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Renting A Car In Costa Rica: Should You Do It?

Renting A Car In Costa Rica: Should You Do It?

Last updated on June 9th, 2021 at 10:56 am EST

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Renting a car in Costa Rica

As we touched on in our related blog post How Not To Fall For Costa Rica Car Rental Scams, the process of renting a car in Costa Rica isn’t easy; it’s a bit like a black hole that sucks in your time, energy, and money. But there are a ton of advantages to having a rental car in Costa Rica that can make venturing into the abyss a journey worth taking. Continue reading below to find out whether renting a car in Costa Rica is the right decision for you.

Quiz: Should you rent a car in Costa Rica?

Short on time? Take our quick quiz to find out if you should rent a car in Costa Rica

Would you rather...

Determining your travel priorities

There are several factors to consider when weighing the pros and cons of renting a car in Costa Rica. We’ll get to comparing those factors below, but first, it’s important to recognize that having a rental car in Costa Rica can significantly help or hinder your travel priorities. When deciding whether or not you should rent a car in Costa Rica, start by determining your travel priorities, and be honest about them.

Would you prioritize your adventurous side and be open to opportunities to roam around uncharted territory? Or, would you rather stick to well-traveled 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? There are no right or wrong answers to these types of questions; they’re meant to help you identify your interests and comfort levels with inner-country travel. If you would prioritize adventure and flexibility, a rental car can provide you with this. On the other hand, if you would feel more comfortable having a local driver tackle terrain that’s unfamiliar to you, you should rely on other forms of transportation to get around Costa Rica. For a comprehensive list of transportation options in Costa Rica, see our related blog post: Costa Rica Transportation: 12 Ways To Get Around Costa Rica.

To help you ultimately decide whether renting a car in Costa Rica would be the right decision for you, let’s engage in a game of would you rather. As you read through the scenarios presented in the table below, keep track of your selections. Specifically, record how many times you choose “a)” answers and “b)” answers.

Would you rather…

1. a) have the flexibility to determine and change your transportation routes on a whim throughout your trip?or1. b) have your transportation routes finalized prior to embarking on your trip, or at least prior to each day you plan to travel between destinations?
2. a) have the flexibility to determine and change your transportation departure times on a whim throughout your trip? or2. b) have your transportation departure times finalized prior to embarking on your trip, or at least prior to each day you plan to travel between destinations?
3. a) have the flexibility to make stops along the way while traveling between destinations?or3. b) travel directly between destinations?
4. a) assume responsibility, risk, and potentially liability in return for transportation flexibility?or4. b) avoid responsibility, risk, and liability related to car rentals altogether?
5. a) take on stress related to car rental paperwork (i.e., insurance), parking, vehicle security, and route navigation in order to be granted transportation flexibility?or5. b) avoid stress related to car rental paperwork (i.e., insurance), parking, vehicle security, and route navigation altogether?
6. a) welcome self-guided exploration, off-the-beaten path travel, and/or spontaneous travel plans into your trip?or6. b) stick to guided exploration, well known destinations, and/or predetermined travel plans throughout your trip?
7. a) take on the challenge of navigating foreign routes and road conditions?or7. b) avoid the challenge of navigating foreign routes and road conditions?
8. a) see getting lost, conversing with locals to get directions, and potentially arriving at a destination late all part of the travel experience?or8. b) see getting lost, conversing with locals to get directions, and potentially arriving at a destination late an annoying travel nuisance?

If most of your answers are “a)” your travel motto is greater risk, greater reward. Here’s what that means.

We recommend renting a car in Costa Rica, either for all or part of your trip. Having a rental car will afford you the flexibility you want, not only with respect to setting your own transportation schedule but also in terms of making changes to it on the fly. If you’ve selected mostly “a)” answers, you understand the assumption of risk and you’re not put off by it. You prioritize having an optimal travel experience. As far as you’re concerned, surprises encountered along the way, even if/when they result in setbacks, are inevitable and only add to the spontaneity of travel.

If most of your answers are “b)” your travel motto is better safe than sorry. Here’s what that means.

We recommend not renting a car in Costa Rica. Skipping the car rental will avoid much of the stress, hassle, risk, liability, and time consumption that you have little interest in dealing with while on vacation. Though you’re excited to explore new territory, learn new things, and have fun, you’re not willing to compromise on safety and security in order to have a less regimented trip. As far as you’re concerned, plenty of travel experiences can be had without the use of a rental car and via alternative means of transportation (i.e., private transfer services, shared shuttle services, city-to-city transportation-inclusive tours, public transportation, and/or domestic flights), as well as at each destination you plan to visit.

Advantages to renting a car in Costa Rica: The pros of Costa Rica car rentals

If you’re on the fence about whether or not you should rent a car in Costa Rica, consider the advantages that having a rental car in Costa Rica provides.

Freedom and flexibility

Renting a car in Costa Rica rewards you with the freedom to go wherever you want. It also awards you the flexibility to travel whenever you want and to make stops, if and when desired, along the way. This is arguably the biggest advantage to renting a car in Costa Rica. Most travelers who opt to explore Costa Rica in a rental car will tell you it trumps the disadvantages described further below.

A heightened sense of exploration

Nothing beats the open road when it comes to being adventurous. Getting out there and really exploring Costa Rica on your own terms is a reality that rental cars can provide. Rental cars can also offer an endless supply of travel experiences that are bound to spark your wanderlust.

Comfort

When you choose a rental car, you can choose the size and model of vehicle you want. Some people consider legroom, seat size, and luggage space to be important determiners of travel comfort. You may also feel more comfortable having a rental car all to yourself as opposed to sharing transportation vehicles with other travelers.

Cost

Depending on a variety of factors, including the duration of your car rental, the season you plan to travel during, the location(s) you wish to pick up and return the car at, the type of vehicle you want to rent, the amount of car rental insurance you purchase, the cost of optional add-ons, and the destinations you plan to visit (which determine the amount of gas you’ll go through), renting a car in Costa Rica may be a cost-effective form of transportation.

Disadvantages to renting a car in Costa Rica: The cons of Costa Rica car rentals

If you’re debating whether or not you should rent a car in Costa Rica, consider the disadvantages to know what having a rental car in Costa Rica entails.

Assumed responsibility, risk, and liability (if applicable)

When you rent a car in Costa Rica, you assume responsibility for the vehicle. At the same time, you take on risks associated with having that vehicle, such as the chance you’ll damage the vehicle or the car will be stolen. Depending on the agency you rent the car through and the type of insurance you purchase, you may be held liable for damages or losses if unfortunate incidents transpire.

Stress

Renting a car in Costa Rica requires sifting through a stack of stress-inducing paperwork. First, before you travel to Costa Rica, you’ll need to read the fine print of the policies followed by the car rental agency you’re working with to make sure you haven’t received a quote or reservation that qualifies as a scam (see our related blog post How Not To Fall For Costa Rica Car Rental Scams for more information on this topic). Once you pick up the vehicle in Costa Rica, you’ll be given several papers to look over, some detailing prior vehicle damage and others that address insurance coverage (for more information about insurance options, see our related blog post: Costa Rica Car Rental Insurance Information). Additional sources of stress that come with renting a car in Costa Rica include parking (finding a place to park and determining where to pay for parking), locating gas stations, and ensuring the car is secure when it’s left unattended.

Control

Many travelers love the control that rental cars provide, but several others don’t. If your main focus is where you’re going in Costa Rica, not how to get there, you may prefer to relinquish control over inner-country transportation to professional drivers (or pilots, in the case of domestic flights). If you don’t, renting a car in Costa Rica means you’ll need to think about mapping out routes, dealing with traffic, driving through road construction, navigating road closures and detours, and calling for help in the event of a vehicle emergency.

Cost

Depending on a variety of factors, including the location of the destinations you plan to visit, the number of destinations you plan to travel between, the time of day you wish to be picked up for each transfer service, and the number of people in your travel group, modes of transportation that aren’t a rental car (i.e., private transfer services, shared shuttle services, city-to-city transportation-inclusive tours, public transportation, and/or domestic flights) may be the most cost-effective ways to get around Costa Rica.

Tips for renting a car in Costa Rica

If you decide to rent a car for your Costa Rica vacation, use our tips and recommendations provided below to ensure your rental experience is a positive one.

Protect yourself from car rental scams

Read our related blog post How Not To Fall For Costa Rica Car Rental Scams to learn what ploys to look out for when renting a vehicle in Costa Rica.

Brush up on your knowledge of Costa Rica car rental insurance

Read our related blog post Costa Rica Car Rental Insurance Information to learn about “mandatory insurance” and other insurance available for purchase.

Scout out your route before setting out on it

Knowing how many kilometers or miles separate two Costa Rica destinations isn’t nearly as important as knowing the route’s condition. Roads that are winding and mountainous, roads that border cliffs, roads that sit at a high elevation (and are sometimes engulfed by cloud cover), roads that are undergoing construction, and bumpy roads comprised of stones can make for very slow drives. While several routes in Costa Rica cannot be avoided, it pays to know what you’re getting into, as well as roughly how long it will take before getting out of it, prior to hitting the road. For more information about Costa Rica’s roads and highways, don’t miss our related blog posts: Costa Rica Highway Conditions By Route and Costa Rica Road Conditions By Route.

Familiarize yourself with Costa Rica’s many road hazards

Several hazards require cautious and attentive driving in Costa Rica. Locals walk along shoulder-less highways, sometimes at night. Costa Rican drivers don’t always use turning signals. Deep potholes are common and can appear out of the blue. Most mountainous roads don’t have guardrails. Some roads flood during the low/green/rain season. Wildlife has been known to dart into oncoming traffic. Rain and cloud cover can come on quickly, heavily, and significantly reduce visibility. While hazards shouldn’t deter you from renting a car and driving in Costa Rica, they require your utmost attention while at the wheel.

Watch out for CEDAs

CEDA means “yield” in Costa Rica. Watch for road signs that have a red, upside-down triangle and “CEDA el paso” written in the center. If you see one, you must slow down and check for oncoming traffic, which has the right of way. You’re most likely to see these signs as you approach narrow roadways and bridges. Yellow, square road signs that have the word “DESPACIO” (“slow”) written in the center are also important to note. They’re usually an indicator of a sharp curve up ahead and also require slowing your speed.

Watch out for one-way streets

Most town centers in Costa Rica are full of one-way streets. Many are unmarked. When approaching an intersection and preparing for a turn, look at the direction of oncoming and parked cars to confirm the flow of traffic.

Ready yourself for driving roundabouts if you plan to visit San Jose

Roundabouts abound in San Jose. They consist of two or three lanes of traffic, swiftly entering and exiting the circle from multiple directions. If you aren’t comfortable maneuvering roundabouts, avoid driving around the capital city altogether.

In advance, locate gas stations along the routes you plan to travel

Gas stations aren’t on every corner in Costa Rica, so there’s a good chance you won’t be near one when you need it. Recording where gas stations exist in relation to the destinations you plan to visit can help avoid the hassle of tracking one down when you’re coasting on fumes.

Keep a handful of colones (Costa Rican currency) handy while you drive

You never know when you might need these. You may need to use the bathroom while journeying along a route (some places charge for bathroom use and/or toilet paper), you may need to pay a highway toll, or you may be inclined to purchase food, a drink, or another product sold by a street vendor. It’s best to pay for these things in colones; small denominations are a must.

Carry your original passport, in addition to your driver’s license, wherever you drive

By law, you must carry your driver’s license and passport with you while you drive. If you’re stopped by the traffic police, you’ll be asked to show both pieces of identification as a non-resident.

QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: What are your reasons for renting a car (or not renting a car) in Costa Rica?

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Renting A Car In Costa Rica: Should You Do It?
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Renting A Car In Costa Rica: Should You Do It?
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Debating renting a car in Costa Rica? We outline advantages and disadvantages, scenarios to consider, and rental tips to help you decide!
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The Official Costa Rica Travel Blog
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