Do you need to rent a car in Costa Rica? 50 pros and cons
Actually, do you need to rent a car in Costa Rica? My personal answer is yes if you want to experience the best of the country, the little gems, the hidden beaches, and the secret corners of the massive rain forest. However, don’t take my answer for granted, because driving a car in this Central American country has its own disadvantages.
In this guide, I have organized 50 benefits and drawbacks of renting a car in Costa Rica based on my experience. This should give you a balanced perspective. I have also included alternatives to driving such as public buses, private shuttles, taxis or ride-sharing services, and domestic flights.
Overall, this guide should help you decide whether hiring a car in Costa Rica is your thing or otherwise what works best based on your time and budget.
But let’s start straight away from the pros.
Benefits of Renting a Car in Costa Rica
- Freedom to explore Costa Rica’s diverse landscapes at your own pace. With a rented car, you can navigate Costa Rica’s various environments from its verdant rainforests to its pristine coastlines, rugged mountains, and bustling towns and cities.
- Convenience of reaching secluded Costa Rican beaches off the beaten track. With a car, you can easily reach Costa Rica’s more remote beaches that are often overlooked by travellers. Enjoy tranquility and maybe catch a glimpse of a sea turtle nesting, all away from the usual busy destinations.
- Flexibility to enjoy spontaneous wildlife spotting, Costa Rica is rich in biodiversity. With a car, you have the flexibility to pull over and appreciate Costa Rica’s unique wildlife when you spot it. Whether it’s a group of howler monkeys or a slow-moving sloth, these impromptu wildlife encounters often become a trip highlight.
- Ability to explore numerous national parks and reserves in one day. Renting a car gives you the freedom to explore several national parks in one day. This is particularly advantageous in Costa Rica, where each park offers a unique ecosystem and a variety of wildlife.
- Opportunity to discover charming Tico towns and villages. Renting a car gives you the chance to venture into small towns and rural villages. These communities, referred to locally as “Tico” towns, offer a glimpse into traditional Costa Rican life and are known for their warmth and hospitality.
- Ideal for surfers to carry their boards to various Costa Rican surf spots. If you’re planning to surf, having a rented car is essential. It allows you to easily transport your surfboards and gear to various surf spots across the country, giving you the opportunity to ride the waves at different beaches. It is highly suggested for beginner surfers in Costa Rica looking for the easiest waves around your stay.
- Comfort for families traveling with children to attractions like Arenal Volcano. A rental car provides families with children a comfortable way to travel to various attractions like Arenal Volcano or Manuel Antonio National Park. It allows for necessary stops for snacks, rests, and unexpected bathroom breaks that are part of traveling with children.
- Independence from tour schedules and public transportation. With a rental car, you’re not bound by the schedules of public transportation or tour groups. You have so much more flexibility. You can begin your day whenever you want and of course, you can spend as much time as you desire at your preferred beach or waterfall.
- Benefit from door-to-door travel from your accommodation. Renting a car gives you the convenience of door-to-door travel. No need to navigate public transport or arrange for a pickup. Drive straight between your favorite places to stay in Costa Rica, saving time and effort.
- No time wasted at bus stations waiting for public transportation: Renting a car eliminates the need to wait at bus stations for scheduled departures and interconnections. This means less downtime and more opportunity to immerse yourself in Costa Rica’s unique experiences.
- Perfect for multi-destination trips, like the Pacific Coast to the Caribbean Coast: Renting a car in Costa Rica will help immensely when your itinerary involves moving from the Pacific to the Caribbean Coast. Besides being more flexible, getting from the east to the west side of the country requires multiple stops and interconnected buses. The trip time becomes unbearably extended, with possible night stops along the route.
- Take scenic routes and enjoy Costa Rica’s picturesque landscapes: A rental car allows you to take scenic detours, enjoy Costa Rica’s stunning landscapes, and stop whenever you wish to take photographs. This flexibility adds an extra layer of adventure to your travels.
- Possibility of last-minute detours to local festivals or events: Costa Rica is known for its vibrant local festivals and events. Renting a car gives you the freedom to make last-minute detours and join in these cultural celebrations, making your visit even more memorable.
- Independence to explore coffee plantations and rural farms: Costa Rica is famous for its coffee plantations and rural farms. With a rental car, you have the independence to explore these at your leisure, learning about Costa Rica’s agricultural heritage firsthand. No need to book expensive tours.
- Reduces dependence on taxi services in remote areas: In remote areas of Costa Rica, taxi services can be limited and expensive. Rent a car instead to have a more reliable mode of transport no matter where you are.
- Facilitates early morning departures for adventure sports: If you’re planning any adventure sports, many of which start in the first part of the morning, a rental car is ideal. It facilitates early departures, ensuring you don’t miss out on any action.
- Ensures safe transport of valuable items: Renting a car provides a safe and secure place to store your valuable items while traveling. Whether it’s camera equipment or souvenirs, a rental car keeps your possessions more secure. However, never leave any visible belonging in the car, not even for just a few minutes.
- Flexibility for explorations beyond the Central Valley: While the Central Valley has its charms, there’s so much more to Costa Rica. With a rental car, you have the flexibility to explore beyond the Valley and delve into the true essence of Costa Rica.
- Potential savings for groups traveling together: If you’re traveling in a group or family, renting a car can offer significant savings over individual fares for public transport or taxis. Plus, it adds to the fun of shared exploration.
- Good for travelers looking for an active vacation with biking or hiking equipment: Carrying outdoor equipment like bikes or hiking gear can be challenging on public transport. A rental car provides ample storage space, making it easier for those planning an active vacation in Costa Rica.
- Better for long-distance travel within the country: For long-distance journeys across Costa Rica, a rental car offers superior comfort and convenience. You will be able to plan so much more and organize stops along the route, something impossible with public transportation.
- Convenience for people not used to walking long distances: If long walks or treks aren’t your thing, a rental car is a boon. It saves energy for other activities and ensures you can traverse Costa Rica’s diverse terrains with minimal fatigue.
- Quick and convenient airport arrivals/transfers: It will be so much easier to arrive after a long flight to the airport, pick up the car, and drive to your first accommodation than searching for a bus, arriving at your destination town, and walking to your accommodation, all in the Caribbean heat.
- Facilitates exploring off-the-grid eco-lodges: Costa Rica boasts numerous eco-lodges situated in remote, off-the-grid locations. A rental car gives you the freedom to explore these unique accommodations, many of which are inaccessible by public transport.
- The ability to create memorable Costa Rican road trip experiences: There’s something special about a road trip, and with a rental car, you have the chance to create your own unforgettable Costa Rican road trip experience. From sunrise drives to sunset vistas, the memories you make are yours to keep.
Drawbacks of Renting a Car in Costa Rica
- High Rental Costs in Costa Rica: Renting a car in Costa Rica can be expensive, particularly during peak tourist seasons. Prices often include only the base rate, with add-ons increasing the total cost significantly.
- Fuel Expenses in Costa Rica: Gas prices in Costa Rica can be higher than what you’re used to. It’s certainly more expensive than in USA and Australia, however, it is similar in price to Europe and UK
- Mandatory Insurance Payments: In Costa Rica, it’s obligatory to take insurance when renting a car. This cost, often not included in the advertised rental rate, can add a substantial amount to the total bill. I have talked extensively about rental car insurance in Costa Rica, a guide I suggest reading before booking a vehicle.
- Unexpected Additional Charges: Costa Rica car rentals may come with additional charges for services like GPS, child seats, or additional drivers, potentially inflating the total cost beyond your initial budget.
- Risk of Vehicle Damage: Costa Rica’s rough terrain and variable weather conditions could increase the risk of vehicle damage, which you’d be liable for as the renter, unless you take full insurance, of course
- Requirement of Valid Driver’s License: A valid driver’s license from your home country is required when renting a car in Costa Rica. If your license is not written in Roman characters, for example in Chinese, Arabic, or Cyrillic, then you need an IDP (International Driving Permit) too
- Risk of Theft or Vandalism: Costa Rica, like any country, has incidents of car theft or vandalism. Renting a car exposes you to these risks, especially in certain areas or when parking overnight.
- Navigating Unfamiliar Roads: Driving in Costa Rica means dealing with unfamiliar road conditions and traffic patterns. This can be challenging and stressful for some drivers.
- Difficulty Driving in Rough Weather: Rainy season can lead to challenging driving conditions, including slick roads and reduced visibility, making driving more difficult and potentially dangerous. I usually suggest renting a 4×4 car in Costa Rica when visiting between May and October.
- Dealing with Costa Rican Traffic Rules: Traffic rules and road etiquette in Costa Rica can differ from what you’re used to, requiring an adjustment period and increased vigilance while driving.
- Potential Car Breakdowns in Costa Rica: The diverse terrain and sometimes rough roads in Costa Rica could lead to unexpected car breakdowns, causing delays and potential repair costs.
- Excessive Paperwork for Renting: Renting a car in Costa Rica involves a fair bit of paperwork. From insurance documents to rental agreements, this can be time-consuming and slightly overwhelming. It’s not much different from most countries in the world, including the USA or the UK, but it’s still a hassle.
- Requirement of International Credit Card: Most car rental companies in Costa Rica require an international credit card for the security deposit. There are still ways to rent a car in Costa Rica without Credit Card but it’s not as easy.
- Required minimum age: There is a minimum age to rent a car in Costa Rica. This may be different and based on the rental company. There is also a young driver fee that a few rentals add for under-25 drivers.
- Deposit Requirements: Costa Rican car rental companies require a significant deposit held on your credit card ($1,000-$4,000), which could temporarily affect your available funds.
- Liability for Damages: As a renter, you could be liable for any damages to the vehicle. In Costa Rica’s diverse terrain, the risk of minor damages like scratches or dents could be higher. I personally suggest organizing full insurance. There are cheap options, even down at $7/day with DiscoverCars
- Stress of Driving in a Foreign Country: Driving in a foreign country like Costa Rica can be stressful due to unfamiliar roads, traffic rules, and driving culture, besides a different language.
- Rental Scam Risks: Like any popular tourist destination, you may find potential car rental scams in Costa Rica. Insurance requirements are usually where rental companies try to make the most of the money.
- Parking Fees at Tourist Destinations: Popular tourist spots in Costa Rica may charge for parking. Quite often you will notice locals running unofficial parking areas where they will look after your car for a small tip. Honestly, it’s actually a great service because you will enjoy your day without worrying about the parked car.
- Dealing with Car Rental Disputes: Should any issues arise with the car or the rental terms, resolving disputes can be more challenging in a foreign country due to language barriers or unfamiliarity with local laws. Take full insurance to limit these disputes.
- Dealing with Local Law Enforcement: If traffic violations occur while driving in Costa Rica, you will have to deal directly with local law enforcement, which can be a stressful and unfamiliar process.
- Difficulty in Finding Reputable Rental Companies: Choosing a reliable rental company in Costa Rica may be challenging for foreign travelers due to language barriers and limited familiarity with the local market. I usually book my cars on DiscoverCars where rental companies are ranked based on renters’ feedback, a sort of Airbnb of cars.
- Driving on the Right-Hand Side: Costa Rica, like most countries, drives on the right-hand side. If you’re from a left-hand driving country, this adjustment can be confusing and challenging.
- Carbon Footprint: Renting a car, especially a large or inefficient one, can have a significant environmental impact. Costa Rica is renowned for its biodiversity, and driving contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
- Difficulty in Finding Parking Spaces at Night: In busy Costa Rican towns or during peak tourist season, finding a safe and convenient parking spot at night can be challenging, adding to your stress and logistical considerations. I always suggest investigating with your accommodation manager before arriving. I never had an issue but I always made sure to book places with parking (most offer it, they know that is important)
Getting around Costa Rica
Probably, you have now more of an idea if you need to rent a car in Costa Rica, after this long list of pros and cons.
I personally always highly suggest hiring a vehicle but you really should be aware of all the advantages and drawbacks of this choice.
Here below I have organized more information about all means of transportation in Costa Rica.
Renting a car
I wrote extensively about renting a car in Costa Rica in this guide. You will find all the information you need, including the scams you want to avoid. I also organized another great source of information about driving in Costa Rica, which is similar to other countries, however, it has a few local challenges you should be aware of.
I usually book my cars on DiscoverCars, a website that compares international and local rental companies providing the best deal. I love the fact that they rank the rental agencies based on the renters’ feedback (sort of Airbnb of cars) and they also provide full insurance for just $7/day which is a bargain in my eyes.
Here below I have organized a table of drives between popular Costa Rican destinations. I have replicated this table for buses so you can compare the difference in traveling time.
|Departure Place||Arrival Place||Approx Travel Time||Distance (Miles/Km)|
|San José||Manuel Antonio National Park||2.5-3 hours||100 miles / 160 Km|
|San José||Arenal Volcano||3-3.5 hours||85 miles / 136 Km|
|San José||Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve||3-3.5 hours||90 miles / 144 Km|
|San José||Tortuguero National Park||3.5-4 hours||125 miles / 200 Km|
|San José||Corcovado National Park||6-7 hours||220 miles / 354 Km|
|San José||Guanacaste Beaches||3.5-4 hours||150 miles / 241 Km|
|San José||Poás Volcano National Park||1-1.5 hours||20 miles / 32 Km|
|San José||La Fortuna Waterfall||2.5-3 hours||80 miles / 128 Km|
|San José||Tamarindo||4-4.5 hours||150 miles / 241 Km|
|Tamarindo||Manuel Antonio National Park||5-6 hours||210 miles / 337 Km|
|Arenal Volcano||Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve||3-3.5 hours||65 miles / 104 Km|
Public Transportation: Buses and Coaches
Public transportation in Costa Rica is reasonably well-developed and can get you to most parts of the country. They provide a cheap and somewhat reliable option for getting around.
Both local and long-distance services operate regularly, connecting major cities, tourist destinations, and even remote areas. However, keep in mind that traveling by bus is slower due to frequent stops and the need to navigate the schedule and routes. It can become unbearably slow when you have interconnected buses.
Here below I have organised a table with a few popular routes. I suggest checking the Bus website for the most up-to-date cost and timetable
|Departure Place||Arrival Place||Approx Travel Time||Bus Company||Frequency||Approximate Cost|
|San José||Manuel Antonio National Park||3-4 hours||Tracopa||Several times daily||$10|
|San José||Arenal Volcano||4-5 hours||Transportes Venecia||Twice daily||$15|
|San José||Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve||4-5 hours||Transmonteverde||Twice daily||$15|
|San José||Tortuguero National Park||5-6 hours||Caribeños||Twice daily||$15|
|San José||Corcovado National Park||8-9 hours||Tracopa to Puerto Jiménez, then local bus||Once daily||$25|
|San José||Guanacaste Beaches||4-5 hours||Pulmitan de Liberia||Several times daily||$20|
|San José||Poás Volcano National Park||1-2 hours||Alajuela Bus, then taxi||Several times daily||$5-$10|
|San José||La Fortuna Waterfall||4-5 hours||Autotransportes San José Venecia||Several times daily||$10|
|San José||Tamarindo||5-6 hours||Empresa Alfaro||Twice daily||$20|
|Tamarindo||Manuel Antonio National Park||8-10 hours||Empresa Alfaro to San José, then Tracopa||Twice daily||$35|
|Arenal Volcano||Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve||2-3 hours||Jeep-Boat-Jeep services||Several times daily||$25|
The traveling time can be much much longer when you have a trip with interconnected transportation. You may end up waiting for hours between buses, unfortunately.
Keep also in mind that San José is the transportation hub. Traveling between destinations without going back to the capital city may be not possible.
Private shuttles are a great alternative to renting a car and public transportation. Usually, you can book them at the local travel agencies. This is a service that is used mostly by tourists that want to speed up the travel time, possibly too long with the local buses.
These services usually operate between major tourist areas and offer door-to-door service from hotels or airports.
Private shuttles are pricier than public buses but provide a reliable, convenient, and timely way to travel, ideal if you prefer a set schedule and a more relaxed journey, spending a bit more on the ticket.
Taxis or Ride-Sharing Services
Taxis and ride-sharing services like Uber are also available in Costa Rica, particularly in larger cities and tourist hotspots. I prefer Uber because, although more expensive, it will save you the hassle of possible scams from taxi drivers (like anywhere in the world).
Either way, both options provide a quick and easy way to get around. It’s flexible and you can organize it just with an App.
It’s perfect for short trips within cities or for getting to specific destinations without the need to navigate public transportation schedules or routes. However, these options can be very expensive for long distances compared to buses or shuttles.
Domestic Flights in Costa Rica
In Costa Rica, the concept of time and distance can take on a whole new meaning due to the diverse geography and varying road conditions. Long-distance travel here often becomes an adventurous endeavor, but if your itinerary doesn’t allow for extended road trips, domestic flights come to the rescue.
Costa Rica boasts an efficient network of regional airports that are well-served by local airlines.
This network provides a quick and convenient mode of transportation for those who want to minimize transit times and maximize the time spent exploring. Sansa and Skyway are among the most popular airlines that offer regular flights between Costa Rica’s major destinations.
Whether you’re aiming to go from the bustling streets of San Jose to the tranquil beaches of Guanacaste or planning an expedition from the majestic Arenal Volcano to the rich biodiversity of the Osa Peninsula, domestic flights are a practical choice.
These are some popular flight connections, approximate frequency, and costs.
|Departure Place||Arrival Place||Airline||Frequency||Approximate Cost|
|San Jose||Osa Peninsula||Skyway||Daily||$155|
|Guanacaste||Arenal||Skyway||3 times a week||$200|
|Arenal||Manuel Antonio||Sansa||3 times a week||$145|
|Manuel Antonio||San Jose||Skyway||Daily||$100|
Keep in mind that I have organized this table just to give you an idea, however, the routes, the frequency, and the cost can be changed at any time by the Airline.
Similarly to buses, also airlines tend to use San Jose as the central hub of the country.