February 25th, 2016 Update – We have a special offer just for you! Check the end of the post for more details*
Renting a Car in Costa Rica
Welcome to our Costa Rica car rental guide! If you’re thinking about renting a car in Costa Rica for your vacation, here is everything you need to know. In this post, we give our best tips and advice on if you should rent a car, the kind of car, different car rental companies and how to save money on car rentals.
I have rented a car in Costa Rica many times and Yeison also gave us his insider tips as a Costa Rican who has worked in the tourism industry for over 10 years. I’ll help you decide if renting a car sounds like the right choice for your Costa Rica vacation, how to stay safe and save money so you can have a worry and stress free trip.
These are the topics we’ll go over in this article, click below to skip to the section.
- Why rent?
- Reasons not to rent
- Our Personal Experiences
- What kind of car should you rent?
- Is a 4×4 necessary?
- Tips for Renting
- Important Things to Know
- Special offer (DISCOUNT!)
Renting a car in Costa Rica is probably one of the best ways to take in all the sights and sounds of the country. Some of the advantages are obvious – go where you want, when you want. Make your own agenda and have more freedom!
You can stop whenever you want, take scenic detours, visit small towns off the main road, basically everything becomes available to you. You’re not on a time schedule or on anyone else’s schedule. Go off the beaten path and discover hidden beaches and oases all to yourself. The possibilities become endless when you are in control of your destination!
Once you get outside of San Jose or the main cities, public buses become rarer and it can be frustrating having to work your schedule around buses that don’t run all day, have few routes and get super full. Not the best idea for those with little ones or health problems. Plus taxis are expensive and don’t always go where you want them to go if you want to explore. For adventure seekers, this is extremely frustrating!
By renting a car, you won’t be restricted to bus schedules and you’ll save a ton of time. To maximize your vacation time, minimize the time spent waiting for your transportation.
If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like being restricted, loves having the freedom to go wherever, wants the comfort and convenience of a car and prefer not to take public transportation, then renting a car is the right choice for your Costa Rica trip.
Reasons not to rent
Here are some reasons why renting a car in Costa Rica may not be the best choice for you.
- You don’t want to worry about the stress of driving.
- You’re not that used to driving in foreign countries.
- You’re only staying in one or two destinations and not planning on exploring.
- On a budget.
The driving in Costa Rica can be scary sometimes for first time visitors since drivers here are not as careful or considerate as some other countries. They don’t signal, they love to pass even when it’s not allowed and many places don’t have accurate road signs.
I’m always very careful when it comes to recommending visitors to drive in Costa Rica. If even the thought of driving in a foreign country gives you anxiety or stress, then you will probably prefer to book shuttles or take the bus. Driving does give you freedom but it is another responsibility.
One of Our Personal Experiences With Renting a Car in Costa Rica
When my brother came to Costa Rica in 2013, renting a car was one thing they were sure they wanted to do. With a big group, we wanted the flexibility and comfort of a car as they were coming with another couple so there would be 6 of us road tripping throughout the country for a week. Our plan was to drive from Playas del Coco – Arenal – Monteverde – Puntarenas – ferry to Mal Pais – Mal Pais – Playas del Coco. It was going to be one hell of a trip and we were all so excited.
How we chose what car to rent:
Obviously we needed something big enough to fit all 6 of us plus our luggage. A 4X4 was necessary since we knew the roads around Mal Pais and Monteverde weren’t the best. Through our research, we ended up renting a Ford Everest 4X4.
Without renting this car, we wouldn’t have made it back to Coco in one happy piece. We ended up taking the long way from Mal Pais to Coco which meant we drove on the beach, on the rocks and were on very unpaved roads. You can definitely say we did a good bit of exploring the jungle in our car!
Though we have our own car, we still need to rent one from time to time. We recently rented a Hyundai Tucson for our Turrialba trip in March 2017 and it was perfect. The Hyundai Tucson is a very common car to rent in Costa Rica, it’s 4×4, fits up to 5 passengers and comes in automatic and manual. It took us all throughout Turrialba, the volcano and the rural roads.
We also rented the same car to Uvita, where our hotel was in the mountains and required a 4×4. The car was great and worked very well, no problems at all going to the bumpy steep roads in the South Pacific.
What kind of car should you rent?
If your itinerary sounds a bit like ours, then you must get a 4X4. This also includes routes around Nicoya Peninsula, Osa Peninsula, Monteverde and Costa Ballena. For the best 4×4 options with the most space, look for a Mitsubishi Montero Sport, Hyundai Santa Fe or Toyota Fortuner/Prado.
If you aren’t coming with that many people and don’t need that big of a car, some recommendations are Suzuki Jimny, Daihatsu Bego, and Hyundai Tucson. These are also ideal for small families or couples.
If you aren’t planning on going off-roading and are going to be staying in the city or on well-traveled routes, a sedan or compact will be fine. Some recommendations are Hyundai Accent Blue and Toyota Yaris. We traveled in both cars before with another couple and it fit all four of us comfortably and the trunk had more than enough space for our 6 pieces of luggage.
A van is also another choice if your group is large, with young ones or seniors. They have the most room but it is not recommended to take one off the main road as they don’t do the best in poor road conditions.
Want to get in-depth information about the type of cars available? We took videos and pictures of the different cars you can rent in Costa Rica that you can check out here.
Is a 4×4 necessary?
That’s a question we get a lot. It really depends on where you’re going and if you plan to do some exploring. Here are some examples of trips we’ve taken, the road conditions and which car we drove.
- From Guanacaste to Arenal, we drove a four door sedan as the entire route is nicely paved through the Inter-Americana highway, Tilaran, Canas and Nuevo Arenal. We have a post with pictures and videos of the Liberia to Arenal route you can see here.
- To Monteverde: The route to Monteverde (all routes from San Jose and Liberia) are unpaved for at least 20 kilometers and highly recommended to have a 4×4. We took our Hyundai Galloper which was awesome and we also drove there with the Ford Everest.
- From San Jose to Limon and Puerto Viejo, we took a 4 door sedan. This road is nicely paved. There are some places around Puerto Viejo where we went where the roads are not paved but they are not so terrible you have to have a 4X4. If you are driving to Veragua, a 4×4 is necessary.
- From San Jose to Dominical we took a Hyundai Galloper. The road to Dominical is well paved and wide. Dominical town itself does not have paved roads, some restaurants and hotels are located high up in the mountains on curved, unpaved roads and the road to the beaches are not paved making it necessary to get a 4X4.
- Around the Central Valley (Alajuela, San Jose, Cartago including Grecia, San Ramon and Zarcero), we took the Hyundai Accent Blue and it was great. Well paved roads, no off roading so no 4X4 needed.
- From Playas del Coco to Manuel Antonio (and Playa Jaco) we took a Toyota Yaris with no problems since it was all well paved, good conditions roads. Once in Manuel Antonio, the roads are still well paved up to the parking lot of the national park.
- From Playas del Coco to Rincon de la Vieja National Park, we drove a Suzuki Jimny which was great. We also took a Toyota Yaris once and it was quite bumpy. Roads in that national park are not paved and though it is not absolutely necessary to have a 4X4, it was much more comfortable in the Jimny.
- Around Uvita: We drove our Hyundai Galloper and rented a Hyundai Tuscon for Uvita as our hotels were up in the mountains and required a 4×4.
- Osa Peninsula like Carate, Drake Bay, Puerto Jimenez, Matapalo: A 4×4 is absolutely necessary. The main road to Puerto Jimenez is very nicely paved but it ends once you get to town. The road to Carate/Matapalo is extremely bumpy and has a ton of holes. Drake Bay is even worse and it is recommended not to drive to Drake Bay in rainy season since you have to cross some rivers and you could get rained in.
- Arenal to Tamarindo: This route is on a well paved main road. Neither destination required a 4×4.
- Ostional: We recommend getting a SUV to go to Ostional as that road is extremely bumpy and there is a river right before you enter the town. We saw many compact cars stuck there because their car was not high enough to cross. In dry season, the water level may be low enough but the road is still super bumpy.
- Turrialba: You can get by without a 4×4. The road up to the volcano national park is well paved. It gets unpaved around Guayabo monument but it is nothing horrible.
We have created a dedicated section to “driving around Costa Rica” with videos taken with our GoPro so you can see what the road conditions are like for every place we go. You can see all of them here.
Tips for Renting a Car in Costa Rica
- If you have car rental points, they might not work in Costa Rica. My friend tried to use his Hertz points here but they didn’t apply. Make sure to find this out before you book the car.
- If you’re planning on using your credit card for your trip, make sure you’ll have enough leftover on your limit. Car rentals will charge your card beforehand for a security deposit which can be anywhere from $300-$5000. It takes around 46-72 hours for these funds to be released after you return the car.
- For most car rental companies, the minimum age to rent a car is 23.
- Sometimes you can book a car rental at the airport when you get through customs but usually it is more expensive and it’s not guaranteed. It’s better to book it before your trip especially in high season and that way you can comparison shop and be 100% clear on what taxes and fees you have to pay and how much your total will be.
- Same goes for booking over the phone. You may find that the prices you get when you call versus the prices you get when you look online are different. Make sure to comparison shop!
- Every car rental company has different insurance policies so if you’re not sure what is what, contact them and ask for an explanation. Read Yeison’s post on Costa Rica car rental insurance to find out more.
- If you see a website that has extremely cheap car rentals, be wary. Many booking websites make it so the car rental seems super duper cheap ($5 a day or something) and that you don’t need to pay insurance, but when you get to the car rental office to pick up the car, they hit you with a crazy insurance fee which they say is mandatory. There is a mandatory insurance in Costa Rica but they just don’t put it on the website. And if you want to decline it using your credit card, you can’t because you need an official letter from your credit card company and you can’t get it when you’re already in Costa Rica.
- Make sure you take part in the inspection. Take pictures and tell them if you see any scratches, dents, or nicks so that you won’t get in trouble for those when you return the car.
- You are allowed to drive legally in Costa Rica as long as you bring your home country’s drivers license and your visa is valid.
- Make sure you return the car on time.
- Check where the car rental office is to the airport if you’re dropping off the car before your flight.
- If you have a smartphone with data from a prepaid sim card, download the app WAZE. It is the best navigation app since the information is supplemented by Costa Ricans themselves and you can see warnings for accidents, traffic and even traffic cops. You can also get a GPS which is included in our discount!
- Bring a Spanish phrasebook or download our free guide which has important direction phrases and words. Don’t expect locals to know English especially when you get outside of the city!
- Make sure you keep the receipts and documents.
Important Things to Know
There are plenty of car rental companies around the airport but they don’t all necessarily drop your car off there. If not, the car rental company will have a free shuttle (or an airport fee) to take you back to the office so you can finish the paperwork, charge your card and do the inspection.
If you happen to get a ticket, you can pay it when you drop off the car. Unfortunately, driving tickets are fairly expensive here so I would try to avoid getting one at all costs. Make sure you pay it as there is a new law that can prohibit you from exiting the country if you do not.
If you get into an accident, your deposit will be held until the case goes to court. Please be very careful when driving since court cases can take months and years to figure out and it’s a messy process in general. Please report to the car rental company asap if you get in an accident.
For driving tips, we have a post about tips for driving in Costa Rica. See what it’s really like driving in the city, the countryside and what the road conditions are like for your future destinations.
We have another in-depth guide to driving in Costa Rica (mostly city). Learn what it’s like to drive here straight from a Costa Rican, find out what kinds of things you need to look out for and the Costa Rican way of driving.
Overview (plus our special offer)
Phew! With all that being said, I still recommend renting a car in Costa Rica to anyone who wants to have a unique experience in Costa Rica. Not saying you won’t have a great time if you don’t, but like I said before, renting a car gives you the freedom you wouldn’t otherwise have if you depended on public transportation.
We’ve found gorgeous hidden beaches all to ourselves, stopped at beautiful scenic spots and stumbled upon some of the tastiest sodas when we drove around the country. Renting a car created one of the most memorable trips for my brother, his friends and I that we would have never been able to experience otherwise.
I am recommending renting a car in Costa Rica with a hint of caution however, it is something you do need to think long and hard about. What kind of trip are you looking for, what are you willing to spend and is driving even something you want to do while on vacation?
If so and you’re intent on renting a car in Costa Rica for your trip, then we’re happy to offer this *special offer to you. We partnered up with Adobe Rent a Car to give our readers an exclusive discount, saving 10% and more when they rent a car with them plus 2 free drivers, a free cell phone with 1 hour of credit, free baby and booster seats, free surf racks and 33% off GPS rental. Book a car, have a trip of a lifetime and save money while doing it!
Watch our video to learn more about this deal!
You can read about our experience with Adobe Rent a Car and why we recommend them.
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