Planning a vacation in Costa Rica? READ THIS FIRST!
I hesitate to call the following a mistake only because each traveller’s individual trip planning style is different. In many cases, when it comes to vacation planning many travellers just don’t know any better and this is by no means their own fault (especially those travellers who devote time and energy to researching various aspects of their vacation in great detail). Countless travellers return home from their well-earned vacation only to identify things they wish they could have done that they were not able to do, things they wish they had not wasted their time or money doing, and/or things that could have been organized better. Hindsight is 20/20, but what if it was possible to plan the perfect vacation while receiving this great advice before landing in the country for the first time?
Enter Pura Vida! eh? Incorporated. While I do not intend for this post to plug our business, I do aim to shed light and optimism on the trip-planning process for travellers interested in visiting Costa Rica. One of the most common mistakes (again, I use this term lightly) that we see travellers make time and time again is to take on the planning process from a top-down approach.
The top-down approach requires travellers to build their vacation framework by starting with the number of days they wish to spend in each location, booking their hotels respectively, and then filling in the days with various tours and activities to keep themselves busy. With this approach, travellers secure the number of days they wish to spend at each destination during the start of the trip-planning process. This is arguably the most obvious way to plan a vacation, the method promoted by most travel agencies and businesses, and likely your first thought when organizing your own trip. However, the downside of this approach is that staple vacation items (such as destinations, hotels, and sometimes transportation arrangements) are often set in stone by the time travellers take a look at their tour and activity options.
Perhaps the biggest affect this can have on travellers is that it can result in too much or too little time being spent in particular areas of the country. Take La Fortuna/Arenal for example. This area of Costa Rica offers more things to do than any other in the country. Its variety is sure to appease a diverse range of travellers including those who are adventurous, nature-lovers, children, elderly, pregnant, mobility-impaired, and many others. Visitors can easily fill an entire week with activities in La Fortuna/Arenal and most travellers leave wishing they had spent more time in the area. In contrast, consider Monteverde. While a Costa Rican hot spot and definitely worth a visit, geographically Monteverde is small and the number of tour/activity offerings in the area is significantly less than the number available in the La Fortuna/Arenal region. We often see travellers plan to spend the same number of days in Monteverde as in La Fortuna/Arenal (logistically this makes sense – why wouldn’t you plan to spread your time across the two areas evenly?) only to learn later that a larger percentage of vacation time would have been better spent in La Fortuna/Arenal.
Since our team at Pura Vida! eh? Incorporated likes to push the envelope, think outside the box, and plain and simply do things a bit differently than everyone else, we recommend a bottom-up approach to trip planning. Our bottom-up approach asks travellers to look at their vacation overall, including (and not putting off until later) the types of tours and activities they wish to do while in Costa Rica. We know the country well and know that the key to planning the perfect vacation in Costa Rica is location, location, location! Far beyond simply choosing areas of the country that you would like to visit, it is important to plan for an appropriate number of days in each location based on your specific tour/activity interests and all that you wish to experience in each area.
Start by researching online (you can use our online tour discount database for tour/activity inspiration). Keep a list of which activities interest you, and most importantly, take note of where in the country you would like to do each. Some activities are only offered in certain corners of Costa Rica, and for others that are fairly widespread, conduct your own online research (or contact us for recommendations) to learn which areas in the country would be the best to visit for accessing a particular tour type. It is also a good idea to record the approximate duration of the tour(s) you are looking at. Many are full-day adventures and will require 1 full day of your vacation in a particular city. Others are half-day or 2-3 hour activities, in which case 2 or 3 tours can be planned for the same day. Lastly, take note of non-tour-related activities. For example, if you wish to spend a day (or a half-day at least) exploring the town you stay in and/or souvenir shopping, don’t forget to record this on your itinerary (the same goes for the amount of time/number of days you wish to spend relaxing at the beach, if applicable). With this list – a general breakdown of the things you wish to do and see during your vacation – you will have a good idea of the approximate amount of time you will need in each place in order to fit in all that you plan to get out of your trip. Then (and only then, in our opinion!) etch your plans in stone by securing hotels and transportation services according to your tour/activity/shopping/relaxation schedule (taking into consideration hotel check-in and check-out times as well as transportation service departure times) and everything else will fall into place.
A bottom-up approach to trip planning is a lot easier than it looks, but it does require a lot of extra effort upfront. It calls your attention to tours and activities sooner rather than later, and although many travellers prefer to leave these decisions until much closer to their vacation and/or until they are in Costa Rica, the greatest advantage to not doing so is being able to vacation without regret.
QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: When vacation planning, do you reserve staple items such as hotels and transportation services first before considering tours and activities? Or do you wait to plan out your entire vacation before securing your trip items?