In this post, “costly mistakes to avoid traveling in Costa Rica” we’ll share with you some of the top things you need to prepare for your trip to Costa Rica for a stress free vacation. We’ve made some of these ourselves so we know first hand the consequences! So our goal with this post is to help you travel smart and travel safe.
Here are our mistakes to avoid traveling in Costa Rica. Post updated April 21, 2020.
**Please check our Costa Rica COVID-19 post for latest information.**
Booking your flight to San Jose, California instead of San Jose, Costa Rica
Please triple check before purchasing your flight ticket that you are flying into San Jose, Costa Rica and NOT San Jose, California! Sadly we have met many people who made this mistake and it ruined their entire vacation and lost them tons of money. You do NOT want to be getting super excited for your vacation to Costa Rica and preparing your luggage only to find out two weeks before you leave that you booked a flight to San Jose, California!
The San Jose International Airport code is SJO and there is an airport in San Jose, California whose airport code is SJC. Make sure to look for the SJO airport code and double check it is either San Jose International Airport or Juan Santamaria International Airport (the official name of the SJO airport).
There is also an airport in Puerto Rico whose airport code is SJU. Don’t purchase a flight to that airport either!
Assuming Costa Rica is cheap
Sorry to burst your bubble but Costa Rica isn’t a very cheap country to visit. We have had some people complain how expensive it is compared to Southeast Asia and I’m a little confused as to how they can make this comparison since both places are so different!
Just because Costa Rica is in Central America doesn’t mean it’s super cheap. Costa Rica’s prices are similar to North America for many things! However there is a range of prices so you can still travel on a budget. You can find tours that cost from $50-250 USD a person and hotels that cost from $10 USD a bed to $900 USD a suite a night!
Make sure to read our cost of traveling in Costa Rica post and a one week in Costa Rica budget estimate to get an idea. If you’re on a budget, find out how to save money on your Costa Rica vacation here.
Not adding extra time to driving times
If you’re renting a car in Costa Rica, make sure that when it comes to driving times, don’t always take what the GPS tells you for driving times as exact. We always tell people to add at least 30 minutes to 1 hour to the estimated Google Maps driving time because driving in Costa Rica is not that straightforward or easy!
For those who have never driven internationally or rural roads, you may end up driving very slowly, especially on the curvy and narrow routes (like Guanacaste to Arenal around Lake Arenal or Route 145 to Monteverde) so that will add a lot more time. Then you have those big and very slow trucks that cause congestion because most roads (even main roads and highways) have only one lane making it impossible to pass. So if you get stuck behind these trucks, that will prolong your driving time greatly.
Our driving tip: Use a GPS for driving in Costa Rica. The Waze app is particularly good and is the preferred GPS app for Costa Ricans. It’s especially useful in San Jose since Waze can take you on an alternative route to avoid the traffic jams. Google Maps works too for main destinations.
Not researching car rentals
To elaborate on the point above, if you do plan on renting a car in Costa Rica for your vacation, make sure you do your research because there are some very important things to know about car rentals in Costa Rica.
First, you will want to research beforehand to comparison shop and to learn about how Costa Rican car rental insurances and prices work. Every company has their own way of pricing and you don’t want to get caught in the “car rental scam” here. This is when the company only displays the rate for the car rental, omitting all insurances, fees and taxes to make it look super cheap. Then they add all those extra fees, taxes and insurances on when you go to pick up the car so it turns out to be way more expensive. This is a common practice from third party websites or brokers.
So before you book your car, ask the company about ALL the insurances, deposits, taxes, fees and everything you need to pay for so you know the exact total amount of your rental. And if you plan to use your credit card’s car rental insurance, be sure to prepare everything you need for that!
PS. we work with Adobe Rent a Car to give discounts and freebies to our readers, they’re an all-inclusive 100% Costa Rican car rental company so you know exactly what you’re paying. Get more information on this page here!
Not looking up bus schedules…
…especially if you’re on a tight schedule. The bus is cheap but it takes much longer so you’ll have to sacrifice either time or money. If you want to make the most of a short trip to Costa Rica, then taking the bus may not the best idea.
It is pertinent to look up the bus schedule to get a general idea of how your day will go. There aren’t direct buses for many routes, even to touristic destinations. You will normally need to change buses at least 2 times. 3-4 times is not uncommon for long routes like La Fortuna to Manuel Antonio. Additionally, buses have limited routes so you need to plan accordingly so you don’t miss the bus and have to wait hours (or even a day) until the next one.
We’ve met travelers who didn’t bother to look up the schedule, assuming there would be plenty of routes to a certain destination, only to find out there was just one bus a day and had to change their whole schedule.
Read our tips for taking public transportation and take note of the Instituto de Turismo’s bus itinerary in the post. Don’t forget to join the Costa Rica by Bus Facebook group and use bus apps like Moovit.
Our tip for taking the bus in Costa Rica: Arrive at least 30 minutes before the scheduled time. Arrive at least 1 hour before if you are traveling on the weekends, holidays or December – April. Purchase your country wide bus ticket the day before (routes like San Jose – Tamarindo, Playas del Coco – San Jose, Puerto Viejo – San Jose).
Not booking hotels during peak season/Not booking car rentals during high season
This one is a very common mistake. Some tourists come thinking they can find a place when they get here. This may work in months like September or October but not during high season. Costa Rica’s high season is December through April and the busiest and most expensive times are Christmas, New Years and Easter week. July is also incredibly busy. Car rentals and hotel rooms book up very fast during those times, so make sure you start looking around at least 2-3 months before your trip.
Although there are a handful of car rental companies, most of the fleets are small and it is never guaranteed that you will get a car if you don’t reserve one, especially in high season. We have met many travelers visited in February who discovered that the public transportation isn’t quite as efficient as they thought and decide to rent a car. Unfortunately, no cars are available (or only the luxury very $$$$ cars were) because well, it is high season and everything’s booked.
If there is a hotel you really want to stay at, book it as soon as you can. Many small boutique hotels or luxury vacation rentals book out months, even years in advance for Christmas time! We also know people who started planning their trip at the end of January and found only 1 hotel with rooms available for their dates in March in Tamarindo. And it was not a cheap hotel.
We have personally made this mistake. We didn’t book a hotel in La Fortuna in July in advance and the only one within our budget that had availability was one in town that was not quite what we wanted. But it was our fault as we waited until the week before to look for a hotel 🙁
So if you are visiting during holidays or high season in Costa Rica, book your car rental and hotels months beforehand. Read our Costa Rica trip planning timeline for more information.
Trying to go to too many places
Costa Rica is a small country so when you look at it on a map, you think, “Wow I can go everywhere!” Unfortunately, things aren’t what they always appear to be and this is a huge mistake people make.
Though small in size, main destinations are far apart and usually require an entire day dedicated to travel. It’s super common to drive 3-5 hours to get from one place to the next (for example, Puerto Viejo to La Fortuna, Samara to Monteverde, San Jose to Manuel Antonio). It’s not fun cramming 10 places in a 2 week trip. You will burn yourself out and not really get to experience a destination if you only spend 1 day there, 1 day here.
Take a look at this 2 week Costa Rica itinerary we made for my brother and friends. We visited 4 destinations over a span of 14 days, allowing us to experience the rain forest, cloud forest, volcano and two different beach towns. Sure, I could have cut it down to only 2 days in each place and added more destinations, but we would have felt really rushed and wouldn’t have been able to get a well-rounded experience.
If you need ideas for the best places to visit, here is our list of the top destinations for first time visitors to Costa Rica.
Not telling your credit card company you’re traveling overseas
Definitely do not make this mistake traveling in Costa Rica or anywhere abroad! I went on a tour to Nicaragua and was delayed for an hour because one couple forgot to tell their credit card company they were traveling overseas and couldn’t withdraw cash from the ATM as their card got blocked. They ended up not being able to go to the tour for this reason.
If you get blocked out of credit card, that will be a big hassle until you can contact your company. Something to know is that Costa Rica accepts USD so you don’t need to exchange your money into local currency before hand, but do make the necessary arrangements to use your credit or debit card if you plan to.
Learn more about how to handle money in Costa Rica in this post.
Travel tip: Credit cards are readily accepted in Costa Rica but there are some areas where cash is king. These are Osa Peninsula, Tortuguero, Drake Bay, Samara, Montezuma and Santa Teresa. Some businesses in places like Coco, Tamarindo and Puerto Viejo may only accept cash. Make sure to ask the waiter before you sit down!
Leaving your valuables visible in your car
This is one of the first things we tell visitors when it comes to safety in Costa Rica. Unfortunately Costa Rica isn’t a country where you can leave your backpack or purse unattended in plain sight so you should never ever leave valuables visible in your car.
Yeison and I always take our belongings or most prized possessions with us. If we absolutely have to leave things in the car when we go to the market or eat at a restaurant, we park it where we can see it all the time.
We’ve met travelers who left all their backpacks and suitcases in plain sight on the backseat of the car, went to the beach and came back to find out their car had been burglarized. And it only takes a minute for thieves to get in and out so please take this seriously and do not make this mistake, especially if you plan to visit more remote places.
This is also why we recommend getting travel insurance, just in case your items do get stolen or damaged. You can read our post on Costa Rica travel insurance to find out more.
Taking out all your money of your wallet
Nothing attracts thieves more than when tourists are paying for something and they take out all the cash in their wallet to count their money. Take out only what you need.
By flashing 100 dollar bills or a wad of 50,000 colones, you’re letting everyone around you know that you got a lot of cash on you. And unfortunately, it could make you the next target.
Read about some common scams in Costa Rica and how to avoid them.
Only traveling to Costa Rica in the dry season
Costa Rica, as a tropical country, has wonderful weather which is why many people visit when it’s winter up north. Average temperatures don’t vary too much year round and during the dry season (December – April), the tropical summer is an awesome escape from winter. Due to the great weather during the dry season, it is the busiest time of year to visit Costa Rica.
However, it can be very crowded and it is expensive. Popular destinations like Manuel Antonio can feel a bit like Disneyland with huge crowds and long lines. Surfing in Tamarindo is like riding the subway in Tokyo with tons of people trying to stuff themselves onto one wave. Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula mountains turn yellow and are very dry, like a desert.
This is why it’s a mistake to ONLY travel to Costa Rica in the dry season. We know visitors want to escape the cold winter days at home but rainy season in Costa Rica is magical. Yes, it does mean you need to plan your trip more carefully and you may get rained on, but you will be rewarded with smaller crowds, cheaper prices and a very tropical, jungle experience.
You can read more about Costa Rica rainy season here.
Our personal favorite time in Costa Rica are the shoulder months like May, June and November. WAY fewer people and more lush. And we don’t mind the rain! (But if you don’t want any rain, then the best times are December – April and October for the Caribbean).
Only staying in the resort
We know that for some people, going on vacation means staying at a resort and many people who visit Costa Rica do just that, which isn’t a bad thing. We love to pamper ourselves too, going to nice restaurants and laying by the pool with a drink in hand. Who am I to tell you what you do with your money on vacation? And hey, you worked hard, saving up money for vacation and you just want an escape from the stress of daily life.
However, we highly recommend to spend some time outside the property to experience Costa Rica beyond the resort. Book a day trip or two, check out the local town, go to a typical restaurant, rent a car for a day and drive around. Of course get your pool time in and your money’s worth but venture outside at least a few times. There’s so much to see in Costa Rica that it would be a shame if all you saw was the pool and breakfast buffet everyday!
Also, you don’t have to stay at a resort your entire time in Costa Rica. You can spoil yourself with 1 or 2 nights and then spend the rest of your days exploring the country to have a well rounded vacation.
Not putting on sunscreen
It sounds like common sense but you won’t believe how many tourists get extremely burned here on their first day. Nothing is worse than getting a horrible sun burn your first day on vacation. The sun is very strong here so make sure you use ample sunscreen. I know most people want to get a tan, but trust me you will even with sunscreen on. It’s about protecting your skin and not getting 2nd degree burns on vacation!
Fun fact: locals like to call the gumbo-limbo tree in Costa Rica the “tourist tree” because the bark is bright red and peels, like the skin of sun burnt tourists. It’s not a good look, so make sure you use lots of sunscreen.
Costa Rica is only 8-12 degrees above the equator so even if you grew up in Southern California or Florida, it is pertinent to put on sunscreen. We recommend SPF 30 and higher and make sure to apply constantly.
If you plan to go swimming, surfing or in the ocean, please use reef safe sunscreen or wear a rash guard.
Not bringing appropriate gear and clothing for rainy season
We’re sadly guilty of this one. We put our brand new camera in a not-so-waterproof backpack and hiked to Cerro Chato in a thunderstorm. Surprise surprise, our camera didn’t survive. If we had used an actual waterproof backpack, we would have saved our camera and an extra $500 USD. Thank goodness it wasn’t a terribly expensive camera, can you imagine if it was your high end DSLR? Not good at all!
Visitors underestimate Costa Rica’s rainy season because it’s a tropical country so they assume it’s sunny all year long. Wrong. Read up about the weather in Costa Rica before you plan your trip so you pack accordingly. Need some tips? Check out our packing for rainy season post.
Visitors also assume that it’s really hot everywhere in the country which isn’t true either. Costa Rica is very mountainous and the areas in high elevation get cold, especially in rainy season. You will actually need long pants, a sweater and shirts for those places! These are places like Monteverde, San Isidro de General, Vara Blanca and Poas. I forgot my sweater in Monteverde once and had to buy an overpriced jacket so don’t make the same mistake as me.
Not Double Checking Your Destinations
In Costa Rica, you will find some places have the exact same name. This can be very confusing to visitors so you need to make sure to double check your destinations and itinerary.
For example, to my knowledge, there are 4 beaches called “Playa Hermosa” in Costa Rica. Playa Hermosa in Guanacaste, Playa Hermosa in Santa Teresa, Playa Hermosa in Uvita and Playa Hermosa by Jaco. The one in Guanacaste and by Jaco are two very popular tourist destinations and we know people who got them mixed up! There is even a crater inside Irazu Volcano called Playa Hermosa so you can see Costa Rica really enjoys using the same names for places!
There are also two Playa Negras to my knowledge. Playa Negra in Guanacaste and Playa Negra in Limon. And if you’re staying in San Isidro del General (Perez Zeledon), some people may refer to it as just San Isidro. But there are many San Isidro’s in Costa Rica – we used to live in San Isidro de Heredia and there is also San Isidro de Alajuela, San Isidro de Coronado, San Isidro de Nicoya and others. San Isidro is a common name for districts and cantons in Costa Rica. Don’t forget Puerto Viejo. There is a Puerto Viejo de Talamanca in Limon province and a Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui. And a Puerto Viejo beach in Guanacaste!
So as you can see, it is very important to double check your destinations in Costa Rica so you know where you are going! This is one of the most important mistakes to avoid traveling in Costa Rica, you don’t want to book everything for Playa Hermosa in Guanacaste to find out you meant Playa Hermosa near Jaco!
Travel Smart and Safe in Costa Rica
These are some of the best travel tips for Costa Rica you’ll need so avoid these mistakes when traveling in Costa Rica to have a fun, hassle free vacation. As you can see, many of these mistakes cost you time or money, so do your research and make the appropriate travel arrangements! Plan ahead, travel smart and stay safe.