Renting a Car in Costa Rica: 7 Must-Know Tips Before You Rent

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Planning on renting a car in Costa Rica? You’re not alone. With over 1.7 million tourists landing in Costa Rica every year – a lot of tourists decide renting a car is the best option for them.  And for many tourists, it will be the best option. After all, renting a car will give you the freedom to go almost wherever you like, whenever you like. Simply pack a few essentials, load everyone into the car, and off you go.

Renting a car will also provide you with hassle-free comfort that bus travel just can’t offer you.

Don’t get me wrong, jumping on a bus somewhere can be great fun, but as any seasoned tourist will tell you – it can get really crowded, really uncomfortable, and really annoying… very quickly.

What kind of road trip are you going on? Should you consider a 4×4? It’s perfect for off-roading in Costa Rica

Travelling can be super fun, but navigating bus stops, timetables, and places you’re unfamiliar with can often be a nightmare scenario for a lot of tourists.  The good news is that renting a car will take all of that away.  It will also render your trip to Costa Rica a lot simpler while drastically reducing the potential for unwelcome hassles while exploring.

With that said now, it’s hard to envision life without your mode of transport on your trip to Costa Rica – right?  This may be true, but it is important to recognize that not all car rentals in Costa Rica are created equal.

There are a few important things to consider when asking yourself “Should I rent a car when I visit Costa Rica?”.  With that in mind, here is a quick guide to making the whole process a lot simpler, safer, and hassle-free:


Choose Your Car Rental Wisely.

What’s your dream car for a road trip? Do you want a luxury car or a 4×4?

As I am sure you are aware, there are many different types of cars available to rent in Costa Rica.  It’s not a simple matter of picking any random vehicle.  You will need to take a bit of time to think about exactly what you will be doing on your travels.  Consider how much stuff you will be bringing with you and how many people you will need to get into the car along with your stuff.

If you plan on doing a few off-road journeys, you wouldn’t want to be doing it in a rear-wheel-drive car.  In fact, the last thing you need is to be stuck in the mud in the middle of nowhere.  Best you obtain something that is 4-wheel drive and specifically designed for off-road traveling.

Depending on the specific type of exploring you might want to do, here is a list of a few makes and models to choose from:

Hyundai Grand i10

This car comes with 4 seats and enough room for one large bag and one small bag.  Perfect for a smaller family of 3-4 that don’t need to bring too much stuff with them.

Toyota Corolla 

The Toyota Corolla comes with 5 seats and enough room for 2 large bags and one small bag, this would be better suited to a large family of 4-5, that maybe plan on doing some hiking trips that would require extra baggage.

Daihatsu Bego 4×4

This is the one to choose for off-road travel. Planning on exploring the less explored? The Daihatsu Bego 4×4 is perfectly suited for this type of journey. It will seat 5 people and still have enough room for all the bags you’ll need for a day trip.


Know the Law.

Are you allowed to drive in Costa Rica? It’s best to check the rules before renting a car in Costa Rica

This isn’t America.  Things are different in Costa Rica and it pays to do a little “recon”.  There are a few common legalities you will need to be aware of in connection with renting a car.  Some of the most notable are: age, documents, airport tax, and credit cards.

Most rental companies will require you to be at least 25 to rent a car, although some will accept you if you are 21.  My advice is to check before you are booking.

Foreign drivers’ licenses are all valid in Costa Rica but just make sure your license is current as an expired one will not be accepted.  

Obviously you will need a credit card with a sufficient limit to handle the rental fees plus up to $1500 for a “security deposit”. Then there is the airport tax… Did you know that car rentals are subject to a tax of 13 or 14% tax of the total cost of the rental, depending on which airport you arrive at?  That’s a new one for me!

Most rental companies won’t accept debit cards  and if they do they will likely charge you significantly more.


Know the Dangers.

We encourage you to drive but you must remember at all times that you’re in a different country, driving on roads that you don’t knowThings will be different than what you’re used to.

So here are some things to keep in mind while driving in Costa Rica:


Always keep your eyes on the road.  Ask your travel companion to help you navigate.

Distraction can be a big danger. Trust us when we say this — it is very easy to become distracted while you’re driving around exploring all the things Costa Rica has to offer

You’ll also likely be using some sort of GPS or Google Maps as a navigation tool.  When driving solo it is tempting to take your eye off the road to check the GPS. This is why we encourage you to always have two people in the car so that one can navigate and the other can focus on the road. 

Road Conditions

Road conditions can change very quickly at any moment. While most of the main roads will be ok, a lot of roads can be tricky to manage at the best of times. This ties back in with choosing the best car for your trip. If you’re visiting Costa Rica during the rainy season you can bet the 4×4 is the better option – especially if unpaved roads will be ahead of you. Even so, it’s always best to check the weather forecast for when you are visiting just to be on the safe side.

Spare Cash

Although this may seem obvious, always carry some spare cash.

Having some spare cash in smaller denominations will save you a lot of stress. You’ll likely need it for tolls, gas, or even to purchase something on the go that you forgot to pack.

Everywhere will take cash, but not everywhere will accept debit/credit cards.

Road Signs

Learn the road signs in Costa Rica and follow them to avoid accidents

Road signs or the lack of them can become a problem for some tourists.  Some places will have no road signs at all and in the places where they do, you’ll notice that other drivers will just ignore them.  This is why it’s important to always pay attention to the other traffic on the road.  Doing so will help you better gauge what’s going on around you. 

For example, the red ‘ALTO’ sign translates to a stop sign, but you’ll notice a lot of drivers seemingly ignoring it. This is because Costa Ricans interpret this as ‘Slow down and proceed with caution’.  So always pay attention to what others are doing and this will help you stay safe and prevent you from getting caught off guard. 

Reckless Drivers

Inconsiderate and reckless drivers are everywhere, Costa Rica is no different.  I am sure you are well used to them, but you must remain extra careful when driving on roads you don’t know.

Always leave enough room between you and the other cars, drive to the speed limit, and don’t be afraid to slow down if you aren’t sure what’s around the corner.


How to Protect Yourself When Renting a Car in Costa Rica.

Make sure you take a picture of your rental car and check for damage before leaving for your road trip in Costa Rica

Make sure you take pictures of both the outside and inside of the vehicle you’re renting – before you drive away. 

If you see any damage or something that isn’t brought up by the rental company then be sure to note it on the inspection form.  Again, before you drive away. 

When going over your pre-flight checklist for damage, make sure you check the following places on the car:

  • Windshield 
  • Interior fabric
  • Mirrors 
  • Bumpers 
  • Turn signal indicators 
  • Tires
  • Electronics 

Even if there are things you don’t plan on using in the car – like the electronics, knowing if they work or not could save you a small fortune when you return the car.


Plan Ahead.

Planning your trip in advance saves you money and time

This is one so simple: most of us often overlook how long we will need our rental car while visiting down here in Costa Rica.  Be honest with yourself. Is there a chance you’ll need an extra day or two? I can’t count the number of times I’ve rented bikes and cars over the years only to go back and ask for an extension. 

By planning properly ahead of time you’ll not only see everything you want to see but you’ll do it at a cheaper cost. The longer you rent for, usually means the less you’ll pay per day. 

Another planning tip is to make sure you have your routes planned out, and possibly a few “Plan B’s” just in case the road you wanted to drive isn’t open. 


Reserve Your Car Rental Online.

Online car rentals are typically cheaper than renting from a shop. The reduced overhead costs associated with online bookings often translate to cost-savings being passed along to you. Not only do you get everything booked in advance but you’ll potentially be paying a lot less too!

Few commercial transactions are a stressful as renting a car.  Completing your reservation online completely removes all pressure-tactics and gives you a chance to think clearly and make the best decisions for you and/or your group. 


Don’t Fall for the Scams.

Renting a car in Costa Rica can be a simple, enjoyable process if you plan ahead

Keep an eye out for the $10/day scams. They use these $10/day marketing ploys to hook you and then they whisk you away to a remote rental office. Once you have left the airport they basically have you “captive” and it is at this time the unpleasantness begins.  The next thing you know you’ll be hit with a ridiculous amount of added fees like taxes, “mandatory” insurance and so forth.

So at the end of the day, your quest to save you a nickel costs you a dollar, a pile of needless time and has surely shortened your lifespan.  My advice is to use a reputable car rental firm that is transparent with their fees.  Confirming your reservation online well before your trip will ensure there is a car available for you when you arrive.  Just do it.  You’ll be happier, you’ll be more secure with a reliable vehicle and you’ll live a longer life too! 

In summary: I hope this post has provided you with some thoughtful food for… well, thought.  Do your research, carefully consider your needs, know the law, plan to protect yourself from potential dangers and reserve your car online.  If that’s not possible and you find yourself looking for a car rental when you land, then keep your eyes open and be aware of the scams.

Renting a car in Costa Rica can be a great way to explore all the country has to offer, but if done hastily it can leave you with a bad experience right at the start of your trip.  Who wants that, right?  To totally eliminate the associated hassles, the concierge team of Special Places of Costa Rica can sort it all out for you.  Just drop us a line and we’ll take care of everything!

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