Do you plan to travel on a budget in Costa Rica? Although it is one of the most expensive countries in Central and South America, you can certainly travel cheap in Costa Rica but you do need to do your research.
Here are our tips for traveling to Costa Rica on a budget. We’ll help you save moneys on transportation, excursions, hotels and food. Something important to note is that due to inflation and world event occurring in 2020, prices have increased greatly than before the pandemic. So if you visited Costa Rica in 2019/2018 or anytime before, be prepared to see a big increase in prices.
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When Is the Best Time to Travel on a Budget in Costa Rica?
The cheapest time to visit Costa Rica is during the green season or rainy season, May to November. As the largest influx of tourists visit Costa Rica during the dry season (December through April), that is the most expensive time to visit. Read more about Costa Rica weather to know what to expect.
The months of May, September and October are generally the least crowded with the cheapest prices. Car rentals are much cheaper, many hotels slash prices and restaurants and tour companies throw promos.
Something to know is that although July and August are rainy season months, this is North America and European summer vacation time so it is very busy and prices go up like high season. Around the end of August/beginning of September, prices go back down since most of the summer vacationers have left.
The most expensive times to visit Costa Rica are during Christmas, New Years and mid December to end of April
High tourism season is December to April. The busiest times of the year are the weeks of Christmas, New Years and Easter. It is incredibly crowded and expensive during these holidays!
Since these are peak travel times, you need to book your hotels and car rentals at least several months in advance. February and March are also extremely busy and expensive, though not quite as expensive as the week of Christmas.
Read more about when is the best time to visit Costa Rica.
How to Save Money on Flights to Costa Rica
February, March, April, July and Christmas are the most expensive times to fly to Costa Rica
Again, these are peak tourist months so flights are the most expensive at this time. Unless you have to travel during those times, expect high flight prices. Outside those months in low travel seasons, flights may be anywhere from $100-300 cheaper.
Check both LIR and SJO airports
Generally, Liberia International Airport is a little bit more expensive than San Jose International Airport since it’s a much smaller airport with less flights. Although prices may be around the same for some times of the year, it’s worth checking both international airports in Costa Rica to see the difference. It will also help you plan your trip to, knowing which airport you’ll fly into.
Book Budget Economy
Many airlines have a “budget economy” option as their cheapest ticket. It varies among airlines but generally you are not allowed to choose seats, there are no changes available, carry on is either not allowed or limited and you board last.
We have flown budget economy with American Airlines from San Jose Airport to Miami and it was only around $250 USD. So if you are traveling with carry on only, your group doesn’t need to stay together, traveling solo or coming for a short trip, budget economy is an excellent way to travel on a budget in Costa Rica.
Flight Hacking Websites
There are a couple of services that find last minute deals and error flights. I highly recommend signing up for a website called Scott’s Cheap Flights which does just that. Dollar Flight Club is another great one.
I have seen tickets for $250 USD roundtrip from Chicago to Costa Rica, $300 CAD from Toronto to Costa Rica, $250 USD from LAX to SJO and many more. We personally use both of these services for airfare and have snatched cheap flight tickets to Iceland, Seattle, Madrid and Miami because of them!
Get a Travel Credit Card
Travel hacking is a science on its own but once you’re in the game, it can save you TONS of money and allow you travel more luxuriously.
I personally have the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card which is great for travel and is an excellent beginner travel credit card. You get 60,000 points when you spend $4000 USD from initial account opening, 3x points on dining and they also offer travel insurance for rental cars and trip delays. You can redeem your points for hotels, flights, flight upgrades and more.
If you fly a particular airline often, then you definitely should sign up for their credit card. I have the Alaska Airlines credit card since they are my preferred airline and it allows me to get free check in bags, earn extra points and more.
Tips for Saving Money on Hotels in Costa Rica
There is a huge range of hotels at different price points in Costa Rica but whether you plan to stay in hostels or resorts, there are ways to save money on hotels in Costa Rica.
Use your credit card points
Again, travel hacking is a fantastic way to get free hotel nights and upgrades at resort, especially if you have IHG, Hyatt or Marriott cards.
Create an account on hotel booking sites
Hotels.com offers a book 10 nights, get 1 free, Booking.com offers 10% discounts once you hit tier 3 and Orbitz allows you to accumulate points to use for future travel. If you travel often and like to use one of those sites, sign up for an account.
One of my friends got her expensive hotel in Tamarindo covered with her Orbitz points. They will also send you insider deals and promos.
Follow the Instagram account of a hotel or resort you’re interested in
Many companies will post last minute deals or promos on their Instagram only. Follow them and sign up for alerts to catch them.
Many hotels offer promotions if you book directly on their website
Make sure to check the hotel website first before to the travel search engines. Many hotels, especially in the off season will give discounts or have a promotion only on their website.
However, check both travel search engine sites like Booking.com AND the direct website. We have found some hotels cheaper on Booking.com than the hotel’s own website!
Book vacation rentals on sites like VRBO or Airbnb
For alternative options, check out Airbnb. Vacation rentals can be a good way to travel on a budget in Costa Rica for groups and families since you will have a fully equipped kitchen to cook and save money on food.
Use our hotel discounts!
We have discounts for a few hotels in Costa Rica: Casitas Tenornio B&B in Bijagua, Adventure Inn in San Jose and Manoas Resort in Uvita. Check our deals page to get the promo codes!
Read more about finding accommodation in Costa Rica.
Saving Money in Costa Rica on Transportation
When it comes to getting around Costa Rica, you really need to weigh two factors: time vs money. The cheapest option, the public bus, takes the longest and is not the most straightforward. The quickest option, flying, is the most expensive. The most comfortable and flexible option, renting a car, is likewise expensive and an extra responsibility.
The public bus is the cheapest option
To travel on a budget in Costa Rica means you will most likely want to take public transportation. Bus tickets are cheap and you can travel half the country for ~$10 USD. However, the bus takes a much longer time with few direct routes. Therefore, if you’re short on time, you need to plan carefully if the bus is the best option for you.
If you rent a car, decline the insurance that is allowed
Renting a car in Costa Rica can get very expensive due to the insurance. There IS a mandatory car rental insurance that every renter must purchase in Costa Rica but there is also one that you can decline using your car rental insurance through a credit card.
For example, my Chase Sapphire credit card offers worldwide CDW and I can present a letter from my credit card company stating they will cover this insurance to the car rental agency and I don’t have to pay for it. This can reduce your car rental by a good chunk!
Read all about about renting a car in Costa Rica and insurances here.
Use our discounts!
We have car rental discounts for our readers. Save on your Costa Rica car rental and get our extra freebies like 2 free additional drivers, free child seats and more.
Costa Rica Money Saving Tips for Food
Eat at local restaurants called sodas
On-site hotel restaurants or ones in touristic places are much more expensive. Instead, head to the local town and look for sodas. Sodas are small, open air Costa Rican restaurants offering Costa Rican food for generally cheaper prices.
You can find sodas everywhere and you can find them on Google Maps. To see our restaurant recommendations, you can check our Costa Rica restaurant map and find out which sodas we like where you’re visiting.
Eat at the bakeries and supermarket cafeterias
Musmanni and Tutu are two of the most common bakeries in Costa Rica. They have cheap pastries and sandwiches and sometimes have pizza and drinks. Most pastries are about 500-1500 CRC (~.90 cents to $2.64 USD) and they’re usually pretty good.
Additionally, some supermarkets have their own cafeteria inside. Super Compro, Mega Super and Walmart normally have their own cafeteria with cheap food. Learn more about grocery shopping in Costa Rica.
Drink tap water or bring a filter
Although tap water is generally safe to drink in Costa Rica, many visitors decide to buy bottled water instead just in case. Buying bottled water gets expensive, not to mention the plastic isn’t great for the environment. Bring a reusable water bottle and a filter to save money on buying water and be environmentally friendly!
However, there are some places in Costa Rica where you should not drink the tap water. These are rural places like Osa Peninsula, Tortuguero, Pavones, Puerto Viejo and Nicoya Peninsula. Most of the tap water in rural areas is not treated. Then in the Guanacaste province or Central/South Pacific, the tap water is incredibly hard and can upset your stomach easily.
Places where tap water is safe to drink are more developed places such as the Central Valley cities: San Jose, Alajuela, Heredia and Cartago.
Shop at the local farmer’s market
Instead of doing all your grocery shopping at the supermarkets in the center of a tourist town, visit the local farmer’s market or feria. Prices are generally a bit cheaper and you will be buying directly from local farmers.
Buy alcohol at the Duty Free
If you plan to be drinking a lot, buy your alcohol at the duty free store in the airport. It is cheaper and you can find more variety. Tourists can bring up to 8 bottles per person.
Costa Rica Money Saving Tips for Tours and Activities
If you’re coming in a big group, ask for a group discount
If you’re coming with a big group like 8+ adults, make sure to ask for a group discount.
Do self-guided hikes
Although we do recommend to take at least one guided hike in Costa Rica, you don’t need to have a guide for all your activities, especially if you rented a car. For example, the Rio Celeste hike is very straightforward and easily done without a guide.
Same goes for certain activities. For example, the Hacienda Guachipelin one day adventure tour is approximately $170 USD per adult from Tamarindo. The one day pass itself is approximately $105 USD per adult. If you rented a car, do not book a tour. Drive yourself there and pay just the day pass which is much less than the tour price.
Visit the free local spots
Instead of going to the tourist places, head to the local spots.
One example is La Fortuna which is famous for its hot springs. Many resorts have their own hot spring facilities but they charge big bucks for it. A day pass at Tabacon, the most luxurious hot spring resort in La Fortuna is around $99 USD per adult! That is not cheap and not all of us want to or can pay that much.
But there is a free local spot on Tabacon river anyone can visit. It’s actually the exact same river as the Tabacon resort and is right across the street. There is a small parking area and an entrance where all the locals go to swim and bathe in the river. The river has a lot of rocks and spots to sit and lay in the water surrounded by the rainforest. It’s a really nice experience to mingle with locals and it’s completely free!
Read about the free swimming holes in La Fortuna.
Find out what are other cheap things to do in Costa Rica!
Use our Costa Rica tour discounts!
We have discounts for many tours in Costa Rica. We have a 7% La Fortuna and Arenal tour discount, a $10 USD Tortuga Island day cruise, a 10% Diamante Eco Adventure Park discount and more! You can check our Mytanfeet Costa Rica deals page to see all the discounts and promos we have for hotels, tours and transportation in Costa Rica.
How to Save Money on Souvenirs
Buy gifts at the the local supermarket, not the souvenir stores and gift shops
Several supermarkets have their own souvenir section and is much cheaper than the airport souvenir stores.
For example, coffee and the chorreador (Costa Rican coffee maker) are our favorite gifts (you can read our other favorite Costa Rican souvenirs here). If you go to the supermarket, a Costa Rican coffee maker can be around $5-10 USD. At a souvenir store, it can cost up to $30 USD and more.
We do the same with t shirts and other items. T-shirts with a Costa Rican design costs around $8 USD at the supermarket and the same shirt at a souvenir shop might cost $25 USD.
For artisanal items, there are many places to find unique items distinct to the place you’re visiting. Many tour companies and hotels have their own souvenir shop with local products.
If anything, do not buy all your souvenirs at the airport, even though they have some nice souvenirs but it is more expensive.
More Tips to Travel on a Budget in Costa Rica
If you use dollars, make sure to check the exchange rate
USD are readily accepted in Costa Rica but there’s a catch: the exchange rate. You can pay for most things with USD like tours, souvenirs, hotels, gas and groceries and they will give you your change back in Costa Rican currency. BUT you must pay attention to the exchange rate!
This is because the current exchange rate is around 605 to 1 and it changes daily. However, many locals and workers use the exchange rate of 500 to 1 since it’s easier to calculate. By using 500 to 1, you’re losing a little bit so don’t let anyone stiff you on your change! It really adds up over time and you will be losing out a lot if they keep using a 500 to 1 exchange rate.
The easiest way to pay is to use your credit card as they’ll calculate the correct exchange rate automatically and you don’t need to pull out your calculator each time. Another rule of thumb is if it’s quoted in USD, pay in USD. If it’s quoted in CRC, pay in CRC.
Learn more about handling money in Costa Rica such as exchanging, currency and using USD in this article.
Pay in cash
Some places will give you a discount if you pay in cash (since the establishment won’t have to pay a credit card fee). Many souvenir shops will give you a discount if you buy several items and pay in cash. Some restaurants run promos if you pay in cash.
For example, when we visited Manuel Antonio in October, a bunch of restaurants were offering 50% promos when paid in cash.
More Costa Rica Money Saving Tips
To see how much it’ll cost for your vacation in Costa Rica, we have a post that breaks down the complete cost of traveling in Costa Rica and a 1 week Costa Rica budget breakdown post.
More Costa Rica travel tips here!
Things to know about Costa Rica before you go
Best places to visit in Costa Rica
Mistakes to avoid traveling in Costa Rica
There are Amazon affiliate links in this post.
Wonderful information! I really enjoyed reading all of the tips and feel more prepared for our upcoming trip. Thank you
Alisa harris says
Hi, we are really enjoying reading all of the tips you have. We want to bring coffee home as a gift, where would you suggest getting through Costa Rican coffee? I wasn’t sure if the supermarket would be an option. Thank you.
The supermarket is fine but the best option is if you take a coffee plantation tour to buy it directly from there.
Casey Page says
I have been to Mexico before and you’re not supposed to brush your teeth with the sink water, if I was in an area where you said you wouldn’t drink the tap water, would you still use it to brush your teeth?
Depends on where you are, most places yes it is fine.
Joe Kovacs says
Hi, thanks for the heads up on Costa Rican Life, my girlfriend and I are headed your way in a couple of days, Im very excited about this trip. Maybe we will meet and Ill take you and yours to a local soda or bakery for lunch, thanks again Kind Regards joe and Ella
Hi Joe! Hope you guys have a great time here and thanks for reading our blog!!
Thanks Yeison , that was really helpful post I am planning to travel to Costa Rica next month and hope to be fun.
I also read your article about “15 things to know about Costa Rica before you go” and it was great.
HI, thanks for your post and all the wonderful tips. Costa Rica is high on our to do list so this will definitely come in handy. Like the idea of getting gifts at the supermarket. Who needs to know, right? We will definitely be bringing back coffee, lol
Hi Samantha and you are welcome! Exactly, who needs to know? And it doesn’t make sense to buy the exact same tshirt for 20 dollars more just because its been sitting in a souvenir store. Hope you guys make it here very soon!
Hola!!! I really like your Website!! Soon I am going to travel from Mexico to Costa rica. Do you have any Tips or advice when crossing the borders ( we are going by car). Do you know what the fees are? Does it take a long time?
Hi Anna, you need to pay the insurance and fumigation per vehicle. As of 2012, costs were 2175 colones ($4.50 USD) for the fumigation and 8365 colones ($17 USD) insurance. I’m not sure if it the exact same amounts now, they might have gone up since then.