The Costa Rica Travel Blog is the current traveller, will-be traveller, has-been traveller, and should-be traveller's guide to everything Costa Rica. Information, stories, news, and advice written by the Pura Vida! eh? Inc. team; Costa Rican insiders, outsiders, and everywhere-in-between-siders.

Costa Rica Vehicle Rentals: Should You Rent A Car For Your Costa Rica Trip?

Costa Rica Vehicle Rentals: Should You Rent A Car For Your Costa Rica Trip?

UPDATED: 2017

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! 🙂

Dashboard view as we make our way around the lush landscape
Dashboard view as we make our way around the lush landscape

Whew! We feel better.

In our last post we went there. “There” referring to the dark side of Costa Rica trip planning and more specifically, vehicle rentals. While most of our blog posts highlight how awesome Costa Rica is (at least why we think so), our recent post (Costa Rica Vehicle Rentals: How Not To Fall For A Car Rental Scam) touched on an area wherein we regularly hear of travellers getting taken advantage of. For the most part we maintain that Costa Rica trip planning can be easy and stress-free (especially if you let Pura Vida! eh? Incorporated help you out with it), but vehicle rentals can quickly become the black hole of the entire process – sucking your time and energy (not to mention your money) right out of you only to disappear without a trace (see our related blog post Costa Rica Vehicle Rentals: Credit Card Insurance Coverage & Declining Part CDW for extra information and car rental tips). For this reason, it was time we let what we know become what you know so everyone can be informed enough to avoid the abyss.

Now that we have gotten our “renters beware” message out of the way we can focus on other factors worth considering when deciding whether or not to rent a vehicle during your Costa Rica vacation. Vehicle rentals can be an advantage or a disadvantage depending on your travel priorities, so start by determining these upfront and honestly. Would you prioritize your adventurous side and its desire to roam about unchartered territory or would you rather stick to known and well-travelled routes? Would you enjoy the freedom of driving around the country at your own pace or would you prefer to have a professional driver lead the way? While there are no right or wrong answers to these questions, each will help you identify your interests and comfort levels with inner-country travel. If you would prioritize adventure and flexibility, a vehicle rental can provide you with this. On the other hand, if you would feel most comfortable letting others tackle the terrain for you, perhaps it would be best to rely on other forms of transportation throughout your trip (for a comprehensive list of available transportation methods please see our related blog post: Costa Rica Transportation: 10 Ways Of Getting From Point A To Point B Throughout Your Trip). To help you decide whether a vehicle rental would be ideal for you, let’s engage in a game of Would You Rather.

There are always plenty of shuttle buses, private transfer services, and domestic flights waiting to take you where you want to go (LIR Airport, Liberia)
There are always plenty of shuttle buses, private transfer services, and domestic flights waiting to take you where you want to go (LIR Airport, Liberia)

WOULD YOU RATHER…

A) Have the flexibility to change your transportation routes on a whim throughout your trip?
OR
B) Have your transportation routes finalized prior to embarking on your trip (or at least prior to the day of the transportation service)?

A) Have the flexibility to change your transportation departure times on a whim throughout your trip?
OR
B) Have your transportation departure times finalized prior to embarking on your trip (or at least prior to the day of the transportation service)?

A) Have the flexibility to make stops along the way during each transportation route?
OR
B) Take direct transportation routes?

A) Assume vehicle/driver/passenger risk and/or liability in return for greater transportation flexibility?
OR
B) Avoid vehicle/driver/passenger risk and/or liability altogether?

A) Assume worry, hassle, and/or stress related to having a vehicle (ie. locating parking, vehicle security, and/or driver/passenger safety) in return for greater transportation flexibility?
OR
B) Avoid worry, hassle, and/or stress related to having a vehicle (ie. locating parking, vehicle security, and/or driver/passenger safety) altogether?

A) Welcome self-exploration, off-the-beaten path travel, and/or spontaneous travel plans into your trip?
OR
B) Rely on guided, well-known, and/or pre-determined travel plans throughout your trip?

A) Take on the challenge of navigating and discovering unfamiliar foreign routes, travel distances, and road conditions?
OR
B) Avoid the challenge of navigating and discovering unfamiliar foreign routes, travel distances, and road conditions altogether?

A) See getting lost, stopping to ask for directions, and/or arriving at a destination late as a fun travel experience?
OR
B) See getting lost, stopping to ask for directions, and/or arriving at a destination late as an annoying travel nuisance?

If you would rather… [mostly A’s]

…than we would recommend renting a vehicle for all (or at least part of) your trip. Doing so will afford you the flexibility you are looking for – not only in terms of setting your own transportation schedule but also in terms of making changes to it if, when, and however you see fit throughout your trip. You understand the assumption of risk and are not put-off by it in order to have an optimal travel experience. As far as you are concerned, surprises you encounter along the way (even if and when they result in setbacks) are inevitable and only make (not break) the vision you have in mind for the trip.

If you would rather… [mostly B’s]

…than we would recommend not renting a vehicle for your trip. Doing so will avoid much of the stress, hassle, risk, liability, and time consumption that you have no interest in dealing with while on vacation. While you are excited to explore new territory, learn new things, and have fun, you are not willing to compromise on safety and security in order to have a less regimented trip. As far as you are concerned, plenty of travel experience can be had via alternative means of transportation (ie. private transfer services, shared shuttle services, public transportation, and/or domestic flights) as well as at each Costa Rican destination. For this reason, a rental vehicle would not be necessary.

Curvy roadway
Curvy roadway

FOR THOSE WHO WANT THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS…

If Marie Antoinette travelled to Costa Rica she’d likely be disappointed. When renting a vehicle she would find it incredibly hard to have her cake and eat it too, as it would be next to impossible for her to combine the freedom and flexibility that self-drive trips offer without risk and responsibility tagging along for the ride. It would be equally difficult to combine the security and dependability that other forms of transportation provide without compromising on the explorative experience. In the end, she would need to decide which motto she would prefer to travel by: greater risk, greater reward or rather safe than sorry. We can see upsides and downsides to each. As a result, we cannot inform travellers whether they should or should not rent a vehicle for their trip as doing so would be as much as draw as calling heads or tails in the air after a coin toss. What we can do is highlight some of the most influential advantages that help travellers make a decision either way. Hopefully these will help you come to your own conclusion regarding the topic too.

GREATER RISK, GREATER REWARD: ADVANTAGES TO RENTING A VEHICLE

#1. Flexibility

Go where you want, when you want, and to make stops along the way.

Tip:

  • Achieve this without renting a vehicle by taking private transfer services throughout your trip – most drivers will allow you to choose your own transfer service departure times (within regular operating hours) and will allow stops to be made en route (usually the first hour of stop time for each transfer service is free and an additional fee is charged for every additional hour thereafter)

#2. Comfort

Keep the entire vehicle to yourself (with optimal luggage space).

Tip:

  • Achieve this without renting a vehicle by taking private transfer services throughout your trip – unlike shared shuttle services that are shared with other travellers, private transfer services are private to your travel group (idea for families and/or friend groups travelling together)

#3. Sense of exploration

Nothing beats the open road when it comes to being adventurous and there are few better methods of truly experiencing the real Costa Rica than getting out there and doing it 100% on your own.

#4. Cost

Depending on a variety of factors (such as the time/date/location you wish to pick-up and return the vehicle at, the type of vehicle you opt to rent, and the rental period duration), renting a vehicle could be more cost-efficient than other modes of transportation.

RATHER SAFE THAN SORRY: ADVANTAGES TO NOT RENTING A VEHICLE

#1. Absense of risk, responsibility, and/or liability

With no rental vehicle there is no assumed risk, responsibility, and/or liability assumed with the act of getting from one destination to the next.

#2. Less stress

There is no need to concern yourself with the logistics of renting a vehicle such as reviewing rental agreement fine print, locating parking, tracking down gas stations, and ensuring vehicle security overnight and/or during moments when the vehicle is left unattended.

#3. Dependability and ease of travel

Relying on professional drivers (and/or pilots, in the case of domestic flights) means all you need to think about is where you are going and not everything else involved with getting you there (such as mapping out routes, avoiding traffic, being mindful of zones under construction, navigating road closures and/or detours, and/or addressing vehicle maintenance).

#4. Cost

Depending on a variety of factors (such as the number of transfer services you would need throughout your trip depending on the number of destinations you plan to visit, the time/date/location you wish to be picked up at for each, and the number of people in your travel group), shared shuttle services, private transfer services, public transportation, domestic flights, and/or a combination of any of these modes of transportation could be more cost-efficient than renting a vehicle.

Paved highway
Paved highway

GENERAL RENTING/DRIVING TIPS

If you determine that renting a vehicle for your Costa Rica trip is the right thing for you, below are some general tips that we recommend renters (and drivers alike) know.

  • Read our related blog post Costa Rica Vehicle Rentals: How Not To Fall For A Car Rental Scam to learn how to best protect yourself while renting a vehicle in Costa Rica
  • Learn your route – not only in distance (aka. km or miles) but in duration and condition.
  • Familiarize yourself with the following challenges as each require cautious and attentive driving: people walk alongside highways (nighttime included), Costa Rican drivers rarely use their vehicle’s signal to turn left or right (prepare yourself to get cut-off), potholes (often deep ones) exist, most streets do not have street signs, many mountainous roads do not have guardrails, some roads get flooded during the rain season (requiring drivers to make their way through shallow rivers in order to continue on their way), curves come quickly, rain makes roads incredibly slippery, and cloud cover can move in quickly (in a matter of seconds)
  • CEDA means yield (watch for these signs – especially around narrow roadways and/or bridges – as they can be difficult to spot) and DESPACIO means slow (usually an indicator of a sharp curve up ahead)
  • Keep an eye out for one-way streets – these are not always obvious (sometimes the one-way indicator sign is hidden) and many popular areas (including downtown San Jose and downtown La Fortuna/Arenal) have them
  • Be prepared for roundabouts (especially in/around the San Jose region) – these often consist of two- or three-lane traffic swiftly entering and exiting lanes ahead of and behind you
  • Plan re-fuelling stops well in advance as gas stations are infrequent and not always within close proximity when you need them
  • Keep a handful of colones (coins or bills – small denominations) in your pocket for bathroom breaks along route (depending on where you stop, there may be a small fee to use the bathroom and/or access toilet paper) and/or in case any of the routes you choose to take are roads that require toll payment
  • Parking on public streets (in some downtown centres) is regulated and requires a pre-paid parking ticket (learn in advance whether you can park in a space for free or if/where a ticket should be purchased)
  • As travellers, you must carry your passport with you in addition to your driver’s license (if you are stopped by the traffic police, as a non-resident you will be asked to show both articles of identification)

QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: What are your reasons for renting (or deciding not to rent) a vehicle while travelling?

Pura vida!

tuscon
*Discounts for Costa Rica vehicle rentals are available through the Costa Rica Promotions department of Pura Vida! eh? Incorporated.

If you’re more of a visual learner, take a moment to view our gallery photos below from some of our self-drive experiences.

Costa Rica tour discounts

Costa Rica tour discounts

Costa Rica tour discounts

nikkiandricky



10 thoughts on “Costa Rica Vehicle Rentals: Should You Rent A Car For Your Costa Rica Trip?”

  • We rented and all went smoothly. With only 6 days to experience Costa Rica’s Arenal and Quepos I do not think we could have done half of what we did relying on transportation services. BTW great tip on those one – ways! They sneak up on you when you least expect it.
    Thank you.

    • Whine And Cheers For Wine –
      That is great to hear! Thanks so much for reporting back. Glad to hear you made the most of your time with the car… and that you survived the one-way streets! 😊
      Pura vida!

  • Hello, my question is; if I am to rent a car, what is recommended for travel from San Jose to Fortuna and maybe one day travel to Manuel Antonio. Would I need a 4×4 or would a regular vehicle be sufficient?

    • Lisa –
      Great question! In general, a 4X4 vehicle is not required to travel to/from San Jose and La Fortuna. The most common route taken is via San Ramon, and although the roads are mountainous and curvy in/around that area, the road is paved the entire way so it is a fairly straightforward and smooth ride. This being said, depending on the areas you wish to visit with the car once in La Fortuna/Arenal, you may prefer to have a 4X4 vehicle. The streets in downtown La Fortuna are paved, as is the main street that runs between town around the volcano and towards the lake, however if you plan to venture out there are sections where having a 4X4 vehicle would be advantageous (such as if you plan to visit the Springs Resort hot springs, if you plan to visit Sky Adventures’s Adventure Park, etc.). Of course, these sites can be visited with a sedan vehicle (a 4X4 is not 100% required), however there are roads that are much bumpier than others and having a 4X4 (not only for the ease and comfort it offers but to minimize risk of damage to the undercarriage of the rental vehicle) can be worthwhile. If you plan to make a day trip down to Manuel Antonio (keep in mind that Manuel Antonio is an approximate 4.5-5 hour drive from La Fortuna/Arenal so this would be a rather long trip to make twice in one day), the route is a paved highway the entire way (again, mountainous and curvy around the San Ramon area but fairly flat along the coast). Alternatively, if you decide to make day trips to/from La Fortuna/Arenal and other areas, a 4X4 may or may not be required (ie. day trips to/from La Fortuna/Arenal and the Tenorio/Rio Celeste area do not require a 4X4 however one would be recommended if you plan to visit the Monteverde area instead). 🙂
      Pura vida!

  • we (my whole family (i think)) prefer to rent and like you said, be able to change destinations on the fly, not be dependent on Public Transit, etc. because there were 8 of us, i had to rent a VAN. i think there are lodging rentals less expensive than what THAT costs — and, again, like you said, the not-so-hidden INSURANCE costs add up, almost eqaul to the original vehicle rental.

    • betunada –
      I bet that was quite the experience! We rented a Nissan Urvan once when we had a large group to tour around and it was quite the experience driving along the Caribbean coast (1,000 potholes and all). What van did you rent?
      Pura vida!

      • i believe it was a Nissan … but not a Urvan –I will have to look it up in the pile of memorablia paperwork allĂŹ en casa. fue “standard” transmish — 4t-u-nately, B ‘n me had a std. tran truck up ’til recently asi que no fue dificil a manejar.

  • DON’T rent a car at Alamo San Jose – Costa Rica!!!

    Don’t let yourself be ripped off like I was! They will charge you huge extra fees when you arrive to pickup your car!

    My reservation online total including fees and insurance was $590. After a 12 hour flight when I arrived at the pickup location they charged me $900!!! I got told that if I didn’t pay $900 (an extra 50% of the original price) I wouldn’t be able to pickup the car!

    I contacted Alamo international and they gave me the worst customer service ever!

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