 24-48 hours before the tour date. That’s pretty fair, if you ask us, given the amount of coordination that has already occurred by the time the cancellation is requested.

For all travellers who have booked Costa Rica vacations only to need to cancel their trip at a later date, the 24-48 hour average window of time provides plenty of opportunity for reservations to be cancelled without penalty (i.e., no payment for the tour would be due, and in cases where the tour was prepaid, the prepayment would be returned). Even in cases where travellers wait until they are in Costa Rica to book their day tours (or at least wait until the week or so before they depart for Costa Rica to book), these travellers too have ample time to change or cancel their requests.

But we know what you are thinking. What about in instances when tours need to be cancelled within the 24-48 hour window? What happens then? Well, in these cases, the cancellation policy (as created by the tour operator) would apply, just as it would if you were to make a reservation for a service requested in your home country and your plans suddenly changed so close to the reservation date.

In unavoidable situations, such as family emergencies, illnesses, injuries, etc., the monetary loss suffered (if and when the tour operator maintains that their cancellation policy would apply) is unfortunate. But, if the event that unfolded was unforeseen, I’m sure we can all agree that the unique circumstance is not likely to happen to each and every traveller. It is far more uncommon than common, and the “chance” of having something go wrong last minute should not (in our opinion) be a good enough reason to avoid placing advance tour reservations altogether. If we really wanted to get nit picky about it, even after placing a last-minute request for a tour reservation during the morning before a requested tour date still does not avoid the possibility of an event occurring that same afternoon or evening that would require tour cancellation. Problems can happen anywhere and at anytime; that is a rough reality–and often times, disappointing lesson–of travel (and life!).

In other cases, travellers are concerned about the weather. In fact, I don’t think a day has gone by when we have not come across a traveller who is hesitant to book a day tour in advance as they don’t know what the weather will be like on their desired tour date. Not surprisingly, we do not know what the weather will be like either, nor do tour operators. Unfortunately there is no way to guarantee a particular climate (even during the high / dry / summer season when the weather tends to be on its best, brightest, and warmest behaviour), and contrary to popular demand, it does rain (some days more than others) in the rainforest. What we do know is that many travellers–whose initial aim is noble: to create the best trip possible–end up missing out when they prioritize weather over everything else. These travellers, who opt not to make day tour reservations in advance in order to wait to see what the weather brings the day or two before their desired tour date, not only end up risking availability, trip efficiency, and a high-quality tour experience (as this blog post has discussed at length), but they compromise their ability to participate in the tour at all. Given that many tour operators will not accept last-minute tour requests (since they require advance notice in order to adequately prepare for each tour), often by the time these travellers decide to book it is too late to do so. Perhaps if the travellers knew that the activity would be cancelled by the tour operator anyway if the weather ever caused the tour to be unsafe to run (and that in these cases no payment for the tour would be due, or if the tour was prepaid, the prepayment would be returned) they would have acted otherwise.

IF YOU’RE STILL WONDERING WHETHER YOU SHOULD BOOK YOUR COSTA RICA DAY TOURS NOW OR LATER, YOU’VE ALREADY ANSWERED YOUR OWN QUESTION.

Throughout this post we posed three pertinent questions:

#1

Are you prepared to risk securing availability for your desired tour date, your desired tour time, tour transportation (if/when it is desired and included with the tour), the option to participate in the tour in the same group as other members of your travel group (i.e., your family members or friends), the option to participate in a private tour (if desired), and/or the option to hire a private guide (if desired)?

#2

Are you prepared to risk missing out on experience-altering decisions, precious vacation time, monetary savings, and other payment benefits?

#3

Are you prepared to risk having the tour operator perform at a level lower than their best, having the tour operator deny or be unable to accommodate special requests, withholding your overall say in which tour operator would be the safest and best to trust, and closing the “buffer” window of time within which mistakes can be caught and problems can be rectified?

If you answered “no” to any of the above, we would recommend reserving your Costa Rica day tours in advance. Why? Because you have just proven to yourself that taking a chance on a last-minute reservation is not worth any or all of the risk associated with it.

Alternatively, if you answered “yes” to all of the above, then we would suggest not concerning yourself with making Costa Rica day tour reservations in advance. You would likely prefer to take your chances; you may not be all that disappointed if you missed out on particular tour experiences anyway and there may be another factor that we haven’t yet touched on above that is influencing your choice.

Either way, congrats! Regardless of which end you met, the fact is, by simply taking the time to read this post you have contributed to the means. You are a smart and informed traveller, and that is the best kind of traveller to be. Costa Rica awaits! 🙂

QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Have you participated in day tours while visiting Costa Rica? When did you choose to book, and why?

Pura vida!

*Discounts for Costa Rica day tours are available through Pura Vida! eh? Incorporated at: http://www.puravidaeh.ca/

*Discounts and cash back savings for Costa Rica day tours are available through Pura Vida! eh? Incorporated

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