How to Plan a Trip to Costa Rica
It’s one of the most popular tourism destinations in the world, so if you’re planning a trip to Costa Rica, you won’t be disappointed. But to get the most out of your visit, you do have to PLAN.
There’s a lot to be said for taking a vacation to relax, but there are also a million things to do in Costa Rica. You have big decisions to make about which places you want to go and what you want to do there..
The better prepared you are for your visit to Costa Rica, the more you’ll get out of it. Here are our 10 top tips on how to plan a trip to Costa Rica.
1. Create a Budget
Admittedly, this is not the fun part. But it’s important to figure out how much you can afford to spend on a trip to Costa Rica, so you need to create a budget.
Can you cover the trip in cash, and if not, how much debt can you afford to put on your credit cards? If you have the option of freeing up cash from investment accounts, that may save you finance charges.
Of course, it’s hard to figure out what you’re going to spend until you learn how much it’s going to cost. So your budget is an issue you may need to revisit as you do your research. But it helps to start with how much you’d like to spend, and then see how that squares with all the things you’d like to do.
Be aware that when you visit Costa Rica can substantially affect your costs. It’s a lot more expensive to visit Costa Rica during the dry high season (December through April) than during the rainy low season (May through November).
2. Decide Where You Want to Go
Although Costa Rica is a small country, the geographic diversity here is astonishing. There are beaches, volcanoes, jungles, wetlands, mountains and bustling cities.
There are two coasts to choose from, one on the Pacific and one on the Caribbean, each with its own natural and cultural attractions.
You may be the kind of traveler who wants to go straight to a 5-star resort and spend the whole trip lying on a beach. You may be an avid birder who wants to travel to a frigid cloud forest to catch a glimpse of the resplendent quetzal. Or you may be a high-energy trekker who wants to barnstorm all over the country, seeing as many places as possible during the time you have.
Deciding where to go is closely related to deciding what you want to do. But do your research carefully. There are two popular Playa Hermosas in Costa Rica — one of them famous for great surfing and one of them on a bay that looks like Jello — and sometimes hardcore surfers show up at the wrong Hermosa!
3. Book Your Lodging
Costa Rica has an amazing range of accommodations to choose from, from extravagant 5-star ecolodges to the humblest of hostels. We once booked a room in a nice hostel in Heredia for $6 — and we were told about an estate home at the Four Seasons in Papagayo that went for $32,000 a night!
You shouldn’t limit your search to hotels, as there’s a vast range of vacation rentals to choose from. You can go hunting for one on Airbnb or Vrbo, or consider the advantages of a full-service vacation-rental company like Special Places of Costa Rica, where booking direct can save you up to 20%.
Many visitors book all of their lodging in advance, although they may come to regret it if they don’t like the place they booked. Before you book a hotel or vacation rental, always look for the reviews of people who have stayed there.
Try to build flexibility into your plan so you’re free to move from one place to another. For example, you may book a mid-priced vacation rental in Flamingo, then learn that the same company is renting a palace on the hill that doesn’t cost much more.
If you’re the “barnstormer” type of adventurer, planning to hit multiple destinations as the spirit moves you, you may choose to book your first few nights of lodging and figure out the rest when you get here. This is totally doable, though it helps if you have a working phone.
Speaking of phones, you don’t want to rack up exorbitant roaming charges by making calls in Costa Rica, but you can buy a SIM card at the airport or elsewhere that puts minutes on your phone much more cheaply.
4. Book Your Transportation
Your biggest expense will usually be your flight, so search carefully for the best prices. There are two international airports in Costa Rica, one in San José and one in Liberia, and you should choose the one that’s closest to where you want to go. As noted in our article on “Getting Around Costa Rica,” you can save yourself hours of driving by flying into Liberia if you’re headed to the northwestern part of the country.
Your accommodations may offer a shuttle ride from the airport, and if you so you need to book that. If not, you can catch a taxi when you get here (though if your lodging is far away, this could cost you plenty).
If you’re planning to rent a car, you should book that before flying, but first read our advice and caveats on renting a car in Costa Rica. Also, if you’re planning to use small domestic flights to travel within Costa Rica, you might want to book those in advance.
Otherwise, any other transportation options within Costa Rica (including taxis, buses, shuttles or ferries) can be booked once you’re in the country.
5. Choose Your Adventure Tours
Costa Rica is a global capital of adventure tourism, known for ziplining, whitewater rafting, surfing, deep-sea fishing, scuba diving and even skydiving.
But you don’t have to be a daredevil to go birdwatching in lush tropical forests, to watch giant sea turtles laying eggs on the beach, or to visit a wildlife rescue center with jaguars, monkeys and sloths.
Don’t even think of coming to Costa Rica and not going on some kind of tour — even if it’s a chocolate tour! The opportunities are endless, so take advantage of them while you’re here.
It’s often a good idea to book tours in advance. If you’re traveling during the high season, the tour you want may sell out if you don’t book in advance. Or if you’re traveling in a large group, reservations are always a good idea.
But you can also book tours once you’re in the country. You may find things to do here that you didn’t know about back home. It’s always a good idea to leave room in your schedule to make decisions on the ground.
At Special Places of Costa Rica, we know all the tour companies (and guides) that operate in northwestern Costa Rica, and we’re happy to offer good advice on which ones to trust. Not all tours are created equal, but the operators we recommend are safe, trustworthy, professional and punctual.
6. Get Your Travel Documents in Order
If you don’t have a current passport, this should be your first concern. It takes six to eight weeks to get a passport in the U.S., though expedited service is available at substantial extra cost. Also, Costa Rica may require that your passport be valid for six months past your arrival, so check the expiration date.
As a tourist, you can visit Costa Rica for up to 90 days — but you must provide proof that you have a ticket to leave before those 90 days are up. Usually this is no problem, since most people book round-trip tickets. But even if you’re coming to Costa Rica because you want to spend the rest of your life here, you still need a ticket out, or you’ll never get in.
Costa Rica has imposed several travel restrictions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Only 43 countries were allowed to visit Costa Rica as of August 2020, and a handful of U.S. states have since been added to the welcome list.
You must purchase travel health insurance that will cover you in case you contract the coronavirus while in the country. You must present proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken with 72 hours of arrival — which can be challenging, given it’s rare to get results from these tests so quickly. And you must complete a “Health Pass epidemiological form.” For more details, consult our article on “Coronavirus in Costa Rica: New Travel Rules as Country Reopens.”
7. Visit Your Doctor
It’s a good idea to visit your doctor before traveling to Costa Rica for both a health checkup and a consultation on any vaccinations you might need. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control offers information on recommended vaccinations for those traveling to Costa Rica.
If you have any special health concerns, you may wish to consult with your doctor on whether it’s safe for you to engage in strenuous (and adrenaline-inducing) activities like whitewater rafting, ziplining or (yikes) bungee jumping.
8. Pack Wisely
Pack your bags at least a couple of days before your trip, carefully pondering the age-old question in the Bob Seger song, “what to leave in, what to leave out.”
Pack as light as possible, considering the weather at your destination and what you plan to do. Unless you’re planning to climb Mount Chirripó, you may be able to leave the bulky hiking boots behind and settle for lightweight walking shoes.
And unless you’re an inveterate fashion maven, dress shoes are probably also unnecessary. (Tip: Wear your bulkiest shoes on the plane to save room in your bag.) Flip-flops are usually the go-to shoe in Costa Rica, though you may need closed-toe shoes for some activities.
Everyone will tell you to bring rain gear, but here’s a little tip: Most Costa Ricans do not own raincoats (or if they do, they never wear them). However, be aware that tours are rarely canceled because of rain, so a lightweight raincoat is not a bad idea if you plan to go bushwhacking through the jungle during the rainy season. A small umbrella is also a good idea, or you can buy one when you get here.
There are very few places in Costa Rica that are cold (although the airplanes that get you here are often freezing). One light jacket or sweatshirt for warmth should suffice, and again, consider wearing it on the plane to save space in your bag.
Do consider bringing small tubes of sunscreen and insect repellent, or you can buy them when you arrive. Also, if you need to bring medications, check on whether you can bring them in a carry-on or they must be put in checked bags.
9. Be Flexible
The best-laid plans sometimes go awry, so be flexible. If you’ve booked lodging that you really don’t like, you need the flexibility to be able to jump ship. Some people like the security of having booked and prepaid for all their lodging, but it’s always nice to have the option of changing your mind.
You may discover things to do here that weren’t on your radar before, and you might want to scrap one plan for another. If you keep your plans flexible, you won’t miss out on a great opportunity that suddenly presents itself.
Costa Rica is the land of “pura vida,” where “tranquilo” is the national mantra. Adopt the local mindset and roll with the changes.
10. Enjoy the Trip of a Lifetime
Finally, enjoy! You’ve done the hard work and long-range planning to pave the way for an unforgettable vacation in paradise.
You may hit some snags as your plans turn into reality, but go with the flow and have a great time. Your only priority now is to enjoy your trip.