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ARE YOU ABOUT TO MAKE THIS COSTA RICA TRIP PLANNING MISTAKE?
Upon return home from their Costa Rica vacation, countless travellers can identify things they wish they would 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 Costa Rica vacation while receiving this great advice before arriving in the country for the very first time?
Fortunately, this is very possible, when travellers approach their time in Costa Rica as an investment. Those who do, tend to research various aspects of their trip to the point where they can make smart and informed decisions. Those who do not, have little control over the outcome of their travel experience, simply because they chose not to take control when they had the chance. With respect to the latter group, one of the biggest mistakes we see travellers make is to build their trip from a top-down approach.
THE DOWNFALLS OF A TOP-DOWN APPROACH TO COSTA RICA TRIP PLANNING
While we do not intend for this post to plug our business (Pura Vida! eh? Inc.), we do aim to shed light and optimism on the overwhelming process and challenge of planning a trip to Costa Rica. As a result of our work in the industry and the experience we have funneled over many years of talking with and learning from travellers, the very best way we can suggest to build a Costa Rica vacation is from a bottom-up perspective.
The method we label as a mistake–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 upfront 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 primary 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 even consider their tour and activity options.
You might be wondering why this matters, and if so, you’re probably a lot like other travellers who feel tours and activities are trivial and less significant than other aspects of a Costa Rica vacation. Here, we would agree with you only 50%; while we believe that other aspects of the trip should be booked and secured before tours and activities, we strongly believe that more thought and attention should be devoted to filtering and selecting tours and activities than anything else related to the vacation. Why? Because unless you plan to stay inside your hotel room the entire time without doing or seeing any of what the country has to offer, the tours and activities you choose to participate in will contribute the most to your enjoyment of the trip; they can make or break your entire Costa Rica vacation, brighten or tarnish the impression you will have of the country, and directly impact your greatest takeaway: the travel experience.
Specifically, the biggest effect that the top-down trip-planning approach 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 countless others. Visitors can easily fill an entire week with activities in La Fortuna/Arenal, and many leave with regret that they did not have enough time to explore all of their interests. In contrast, consider Monteverde. While Monteverde is definitely worth a visit (don’t miss our related blog post Should You Visit La Fortuna/Arenal, Monteverde, Or Both Destinations During Your Costa Rica Vacation for more information), the region is small geographically and the number of tours and activities offered in the area is significantly less than the number available in the La Fortuna/Arenal region. Regardless, we often see travellers plan to spend the same number of days and nights in Monteverde as they do in La Fortuna/Arenal, and while logistically this makes sense (why wouldn’t one plan to spread their time evenly across two distinct areas?), most travellers learn the hard way (after they have already visited each destination) that a greater percentage of their vacation time would have been better spent in La Fortuna/Arenal.
Since we love 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 (this can be envisioned by starting at the bottom of the funnel diagram displayed in the first photo above and working upward, or else by inverting the funnel to create a pyramid, and then starting at the top to work downward). The approach calls on travellers to start their trip planning by taking a look at their vacation overall, starting with–and not putting off until later–the types of tours and activities that they wish to participate in while in Costa Rica. If you wish to employ our approach, allow your tour and activity interests to guide the majority of your other trip planning decisions; that is, allow the things you want to do and see in Costa Rica to influence where you should go, where you should stay, how much time you should give yourself at each destination, and, in the case of city-to-city transportation-inclusive tours (as we describe in our blog post Costa Rica Tour Transportation: How To Use Tours To Travel Between Destinations), the method of transportation you should use between destinations. Doing so will not only ensure that you visit beneficial areas and for an appropriate amount of time, but it will also help you obtain the highest quality experiences possible (more on that to come below).
Start by researching various tour and activity offerings online (use our online Costa Rica Tour Discounts database for inspiration). Keep a list of the tours and activities that interest you, the city in which the tour or activity is run, and the approximate amount of time required for participation.
During the beginning stages of your trip planning, 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. Some tours and activities are only offered in certain areas of Costa Rica, in which case it would be best to plan to visit those areas if the tours or activities offered there are of interest to you. Other tours and activities are more popular and exist in a variety of areas, however the quality of experience may be heightened or hindered by the location itself. For example, although canopy ziplining tours exist in most of Costa Rica’s popular regions, would you be satisfied with a tour offering basic thrill and standard scenery in one area, or would you prefer to experience the activity with more adrenaline and spectacular views elsewhere?
Record the approximate duration of the tours and activities you are interested in. Many are full-day adventures and will require an entire day of your vacation to be spent in a particular city. Other tours and activities are half-day or two-or-three-hour activities, in which case two or three tours or activities could be planned for the same day. Don’t forget to take note of non-tour-related activities that could occupy your time if/when you want them to. For example, if you wish to spend half a day souvenir shopping and exploring the town you plan to stay in, record this in your notes (the same action should be taken for recording the approximate amount of time you wish to spend relaxing at the beach, if applicable). With this list, comprised 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. Then (and only then, in our opinion!) etch your plans in stone by securing your chosen Costa Rica hotels and transportation services according to your tour and activity desires (together with your shopping/relaxation schedule, and taking into consideration hotel check-in and check-out times as well as transportation service departure times).
IN THE END, IT’S UP TO YOU
If you’re thinking that a bottom-up approach to trip planning is a lot of work, ask yourself whether your trip is worth it. If you plan to use Costa Rica as merely an escape from home, and you have no interest in exploring or learning from the country itself, perhaps you would not stand to benefit from using our approach, as you may determine that little in Costa Rica interests you. Alternatively, if you wish to get a lot out of your trip experience, be prepared to put time and attention into the planning of it. If you do, you’ll be rewarded in the end; since you took the time in advance to determine what you want to see and do in Costa Rica, and because you planned your trip itinerary accordingly, you’ll be left with a well-coordinated itinerary that leaves little room for missed opportunities and 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?