March 1st, 2018 Update – We have a special and exclusive offer just for you! Check the end of the post for more details*
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 advice for renting a car in Costa Rica 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.
As a foreigner from the US, 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. We will 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.
Renting a Car in Costa Rica Advice
- Why rent?
- Reasons not to rent
- Our personal experiences
- What kind of car should you rent?
- Is a 4×4 necessary?
- Cost of Costa Rica car rental
- Tips for renting
- Important things to know
- Recommended companies plus our special offer (DISCOUNT!)
Why rent a car in Costa Rica?
Renting a car in Costa Rica is 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, 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 or if you don’t have much time.
By renting a car in Costa Rica, 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 a car in Costa Rica
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.
- 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 extreme tailgate and pass even when it’s not allowed and many places don’t have accurate road signs (if they even have any!).
I’m always very careful when it comes to recommending visitors to drive in Costa Rica. If the thought of driving in a foreign country gives you anxiety or stress, then you will probably prefer to book shuttles. 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, renting a car was one thing they were sure they wanted to do. We wanted the flexibility and comfort of a car as there were 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.
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 and we did a good bit of exploring the jungle in our car!
We’ve also rented a car when my two friends came to visit and we had a great time in Jaco and driving to Coco. It was much more comfortable, practical and efficient and I was able to take them to some of our favorite hidden view points and beaches! We wouldn’t have been able to do that without a car.
What kind of car should you rent in Costa Rica?
This will depend on where you are going in Costa Rica. Contrary to popular belief, Costa Rica does indeed have paved roads and highway. Most of the main touristic destinations have paved roads such as Tamarindo, La Fortuna, Puerto Viejo, San Jose, Manuel Antonio and Coco.
But there are also many other destinations that require a high car or 4×4 such as Santa Teresa, 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, these are all full size SUVs that fit up to 7 passengers.
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, Ssangyang Tivoli and Hyundai Tucson/Creta. These are also ideal for small families or couples.
If you 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, you can even get a Hyunda Gran i10. We traveled in both cars before with another couple and it fit all four of us and our luggage comfortably.
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 to rent in Costa Rica that you can check out here.
Is a 4×4 necessary in Costa Rica?
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 Guanacaste to Arenal route you can see here.
- To Monteverde: The Monteverde road (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 and we also drove there with aFord Everest.
- From San Jose to Puerto Viejo, we took a 4 door sedan. This road is nicely paved and the main road on the coast through Puerto Viejo to Manzanillo is paved.
- From San Jose to Dominical we took a Hyundai Galloper. The road to Dominical called the Costanera Sur is well paved and wide. Dominical town itself does not have paved roads, some restaurants and hotels are high up in the mountains on steep unpaved roads and the road to the beaches are not paved making it necessary to get a 4X4.
- Around the Central Valley: 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.
- Osa Peninsula: 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.
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 in this post “Driving around Costa Rica“. We also have a detailed guide to the Costa Rica road conditions for popular routes and destinations with photos and videos.
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 you choose to get and time of year you are visiting.
The most expensive time of year to visit Costa Rica is during our high tourism season which is December – end of April. Christmas, New Years and Semana Santa (easter week) will be even more expensive as those are our peak season months. Expect to pay around $90 a day for a mid size SUV like a Hyundai Tucson automatic with mandatory insurance. If you are visiting during these times of the year, make sure to book your car rental at least one month before because they go fast!
The cheapest car rentals are during our low seasons months such as June, September, October, November and beginning of December. A Hyundai Tucson automatic in October is around $50-60 a day with mandatory insurance.
I rented a Hyundai Accent automatic for one week in September and paid $350 with full insurance (full insurance is around $18 a day extra). Automatic cars cost more to rent in Costa Rica so if you can drive a manual and want to save some money, rent a manual car instead.
Extra 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 a 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. Debit cards are not normally accepted and if they are, it will take at least 30-60 days for the deposit to be returned.
- 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 and no insurance options, 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 need an official letter from your credit card company which you probably can’t get because 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.
- 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 Costa Rica car rental discount!
- Bring a Spanish phrasebook or download our free learn how to speak Spanish 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 About Costa Rica Car Rentals
- 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. Report it 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.
Overview (plus our Costa Rica car rental discount)
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.
When it comes to reputable Costa Rica car rental companies, Adobe Rent a Car is a 100% Costa Rican company and leader in the car rental business. They have the largest fleet with cars that are no less than 2 years old.
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 and with 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!
Watch our video to learn more about the Costa Rica car rental discount.
You can read about our experience with Adobe Rent a Car and why we recommend them.
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