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 to have a smooth and stress free car rental process in Costa Rica.
As a foreigner from the US, I have rented a car in Costa Rica many times and know the process well from a tourist point of view. Yeison, who is Costa Rica, gives his insider local tips as someone who has worked in the tourism industry for over 10 years. First, we will help you decide if renting a car is the right choice for your Costa Rica vacation. Then we’ll break down the costs, pros and cons and all the details you need to know about renting a car in Costa Rica including that pesky insurance you may have already read about.
If you’re ready to book, check out our exclusive Costa Rica car rental discount just for you!
Renting a Car in Costa Rica Advice
This post was updated December 20, 2019, ready for the 2020 travel season! All prices below $ are USD unless otherwise noted.
Click below to skip to the section.
- Should you rent a car?
- Requirements to rent a car in Costa Rica
- Minimum age
- Driver’s license
- Driving Lane
- Our personal experiences
- Cost of car rental
- How to save money
- Cost of gas
- Additional costs
- Renting process
- Picking a car rental company
- Third party websites
- Airport pick up and drop off
- What kind of car should you rent?
- Is 4×4 necessary?
- Automatic vs manual
- Car engine size
- Car age and condition
- Important things to know
- Special car rental discount
Why Should You Rent a Car in Costa Rica
Go your own pace
Renting a car in Costa Rica is the best ways to take in all the sights and sounds of the country. The advantages of renting a car in Costa Rica are obvious- go where you want, when you want.
By renting a car in Costa Rica, you won’t be restricted to anyone’s schedule but your own. To maximize your vacation time, minimize the time spent waiting for your transportation.
If you’re the kind of person who loves having the freedom to go wherever and wants the comfort of a car, then renting a car is the right choice for your Costa Rica trip.
Prices are comparable/cheaper than private shuttles
When you add up the cost of hiring private shuttles, renting a car becomes much more attractive. For example, a private shuttle from San Jose to La Fortuna is $160-200 USD total one way. Then you need to take taxis or book tours with transportation to get around La Fortuna and all of that adds up. For solo travelers or couples, this may not always be the most economical option.
Instead, you could have rented a sedan for around $350 USD** for one week and had the freedom to explore. I wouldn’t say renting a car in Costa Rica is super cheap but it is cheaper than booking private shuttles or local flights for your entire vacation.
**Depending on time of year, availability, insurances, fees, taxes and extras on your reservation**
Road trip fun!
Driving in Costa Rica can be a bit intimidating for first time visitors or first time international travelers but honestly, it’s not as bad as people make it out to be. San Jose, the capital city is crazy but once you get out of the city, it’s fairly smooth sailing from there.
There’s nothing I love more than a good road trip and you can have one hell of a road trip in Costa Rica thanks to the breathtaking landscapes of rolling hills, lush jungles, beautiful beaches and clear blue skies. Roll down the windows to breathe the fresh air and hear toucans and monkeys calling. It’s an indescribable feeling!
Make sure to read our driving in Costa Rica post for local tips to stay safe on the road.
Enjoy the views
With so many scenic landscapes in the country, it is nice to be able to pull over and take photos when you want. Additionally, there are many wonderful stops on popular routes where you can have a meal, buy some souvenirs or get a cup of coffee.
For example, on the route from Liberia to La Fortuna, there are so many gorgeous views of Lake Arenal and the Tilaran corridor. By renting a car, you can drive up to one of the view points or stop at any of the places on the way you would miss otherwise!
Another example is the drive from San Jose to Irazu Volcano National Park. The views going up there are stunning and worth getting out for photos.
And the main reason I recommend to rent a car in Costa Rica is to explore. Costa Rica is a touristic destination BUT there are SO many hidden, off the beaten path places. So many gorgeous empty beaches, lots of unique hotels and tons of stunning viewpoints that can only be discovered by car since the other options are not possible and private shuttles/taxis are very expensive. We love taking our friends and family to hidden beaches and local places that are only accessible with a 4×4!
You could perfectly book shuttles or take buses you whole trip but trust me, you would be missing out on a lot if you’re the adventurous type. And hiring that private shuttle will be very expensive!
Reasons not to rent a car
On the flip side, here are some reasons why renting a car in Costa Rica may not be the best choice for you.
- You don’t want the stress of driving or you’re not used to driving in foreign countries.
- You’re only staying in one or two destinations.
- You are on a tight budget.
If the thought of driving in a foreign country majorly stresses you out, then you shouldn’t, especially if you will be the one doing most of the driving. Costa Rican infrastructure is not the best and driving is another very big responsibility to think about while on vacation. I know first hand what it’s like to drive in a foreign country for the first time and it can be very nerve-racking!
Requirements for Renting a Car in Costa Rica
In order to drive in Costa Rica as a foreigner, you need your original passport, a valid tourist visa stamp and a valid original driver’s license from your home country. Many Americans ask us “can you drive in Costa Rica with a US license” and the answer is yes. An international driver’s license is not required in Costa Rica.
However, if your driver’s license is not in Roman script, then you will need to get an international driver’s license. Additionally, you cannot use a temporary paper copy or photocopy of your driver’s license in Costa Rica. Costa Rica car rental companies require the original valid driver’s license. Even if you have rented with the same company before, you need to bring your original driver’s license and original passport with you every time.
The minimum age to rent a car in Costa Rica varies on the company. Adobe Rent a Car has a minimum age of 23. Alamo Costa Rica is 21. Budget Costa Rica and Hertz Costa Rica is 25. Budget charges $10 a day for drivers between 21 and 25, under 21 they can’t rent. Make sure to check as each company is different. With Adobe, they don’t allow drivers younger than 23 even if they pay a fee.
For maximum age, Adobe doesn’t have a maximum age limit and older drivers don’t need to pay an extra insurance or fee.
Costa Rica drives on the same side of the road as USA and Canada (right hand side).
Our First Experience Renting a Car in Costa Rica
Here you can read about one of our first experiences with renting a car in Costa Rica.
When my brother came to Costa Rica, we rented a car because we wanted the flexibility and freedom to go wherever we wanted as a group of 6 adventurous adults. We didn’t even consider booking shuttles or taking the bus! We knew right away we wanted to rent a car.
How we chose what car to rent:
The car had to fit our group of 6 and our carry ons. It also had to be 4×4 for Monteverde and Santa Teresa. We ended up renting a full size 4×4 7 passenger SUV.
It was wonderful having a car to leave whenever we wanted. We found hidden beaches and visited off the beaten path places. One of the best memories we had was driving from Santa Teresa to Playas del Coco. We went through local towns and rural roads and had quite an adventure driving with cows and saying hi to the local farmers riding their horses next to us! They saw a part of Costa Rica they never would have seen otherwise.
It was also helpful in rainy season where we could jump in the car if it started raining instead of trying to find a taxi.
All in all, having a car for our group of 6 adults was the best option for 2 weeks in Costa Rica.
Cost of a Costa Rica Car Rental
How much your Costa Rica car rental costs will depend on the type of car you rent, the insurances and time of year you are visiting.
The most expensive time of year to rent a car in Costa Rica is end of December to end of April. Additionally, Christmas, New Years and Easter week are peak season times with the highest prices.
If you are visiting during those times of the year, make sure to book your car rental at least two months before because they go fast! This is the same advice for July and August as they are super busy times of the year.
The cheapest time to rent a car in Costa Rica are during low seasons months such as May, June, September – November and usually end of November to mid December. A mid size SUV rental in Costa Rica for one week in October can be around $260. The same car during Christmas and New Years can be around $600 a week. During February, it is around $550 a week. However, keep in mind that it does depend on availability, insurances, extras, taxes, fees, etc. and I’m talking about just the car rental rate.
Cost of Gas
You also need to factor in the cost of gas. Right now, the cost of gas in Costa Rica is around 620 colones per liter which is around $4 per gallon. Diesel is cheaper, at around $3.50 a gallon. On average for a 1 week trip, tourists drive around 500 kilometers (310 miles). In a SUV, a full tank of gas costs around $65 USD to fill up.
There are a few additional costs to renting a car in Costa Rica. From San Jose, there are several toll booths that charge from 100 – 800 colones (20 cents to about $1.40).
Second, if your rental car gets very dirty, you may need to take it to the car wash. Rental companies will charge if the car is extremely dirty. Car wash is around $10 – $20. You cannot smoke inside rented vehicles in Costa Rica and if you do, the company will charge you a fine for this, usually around $100.
Third, if you pick up and return from different offices, there will be an extra fee for this. This can be from $20 – $200 depending on your locations.
I will talk about “add ons” and extras like GPS, Wi-Fi in a bit for additional costs.
How to save money on car rentals
- First, travel during low season if you can since it’s the cheapest time.
- Secondly, rent a manual if you can drive manual. Automatic cars cost more to rent in Costa Rica and the difference can be from $10-40 a week.
- Then check your itinerary to see if you really need a 4×4 or 4wd. Renting a sedan or compact car versus an SUV can save a ton of money, especially for a solo traveler or couple.
- Next, if the company you rent with lets you use your credit card insurance instead of an insurance they offer, you can save $4-8 a day.
- Lastly, check your pick up and return locations for the return fee. If you can, pick up and drop off your car the same office to avoid this fee.
- Also don’t forget to get our car rental discount to save up to 20% on rentals and extra benefits like 2 free drivers, free delivery and pick up, free cell phone, cooler and much more!
The Process of Renting a Car in Costa Rica
Deciding which company to rent with
When you’ve begun your process of your Costa Rica car rental, the first step is to decide which company to go with. We personally recommend and use Adobe Rent a Car as they are 100% Costa Rican, have the largest fleet, have over 15 offices and are completely transparent about prices and insurance. Adobe Rent a Car is also one of the most popular car rental companies in Costa Rica. This is why we made a partnership with them to give up to 20% discounts on car rental and extra benefits for our readers!
However, you can find large international companies such as Alamo, Enterprise, Hertz, Sixt, Thrify and Budget in Costa Rica. There are also a handful of other local Costa Rican car rental companies like Poas, Mapache and Vamos.
First step when it comes to deciding the company is to comparison shop and read about the important details of that company.
Number of offices
One of those important details when deciding which Costa Rican car rental company to rent with is the number of offices. Some companies may only have two offices: one at San Jose Airport and the other at Liberia Airport.
This is something important to factor in because for example, if you are in Uvita and run into issues with your car, the closest office of your car rental agency may be in San Jose which is pretty far (3-4 hour drive) and it will take a long time for them to assist you which is time taken out of your vacation.
Adobe has 15 offices in Costa Rica so if you run into any issues, there is a good chance there is an office nearby and they can assist you quickly.
What to Know About International Companies
You may have read from other tourists that car rentals are a scam in Costa Rica. We completely understand why they feel that way and it is because of the way big international companies present the taxes, fees, insurances and deposit in Costa Rica.
The thing with those companies is that they aren’t exactly transparent about taxes, fees, the deposit and insurance. If you do decide to book with other companies, contact them to be 100% clear about all fees and insurances. (I’ll talk more about insurance in a moment.)
Third party sites like Expedia (How to avoid hidden fees/taxes/insurances in Costa Rica)
Additionally, if you book on third party sites like Expedia, Carrentals.com or Orbitz, find out which company they work with and contact them. This is because the third party websites only show you the car rental price, not the insurances and fees so it’ll look awesomely cheap at first glance ($10 a day, $5 a day).
However, when you go to pick up the car, you’ll be hit with all these insurances and fees you didn’t know anything about and it’ll be way more expensive. This is one of the most common questions we are asked about Costa Rica car rentals and complaints we get.
Make sure to check directly with the company to get the final quote for your reservation because it is definitely not that super cheap price you see. For example, if Expedia works with Alamo, then contact Alamo Costa Rica directly to find out exactly how much the rental will cost, not the Alamo international website.
With our partner Adobe, what you see on your reservation is exactly what you pay. No hidden fees, taxes, insurances. All clear and upfront. All inclusive prices from the beginning to end.
Breaking down Costa Rica car rental insurance
Next, insurance. Honestly, insurance is the most confusing thing about Costa Rica car rentals. This is because every company sells insurances differently. Additionally, there is a mandatory insurance in Costa Rica. If you’re looking at international companies, first read Yeison’s post comparing Costa Rica car rental companies and their insurances.
When it comes to our partner, Adobe Rent a Car, they offer 3 types of insurances: Liability, Car Protection (CDW) and Extended Protection.
Liability: This is the mandatory car rental insurance in Costa Rica. Mandatory insurance from Adobe that costs $13-25 a day depending on the type of car. Liability insurance covers you up to $20,000 in 3rd party damages with 20% deductible and 3rd parties (not in vehicle) up to $100,000 with 0 deductible. This mandatory insurance in Costa Rica cannot be declined or removed since there are no companies that cover this exact insurance.
Car Protection: Covers the rented vehicle damage in an incident. Also covers financial losses from theft. You can remove this insurance by using your credit card insurance. For example, my Chase Sapphire credit card offers car rental insurance and I can use it to decline this Car Protection insurance to save money.
Extended Protection: This insurance is 100% optional. It goes on top of Liability and has 0 deductible and covers windows, vandalism, 24/7 road side assistance and two trucks. The insurance also covers 100% of 3rd party damages up to $5 million.
One of the Mytanfeet benefits is 24/7 road assistance and the 0 deductible in every reservation. You can read more detailed information about Adobe Rent a Car insurance in this post.
If you check other companies, you’ll see different names and types of insurance. Some companies offer up to 5 different types of insurance, making it very confusing!
Now, let’s talk about the deposit. Deposits for car rentals in Costa Rica can be fairly high. The deposit is based on of the type of insurance you get. They can be anywhere from $300-7000!
For example, if you purchase only mandatory insurance, your deposit may be $3000. If you get every single insurance, your deposit may be $500. If you waive one insurance, your deposit can be $5000! You need to make sure the credit card you’re using has a big enough limit for the deposit. Definitely bring a couple credit cards on your trip and ask the company how much your deposit/hold will be. Another important thing to know is that the deposit cannot be paid in cash in Costa Rica.
This is another reason why we prefer Adobe. Their deposit is also straightforward as well. For Mytanfeet readers, the deposit is $750 for all reservations. If you purchase Extended Protection insurance, the deposit is $500.
Additionally, Adobe does take debit cards. However, the deposit can take up to 3 weeks to return to your bank account. If possible, use a credit card as the return time is 24 – 72 hours.
Airport pick up and return
What about picking up the car? Can you pick up your car rental at the airport?
Yes and no. San Jose and Liberia International Airports are too small for car rental companies to operate inside so all the offices are located around 1 mile from the airport. Rental companies offer transportation to their office but some charge for this and it is usually called an airport tax or airport fee.
Some companies, including Adobe Rent a Car, offers a complimentary shuttle for their clients. They pick them up at the airport and take them to their office to complete paperwork and pick up the car. And it works for the return as well: clients return the car to their airport office and Adobe shuttles them for free to the airport.
At the San Jose Airport, clients who have a flight at an odd hour can leave the car in the parking lot with the keys in the glovebox.
Gas and mileage
Some companies have an option to choose for prepaid gas. Adobe doesn’t. Clients can fill up before returning the car or the clients can return it empty and Adobe will charge accordingly. Read about how to get gas in Costa Rica here.
Most car rental vehicles in Costa Rica are gasoline engines. There are only a few that are diesel so make sure to check so you know which one to fill up with.
There may also be restrictions on mileage (Costa Rica uses kilometers but it is the same). Hertz Costa Rica has a limit of 200 kilometers a day for rentals under 3 days. Adobe has unlimited for all rentals under 30 days.
Now you get to decide if you want any extras. Common extras are GPS, Wi-fi hot spot, baby/booster seats, cell phone, cooler and surf racks. Prices vary so take that into consideration. Alamo charges $11.99 a day for GPS and Hertz charges $14 a day.
With Adobe, our deal gives readers 33% off GPS (originally $9 a day), free baby and booster seats, free local cell phone (1 hour credit for calls and texts), free cooler (if available) and free surf racks. We also have a Wi-fi deal that if you rent for more than 10 days, you only pay for the first ten days.
For extras, we usually recommend the Wi-Fi hot spot. You can connect up to 6 devices on it and it has unlimited data. Super useful because you’ll always have Internet on your phone so you can use it for GPS, email, etc.
What Kind of Car Should You Rent in Costa Rica?
The type of car you rent in Costa Rica will depend on your itinerary and the size of your group. Here are some common cars.
- Full size 7 pax SUV’s: Mitsubishi Montero Sport, Toyota Prado, Ford Explorer or Hyundai Santa Fe.
- Mid size/Compact SUV’s 5 pax: Suzuki Jimny, Toyota Rav4, Nissan Rogue, Kia Sportage, Daihatsu Bego (now is Toyota Rush), Mitsubishi ASX, Ssang Yang Korando and Hyundai Tucson/Creta.
- Sedan or compacts 4 pax: Hyundai Accent Blue, Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Yaris, Hyundai i10, Hyundai Gran i10.
- Minivan: Hyundai H1 9/12 pax.
Want more information? We took videos and pictures of cars to rent in Costa Rica here.
Automatic vs Manual
Manual cars are the standard in Costa Rica and are cheaper. Make sure the car you rent is an automatic if you can’t drive manual.
Also note that you will need to be a confident and proficient manual driver due to the infrastructure in Costa Rica. We have a lot of steep and curvy hills, potholes and unpaved roads. We do have nice highways but many places have unpaved roads and steep hills, especially rural and remote places so if you think you won’t feel comfortable driving manual in a foreign country, don’t.
Only rent a manual if you are a comfortable and have experience driving on those kinds of roads. Otherwise, it will be worth paying a little bit more for an automatic.
Car and Engine Size
Another thing to think about is the engine size. Although the US likes things BIG and think that bigger is better, it’s not so in many countries in the world!
So you need to know that engine sizes in Costa Rica are smaller than the US. A sedan in Costa Rica normally has a 1.6 L, 4 cylinders engines. SUV’s are typically 2 L, 4 cylinders engines. There are also full size SUVs with diesel engines that are 2.4 L – 3 L.
If you want a bigger engine like a V6 or V8, it will be much more expensive since Costa Rica prefers small engine cars. Cars with big engines are considered premium or luxury so be prepared to pay more if you want to rent an automatic, V6-V8 engine, American car.
Something you need to note is that even though your entire group of 4 plus luggage fits in the sedan, it may have trouble going up a hill due to the engine size so make sure you rent a car that is suitable for your routes.
When looking for which car to rent, make sure to ask the car rental agency about the age of the car. If you notice a company with cheap total rates, check the year of the car. Some companies that have cheap car rentals in Costa Rica use old cars (5 years or more). You will need to take that into consideration because of the rough roads here.
Adobe changes cars every 2 years or when they hit 100,000 kilometers (around 62,000 miles). However, some car rental agencies who offer very cheap rates have cars that may be 3, 5, even 7 years old and with 300,000 kilometers or more (around 185,000 miles). All those cars have been driven on unpaved, gravel roads or maybe have gotten into multiple accidents. The condition of a 5 year old rental car isn’t the same as a 1 year old rental car in Costa Rica!
Is a 4×4 necessary in Costa Rica?
A 4×4, 4wd or high car is necessary in some places in Costa Rica. Here are some examples.
- Guanacaste to Arenal: 4×4 not necessary. See the Guanacaste to Arenal route here.
- Monteverde: High car highly recommended. Monteverde roads are unpaved.
- Puerto Viejo: 4×4 not necessary. The road to and around Puerto Viejo is paved.
- Uvita: High car highly recommended. Only the main highway, Route 34 is paved.
- Osa Peninsula: 4×4 necessary. The main road to Puerto Jimenez is paved but ends once you get to town. The road to Carate/Matapalo is unpaved and has a ton of holes. Drake Bay is even worse. It’s not recommended to drive there in rainy season since you have to cross some high rivers.
Important Things to Know About Costa Rica Car Rentals
- If you get a ticket, pay it when you drop off the car. There is a law that can prohibit you from exiting the country if you don’t.
- You cannot take rental vehicles from Costa Rica across the border.
- If you have car rental points, they might not work in Costa Rica.
- Make sure you keep the contract and car documents (registration). Don’t lose the car registration documents, you may pay a fine if you do.
- If you get into an accident, report it to the car rental company ASAP. You will run into trouble with the rental company if you do not.
- Damage from driving through rivers or any body of water is not covered by any type of insurance. Same with driving under the influence.
- Take part in the inspection. Take pictures and tell them if you see any scratches, dents, or nicks.
- It is the law to wear seatbelts in Costa Rica, front and back seats.
- Costa Rica has specific laws regarding car seats. Make sure you check on them to make the appropriate arrangements.
Phew! With all that being said, you can see why I recommend renting a car in Costa Rica. Additionally, this Costa Rica car rental guide tells you everything you need to know about it. To be honest, renting a car in Costa Rica created one of the most memorable trips for my family and friends. Definitely one that they would have never been able to experience otherwise!
The Mytanfeet Costa Rica Car Rental Discount
We’re very pleased to share that we partnered up with Adobe Rent a Car to give our readers an exclusive Costa Rica car rental discount, saving up to 20% on the car rental.
“Why Adobe?” you may ask. When it comes to reputable Costa Rica car rental companies, Adobe Rent a Car is the leader. They are a 100% Costa Rican company with the largest fleet of cars that are no less than 2 years old.
We also offer these extra benefits: 2 free drivers, 0% deductible on Liability Protection insurance, road assistance on all reservations, a free cell phone with 1 hour of credit, free baby and booster seats, free surf racks and 33% off GPS, WiFi deal, free car delivery and pick up and a $500 deposit on rental that includes the extended protection.
Book a car, have a trip of a lifetime and save money while doing it!
Costa Rica Car Rental Discount Video
You can read about our experience with Adobe Rent a Car and why we recommend them.
If our renting a car in Costa Rica article was helpful, feel free to pass it along. Our goal is to give the best information and help our readers out as much as possible!