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Planning A Trip To Costa Rica? READ THIS FIRST!

Planning A Trip To Costa Rica? READ THIS FIRST!

Last updated on July 9th, 2021 at 09:19 pm EST

This is the biggest Costa Rica trip-planning mistake you can make

You’re familiar with the saying “Hindsight is 20/20” right? We all know that mistakes are obvious to pinpoint after they’ve been made but what if there was a way to have clear vision before taking action to best avoid erring at all? Take Costa Rica trip planning, for example. We bet you’d prefer to return home with fewer travel regrets than fond memories, and if that’s true, you’ll want to put a considerable amount of time and energy into building an efficient Costa Rica trip plan before you travel. While our Costa Rica Itinerary articles (linked to below) can help you accomplish that task, another way to steer clear of travel regret is to remain cognizant of the biggest Costa Rica trip planning mistake we see travelers make: selecting tours and activities AFTER destinations, accommodations, and transportation services.

Looking to build a custom Costa Rica itinerary? Don’t miss our related blog posts for planning tips and itinerary templates:

Costa Rica Itinerary: 5 days in Costa Rica (4 nights)
Costa Rica Itinerary: 8 days in Costa Rica (7 nights)
Costa Rica Itinerary: 10 days in Costa Rica (9 nights)
Costa Rica Itinerary: 12 days in Costa Rica (11 nights)
Costa Rica Itinerary: 15 days in Costa Rica (14 nights)

If you’re scratching your head while reading the last sentence of the above paragraph over and over, trying to understand why selecting tours and activities after destinations, accommodations, and transportation services is considered a fault, you’re not alone. Our recommendation is virtually the opposite of what other Costa Rica “resources” will tell you, and what travel agents selling any country in the world will tell you, so it’s natural to be confused. Because it is easy for tourism companies, travel agents, tour operators, and other booking agents you place reservations with to help you pick cities or towns first, book hotels (and transportation services to and from those hotels) afterward, and deal with tours and activities later, hordes of travelers get funneled through that process. We call that process the “top-down approach to Costa Rica trip planning”, and although it’s popular, it doesn’t always deliver time- and cost-efficient trips. To get the absolute most out of your vacation, you’re better off taking, we believe (and have spent nearly 15 years defending), an alternative, better approach we call the “bottom-up approach to Costa Rica trip planning”.

The overdone top-down approach to Costa Rica trip planning

The top-down approach to Costa Rica trip planning is simple to understand because it’s the same approach to trip planning that’s been used for decades. Once you’ve decided which country to visit (i.e., Costa Rica), this particular approach suggests you plan your trip in the following order:

  1. Select the in-country destinations you’d like to visit (i.e., San Jose, La Fortuna, Monteverde, and Manuel Antonio).
  2. Select the accommodations you’d like to stay at (i.e., Hotel Presidente in San Jose, the Tabacon Resort near La Fortuna, the Monteverde Villa Lodge in Monteverde, and Hotel San Bada in Manuel Antonio).
  3. Select the transportation services you’d like to use to travel between destinations (i.e., private transfer services between San Jose and La Fortuna and La Fortuna and Monteverde, and a shared shuttle service between Monteverde and Manuel Antonio).
  4. Select the tours and activities you’d like to participate in while exploring each destination (i.e., a white-water rafting tour on the Pacuare River while in La Fortuna, a horseback riding tour while in Monteverde, and a tour through the Manuel Antonio National Park while in Manuel Antonio).

Here’s a quick diagram to help you visualize the top-down approach to Costa Rica trip-planning.

What’s wrong with the traditional top-down approach?

Here’s a list of top Costa Rica travel regrets we want to help you avoid:

  1. I wish I had more time to experience Costa Rica. / I wish I had built a more time-efficient Costa Rica itinerary that provided more time to participate in tours and activities.
  2. I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time traveling between destinations. / I wish I had built a more time-efficient Costa Rica itinerary that made better use of travel time between destinations.
  3. I wish I had saved more money on my trip to Costa Rica. / I wish I had made better use of city-to-city transportation-inclusive tours and other complementary transportation services that would have eliminated the cost of some transportation services.

The biggest problem with the top-down approach to Costa Rica trip planning is that it binds you to specific areas of Costa Rica before you’ve determined if those areas are worth visiting. When you select destinations and accommodations early on, you significantly narrow your tour and activity selection to only those experiences that are accessible from your chosen cities/towns and hotels.

If you’re like most travelers, you’ll give yourself a set number of days/nights at each destination and then plug-in tours and activities later. But what if, after determining which tours and activities at each destination interest you the most, you learn that you’ve given yourself too much or too little time in one place? If you’ve already committed to accommodation and transportation service reservations, not to mention an entire Costa Rica itinerary plan, changes can be a pain, frustrating, and costly.

We see this a lot when travelers choose to visit more than one destination during their trip. The instinct is to spend an even amount of time at each destination, but if you do, you may either end up with wasted itinerary time (the product of giving yourself too much time in an area of Costa Rica that doesn’t provide enough experiences that interest you) or find yourself having to choose between two or more experiences that interest you (the product of giving yourself too little time in an area of Costa Rica that provides many experiences that interest you), ultimately limiting your Costa Rica experience overall. Not all Costa Rica destinations are created equal, so the amount of time you should spend at each destination should vary, too.

It’s also important to note that the top-down approach to Costa Rica trip planning can produce a more expensive trip, especially with respect to transportation costs. This is because opportunities to take advantage of free transportation services are often missed when tours and activities are researched late in the trip-planning process. One way to save money is to use city-to-city transportation-inclusive tours to get around Costa Rica (to learn more about city-to-city transportation-inclusive tours please see our related blog post: Costa Rica Tour Transportation: How To Use Tours To Travel Between Destinations). Another way is to select accommodations that fall within tour operators’ designated pick-up and drop-off zones so you don’t get stuck having to pay extra for tour transportation to and from your hotel (for more information about pick-up and drop-off fees please see our related blog post: Costa Rica Tour Transportation: Hotel Pick-Ups And Drop-Offs). If you follow the top-down approach to Costa Rica trip planning, which considers tours and activities last, you may not realize the amount of tour-related monetary savings that are available to you until after you’ve already booked (and possibly paid for) transportation services and hotels.

The innovative bottom-up approach to Costa Rica trip planning

In stark contrast to the top-down approach, our bottom-up approach recommends that you prioritize tours and activities, and plan your trip in the following order:

  1. Select the tours and activities you’d like to participate in according to your interests (i.e., a white-water rafting tour on the Pacuare River, a horseback riding tour, and a tour through the Manuel Antonio National Park).
  2. Determine if any of your preferred tours or activities are: a) city-to-city transportation-inclusive tours (i.e., tours that include complimentary transportation between two destinations), b) tours that include complimentary transportation to/from select accommodations (i.e., particular hotels), and/or c) tours or activities that don’t require transportation to/from select accommodations because the accommodations are within walking distance of where the tour/activity takes place. In keeping with our example, there are white-water rafting tours on the Pacuare River that include free transportation between San Jose and La Fortuna, there are horseback riding tours that include free transportation between La Fortuna and Monteverde, and there are hotels adjacent to the Manuel Antonio National Park that eliminate the need for you to pay for transportation to and from the park.
  3. Select the accommodations you’d like to stay at while keeping in mind that some hotels qualify for free pick-up and drop-off services with some tours and activities (other hotels do not). In keeping with our example, there are white-water rafting tours on the Pacuare River that include a free pick-up at Hotel Presidente in San Jose and a free drop-off at the Tabacon Resort near La Fortuna, there are horseback riding tours that include a free pick-up at the Tabacon Resort near La Fortuna and a free drop-off at the Monteverde Villa Lodge in Monteverde, and Hotel San Bada in Manuel Antonio is next door (i.e., walking distance) to the Manuel Antonio National Park.
  4. Select the in-country destinations you’d like to visit (i.e., San Jose, La Fortuna, Monteverde, and Manuel Antonio). Note that when following our bottom-up approach to Costa Rica trip planning, this decision is made for you because the tours and activities you decide to participate in determine the destinations you’ll need to visit.

In summary, the bottom-up approach to Costa Rica trip planning flips the inverted triangle that appears in the first diagram above. In that diagram, tours and activities were the lowest priority and appeared at the bottom of the triangle. With our approach, tours and activities appear on top. Here’s a quick diagram to help you visualize the bottom-up approach to Costa Rica trip-planning.

Note that although the bottom-up approach recommends that you research and select tours and activities at the start of the Costa Rica trip-planning process, it does not require you to book/reserve tours and activities during the first step. Though you can certainly book tours and activities early on in the trip-planning process if you wish to lock-in availability, the purpose of step #1 (listed above) is to encourage you to consider the types of tours and activities that are available in Costa Rica (and other tour-related details discussed below, such as where tours and activities take place and approximately how much time they take) from the start of your trip-planning journey regardless of when you want to officially secure your tour and activity selection.

What’s great about our bottom-up approach?

If you’re familiar with our blog, you probably already know that we like to push the envelope and do things a little differently than everyone else. Not because we’re dead set on being trailblazers but because we recognize that the easy, popular path isn’t always what’s best for you, the traveler. Instead, we give little weight to what everyone else is doing or saying, and we think carefully and smartly for ourselves when formulating our own recommendations. In a nutshell, here’s why we feel the bottom-up approach to Costa Rica trip planning is best:

The bottom-up approach to Costa Rica trip planning encourages you to prioritize tours and activities, which means you can:

  • zero-in on the best destinations for you to visit according to your unique tour and activity interests
  • determine the correct number of days/nights you should spend at each destination according to your unique tour and activity interests
  • save money by using city-to-city transportation-inclusive tours to get around, eliminating or reducing costs associated with private transfer services, shared shuttle services, domestic flights, boat rides, and/or other modes of transportation
  • save money by using complimentary hotel pick-up and drop-off services, eliminating or reducing costs associated with hotel pick-up and drop-off fees for tours

How to get started with the bottom-up approach

If you’ve decided to follow a bottom-up approach to Costa Rica trip planning, congrats! You obviously see trip planning as an investment in your overall travel experience, which is great. The best way to get started is to research tour and activity options in Costa Rica. These can range from guided adventure tours like white-water rafting trips, canyoning tours, and ziplining excursions to unguided activities such as trail walks, museum visits, and waterfall hikes. Here are a few resources to help get the ball rolling:

Browse our list of popular things to do in Costa Rica to get an idea of possble tours and activities, and to learn where in Costa Rica you can experience them:

30 Popular Things To Do In Costa Rica And Where To Do Them

Browse other articles on our blog that pertain to other tours and activities in Costa Rica:

Find Costa Rica Travel Blog articles about things to do in Costa Rica

Search our sister site’s discount database for tour and activity ideas that you can filter by destination:

Visit Pura Vida! eh? Inc.’s Costa Rica discount database

While you research tour and activity options in Costa Rica, keep track of the following information for each experience that interests you, if you can locate it:

  • Which city or town the experience takes place in
  • Approximately how long the experience takes to complete
  • For guided tours: the times of day when the experience is offered
  • For unguided tours: the hours of operation (i.e., the window of time when you can visit)

You can formulate a perfectly planned Costa Rica trip if you allow tour and activity details to inform your destination decisions. For example, if the tours and activities you wish to experience at destination X require a total of four full days, then give yourself four full days at destination X. Comparatively, if you only need two days to do and see all that interests you at destination Y, then limit the time you spend at destination Y to two days. Don’t forget to consider and possibly factor in time for less obvious activities like souvenir shopping, exploring town centers, relaxing at beaches, spa treatments, or other periods of downtime.

After you figure out which tours and activities you’d like to do in Costa Rica, and where and when you can do them, you can determine whether any of the tours and activities you’ve selected offer complimentary transportation, either between destinations or simply to and from hotels. If so, allow these tour and activity details to inform your transportation and accommodation decisions. For example, if one of the tours you selected includes free transportation between San Jose and La Fortuna, and you plan to spend time in these two areas of Costa Rica during your trip, book the tour, not a different transportation service (e.g., a shared shuttle service or a private transfer service), for the route. Similarly, if you’re trying to decide between hotel A and hotel B, and a tour you’re interested in includes a free pick-up and drop-off at hotel B but not hotel A, consider choosing hotel B to avoid paying unnecessary transportation fees. Our related blog posts Costa Rica Tour Transportation: How To Use Tours To Travel Between Destinations and Costa Rica Tour Transportation: Hotel Pick-Ups And Drop-Offs provide tons of information about tour-related transportation services to help you identify where complimentary transportation services are available.

In the end, it’s your choice

By now, you may be wondering if taking the bottom-up approach is worth it, “it” likely referring to the extra time and effort you’ll end up putting into the planning of your trip. If so, let us ask you this: “Is your overall Costa Rica travel experience worth it?” Like most projects we take on in life, we only get out as much as we put in, and Costa Rica trip planning is no different. Though your trip probably won’t be a disaster if you follow the top-down approach, we argue you can build a better, more time- and cost-efficient trip that hones in on your interests and delivers more of what you actually want to experience in Costa Rica if you follow the bottom-up approach. Squashing the potential for travel regret is that simple. 🙂

QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Have you traveled to Costa Rica before? If so, how did you plan your trip, and how did it work out?

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Planning A Trip To Costa Rica? READ THIS FIRST!
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Planning A Trip To Costa Rica? READ THIS FIRST!
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Planning a trip to Costa Rica? Our #1 piece of advice is based on the top Costa Rica trip planning mistake travelers make. It's the opposite of what you'd expect!
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The Official Costa Rica Travel Blog
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