While planning our trip to Costa Rica, we talked to a few friends about their experiences and almost everyone came back with the same two responses: the country is an amazing place to visit, but the roads are terrible. We’re talking roads-so rough-that-your-tire-pops-off type of terrible (this actually happened to a friend a few months ago). We like to have the freedom to explore and go at our own pace while traveling, but after hearing this experience, we were a bit concerned about driving in Costa Rica.
Despite the warnings of bad road conditions, we knew we wanted to rent a car in Costa Rica. Plus, our itinerary was turning into more of a road trip, so driving ourselves was the most convenient option. If you’re planning on driving in Costa Rica, here are 11 things you should know before renting a car and hopping behind the wheel.
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Car Rental in Costa Rica
If you’ve planned your itinerary and decided that a car rental in Costa Rica is your best option, then here are a few things you should know before booking.
1 Costs of renting a car in Costa Rica
Renting a car in Costa Rica can be pretty pricey. The car rental itself is usually reasonable. An SUV will usually run about $20 to $40 a day, depending on the type. It’s the insurance that starts to add up.
We rented a standard-size automatic 4×4 SUV that would comfortably fit 5 people plus luggage from Vamos Rent-A-Car, a local Costa Rican rental car company with a great reputation. The car rental cost $200 for the week, or about $28 a day during shoulder season (late April/early May). The rates will fluctuate a bit depending on what time of year you’re visiting.
2 Mandatory and Optional Car Rental Insurance
The cost of rental car insurance is often just as much as the car rental itself, so you may soon be paying twice as much as you initially expected. Insurance is broken out into three different levels: Third-party liability insurance, the basic CDW, and the full CDW.
Third-Party Liability Insurance – The minimum insurance you must purchase is the third-party liability insurance (or PLI), which covers others (or a third party) in the case of an accident. For us, it cost $12 a day. This insurance is mandatory by Costa Rican law, so there’s no declining this one. Most rental car companies will include this as a line item when you book online. If they don’t, it just means that it’s going to be an added charge at the counter when you go to pick up your car.
Collision Damage Waiver – This is additional insurance that you can purchase to reduce the deductible you have to pay in case of any loss. At Vamos Rent-A-Car, the basic CDW is $9 a day and full CDW is an additional $13 a day. That brought the total insurance daily rate to $34. The CDW rate can fluctuate with the type of car you book, but at Vamos it was a fixed rate.
We typically decline the CDW and rely on the coverage provided by my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card when renting cars. However, we noted in the card benefits that any losses related to off-road operation of the rental car weren’t covered. We weren’t actually planning on going off-roading, but heard so much about the bad road conditions and didn’t know if some of the dirt roads in Costa Rica would be considered “off-road.” We decided to play it safe and purchase the CDW from the rental car company. Luckily, we didn’t have any problems, so we didn’t have to go through the claims process with rental insurance.
If you plan on declining the CDW with Vamos Rent-A-Car, print or email the PDF of your card benefits to the rental car company. I have the Chase Sapphire Reserve, and all the card benefits are clearly laid out here. Other rental car companies may require a signed letter from your credit card company explicitly stating that the CDW is covered within their policy. Check with the rental car company’s policies ahead of time if you plan to waive the CDW.
3 Book your car directly to avoid hidden fees
In order to avoid any surprise fees, I recommend booking your car directly with the company you choose. We’ve booked through a third party on a trip to England a few years back and thought everything was fully paid, only to find out we had to pay more when we got to the counter at the rental car company.
We really appreciated Vamos Rent-a-car’s simple and straightforward booking process that had no hidden fees. Everything was clearly labeled, and the amount we were quoted online is the amount we paid.
4 Car rental companies in Costa Rica
Most major car rental companies have offices near both the main airports in Costa Rica (San Jose and Liberia), and there are a few great local companies as well. After reading a lot reviews searching for the best car rental in Costa Rica, we opted to go with Vamos Rent-A-Car based on the promise of no hidden fees, competitive prices and a large number of positive reviews from other travelers.
Our experience with Vamos Rent-A-Car was great from beginning to end. Booking online was easy, they had the car that we reserved ready to go, and we were off and on our way in no time.
We drove a Mitsubishi Outlander from Liberia to Arenal, Monteverde, and down to Manuel Antonio National Park. We drove through a few areas with very bumpy dirt roads and super steep inclines, so we were really happy we went a 4×4 with higher clearance.
Vamos offers a number of free add-ons including a child seat and a cooler. After booking our car, I followed up with Alex from Vamos and he personally confirmed for me that they would have a car seat for my son (I’m always worried that this will somehow be overlooked and they’ll be all out of car seats when we show up).
Vamos is piloting a new program where you can purchase a few beach and pool essentials, and they’ll have it all ready to go in your car. We picked up some beach mats and sand toys for our time in Manuel Antonio National Park, and then added in a few panchos in case we got stuck in a downpour (which we definitely did, several times. These were a lifesaver!). They also have pool floats, noodles, and beach umbrellas. It was so convenient to have these items ready to go in the car without having to make a stop at a store.
Driving in Costa Rica
5 Destinations are kind of spread out
Unless you’re opting to hang out at an all-inclusive resort in Guanacaste, you’re probably going to soon realize that places within Costa Rica are kind of spread out. Plus, there are beautiful places and views along the way, so driving yourself is a great option to explore Costa Rica.
During our trip, we made a big loop from Liberia to Arenal, Monteverde, Manuel Antonio, then back up to Liberia. This loop is about 14 hours of drive time. We made stops in between to places like Rio Celeste Waterfall and took a side trip to Nauyaca Falls. Renting a car made this incredibly convenient!
7 Is Four-wheel drive necessary?
Unless you’re sticking to the main highways, then the answer is yes. We found the main highways to be in really good condition – the pavement was smooth and the signage was great. Once you get off these main highways, things can get bumpy. Watch out for unpainted speed bumps and potholes when driving through smaller towns.
Most of the rough dirt roads we encountered were around Monteverde and south of Manuel Antonio State Park towards Nauyaca Falls. Even if we didn’t engage the four-wheel drive on all of the dirt roads, the higher clearance was helpful too.
6 Road conditions change with the seasons
We went to Costa Rica in the shoulder season (late April/early May), and while there were very bumpy dirt roads, it was still relatively easy driving for our four-wheel drive SUV.
The road conditions typically get worse during rainy season as dirt turns to mud, roads get washed out, and little streams turn to gushing rivers. Make sure that you’re comfortable driving in these tougher conditions. Aaron has spent enough time riding quads out in the desert that I think he found these off-roading road conditions more fun than nerve-racking.
8 Best Apps for driving directions in Costa Rica
Google Maps – I usually use Google Maps and had no problem using this in Costa Rica. We just downloaded the areas where we’d be driving in Costa Rica to our offline maps. We had service for most of the time we were in Costa Rica, but having offline maps was helpful when we lost connection in more remote places.
The directions and estimated time to our destination in Google Maps were both accurate. I’m sure drive times can get a lot longer during the rainy season when roads are muddier and harder to drive, but when we went in May, Google Maps appropriately accounted for the slower drive time on bumpy dirt roads.
Using the satellite view on Google Maps was pretty handy when we were trying to find an Airbnb in the jungle down a dirt road – the location wasn’t exactly correct within the map, but we could locate the home down a nearby road within satellite view.
Waze – I noticed that a lot of road signs were sponsored by Waze, so that’s a great option to use for directions while driving in Costa Rica.
Maps.me – This app also has offline maps, so you can still get your directions even if you don’t have cell service.
Basic tips for Driving in Costa Rica
9 Do you need an International Drivers License?
You do NOT need an international drivers license to drive in Costa Rica unless you’re from a country that does not use the Latin alphabet.
10 Filling up at gas stations
All the gas stations we used in Costa Rica were full service, which means the attendant pumps the gas for you. Just let them know whether you need regular, super gas, or diesel before they start filling your tank. We always paid in credit card, but there may be some stations that only accept cash, so it’s best to have some on you just in case.
Since gas prices are regulated by the government there is no need to worry about searching for the best price. When we went in May 2019, the price for a liter was ¢618 ($1.04 per liter, or about $3.94 a gallon). The price for gas went up to ¢691 a liter while we were there, so filling up at the end was a bit more expensive.
11 Parking in Costa Rica
When we had to pay for parking in Costa Rica, it was usually between $2-$5. Some attractions have free parking, while others will charge you a few dollars. In big cities like San Jose and popular beach destinations, you’ll often have someone try and get you to pay them to watch your car for street parking. While this parking is technically free, paying them a few dollars may help you avoid being targeted. If they start out high, you can also try to negotiate them down.