Renting a Car in Costa Rica
February 25th, 2016 Update – We have a special offer just for you! Check the end of the post for more details*
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- 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 Costa Rica. 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!
Reasons not to rent
There are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to renting a car.
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.
Roads conditions are also not in the best conditions once you get outside the city and most of the time require a 4X4. Be prepared for some bumpy rides!
I’m always very careful when it comes to recommending visitors to drive in Costa Rica. However if you’ve been here before or are used to that kind of driving, then renting a car should be at the top of your list of things to consider for your trip to Costa Rica.
One of Our Personal Experiences With Renting a Car in Costa Rica
When my brother came to Costa Rica last year, renting a car was one thing they were sure they wanted to do. Coming with another couple, 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 crossed several rivers. You can definitely say we did a good bit of exploring the jungle in our car!
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, La Paz and the Caribbean. If Ford Everest isn’t available, you can also get Mitsubishi Montero which fits up to 7 people.
If you aren’t coming with that many people and don’t need that big of a car, some recommendations are Suzuki Jimny, Suzuki SX4 and Hyundai Tucson. These are also ideal for families, with young ones and teens.
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 well 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 video you can see the roads here.
From San Jose to Limon, we took a 4 door sedan. This road is nicely paved. There are some places in Limon around Puerto Viejo where we went where the roads are not paved but they are not so terrible you have to have a 4X4. It is useful just in case you do plan on going exploring and off the main path though.
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 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.
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
- 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 is usually $250-1000
- 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
- All car rentals require you to get the most basic insurance. Please talk to the car rental company about this first and be very clear on what this entails. Read Yeison’s post on Costa Rica car rental insurance to find out more.
- 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
- 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. One minute late and you’ll get charged for another day.
- 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.
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.
Yeison just published 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 be able to extend 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 a free second driver, a free cell phone with 1 hour of credit, free baby and booster seats, a discount on Wi-Fi hot spot 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!
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