Costa Rica is one of the top travel destinations in the world and it brings hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. Just in 2014 more than 2.5 million people visited us and stayed an average of 10 days. (We hope you had a great time here).
Although Costa Rica captures the hearts of almost all who step foot on its land, there is one thing that greatly surprises visitors and is one of the biggest misconceptions about the country: the cost of travel.
It is indeed true that Costa Rica is one of the most expensive countries in both Central and South America but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to travel here on a budget. Do your research, give yourself some flexibility for your trip, venture away from touristic areas and you can enjoy the country without having to empty your wallet.
If you’re thinking about coming to Costa Rica and are in a budget, here are some tips that will help you save money traveling in Costa Rica.
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How to Save Money Traveling in Costa Rica
When to Travel
The cheapest time to visit Costa Rica is during the off season or rainy season.
Tourism season generally follows the weather in Costa Rica since the influx of tourists coincide with the dry and rainy seasons. The cheapest time to visit Costa Rica are May, June, August – November. Although July is also in rainy season, there are a lot of tourists from North America because of summer break and the local schools have 2 weeks for mid-winter break so it is very crowded and prices get a little bit more expensive.
The most expensive time to visit Costa Rica are during the major holidays and high season which are end of December to end of April.
The weeks of Christmas, New Years and Easter are what we call peak season, as that is when both locals and foreigners have vacation. It is very crowded and expensive during those times of year and you need to book your hotels and car rentals at least a couple months in advance.
Travel in the off season and you can enjoy hotel prices from $50-200 less, a bed in a hostel for $8 and special offers at restaurants. Many tour companies throw promotions during this time as well as they want to keep business going as much as possible.
Airfare varies depending on the time of the year you are flying into Costa Rica.
Summer months from North America are more expensive.
A flight from Seattle to Costa Rica in July and August is around $700-800 to both San Jose and Liberia Airport. Dates outside of popular travel times are cheaper. September – about the 2nd week of December are cheaper to fly into Costa Rica from North America.
Check both LIR and SJO airports and your departure airport
Generally, LIR airport is a little bit more expensive than SJO but it is about the same now. However, make sure to check both airports because there may be a big difference. Same goes for your departure airport. Southwest has many flights out of Baltimore and Houston so if you can travel, check prices from there to see if they are any cheaper.
Flight Hacking Websites
New flights are opening up to Costa Rica very often and due to high competition, you can find some great deals. I highly recommend signing up for a website called Scott’s Cheap Flights which alerts you of error fares and cheap fares. I have seen tickets for $250 roundtrip from Chicago to Costa Rica, $300 from Tortonto to Costa Rica and many more.
Couchsurfing is the best way to save money on lodging as it’s a way to stay with locals for free but it’s not for everyone. If you don’t want to couch surf, check out these other options.
Sign up for newsletter of hotel booking websites for insider deals, first chance at discounts and alerts.
A lot of hotel booking websites will send you insider deals if you sign up for an account. Many of them also have a book 10 nights, get 1 free or another type of deal.
Like and follow the Facebook page of a hotel or resort you’re interested in.
Many of them use Facebook as their main promotion method and they’ll post offers and deals on there.
Sign up for hotel discount websites like Sears Vacations.
They have a free or paid membership subscription that offers you steep discounts on hotels around the world and I’ve found some pretty good discounts on there.
Based off of Groupon and exclusively for Costa Rica, many Ticos use this website to find deals.
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. Additionally, we offer 10-15% Costa Rica hotel discounts of some of our favorite hotels you can check here.
Check alternative lodging sites like Airbnb
For alternative options, check out Airbnb (get $20 credit here). It’s becoming much more popular in Costa Rica and you can stay with locals who rent a room or entire apartment for much cheaper than a hotel.
When it comes to getting around Costa Rica, you really need to weigh two factors: time vs money.
The public bus is the cheapest option
To save money, the best option is to take public transportation. Bus tickets are relatively cheap and you can travel half the country for less than $10. However, the bus takes a much longer time with few direct routes so if you’re short on time, you need to think carefully about your choices especially if you’re planning to go to more rural areas.
Use our discounts!
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 Costa Rican restaurants that sells typical food and normally have local prices, not tourist prices.
Ask the locals where their favorite soda is and you can find Costa Rican food for a good price. When we were staying in La Fortuna, we asked the locals and found sodas and cafes that had breakfast for $4 and lunch for $5.
Eat at the bakeries
Musmanni and Tutu are two of the most common bakeries that sell pastries, sandwiches, sometimes pizza and drinks. Most pastries are about a dollar or two and they’re usually pretty good.
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 so bring a water bottle and a filter to save money.
Follow the Facebook page of tour companies
During off season, it is common for tour companies to throw promotions like 2X1, 50% off or kids free. Follow their Facebook page to see promos.
If you’re coming in a big group, ask for a group discount
If you’re coming with a big group, make sure to ask for a group discount which most companies are happy to give.
Take self-guided hikes instead of booking tours
Instead of booking a tour with a company for $100 to the national park, drive yourself, pay the entrance fee and go on a self guided hike. You will need to find your own transportation but even if you rent a car, the prices will end up cheaper than paying over $100 every tour. For example, the Catarata Llanos de Cortes waterfall has a $2 entrance/parking lot fee but if you book a tour, it ends up being at least $80 per person.
Buy gifts is the local supermarket, not the souvenir stores and gift shops.
For example, coffee is one of our favorite gifts to give as well as the chorreador (the wooden stand and sock to make coffee). If you go to the supermarket the “sock” will cost $0.75 and the stand around $3. At a souvenir store, it can cost up to $30 and more depending if it has paintings or designs. A bag of coffee at a souvenir store can be more than $10 and who knows how long it’s been sitting there! At the market you can find good quality coffee for $3.
We do the same with t shirts and other items. High quality t-shirts with a Costa Rican design costs around $8 at the supermarket and the same shirt at a souvenir shop might cost $25.
So before you go shopping, visit the local supermarkets. It doesn’t sound quite super glamorous but trust me, you can find most of the popular items for a much cheaper price. And if you do go to a souvenir store, bargain. You can perfectly bargain in Costa Rica so feel free to ask for a 10% discount if you’re buying multiple items or buying in cash.
Although most Ticos have excellent English in the touristic areas, we like it when tourists greet us or even try to speak to us in Spanish. One thing to know about Ticos is that we are incredibly friendly and are much more willing to give discounts if you smile, joke and laugh with us. Soften us up with a “Hola, como estas?” or even better, “Pura vida mae! Tuanis!”
Don’t use dollars because of the exchange rate.
If you can, use your credit card but not all souvenir stores take credit cards. But we don’t recommend using dollars either because the exchange rate has been going up and fluctuating a lot lately. Currently as of June 2017, the exchange rate is around 570 to 1 but 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.
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. Click here to read it.
You can also learn more about handling money in Costa Rica such as exchanging, currency and using USD in this article.
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More Costa Rica travel tips here!