Planning a vacation takes a lot of time, especially for families or big groups. You have to find a way to make everyone happy and if you haven’t traveled internationally before, Costa Rica trip planning can feel incredibly overwhelming. Even if you’re only visiting for a short vacation, you want to make sure you make the most out of it and get the best value.
Although you can find tons of Costa Rica travel tips on this blog, it’s helpful to have a timeline to organize yourself rather than jumping around and getting yourself confused. I know all too well what that’s like too. You start looking at all these amazing places, save them to your list and then have no idea where to start!
In this article, our Costa Rica trip planning timeline will help you decide how far in advance you need to book tickets, activities, hotels and all the details. So let’s get started!
Post updated April 23, 2020.
Helpful Costa Rica Trip Planning Timeline
This article is for those who are planning their own trip, not a tour package or surf camp/retreat. If you are booking tour packages, all this will be done for you as the companies have set itineraries. You just need to get your flights. This is an easy way to travel and many people like booking packages.
But if you prefer to travel on your own, in this timeline, you’ll find out what you should start planning 12 months out, 6 months out, 4 months and so on. This is a general guideline for stress free planning. I am the type of person who hates leaving things to the last minute and like to plan well ahead of time so I know where I’m going and what I’m doing on.
If you have a year in advance to plan, take this time to decide when to visit Costa Rica if you have the flexibility. You can read this post on the best time to visit Costa Rica for ideas.
You can start peeking at flights at this time. According to Skyscanner, the best time to book international flights from the US is 5-6 months out. An additional survey from CheapAir also says the best time to purchase tickets to Central America are 70 days out and the prime booking window is 2 weeks to 6 months out. That’s a pretty big window so I highly recommend to at least start looking at least 6 months out.
It will depend on what month you are planning to visit Costa Rica however. If you are planning to visit during Christmas/New Years, it is best to purchase them stat as December is the most expensive month and it will only get more expensive the closer the date is!
You will also need to decide which airport to fly into: San Jose International Airport or Liberia International Airport. Make sure to check prices for both international airports in Costa Rica and set flight alerts for both because it is normally more expensive to fly into Liberia than San Jose. I’ll talk more about the airports in a bit.
Tips for booking cheap flights to Costa Rica
I am no flight expert but here are my tips.
- Set up flight alerts with Google Flights, Momondo and Skyscanner (my three favorite websites for flights). If you’re flexible, fly on weekdays instead of the weekend.
- Add a stopover (long layover) which is cheaper. For example, when my friends from Seattle came to visit, they chose an itinerary with a extra long layover in LA (14 hours). That flight was cheaper and they got to visit their friends in LA. Direct flights are more expensive.
- If you’re flying from Europe, make sure to check the airlines since some airlines (like KLM) only fly on certain days of the week to Costa Rica. Try to be flexible and book a stopover or flight with a long layover.
- Book basic economy seats which are the cheapest option. There are limitations though like no seat choice at all, board last, etc. but it is much cheaper. We booked a roundtrip Seattle – Liberia flight beginning of December for $500 USD per person on basic economy with Alaska Airlines.
Our Favorite Flight Hacking Tips
Sign up to flight hacking websites. Dollar Flight Club and Scott’s Cheap Flights are two I personally use to find cheap flights. They post error fares and last minute cheap tickets. You can designate your departure region/airport and places you want to go and they’ll email you with cheap flights when they find one. I used them to buy cheap tickets to Iceland, Madrid, Hawaii and from Costa Rica to Seattle! You can read more tips in my finding cheap flights to Costa Rica post here.
My next best tip? Get a travel credit card to rack up points to use for flights and hotels. I have the Chase Sapphire credit card which I absolutely love! You get 60,000 points when you spend $4000 USD from initial account opening, 2x points on travel and dining and they also offer travel insurance for rental cars and trip delays. You can redeem the points to pay for flights, hotels, etc. If you travel often or plan to travel more, a travel credit card is an absolute must,
What else you should be doing for your Costa Rica trip planning
You can start looking on the Internet for ideas and articles or buying travel guides like Lonely Planet. I personally love using Pinterest for travel ideas.
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Someone recommended I post more about the regions of Costa Rica so I’m going to start posting mini destination posts! For the first destination, I present to you LA FORTUNA! *********************************************************** La Fortuna is one of the most touristic destinations in Costa Rica, having received over a million tourists in the last year. It’s a small town in the Northern Lowlands that is famous for adventure, nature, relaxation, agriculture, wildlife and the active Arenal Volcano 🌋 ********************************************************** It is a 3.5 hour drive from both San Jose and Liberia International Airports on well paved roads and is a MUST visit for first timers. It has excellent infrastructure that is well set up for tourists with a plethora of restaurants and accommodation options ranging from cheap hostel beds to luxury resorts. ******************************************************* The surrounding rainforests, Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal create the ultimate adventure playground with some of the best outdoor activities in the country such as ziplining, waterfall rappelling, safari floats, mountain biking, kayaking, stand up paddle boarding and much more! For relaxation, the hot springs in La Fortuna are unlike any other in the country. ********************************************* It is also a haven for nature and wildlife lover. Visitors can see toucans, sloths, monkeys, iguanas, frogs, snakes and all sorts of amazing animals in the area 🐵 🦥🐸🐍 For these reasons, every traveler will love La Fortuna and it’s perfect for everyone, especially families! We have been to La Fortuna over 15 times and we always have a great time!
This will help to decide which airport you should fly into. Liberia is better for Guanacaste, the Northern Lowlands and Nicoya Peninsula whereas San Jose is is closer to the Central and South Pacific, Caribbean Coast and Central Valley.
Just a quick breakdown regarding airports: Fly into Liberia airport in the Guanacaste province if you want to go to Playas del Coco, La Cruz, Liberia, Nuevo Arenal, Rincon de la Vieja, Tamarindo, Conchal, Gulf of Papagayo, Flamingo, Brasilito, Potrero, Grande, Avellanas, Junquillal, Negra, Nosara, Samara, Ostional, Nicoya, Las Catalinas and Bijagua.
Fly into San Jose Airport in the Alajuela province if you want to go to the Caribbean coast (Tortuguero and Puerto Viejo), Puntarenas, Jaco, Manuel Antonio, Dominical, San Isidro del General (Perez Zeledon), Uvita, Ojochal, Puerto Jimenez, Drake Bay, Golfito, Turrialba, San Jose, Heredia, Alajuela, Cartago, San Ramon, Grecia, Atenas, San Vito, Sarapiqui, Bajos del Toro.
You can fly into either San Jose or Liberia Airport if your first destination is La Fortuna, Monteverde, Montezuma or Santa Teresa. They are about the same travel time from both airports. You can also fly into one airport and fly out the other.
At this point, you should hopefully have your flights, at least if you are visiting in the Christmas season. If you are visiting during the low tourism months like May, June, September – November, you can wait a bit and keep checking prices.
If you are visiting during peak season, I also recommend to start looking for accommodation. Hotels during Christmas and New Years go fast and they are much more expensive. Some boutique hotels get booked out a year in advance during Christmas!
Narrow down your places of interests to start outlining a rough itinerary. Can’t decide where to go yet? Check out our best places in Costa Rica for first time visitors post for ideas. You can check our Costa Rica itineraries for sample itineraries with hotel and activities recommendations, driving routes, maps and more.
Secondly, you should start looking at car rentals especially if you are visiting end of June, July and December – April. Car rental companies run out of availability very quickly during these times of year. If you look last minute, usually all that is left are premium cars. Car rental companies jack up the prices if they only have a few cars left. If you are visiting during Christmas/New Years, you need to start booking at least 3 months in advance.
I really don’t recommend booking upon arrival either as that usually is more expensive. Additionally, you need to do research on car rentals regarding insurances and taxes so you don’t get hit with an ugly surprise (hidden fees/taxes/insurance).
Here are articles on renting a car that will help
And we have a Costa Rica car rental discount to save money and get extra benefits.
If you’re not sure how you’re going to get around…
If you don’t know if you want to rent a car yet, then you’ll want to decide soon for the reasons I mentioned above. Shared shuttles only have a certain number of spots available and it’s always first come first serve. You don’t want to get stuck with no car and no shuttles! Same for domestic flights and airports.. Although there are several local airlines, each plane can only hold a handful of people. Furthermore, there may only be 1 or 2 scheduled flights a day.
Here are our transportation articles:
You don’t need to be in too big of a rush if you’re visiting in the off season. These are months like May, beginning of June, September, October and November. Those are slow travel seasons so you don’t need to book everything asap. I would book those at least a few weeks ago.
You should have your itinerary somewhat solid at this point. You know where you’re going, how many days you’re staying and how you’re getting around.
Additionally, you should also have booked your hotels, cars and shuttles or at least start booking them. Now you can start planning your daily itinerary.
As for tours, popular activities like private snorkeling tours, whale watching and fishing charters book up quickly during high season. Some places like Tabacon hot springs and Mistico Hanging Bridges require paid reservations. If there are any activities you absolutely have to do, definitely book those in advance to save your spot.
It’s better to pre-book those tours rather than scrambling last minute to find a company who still has space, who may not be the best company or offer the best price. Furthermore, there are some places in Costa Rica that require pre-bookings such as Corcovado National Park and Poas Volcano National Park.
If you are visiting in rainy season, you can wait until you get to Costa Rica to see how the weather is before booking your tour. Since it’s not as busy as high season, you don’t really need to worry about places getting completely booked up. However, if you visit in end of June, July and beginning of August, we do recommend to pre-book. That is a busy time for when Americans, Canadians and Europeans come down for summer vacation. May, beginning of June, September – November are much less crowded.
PS. We have several discounts on tours you can check here! Costa Rica tours promos.
Your itinerary should be solid with activities and hotels booked, schedules (how long a drive is, what time to leave, etc.) and all transportation ready.
You should start figuring out what to pack and picking up necessary items like sunscreen and mosquito repellent. If you’re visiting in rainy season, we highly recommend to bring a waterproof backpack and rain jacket. You can read our Costa Rica packing list for tips.
Also print or screenshot all your reservations, make color copies of your passport, leave your itinerary with a family member and reconfirm your bookings with your hotel, tour operators and transportation companies. For communication, make arrangements to get an international data plan on your phone with your home carrier or find out how to buy a prepaid SIM card in Costa Rica. Check routes and road conditions to your hotels, especially if you are visiting in rainy season. If you want to check weather, we recommend to check geotags on Facebook and Instagram so you can see recent photos of current visitors.
Costa Rica Trip Planning Summary
To sum up, if you are visiting during Christmas and New Years, book hotels, tours and car rentals as soon as you can. Do not wait until last minute! So many times we’ve had readers who emailed us beginning of December asking to help them find a car for Christmas! Unfortunately it was not possible as the only cars left were the expensive premium cars. We’ve also had many readers ask us for help booking tours since all the companies were full during the New Year holiday. This is one of the mistakes you want to avoid when traveling in Costa Rica.
If you’re visiting February, March, April, July or August, book car rentals, hotels and tours at least one month out. Those are very busy times as well. We made the mistake of waiting until last minute to book hotels in La Fortuna in July when my parents came to visit. Nearly everywhere was full or super expensive! We managed to find a standard hotel in downtown which wasn’t exactly what we wanted.
You don’t need to book everything asap if you’re visiting in the off season (rainy season). You can start looking around a couple weeks to a month out.
Don’t try to book too many activities and try to aim for one big activity a day. For big groups, families with small children or seniors or short trips, don’t try to go to too many destinations. Places in Costa Rica are fairly spread out so travel times are long. You may need to dedicate one entire day to travel! It’ll be too tiring and you can spend that time enjoying rather than driving or sitting on a bus/shuttle.
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