Last updated on January 29, 2024 by Stefano Ferro, founder of MEL365, travelling and renting cars In Costa Rica

Most common car rental scams in Costa Rica and how to avoid them

In this post, I want to mention the most common car rental scams in Costa Rica that can create unexpected hurdles and costs. But I have good news for you: being forewarned is being forearmed.

This comprehensive guide demystifies the 10 most known scams when renting a car in Costa Rica, shedding light on their tactics, and providing crucial advice on how to avoid them.

And before moving to the first biggest scam, let me tell you that this list should not scare you off from the idea of renting a car in Costa Rica because it is honestly the best way to navigate and enjoy this country. Just be vigilant and alert as you should do when taking a bus.

You can drive to some of the most amazing beaches in Costa Rica otherwise impossible by bus
You can drive to some of the most amazing beaches in Costa Rica otherwise impossible by bus

Mandatory Insurance Scam – The biggest car rental scam in Costa Rica

The mandatory insurance scam is one of the most common ploys utilized by rental car companies not just in Costa Rica, but worldwide. It’s important to note that while there is indeed mandatory insurance required in Costa Rica, known as Liability Insurance or Responsabilidad Civil, the manner in which it is applied can often be misleading to unsuspecting customers.

When you make a booking online, the rental price often seems exceptionally low. Yet, once you arrive to pick up your vehicle, you are informed that you need to pay additional daily charges for mandatory insurance. This can drastically inflate the overall cost of the rental, causing it to far exceed your initial budget.

I extensively talked about this issue in my guide to rental car insurance in Costa Rica and how to avoid this problem.

In short, Liability Insurance as it’s also referred to, covers damages to other people or property in the event of an accident. This is also called “Third Party Insurance” and it does not cover the rental vehicle itself. This insurance is mandatory in Costa Rica, so make sure it is included in your quote. 

I usually book my cars on DiscoverCars, an aggregator that compares local and international companies providing the best deal around. One of the features I like the most is that I can clearly see what is included (Protection section in the Rental Conditions) and I make sure that the Liability Insurance, sometimes called Third Party Liability, is included.

Costa Rica rental car insurance contract: protection view including CDW, TP and TPL. The CDW deductible can be as high as $3000
Protection view including CDW, TP and TPL. The CDW deductible can be as high as $3000

To avoid this scam, make sure to thoroughly check the terms of your reservation and ask directly about mandatory insurance costs.

Although this price is in low season, still less tha $10/day is impossible. Read the rental conditions, they usually do not include any insurance that you will have to pay at the counter
Although this price is in low season, still less than $10/day is impossible. Read the rental conditions, they usually do not include any insurance that you will have to pay at the counter.

A quick tip here. When you rent a car in Costa Rica, you need to provide on the booking website your country of residence. If Australian or British, the Liability Insurance should be already included in the quote by default. If American, they may or may not (different consumer laws).

Once again check carefully. This is a screenshot of a booking I was doing from Miami. The website assumed I was American and I was presented with these amazing deals. When I changed my residence to Australia, I realized that the difference in the quote was due to the lack of insurance.

Booking a car with Residence set as USA
Booking a car with Residence set as USA

You may question that paying at the booking phase or at the rental desk is the same, at the end of the day. Not quite so (and this is the scam) because they can inflate the cost as they like. You are there without any other option, and they know that.

CDW Insurance Scam

CDW, or Collision Damage Waiver, is technically an optional coverage, however, nowadays most rental companies demanded it otherwise they will not give you the car. Once again you are at the rental desk and you have no other option but to accept the fee they ask.

I talk extensively about the CDW in my guide to car insurance in Costa Rica. It’s actually good insurance to have because it covers damages to the rented car. But you should take it prior to arriving at the desk.

Once again based on your residency, the booking websites may or may not include it in the quote. If from UK or Australia and I reckon Europe too, CDW is typically included in the quote. See below for an example.

Booking a car with Residence set as Australia (it would be the same for UK)Resident in Australia
Booking a car with Residence set as Australia (same for the UK and possibly all of Europe)

Also, investigate if your credit card insurance covers CDW (it happens quite often with American Credit Cards). You may not need to pay for additional insurance from the rental company in this case.

Check with your credit card company if they cover Central America and when renting a 4×4 in Costa Rica, make sure they cover also this kind of vehicle. Moreover, ask for a letter confirming your CDW coverage with your name on it, they will require it at the desk.

Hidden Fees Scam: Unclearly disclosed costs

The Hidden Fees Scam is a widespread tactic utilized by less reputable car rental companies, and unfortunately, it also finds its place in Costa Rica.

The allure of an affordable rental price may tempt you to secure a booking quickly. But there is a problem! The initially attractive cost can balloon out due to several undisclosed fees that are added to the final bill.

These charges can range from airport fees, road tax, and licensing fees, to environmental or “eco” fees, among others.

Upon arrival, you are presented with a total price far exceeding the initial quote. Given that you’re already at the rental office, perhaps even with a fully planned itinerary relying on the vehicle, you will feel forced into paying these unforeseen expenses.

Most rental agencies will pick you up from outside the airport - Right side as you exit the terminal
Most rental agencies will pick you up from outside the San Jose International Airport – Right side as you exit the terminal

Remember, not all costs are necessarily deceitful. Some, like the airport concession fee (around 12%) if you rent directly from the airport, are legitimate and commonplace. However, the issue arises when the rental company is not actually at the airport and they pick you up from the terminal so they should not apply any airport fee at all.

Always make sure that at least the Airport surcharge is included as well as the State Tax. You can always book the car and send an email asking if anything is missing from the quote. If not happy cancel the booking, it is usually free if done in advance.

On my last trip, I got charged for the mandatory LPF (License Plate Fee) at 6% of the total amount. Other rental companies don’t do that.

ERA (Emergency Roadside Assistance) and LPF (License Plate Fee) costs in my last Costa Rica rental car insurance contract
ERA (Emergency Roadside Assistance) and LPF (License Plate Fee) costs in my last Costa Rica rental car insurance contract.

The point here is that there is always a Mystery Fee around the corner however, once you get the correct insurance and you make sure the main fees above are included, you should expect only an increase of 5-10% on the quoted price, take it as a donation to the local community.

Finally, if you are thinking of renting a car without a credit card in Costa Rica, be aware that the rental company will charge you more for the deposit and you will possibly have to buy more insurance too.

They obviously want to cover themselves from cars disappearing, however, the charged deposit can be really outrageous. Another good reason to use your credit card for the security deposit.

Damage Charge Scam: Charging customers for pre-existing damages

When you rent a car in Costa Rica, the first step you undertake is usually a preliminary inspection of the vehicle to identify and record any pre-existing damage. This is an important process for both the renter and the rental company. However, there’s a widespread scam associated with this process.

In the Unseen Damage scam, the rental company might accuse you of causing damage that was either pre-existing or even non-existent. This is usually small and hard-to-notice damage. Think about a tiny scratch or dent, typically unnoticed during the initial inspection. After returning the car, you would be presented with a bill for the repair costs.

The scam works because most people, in their excitement or tiredness after a long flight, fail to carry out a thorough inspection of the car before driving away. Most renters merely glance over the car, sign the papers, and leave.

To avoid falling victim to this scam, be sure to inspect the car thoroughly before signing any agreements. Check the body, wheels, roof, interior, and windshield carefully, and take photos and a video if possible. The rental agent should be present during this inspection and any pre-existing damage should be marked on the rental agreement.

Remember to take photos of both the outside and the inside of the car.

This scam happened to me at the airport, they wanted to charge me over $200 for a small dent. Luckily I had a photo proving the dent was already there when I picked up the car.

Keep in mind that the CDW from most rental agencies has a deductible ranging between $1,000 and $3,000. This is the amount of money that you will pay before the insurance kicks in.

Also, consider buying a full insurance policy that would cover the CDW deductible. Nowadays I rent my vehicle at DiscoverCars and I include their full insurance which is a real bargain at $7/day, besides great peace of mind.

Finally, be clear about the procedure in case of damage. Should you take the car to a specified garage, or do you just return the car and they sort it out? Knowing this beforehand can save a lot of headaches later.

Take photos of the inside especially where you see white stains
Take photos of the inside especially where you see white stains (these usually come with saltwater but you can remove them in case)

Unnecessary Upgrade Scam

The Unnecessary Upgrade Scam is a recurring issue where rental agencies may employ persuasive tactics to sell you upgrades that you may not necessarily need. These upgrades can range from larger vehicles to higher-tier insurance plans, both promising a safer, more comfortable experience.

Agents may assert that the challenging road conditions in Costa Rica necessitate a more robust vehicle or more comprehensive insurance. They might portray these upgrades as indispensable, creating a sense of urgency or need.

While Costa Rica does have a diverse landscape with varying road conditions, it’s essential to research your planned routes in advance and understand the kind of vehicle you require.

It’s vital to stand firm against high-pressure sales tactics and make choices based on your budget, comfort level, and actual needs. Always remember, the final decision is yours.

I am honestly too soft sometimes, but luckily nowadays I travel mostly with my wife that is very firm. I am happy to leave her to manage the pickup 🙂 .

I decided once to take the Emergency Roadside Assistance (ERA) at $2/day not even realizing it was already included in my DiscoverCars full insurance. I guess it was a late, tiring day and I did not pay attention, and honestly, this is what they are counting on, any weakness to push you an unnecessary upgrade of policies or cars.

Fuel Scam in Costa Rica

The Fuel Scam is also quite popular in Costa Rica. This scam works like this: when you pick up your rental car, the tank is full. The rental company asks you to return it with the tank empty, charging you upfront for a full tank of fuel, often at an inflated price.

However, unless you’re planning extensive travel, it’s nearly impossible to return the car completely empty, and the leftover fuel in the tank becomes a hidden cost.

Fuel policies should be transparent, and the most common and fair practice is the ‘full-to-full’ policy. You pick up the car with a full tank and return it full, thus paying only for the fuel you use.

To avoid the Fuel Scam, always check the company’s fuel policy before finalizing the booking (it’s usually included on DiscoverCars).

If they apply the ‘full-to-empty’ policy, it might be a good idea to estimate your route’s length and fuel consumption before accepting the deal. Alternatively, consider seeking a rental company offering a ‘full-to-full’ fuel policy.

Roads in Costa Rica are quite often unsealed but still very doable
Roads in Costa Rica are quite often unsealed but still very doable

Unavailability Scam

The Unavailability Scam can be an unwelcome surprise when renting a car in Costa Rica. In this situation, you reserve a car online at an attractive rate, only to arrive and find that your specific car is not available.

The rental company may claim they’ve run out of that model, or there’s been an error in their booking system. Inevitably, they’ll offer a replacement – typically a more expensive, upgraded model. The catch is that you’re expected to cover the price difference.

This scam essentially hinges on the presumption that having already arrived and needed a vehicle, you’ll be more likely to accept the upsell rather than seek a car elsewhere. It is sometimes common during high season when demand for rental cars is high, and availability may genuinely be low.

To avoid this scam, try to book through a reputable car rental company that usually upgrades for free. Read reviews and check ratings to get a sense of their customer service and reliability. If possible, take with you written confirmation of your exact car model at the time of booking.

Another tip to dodge this scam is to arrive early. It’s less likely for the rental company to run out of your car model early in the day. Finally, if all else fails, consider walking away and finding another rental company. You deserve to get the car you reserved at the price agreed upon.

Early Return Fee Scam

The Early Return Fee Scam can catch unsuspecting car renters off-guard in Costa Rica. Imagine this scenario: You rented a car for a week, but your plans change, and you decide to return the vehicle two days early, assuming you’d save some money. Instead, when you return the car, you’re hit with an early return fee.

This scam is rooted in the fact that car rental companies plan their inventory based on reservations. When a car is returned early, it may sit idle, not earning the company any money. To recoup these perceived losses, some rental companies will charge an early return fee.

The only possible way to avoid this scam is to check the rental agreement’s fine print and plan accurately your stay in Costa Rica.

Honestly, it’s hard to think someone returning the car days earlier than expected, unless there is an emergency that could be already covered by your travel insurance.

Just keep in mind that, on the opposite side, late return fees apply. Typically they charge one day even for a few hour’s delay.

Do not overtake like this car in a place you clearly cannot
Do not overtake like this car in a place you clearly cannot

Excessive Toll and Traffic Fine Scam

When driving in Costa Rica, a new foreign country, you might not be familiar with local traffic laws, speed limits, or toll charges, which can lead to inadvertently committing traffic violations or missing toll payments.

Now here is the tip. If you get a traffic ticket from the police, make sure to pay it straight away (typically at the bank).

Do not leave it behind because the rental company will take care of it, including additional “administration fees” or “processing fees” for handling the ticket, significantly increasing the cost of the fine that will be charged to your credit card later on.

Excessive Cleaning Fee Scam

The Excessive Cleaning Fee Scam is yet another pitfall to avoid when renting a car in Costa Rica. While it’s reasonable for rental companies to charge for cleaning if a vehicle is returned in an excessively dirty condition, some unscrupulous companies take advantage of this and impose hefty cleaning fees for minor dirt or mess.

In this scam, the car rental company might scrutinize the car upon return and complain about minor issues, such as sand on the floor mats or crumbs on the seats.

These fees are far surpassing the cost of a regular car wash or interior cleaning. Unfortunately, these charges are usually added to the final bill after the vehicle is returned when you are in a rush to catch the flight back home.

To protect yourself from this scam, just return the car in as clean a state as possible. Regularly clean up during your rental period, especially before returning the car. Remove all trash, clean the seats and floors, and wipe down surfaces.

Reductors or bumps are very common in Costa Rica
Reductors or bumps are very common in Costa Rica

Conclusion

Let me stress that a good number of these scams happen in most countries of the world, probably except the insurance scams that are so annoying in Costa Rica. My suggestion here is to be aware of them but don’t be stressed by them.

And if you are still thinking about renting a car in Costa Rica, these scams should not push you off this fabulous idea. For example, there are scams also with buses but this should not mean you should avoid public transportation. You get the point, be vigilant and alert but don’t give up on your car adventure in this amazing country.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the most common car rental scam in Costa Rica?

Hidden fees are common, usually in the form of undisclosed mandatory insurance costs and must-have optional insurance added at the rental desk.

Do they charge more for young drivers when renting a car?

If you ask yourself how old you have to be to rent a car in Costa Rica, just be aware that a few renters do not hire cars for young drivers, typically below 23 years old. Some they do but they may charge you a fee.

Are late or early return fees common in Costa Rica?

Yes, to avoid them, adhere strictly to your rental contract’s agreed-upon return time.

How much to rent a car in Costa Rica

It is not expensive to rent a car in Costa Rica, however, the hidden fees may influence the final cost. This is why I have written this guide so you can avoid or limit the damage

How can I avoid getting overcharged for tolls or traffic fines?

Pay tolls yourself and ask for receipts. If ticketed, pay fines directly to the traffic department or the bank

Is it worth renting a car in Costa Rica?

Totally, it is going to be a unique adventure, made of many stops in hidden gen otherwise unreachable by public transportation, like I did in this amazing road trip in Costa Rica.

Can I dispute unnecessary roadside assistance fees?

Yes, always check your bill and dispute any charges that you did not explicitly agree to. Do that before leaving the rental parking.

Is insurance always included in the car rental price in Costa Rica?

Not always. Mandatory insurance may be an extra charge, so check carefully the rental conditions to make sure it’s included.

Stefano Ferro - MEL365.com Founder and Editor

About the Author

Stefano is a seasoned travel expert and the visionary founder of MEL365.com, a leading travel website with traffic across 6 continents. With a rich background in the travel industry, Stefano spent four pivotal years at Amadeus Travel Distribution System, gaining invaluable insights into travel technologies and distribution.

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