Looking for Costa Rica vehicle rental discounts? As a thank you for visiting us, WE OFFER TRAVELLERS FREE ACCESS TO A 25%-50% DISCOUNT OFF VEHICLE RENTAL RATES when booking with the vehicle rental agency directly using our “Pura Vida! eh? Exclusive Promotion” code. Click here for more information and/or to obtain the car rental promo code. Con mucho gusto (you’re welcome) and pura vida! 🙂
Wherever a line can be drawn, inevitably someone will cross it.
This subjective process of going too far is no stranger to business operation. In fact, the value of some companies is determined by it depending on whether or not they play by the rules (by staying behind the line) or whether they make their own rules that the rest of us are left to follow (by pushing the line in whichever direction and to whichever length would optimally please their own). Personally, Ricky and I (as representatives of our business, Pura Vida! eh? Incorporated) play so neatly by the rules that we’ve surely been taken for as suckers by many, but the truth of the matter is, we would rather be taken for by others than be the ones doing the taking. Call us old fashioned (we like the word humble), but our teeth just aren’t sharp enough to bite in this dog-eat-dog world we seem to live in.
For travellers visiting Costa Rica, the benefit of our humility is twofold. For one, it means that our extensive knowledge of tourism operations throughout the country (and our interest in uncovering unethical practice wherever we spot it) has taught us where pockets of dishonesty (or the omission of honesty, in some cases) exist. Second, since we are dedicated to looking out for travellers whenever and however possible (we couldn’t possibly keep such valuable information to ourselves), it is not only our preference to shed light on possible areas of trip planning where scams (or shady practice) can and do take place, but as trusted sources that thousands of travellers turn to for information and advice, it is our duty to do so.
With everything we have on the go (answering travellers’ questions about Costa Rica, providing discount vouchers for Costa Rica hotels, tours, transfer services and vacation packages, running the “Travellers For…” donation project, and overseeing the Costa Rica Blog Network), we try to save some time each week to write insightful, informative, and interesting posts here on Costa Rica Travel Blog. At any given moment we have about 20 articles lingering in draft form, short of being finished (we are bursting with details to share with you, the challenge is simply finding the time to get our thoughts down on paper and then published online). One post in particular regarding Costa Rica vehicle rentals has been in-process for longer than we would like to admit, but as time passes and we become more aware of issues surrounding the topic we are reminded that the subject is greatly in need of a voice. Without a doubt, we have come to know the process of renting a vehicle as the area of trip planning wherein travellers are taken advantage of most often as we regularly receive complaints and comments from travellers either questioning the administrative process, facts provided by vehicle rental agencies, or the calculation of rental costs. As a result it has become one of those “red flag” areas that we can no longer put off warning travellers about. Fortunately, negative vehicle rental experiences are not inevitable – Ricky and I have rented vehicles more times than I could ever count and we have never had a problem (knock on wood). This being said, I believe this to be true because we know what to ask and what to expect when obtaining rental quotes and picking up a vehicle. Without this knowledge we would be just as vulnerable and susceptible to rental risk as every other traveller, and since this realization tells us that there is information that we have that you should know, it is time we spill the beans.
If you are past the beginning stage of Costa Rica trip planning you may have already read our blog post 5 Red Flags To Look Out For When Buying A Costa Rica Vacation Package. If so, you already know that we’ve got your back. If you have decided to rent a vehicle for your time in Costa Rica, we’ve got you covered here too by calling your attention to a few practices and procedures that we have come to understand as vehicle rental red flags. To avoid falling victim to any or all of them, we recommend doing the following.
MAKE SURE YOU LEARN (AND UNDERSTAND) WHAT HAS AND HAS NOT BEEN INCLUDED IN YOUR RENTAL QUOTE
In general, the most common problem we see relates to vehicle rental agencies advertising incredibly low rates. Without a doubt, the reason most do so is to catch the attention of budget-minded travellers. Who wouldn’t want to scoop up a rental vehicle deal at half the cost of the best rate of a competing agency? Someone who knows better, that’s who. Sadly, many vehicle rental agencies that offer extremely low rates have something to hide – something they can get away with charging travellers for later without having to tell them about in advance. You, the unsuspecting traveller who is counting your lucky stars AND the extra funds in your loosened budget (thanks to the amazing vehicle rental deal you just scored), likely won’t know so until you arrive in Costa Rica, are in the process of picking up your rental vehicle, and are kindly informed by the vehicle rental agent about mandatory taxes or fees that were not included in the original quote. At that point, you’re anxious to load into your vehicle and get on your way (after all, your precious vacation time is limited) and the last thing you want to spend your time doing is arguing at a rental office or searching for vehicle availability elsewhere. So you sign the vehicle rental contract and chalk the extra costs up to what you wish you knew before. Oh well. You’ll know better next time.
Skip this scenario by learning what taxes and fees are mandatory or optional in advance so you know to look for these as included in (or missing from) a vehicle rental agency’s quote. Unfortunately, learning this information is not as easy as it sounds as what one vehicle rental agency deems “mandatory” can differ from the next (that alone seems suspicious, no?). Some vehicle rental agencies will charge partial taxes and fees in their online rental rates (enough to state that taxes and fees are included in the reservation’s fine print even though not all taxes and fees may in fact be included). Sneaky? We think so. We have seen this a number of times when travellers opt to reserve vehicles not only direct through vehicle rental agency websites but also through online third-party booking websites (you know the ones – the “big guys” that you can book airfare, hotels, and you guessed it, vehicle rentals through). Although it may be the case that an online quote includes some taxes and fees, almost always the fine print does not confirm that all of the taxes and fees you will need to pay for once in Costa Rica have been included in the total.
Although the below list is not exhaustive, it can help you familiarize yourself with some of the common taxes and fees that can be applied on top of vehicle rental rates (depending on the details of the specific reservation request, as not all of the below taxes/fees apply to all vehicle rental reservations and some taxes/fees may be waived in certain situations):
- Insurance fees (we offer more information about these below as vehicle rental insurance opens up a whole other can of scams, I mean, worms…)
- Sales tax
- Vehicle pick-up fee
- Vehicle pick-up airport fee
- Vehicle return fee
- Vehicle late return fee
- Vehicle refueling fee (gas top-up)
- License plate fee
- Additional driver fee
- Roadside assistance fee
- Smoke damage fee
- GPS rental fee
- Child car seat rental fee
- Roof rack and/or canasta (storage) rental fee
- Cell phone rental fee and/or cell phone usage fee
TAKE AN ASPIRIN FOR THE INEVITABLE HEADACHE YOU ARE ABOUT TO GET, THEN STUDY UP ON YOUR VEHICLE RENTAL INSURANCE MATERIAL
The more we see travellers get tangled up in vehicle rental insurance fine print the more we question whether it serves any other purpose than to simply confuse people to the point of defeat. Surely it is easier to simply give in to the jargon than to fight through it, which is likely why so many travellers are blindsided when it comes to “mandatory” insurance fees applied at the time of vehicle pick-up.
One of the biggest sources of confusion is insurance coverage terminology. With so many different titles and phrases floating around (many being used in different contexts by different companies) it is hard to compare the insurance offer of one agency to that of another (when you are quoted insurance terms such as CDW, SLI, and/or LDW, ask the rental vehicle agency to explain in full what these acronyms mean to them). Each will charge a “mandatory” insurance (this is set in Costa Rican law), however depending on the rental agency you choose to deal with and what titles they practice throughout their daily discourse, what constitutes “mandatory” is not always obvious and consistent.
To start, Costa Rica does enforce mandatory insurance (the exact price is not regulated and can vary across rental agencies). There are also different types of additional insurance that travellers can opt to purchase but are not obligated to do so. Our preferred vehicle rental agency (who shall remain nameless in order to prevent this blog post from taking on a sales-pitch spin) advertises prices that upon first glance appear to be more expensive than other rental agencies’ rates. This is because they have no hidden fees and quote insurance charges upfront as many other agencies choose not to do. Our preferred vehicle rental agency defines “basic mandatory insurance” as CDW insurance. In actuality, they then break this CDW insurance into two parts – one of which is “mandatory” and one that is “not mandatory”.
Are you still with us? Great. Here’s where things get confusing. In Costa Rica (and according to our preferred vehicle rental agency), the portion of the CDW insurance that is “not mandatory” is mandatory in the sense that a renter must have it in order to rent a vehicle in the country however it is not required to be purchased through a vehicle rental agency so long as the renter can show proof of coverage as obtained elsewhere. For this reason, some will argue that the insurance is mandatory in the sense that an individual must have it in order to rent a vehicle (this is correct) although others will argue that its purchase is mandatory through a Costa Rican vehicle rental agency (this is incorrect). The portion of CDW insurance that is “not mandatory” is typically provided by travellers’ credit card insurance (most travellers have this insurance unknowingly) or else through other insurance coverage purchased from home. When travellers obtain a copy of proof of this insurance coverage from their insurance/credit card provider (usually in the form of a letter) and this proof is presented to the vehicle rental agency in Costa Rica, the traveller can opt out of the portion of CDW insurance that is “not mandatory” (in effect, although the insurance is mandatory to have it is not required to be purchased through the vehicle rental agency in Costa Rica as it has already been assumed elsewhere). When travellers elect to do so, only the remaining “mandatory” portion of the CDW insurance is required to be purchased in Costa Rica. In cases where travellers are unable (or have no desire) to present proof of insurance coverage from their insurance/credit card provider to the vehicle rental agency, then complete CDW insurance becomes mandatory since both components must be present (via purchase in Costa Rica or via proof from home) in order for an individual to rent a vehicle. Since the vehicle rental agency that we prefer automatically includes CDW insurance (both portions) in their rental rates, renters are not only prepared for the cost of the “mandatory” portion of CDW insurance in advance but they are also prepared for the cost of the portion that is “not mandatory” just in case this portion becomes mandatory (ie. in the event of the renter being unable to provide proof of this coverage already obtained from home). As a result, renters are not only informed of (and quoted for) the mandatory insurance cost upfront, but they are also informed of (and quoted for) the possibility that a second mandatory insurance cost may apply. Of course, since both portions of CDW insurance are included in the rental cost to begin with, when a renter can and opts to present proof of insurance coverage from their insurance/credit card provider to the vehicle rental agency the portion of the CDW insurance that is “not mandatory” is declined and the cost associated with this portion of insurance is subtracted from the total rental cost.
If all rental agencies operated this way, there would be no need to write this post. Unfortunately, most rental agencies choose to operate one of two ways: either by neglecting to inform travellers of mandatory insurance costs at all (in these cases, travellers are only quoted for rental costs in advance without mention of the cost of mandatory insurance and are only informed of the cost of mandatory insurance upon vehicle pick-up), or by neglecting to educate travellers on the breakdown of mandatory insurance including its “mandatory” and “not mandatory” portions (in these cases, travellers are only quoted for rental costs including the “mandatory” portion of CDW insurance and when proof of the portion of CDW insurance that is “not mandatory” is not provided upon vehicle pick-up, an extra charge for this insurance is applied). It is sad really, that some vehicle rental agencies not only lure travellers in with impractical low prices but that they purposely do so knowing full well that travellers will need to pay more (either for one or two portions of “mandatory” insurance) than they publicly state. We see it over and over and over again – a vehicle rental agency advertises that mandatory insurance is included (leading travellers to believe that no additional insurance is required) when in actuality only partial insurance has been included and unless travellers know to bring a letter from home proving that they have additional insurance to complete the CDW coverage they will be required to pay more in order to obtain the car. To make matters worse, additional insurances (sometimes referred to as “personal accident insurance”, “supplemental insurance”, “full insurance”, “accessories insurance”, etc.) are available for purchase upon picking up the vehicle. Such additional insurances have their advantages (such as extra protection and zero deductibles) and disadvantages (additional costs and higher rental deposit amounts), but regardless of whether they are worth it (this determination will vary from traveller to traveller), they are not mandatory.
- If you plan to decline part insurance through your chosen vehicle rental agency (assuming this is possible and you have the proof to be able to do so), make sure you clearly understand the repercussions of this choice. Most travellers will jump at the opportunity to decline part insurance in order to save a few dollars per rental day (money can be maleficent!), however the decision could change other details pertaining to the rental, such as the rental agreement’s fine print (ie. the type and extent of insurance coverage provided), access to rental discounts, vehicle rental deposit amounts, required action(s) to be taken upon accident/theft, and/or the paperwork and process required to make a claim (see our related blog post Costa Rica Vehicle Rentals: Credit Card Insurance Coverage & Declining Part CDW for more information).
- When discussing mandatory insurance with a vehicle rental agent, seek to uncover how the agent defines “mandatory”. This will help you determine if the insurance coverage he or she is selling is truly all that you are required to purchase, or whether there is additional insurance that the agent can get away with claiming is “not mandatory” until you arrive at the rental counter (without proof of additional insurance coverage from home) only to learn that there is something else you need to pay for.
MAKE SURE YOU KNOW WHICH VEHICLE TYPE YOU ARE RENTING, NOT ONLY THE CATEGORY OR CLASS THE VEHICLE BELONGS TO
If you ate at a restaurant and were told that the dish of the day was “meat”, would that be enough information to sell you on it? Probably not because you could end up with anything from a rare cut of beef to yesterday’s leftover stale chicken nuggets on your plate. Categorizing offers without detailing them is a lazy man’s way of doing business. It leaves companies open to dealing whatever suits them – not their customers or clients – at any given time. You wouldn’t buy a new car blind simply because the salesman said he had one on the lot, would you? You would need to know more about the product – in the very least the basics such as the make and model of the vehicle before you committed to it. What if the commitment was short-term and not long-term, such as committing to a rental vehicle for a week? Would you feel comfortable assuming responsibility for something without knowing exactly what it is you are assuming responsibility for, even if just for a few days? I would hope not, which is why you should never let a vehicle rental agency bully you into a promise that you are not fully informed enough to make.
- Economy Vehicle
- Compact Vehicle
- Compact SUV Vehicle
- Mid-size SUV Vehicle
- Intermediate SUV Vehicle
- Full-size SUV Vehicle
- Premium SUV Vehicle
In our opinion, vehicle rental agencies that categorize their vehicles into vehicle classes without confirming which exact vehicles (according to their make, model, and year) are included in each class are benefiting themselves more than travellers. Here’s why. When a specific vehicle type is confirmed with a traveller’s reservation this prevents vehicle rental agencies from offering whichever vehicle they happen to have available at any given time within the promised vehicle class (it also prevents vehicle rental agencies from making last-minute vehicle changes across classes to best suit their inventory availability). It plain and simply creates a larger window of opportunity for vehicle rental agencies to feed their own interests over those of travellers by leaving room to switch vehicles between customers (and sometimes other agencies). When vehicle rental agencies do so the guarantee travellers think they have to a specific vehicle is downgraded to a promise that they will get a vehicle of within the same class. Vehicle rental agencies will claim that the vehicles in each class are of similar quality, however since the vehicle rental agencies create their own vehicle rental classes and decide for themselves which vehicles are deemed similar in quality to others, they control which vehicle types are (and are not) included in a particular class. How does this affect travellers? Assume for a moment that you had successfully reserved a vehicle belonging to a vehicle rental agency’s intermediate SUV class. The day of your vehicle pick-up there is a double-booking at the rental agency office resulting in availability for only one vehicle of a lower-quality mid-size SUV class. This vehicle is passed on to you without hesitation and for all you know the vehicle belongs to the intermediate SUV class as stated on your reservation confirmation. You question the size of the vehicle because it appears small to you, but without having known ahead of time which exact vehicle types the vehicle rental agency includes in each class, how would you really know if the vehicle is in fact “mid-size” and not “intermediate”?
- Don’t be fooled by vehicle rental agencies using phrases like Vehicle X, or similar. The “or similar” text gives vehicle rental agencies an out. It can make or break your understanding of the actual vehicle you will end up with (not to mention your ground to stand on when arguing with an agent if you are not thrilled with the result). If a confirmed list of vehicle types included in each class is not published, you have chosen a vehicle rental agency that could potentially give you a vehicle type differing from that you had originally intended to rent, and by the time you realize it, little will be able to be done to challenge it.
- When questioning the vehicle types included in a vehicle rental agency’s category or class, make sure you take note of the year of the vehicle. We once rented a vehicle through a company who explained that they factor in the year of the vehicle when determining the class of SUV. In that case, the year of the vehicle contributed to the evaluation of quality overall, and as it turned out, a smaller and newer vehicle was valued higher (and charged at a higher rental rate) than larger vehicles from years prior. Of course, each vehicle rental agency has the right to value the vehicles in their fleet however they wish (we surely do not aim to suggest that one particular method of valuation is better or worse than another), but if a vehicle rental agency is going to factor in the age of the vehicle in their valuation (and subsequently, their pricing), this would be worthwhile information for travellers to know.
- At the moment of reservation confirmation, request that the vehicle rental agency also confirm the license plate number (or vehicle number) of the vehicle you will be renting. If they are unable to do so, the decision regarding the exact vehicle you will get may not be determined until shortly before the day/time you plan to pick it up. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however our personal preference is to lock the rental agency in on the exact vehicle they plan to give us well in advance. We feel this decreases their chance of giving us whichever car they happen to have around when we arrive at their office and in turn increases our chance of obtaining a vehicle that was not borrowed last minute from another agency or one that was just recently returned by another renter (preventing the rental agency staff from properly servicing and preparing the vehicle for our rental period).
MAKE SURE YOU NOT ONLY KNOW WHICH VEHICLE TYPE YOU ARE RENTING, BUT ALSO WHAT THAT VEHICLE TYPE MEANS TO YOU
Vehicle types do not only differ according to their make, model, size, and transmission type. They can also change your rental agreement’s fine print. Some vehicle types require additional insurances, insurances charged at higher rates, and/or do not allow certain insurances to be purchased (ie. a zero deductible insurance may not be an allowable insurance option depending on the type of vehicle you opt to rent). While this information likely will not change your rental decision, it is good to know ahead of time to avoid surprises at the rental counter the day of vehicle pick-up.
MAKE SURE YOU PERFORM A THOROUGH VEHICLE WALK-AROUND
Upon picking up a rental vehicle you will be asked to walk around the vehicle (with the rental agent) in order to take note of any scratches, dents, or dings present on the vehicle prior to you assuming responsibility for it (the agent will make a note of any reported damage on the rental agreement). This is your chance to avoid being held responsible for someone else’s mistake. Make sure you look beyond the vehicle’s body – check the bumper, the wheels, the interior, the trunk, and the roof too. If you fail to spot and record something on the formal agreement, the rental agency can hold you liable for it later. Fortunately, we have yet to hear of a traveller being forced to pay for damage they did not personally cause to the vehicle, however it could happen. Don’t let it by being thorough when it counts.
DON’T AUTOMATICALLY AVOID COSTA RICAN VEHICLE RENTAL AGENCIES IN FAVOUR OF INTERNATIONAL ONES
I hate to burst the bubble of those travellers who aim to travel within the realm of reservations that can be made via companies known to them from home, but we have received just as many complaints (if not more) against well-known international vehicle rental companies as we have for local Costa Rican vehicle rental companies. While we understand and can appreciate the familiarity travellers are drawn to in obtaining vehicles from highly recognizable brands, the vehicle rental company we have had the best luck with throughout our travels is a Costa Rican one. Stories (negative and positive) surround a variety of international and domestic vehicle rental agencies so there is no fool-proof way to eliminate risk by choosing one over the other. In the end, vehicle rental success is far more dependent on the time, effort, and attention to detail that a traveller is willing to contribute to the rental process than a company’s name. Trip planning isn’t like high school – don’t let popularity fool you.
REMEMBER THAT YOUR FATE IS IN THE HANDS OF OTHERS
It is rare, but we have heard of vehicle rental agencies being unable to fulfill vehicle reservations at the time of vehicle pick-up. In the vehicle rental agency’s defense, these uncommon happenings are often outside of the agency’s own control. Vehicle accidents happen, as do unforeseen travel circumstances that prevent renters from returning vehicles at the time and place the agency expects. Since vehicles are passed on from one traveller to the next, the person that had your vehicle reserved the week or day before you could run into a problem that delays their vehicle return. That problem can unavoidably become your problem if it affects the scheduled vehicle pick-up you have planned. Although vehicle rental agencies usually have extra vehicles on hand (this supply may be limited or non-existent during the high season for travel), there is no guarantee that the vehicle will be the same make/model/year/category/class that you had planned on. Of course, there is little that any traveller can do to avoid such an unfortunate situation, but being prepared for the possibility can help minimize stress in the event that it does happen. Keep a fallback plan in mind in case you run into problems upon vehicle pick-up. Even if you never need to rely on it (we hope not!) knowing what other options are available in a pinch (will you contact a different vehicle rental agency, call a private transfer service driver, or hop on a shared shuttle service?) will give you the peace of mind you need to know that your trip will not be ruined over bad luck.
QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Have you had a challenging experience with a vehicle rental agency in Costa Rica (no names please!)? What red flags have you discovered?
If you’re more of a visual learner, take a moment to view our gallery photos below from some of our self-drive experiences.