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Costa Rica Vacation Package Scams And Red Flags

Costa Rica Vacation Package Scams And Red Flags

NOTE: The content on this page was last updated on July 28th, 2017.

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BE AWARE OF SCAMS AND RED FLAGS WHEN BUYING A COSTA RICA VACATION PACKAGE

Trips to Costa Rica are more popular than ever, but do you know how to protect yourself from paying more for your vacation than you should, having a low quality experience, getting trapped by company policies, and/or receiving poor advice? If not, we can help. Throughout our experience working with thousands of travellers via our business (Pura Vida! eh? Inc.), we have heard enough horror stories to compile the following list. When buying (or building your own) Costa Rica vacation package, be aware of the following red flags, and don’t miss our recommendations as to how to identify and avoid each.

COSTA RICA VACATION PACKAGE SCAMS AND RED FLAGS: HIGHBALLERS

Highballers are individuals or agencies that overcharge travellers when and where it is not necessary to do so. We use the word “necessary” cautiously here, as surely each agent has their own opinion in regards to what is necessary or not for the success of their business. In our opinion, the practice of highballers is never necessary; it not only causes travellers to pay more for a Costa Rica vacation package than what they should pay, but it also deceives travellers througout the process.

While some companies use standard prices (or even provide discounted rates for Costa Rica trip items, as our business does), in contrast, highballers use inflated prices to cover operational costs. Such costs could include agent or employee wages, partner commissions, bank fees, or other expenses. These charges are then grouped into categories, given a title similar to “service fees” or “booking fees”, and are added on top of a Costa Rica vacation package price. This means that travellers end up paying more for what they can truly get for less, if only the highballers’ fees were eliminated.

Some highballers automatically apply such fees to their Costa Rica vacation packages, which instantly increases the overall cost and decreases the traveller’s value per dollar spent. Other highballers wait until travellers need to make changes and/or cancellations to the Costa Rica vacation package to charge the fees. In either case, travellers who opt to reserve their Costa Rica vacations through highballers are essentially paying for an individual or agency’s service on top of the costs directly related to their trip.

Costa Rica vacation package example

Company X’s total Costa Rica vacation package cost is $4,000.00 for two people. When you total the cost of the Costa Rica hotels, tours/activities, and transportation services included, the total Costa Rica vacation package cost is $3,400.00 for two people ($1,900.00 for hotels, $1,100.00 for tours/activities, and $400.00 for transportation services).

Scams and red flags to be aware of

  • When asked how Company X obtained the package total of $4,000.00, they regrettably reply “sorry, we do not provide package price breakdowns, only total package costs” (ask yourself, what are they trying to hide?)
  • When asked how Company X obtained the package total of $4,000.00, they lie and reply “the package cost is the lowest available–we have included the lowest prices for the hotels, tours/activities, and transportation services” (if you can find it less expensive elsewhere, Company X is lying through their teeth)
  • When asked how Company X obtained the package total of $4,000.00, they explain “our packages include tax, guide fees, and service fees” (newsflash–tax is included with most individual trip items, as are guides, so you should not be paying extra for either of these items bundled as service fees–these are plain and simply extra amounts tacked on to the real total package cost resulting in higher earnings for the company)

How to identify and avoid highballers

Ask the individual and/or agency you are planning your trip through to send you a complete price breakdown of each vacation item included with your package. This list should include a complete and detailed outline of hotels (including the exact room type provided), transportation services (including a description of whether the services are shuttle services shared with other travellers or transfer services private to your group), and tours/activities (including whether expenses such as guide fees, entrance fees, and any meals have been worked into the calculation). With this list in hand, you can quickly and easily verify the cost of each vacation item for yourself and can learn whether the total you were quoted is the same or more than what the actual vacation is costing you.

COSTA RICA VACATION PACKAGE SCAMS AND RED FLAGS: LOWBALLERS

Lowballers are individuals or agencies that undercharge travellers for various Costa Rica vacation package items. Sounds good, doesn’t it? After all, we could all afford to save on travel these days, couldn’t we? Unfortunately in many cases, if something seems too good to be true, it may just be. Cheap prices can be a precursor to a cheap (low quality) vacation experience, so it is always good to question why and how it is possible that the prices are so low.

In Costa Rica, since the tourism market is widespread (and competitive!) there are countless operators offering the same tours/activities, transportation services, and hotel experiences. Sometimes these operators offer promotions or discounts (which are legitimate) and other times operators take advantage of the country’s popularity by fooling travellers into believing that they are paying for an experience much different than the one they receive. In the case of the latter, operators advertise particular tours, services, or hotel amenities at extremely low rates, and compare these to the much higher rates provided by their competitors. What is actually happening however, is that the scamming operator is providing a tour, service, or hotel experience that pales in comparison to that which is provided by other companies. This allows dishonest operators to advertise incredibly low rates, and the travellers who buy into the gimmick are left paying for an experience that would have been much richer elsewhere.

Costa Rica vacation package example

Company X is offering a steal of a deal: a volcano tour for less than half of the cost that all other tour operators are charging for it.

Scams and red flags to be aware of

  • When asked how Company X can offer the tour for such  low rate, they eagerly reply “our prices are always this low” (if the cost is less than half the price of other competitors, question how Company X is able to operate their business with such little income)
  • When asked how Company X’s tour compares to others, they competitively reply “our tour is the best available, it offers this, that, and more than our competitors” (hmmm… Company X must be a magical company if it is able to offer travellers a bigger, better experience for only half of the cost–question the specifics of the tour to compare it to others available, inquire about the experience and knowledge of the tour guides, and ask to view past tour-goers’ testimonials; any company that cannot produce these is not worth a second thought)

How to identify and avoid lowballers

Make sure you carefully read the description of the tour, service, or hotel that is being advertised as included in your Costa Rica vacation package. Compare its description to that of a similar tour, service, or hotel that is more expensive and evaluate the options. If the descriptions are the same, it is likely that the operator offering the lower price is simply running a promotion and/or has opted to offer discounts to its clients. Alternatively, if the descriptions are different or there are details missing from one description when compared to the next, this could mean that there are great dissimilarities between each, which could make or break your vacation experience. While good things do often come in small packages, other things are worth paying more for.

COSTA RICA VACATION PACKAGE SCAMS AND RED FLAGS: HIDDEN FEES AND DOUBLE TAXATION

Although we already touched on this briefly above with respect to highballers, hidden fees can sneak into your vacation cost faster than you’ll learn to say “pura vida” once in Costa Rica. These fees include (but are not limited to) taxes, entrance fees, guide fees, tour transport fees, agency fees, and service/booking fees. All of these fees may be applied to your Costa Rica vacation package (watch out for those agencies who choose to add in every possible fee that they can), or else only one or two fees may be applied.

For the most part, taxes are automatically included in tour operator and transportation service providers’ prices for tours, activities, and transfer services. For hotels, about half in Costa Rica already include tax in their rates while the other half do not. While being asked to pay taxes on top of a vacation item cost is not a crime, what is shameful is the practice of applying the cost of tax to a Costa Rica vacation package overall that already includes tax for a variety of items included. In these cases, travellers find themselves paying tax twice–tax on the trip items that constitute the Costa Rica vacation package, and tax on the package itself. Perhaps illegal and certainly immoral, individuals and agencies offering Costa Rica vacation packages often get away with promoting the packages for a great low price, which is essentially the structure of a bare-bones vacation. Add in the numerous hidden fees to bring the package up to standard, form a price total, charge tax on top and voilà–your steal-of-a-deal Costa Rica vacation is now a rip-off.

Costa Rica vacation package example

Company X is offering a special Costa Rica vacation package promotion: buy now and save the tax off your vacation!

Scams and red flags to be aware of

  • When asked how Company X can reduce the package cost by so much, they are happy to explain “our special promotion this month allows travellers to avoid paying the tax on our Costa Rica packages” (in theory, this promotion would work if the items included with the package did not already include tax in their cost, however since the majority of trip items do include tax, travellers pay this on the items regardless–the promotion simply allows travellers to avoid paying an additional fee that Company X would normally add on top of the overall Costa Rica vacation package to which they assign the title “tax”)
  • When asked if Company X has calculated their Costa Rica vacation package cost before tax, they lie and reply “the original package cost does not include tax” (Company X is lying–tax is inherent in many Costa Rica trip items)

How to identify and avoid hidden fees and double taxation

As described in our solution above with respect to highballers, ask the individual and/or agency you are planning your trip through to send you a complete price breakdown of each vacation item included with your package. This will immediately help you identify where any hidden fees are or are not included. Doing so will inform you if you are being taxed twice. If you are unsure how to identify double taxation, visit the specific websites of each tour operator, transportation service provider, and hotel whose products or services have been included with your Costa Rica vacation package. If their websites note that tax is included, then the individual and/or agency you are planning your trip through should not be charging additional tax on these items. You will know if they are doing so, as this will appear in the complete price breakdown you will receive from them. You can also ask them to confirm whether or not taxes are included with the quote you have received. If they say no, take your question one step further and ask them to identify which items (if not all items) tax will be calculated on when producing the final cost. If they respond that tax will be added to the entire cost, take your business elsewhere to avoid double taxation.

COSTA RICA VACATION PACKAGE SCAMS AND RED FLAGS: QUESTIONABLE RESERVATION CANCELLATION POLICIES AND/OR RESERVATION CHANGE POLICIES

This point is one that is more difficult to highlight as a scam, as each company is certainly entitled to the creation of their own cancellation policies. This being said, there are policies that are created to maintain the integrity of a company, protect a company against liability, and minimize loss to a company (as there should be, in each of these cases), just as there are policies that take advantage of travellers. Arguably, the intent of minimizing loss is justifiable, however some companies are just plain greedy and try to take more from travellers than they should.

Each tour operator, transportation service provider, and hotel in Costa Rica has its own policy in regards to cancellations. Some require significant advance notice in order to avoid a cancellation penalty (e.g., one month) and they count down from there the amount of refund provided if a cancellation is made within that time (e.g., a 50% refund is provided if the cancellation is received two weeks before the reservation date). Other companies have much more lenient policies–accepting (and providing full refunds for) cancellations up to twenty-four or forty-eight hours before the reservation date. Of course, to each their own, and we cannot argue whether one particular approach to a cancellation policy is better or worse than another. What is surprising, however, is that companies offering Costa Rica vacation packages do not always follow the specific cancellation policies of each tour operator, transportation service provider, and hotel. Instead, individuals and/or agencies selling Costa Rica vacation packages create their own policies that override the rest.

What happens in this case is that travellers who reserve Costa Rica vacation packages with individuals or agencies that have their own cancellation policies are bound by the restrictions placed on them by the individual or agency–not the tour operator, transportation service provider, or hotel. Assume that a hotel requires seven days notice for all cancellations and a transportation service provider requires twenty-four hours notice. Alternatively, the agency you reserved your Costa Rica vacation package through requires all cancellations be made no later than fourteen days prior to your trip. Suddenly, a tragedy at home causes you to have to cancel your trip ten days before your departure. Although you would have been able to cancel your hotel and transfer service arrangements without penalty had you reserved those items elsewhere, given the specific policy demands of the agency you chose to book your trip through, you are not entitled to a refund.

When this occurs, we empathize with travellers. Life happens, and it has no appreciation for the cancellation policies that travellers are tied to when they plan a vacation. We also empathize with the individual or agency that the Costa Rica vacation package was reserved through, as they should not be out the costs associated with spur-of-the-moment changes in the lives of their clients. Here lies the fine line between good business sense and pure greed. In our opinion, the best individuals and/or agencies to reserve a Costa Rica vacation package through are those who simply enforce the cancellation policies of each of their tour operator, transportation service provider, and hotel partners–companies who do not have a cancellation policy of their own. Companies who operate this way protect themselves by ensuring that their clients are committed to the same cancellation policies that they are, without going so far as to holding their clients to higher standards simply to make an extra buck.

Consider, once again, the example provided above where you had to cancel your trip ten days prior to arrival. Had you reserved your trip through an individual or agency that does not have a cancellation policy of its own, you would have been entitled to two refunds–one from the hotel and one from the transportation service provider–as you met the requirements to cancel with each without penalty. In this case, your decision to reserve the Costa Rica vacation package through the individual or agency that did not have its own cancellation policy was not a hindrance to you, and in the end, you wouldn’t be left feeling shortchanged.

Costa Rica vacation package example

Company X informs travellers that their cancellation policy requires any/all cancellations (for hotels, tours/activities, and/or transportation services) to be made at least one month prior to travel. The tour operator you are interested in reserving with requires any/all cancellations to be made at least forty-eight hours prior to the tour date.

Scams and red flags to be aware of

  • When asked why Company X requires one month notice of any/all cancellations, they reply “this is not our policy–this is the policy of the hotels, tour operators, and transportation service providers” (Company X is lying–visit the hotel, tour operator, and/or transportation service provider’s website directly to reconfirm this)
  • When asked why Company X requires one month notice of any/all cancellations, they reply “this is simply our company’s policy” (in this case, thank them kindly and take your business elsewhere–the last thing you need is a company locking you in to reservations well in advance for their own financial benefit if you need to change your plans down the road)
  • When asked why Company X requires one month notice of any/all cancellations, they reply “we require advance notice in order to have enough time to process the cancellation with the hotel, tour operator, and/or transportation service provider” (this is an excuse–reservation cancellations require hours–not days, weeks, or even months–to process)

How to identify and avoid questionable cancellation and/or reservation change policies

This issue is easy to avoid. Simply ask the individual or agency you are planning your Costa Rica trip through to provide you with an explanation of their cancellation policies. If the company admits to having their own cancellation policy, compare this with the cancellation policies of each tour operator, transportation service provider, and hotel that is included with your package. Be sure to record any differences–you can then question the individual or agency you have reserved your package with about these differences and which policy would succeed the other in the event that you needed to cancel. If the company responds that they do not have a cancellation policy of its own, ask them to confirm whose cancellation policies they abide by so this is clear to you throughout your trip planning and travels.

COSTA RICA VACATION PACKAGE SCAMS AND RED FLAGS: QUESTIONABLE TRIP PLANNING ADVICE

Although we would like to think that all individuals and/or agencies who offer Costa Rica advice actually know the country firsthand, unfortunately this is not always the case. There are ample agencies located in countries around the world that sell Costa Rica, and although many have direct experience with the country (they may live in and/or be from Costa Rica), others may have never experienced the country for themselves. We always recommend that travellers get to know the people behind the company they reserve their trip through, in order to understand the breadth of knowledge that is being brought to the table. An individual should not only know the obvious “must-knows” about Costa Rica (i.e., various areas worth a visit, hotel options, popular things to do, etc.–everything that can be learned by reading a guide book), but more importantly, they should know how to best plan a Costa Rica vacation. There is a big difference between knowing Costa Rica and knowing how to travel throughout Costa Rica, including the best way to organize a trip itinerary, the most time-efficient methods of travel, and the best means of obtaining everything at a cost that is affordable to the traveller.

Individuals or agencies who are unable to answer your questions fully will not be of help to you. As a result of the digital age we live in, we can do everything for ourselves online, from booking our own flights to researching our own destinations and reserving our own trip items. Of course, firsthand local experience is valuable and should certainly be sought out when planning a trip to Costa Rica, however if the responses you receive from individuals and/or agencies (who claim to be in the business of helping you) fail to do just that–actually help you–you would likely be better off spending your time corresponding with someone who knows what they’re talking about.

Furthermore, the individual or agency you turn to for Costa Rica trip planning assistance should be able to wow you. You should feel as if they have given you enough opportunities to plan a Costa Rica vacation that is perfect for you (not a vacation that is easy for them to build and/or a vacation that will return the greatest income). You should feel as if your trip would not have been the same had it not been for the assistance of the individual and/or agency you chose to work with, and that you learned something new (that you perhaps would not have known had you tacked the challenge of Costa Rica trip planning on your own). While these statements may sound simple, it is surprising how static some individuals’ and agencies’ approaches to trip planning are.  Planning a vacation should be an enjoyable, fun, learning process–anything less is not worth your time and certainly not your business.

Costa Rica vacation package example

Company X “sells” Costa Rica but has never been to Costa Rica. You feel as if you know the country better than Company X simply because you read Lonely Planet.

Scams and red flags to be aware of

  • When asked why Company X recommends a particular tour over another, they reply “because our company works with a them” (hmmm… would you rather participate in a tour that receives the best reviews or a tour that merely works with Company X?–request that Company X back up their recommendations with first hand experience,)
  • When asked why Company X recommends a particular tour over another, they reply “because it is a great tour” (great is good, but a lot of tours in Costa Rica are “great”–what’s more valuable is knowing why a particular tour is rated so well–request that Company X back up their recommendations with first hand experience, or if this is not possible, at least request solid, impartial reviews from other travellers)

How to identify and avoid questionable trip planning advice

Ensuring a good connection with an individual or agency when Costa Rica trip planning depends a lot on you–the time you put into correspondence, the questions you pose, and the follow-up to responses received all help create a space wherein ideas, experiences, comments, needs, preferences, and concerns can be shared. When you put yourself out there and contact an individual or agency for trip planning assistance, do not be afraid to do the same to those you seek assistance from. Put them out by test them with your questions and see what responses you get. In general, you can tell by the quality of the responses you receive how invested the other side is in you and your trip. Do your research (just because a company is a big one does not mean they are the best one) and trust your gut. As described in two of our other posts–Humble Business. Period. and The Art Of Good Business. Practice What You Preach–being kind, humble, and honest are key components of any good business operation. Shoot to receive no less than this from the individual and/or agency you choose to reserve your Costa Rica vacation package through and you will get back from your trip planning more than what you put into it.

QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Have you had a challenging experience with an individual or agency in Costa Rica (no names please!)? What scams or red flags have you uncovered?

Pura vida!

Nikki and Ricky

DIY Costa Rica

Costa Rica tour discounts



8 thoughts on “Costa Rica Vacation Package Scams And Red Flags”

    • Lisa –
      How I wish we could name names! 😉 We would love to be able to call out all of the companies that produce the “red flags” we touch on above, however since we share the industry with many, we are hesitant to do so. Instead, we hope that by highlighting some of the ways companies “take” travellers we call attention to the fact that scams do exist so travellers know to plan their trips carefully and cautiously.
      This being said, if you are interested in planning a vacation to Costa Rica and are hesitant to do so with any one particular company, feel free to send us a private email and we can send you our thoughts about it. We won’t bash another company via email, but we can ever-so-politely inform you of whether or not we personally trust the company, and then you can take our personal opinion from there however you wish. 🙂
      Pura vida!

    • Jo –
      Great point! I was motivated by your comment and have revised the above blog post to include some examples of each of the 5 red flags we talk about. Check it out and let us know what you think! 🙂
      Pura vida!

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