Last updated on June 2, 2024 by Stefano Ferro, founder of MEL365, travelling and renting cars In Costa Rica

Renting a Car in Costa Rica:You Need to Know this SERIOUSLY

Renting a car in Costa Rica should be at the top of your checklist when planning your adventure in this Central American paradise.

Hiring a vehicle in Costa Rica gives you the flexibility to customize your itinerary, avoid crowded public transportation, and discover hidden gems unreachable by public transportation.

This comprehensive guide will demystify the car rental process, cover every question on insurance, describe the typical scams to avoid, share tips on navigating local roads, and provide insight into Costa Rican driving customs.

But let’s dig into it with the pros and cons of the choice.

Costa Rica - Pura Vida which means all and none but mostly take it easy
Costa Rica – Pura Vida which means all and none but mostly take it easy

Table of Contents

Why Rent a Car in Costa Rica?

Pros on hiring a vehicle in Costa Rica

Renting a car in Costa Rica opens up a world of opportunities for travelers. Think about the freedom to explore at your own pace, the ability to stop at a roadside stand for fresh fruit or pause at a stunning overlook for a photo opportunity.

No waiting for crowded buses or negotiating with taxi drivers. It’s just you, the open road, and the vibrant landscapes of Costa Rica.

The adaptability offered by a rental car is a game-changer. Costa Rica boasts diverse environments, ranging from lush rainforests and pristine beaches to towering volcanoes and dynamic towns.

With a rental car, you can seamlessly navigate these varied terrains, crafting a travel itinerary that aligns with your unique interests.

Whether you’re drawn to the surf-friendly shores of the Pacific coast, the hiking trails of the cloud forests, or the cultural richness of San José, a rental car puts you in the driver’s seat of your own adventure.

At first glance, renting a car can appear costly, but it’s important to consider the advantages in the long run. The expenses associated with public transportation and guided tours can accumulate quickly.

A rental car allows you to share costs among your travel companions and bypass the need for expensive tour packages, potentially saving you money in the long run.

Moreover, a rental car enhances your overall travel experience. It offers amenities like air conditioning and ample luggage space and gives you the freedom to choose your travel companions.

There is a Playa Hermosa every region you drive - This one is next to Jaco
There is a Playa Hermosa in every region you drive – This one is next to Jaco

Cons on renting a car in Costa Rica

There are a few things you should be aware of when renting a car. This will help you to have a stress-free vacation

Let’s start with the most annoying thing. Car rental companies often advertise low daily rates, but mandatory insurance can triple or quadruple your total costs (I consider this a scam and I will talk more about it later).

Fuel prices are similar to the USA and Australia and surely more convenient than in Europe. Although this is not a major factor, you should consider it as part of your vacation expenses. Same for parking.

I did not drive inside San Jose where parking comes at a premium. Anywhere else it is mostly free or you need to tip (just a few dollars) the usual local looking unofficially after your car.

Next, navigating through Costa Rica’s rugged landscape can be daunting for even the most experienced drivers. The country’s mountainous terrain, coupled with its often poorly maintained rural roads, can pose significant challenges.

Based on my experience, I would for example never suggest driving in the night.

Plan your trips in the daylight. I still remember our first night with a car driving to our accommodation late in the day (due to a delayed flight). The roads were poorly lighted up and we drove in a sizeable pothole. The morning after we discovered missing air in our tire, easy to fix luckily.

Wild animals are another thing you want to avoid, and that is why driving at sunset/sunrise is never a great idea.

During the rainy season, some roads may become blocked. It also happened to us on our last trip in late November. We personally got used to these problems, which can be easily avoided using Waze.

It’s a very popular App in Costa Rica, constantly updated with closed roads, police check places, and other issues. A must-have (more on this later).

Another significant point is the responsibility and liability that comes with renting a car. Accidents may happen of course, and that is why I always suggest full insurance (no excess) that you can easily add to your rented car for just $7/day (more on this later in the Planning Your Rental section).

I have been renting from the same provider (DiscoverCars) for several years and I submitted a claim on two occasions and the entire process was so smooth, really a no-worries experience.

We love renting cars wherever we go in the world, including unconventional destinations. Driving a car in Costa Rica is certainly not as smooth as in the USA, Germany, or Australia, however, very similar to many countries of the so-called first world.

In saying that first-time visitors to the country may feel stressed, possibly even for the different language they are used to. Understanding local driving customs, road signs mostly in Spanish, and the possible erratic driving behaviors of locals can cause anxiety.

But honestly, you will soon understand how things are slower in Costa Rica, so just relax and you will be part of “erratic local driving“.

I wanted to include the drawbacks of driving a car in Costa Rica because I feel it’s important to understand the full picture, not just the advantages. In saying that, I honestly believe the pros widely outweigh the cons in Costa Rica.

We visited so many unexpected destinations, and more importantly, we were able to change our plans almost daily, based on the weather, the accommodation availability in the best Costa Rican areas, or just how we felt in a place. Basically, total freedom.

Son and father at Jaco Beach - so friendly
Son and father at Jaco Beach – so friendly

Requirements for Hiring a Car in Costa Rica

Your age plays a pivotal role in whether you can rent a car in Costa Rica. Officially, the legal driving age in the country is 18. However, many car rental companies require at least 21 and in some cases 23 years old.

Some companies even impose an additional ‘young driver surcharge’ for those under 25. Therefore, ensure you check with your chosen rental company for their specific age restrictions before booking.

Next, your driving license is the most significant documentation required for car rental. However, you can use your driving license, the one you use in your country, only up to 3 months. For this reason, remember to carry your passport as proof of your entrance date into the country.

The International Driving Permit (IDP) is not mandatory if your driving license is in Latin letters, which means readable by the local police. You would need to apply for an IDP if your license is written, for example, in Hebrew, Chinese, or Arabic.

This is essentially a translation of your driver’s license and is recognized worldwide. It’s also a useful backup to prove that you’re legally entitled to drive if questioned by local authorities. Remember, you should carry your domestic driver’s license alongside the IDP, as it’s not a substitute but a supplementary document.

The last important requirement is a valid credit card to cover the deposit. The rental company will put a hold on a certain amount as a security deposit during your rental period. It’s released back once the vehicle is returned in its original condition.

Rental Conditions
Typical requirements for renting a car in Costa Rica – Keep in mind that different providers may have dissimilar rental conditions

You can usually book and pay for your car with a debit card. You need however a credit card for the security deposit, even if you have full insurance.

I have investigated with a few rental agencies in the country if you can rent a car in Costa Rica without a credit card and I got these interesting options.

Planning Your Rental

When to book your rental car

My first suggestion here is that you should not waste any time and book well in advance. During high seasons like Christmas, New Year, and Easter, and during peak tourism months (December through April), rental cars can be scarce and prices rise.

In this case, try to book as early as you can, you will have a greater choice at a cheaper price. You will certainly have more flexibility If you’re traveling in the off-peak or rainy season (May through November).

On my last trip in November, I tried using a new service on a chatbox that booked me a car in San Jose at a very competitive price. I arrived at the airport to pick up the vehicle to find out it was actually booked in San Jose, California and they could offer cars only at a much higher price (was it a scam? Read the full story in my Costa Rica scam post).

I reverted back to my usual provider, DiscoverCars, and in no time I found a deal and my vacation was safe. Certainly, I did not get the best price for November, I reckon it was 10-15% more than usual for the period, but still, I could find another car in a few minutes, something you won’t be able in peak holiday time.

Busy Tamarindo center in the morning
Busy Tamarindo Center in the morning (December)

Where to book your rental car

Choosing where to book your rental car is equally crucial. Numerous international and local companies operate in Costa Rica. Booking directly through a reputable company’s website may seem the best option, however, this is not what I usually suggest.

The main reason is the cost of full insurance that these rental agencies offer, typically very expensive ($20-$50/day). Let me stress here how important is to have no excess insurance, it will give you such peace of mind, especially if you plan to go off roads, and it will happen in Costa Rica, even for a few hundred meters.

I usually rent my cars with DiscoverCars (a rental aggregator) for two great reasons. Firstly because they offer full insurance (no excess) at just $7-8/day and secondly because they have a rating of all the hiring companies so you know what to expect from the rental agencies (a sort of AirBnb of cars).

And let me say that I damaged the cars on two occasions (a $4K damage in one case) and they paid back everything (the process may have been slower than I wanted but it did happen, which was absolutely great for such a small daily cost).

Best car rental in Costa Rica: local vs. international companies

In true honesty, I could not spot a difference between local and international companies in Costa Rica. True, names like National or AVIS can make you feel more comfortable and confident with your choice, but, at least based on my experience, I found issues and, at the same time, great service with both the big corporates and the small fish.

I had only one big problem in Costa Rica and it happened with SIXT. I am sure it was an occasional mistake and I was fully refunded at the end. I had no troubles at all with the local renters, however, I heard other travelers had. You get the point. Reliability of service is not always connected to the big names.

It must be said that international companies have usually newer vehicles (don’t take it as a rule though), however, they charge typically more too. I feel also that plenty of reviews on Google Maps are fake, especially when done by people who left just 2-3 reviews in their entire life, possibly to only car rental companies.

I say that for too good-to-be-true comments as well as for damaging reviews, possibly done by competitors.

I personally try to go for the locals, it makes me feel better knowing the money stays in Costa Rica.

Types of Rental Cars Available

Costa Rica is a country of varying terrains, from smooth city roads to challenging mountainous tracks and beachside paths. Therefore, the type of car you rent should be based on your planned route and activities.

Compact or economy cars can be a good choice for major centers and are often the most affordable option. These vehicles, however, may not perform well on rough roads or steep hills. For rural areas with rougher roads, a 4×4 or an SUV might be your best bet. These vehicles offer a more robust handling of Costa Rica’s diverse landscapes.

Just a warning, Google Maps is not always updated with the road condition (waze works better) and it may create a route through impossible unsealed paths.

Personally, I always suggest a 4×4 in Costa Rica because you will be able to drive everywhere and even more important you will be able to discover the most hidden corners of this amazing country.

I once rented an economy car but I ended up hiring a quad/ATV on a few occasions to explore the countryside and a few stunning beaches. So, in the end, I didn’t save much.

Exploring around Santa Teresa with an ATV - you would need a 4x4 otherwise
Exploring around Santa Teresa with an ATV – you would need a 4×4 otherwise

Understanding Rental Rates and Hidden Fees

As with any travel plan, understanding the full cost of renting a car in Costa Rica, including hidden fees and additional charges, can save you from unwanted surprises.

Explanation of daily rental rates

Rental rates in Costa Rica are often quoted as a daily rate. This rate usually includes the cost of the rental car itself, but not always additional expenses like insurance or taxes. The daily price is related to the car model, the time of the year you will be visiting, the rental agency, and other factors

Additional costs

The most significant additional cost is usually mandatory insurance. In Costa Rica, all renters must have liability insurance, which can sometimes double the base rental rate. I will talk more extensively in the next chapter about insurance.

Other costs can include optional insurance coverages, additional drivers, GPS or child seats, and airport concession fees. It’s essential to understand what’s included in your quoted rate and what isn’t.

This is another reason I like to use DiscoverCars because it is very clear about what’s included and what’s not.

I want also to share my experience about renting a car with an 8 years old child. The daily rent of a booster seat is usually high (usually $7-$10/day, doesn’t matter the rental company). I suggest buying one from the City Mall outside the airport or bringing it from overseas when renting the car for over 1 week, much cheaper. I usually travel with one.

Most rental agencies will pick you up from outside the airport - Right side as you exit the terminal
Car rentals in Costa Rica at the San Jose Airport – Most of them will pick you up from outside the airport (right side as you exit the terminal)

Tips for getting the best deal

To get the best deal, consider booking early, especially during the high season, to secure the best rates and availability. Be wary of deals that seem too good to be true, they often don’t include mandatory insurance and can result in much higher costs at the rental counter.

Airport Rentals and Additional Fees

Renting a car directly from the airport in Costa Rica can come at a cost. There’s an additional “concourse fee” of 13% at SJO San José or 14% at LIR Liberia Guanacaste on the total cost. This tax applies if you pick the car up at the airport and sometimes even if the company provides airport transportation to their off-site office.

Once again make sure that the Airport surcharge is included in the price. You might consider picking up your rental car in town to avoid this fee, but balance this against the convenience factor.

Rental locations in costa Rica

Unless you arrive by boat or from Panama/Nicaragua, you will more likely fly to either the San Jose International Airport (in the center of the country) or the Liberia International Airport (in the north).

The Liberia airport is very handy if you plan a stay in Tamarindo and/or the northwest coast.

There are other local offices renting a car in Costa Rica, especially in more tourist centers, like Jaco or Tamarindo, however, I always suggest doing it online because you can read the reviews and typically you save some money too.

ATVs/quads are available everywhere and they work better for couples and if you want to explore local attractions not reachable by car.

Seasonal Considerations for Renting a Car

The most expensive time to rent a car in Costa Rica is during the dry season, which runs from December through April. This is when tourism peaks and rental rates can skyrocket due to high demand.

If your travel dates are flexible, consider visiting in the green season (May through November) when prices are generally lower. Usually, the shoulder months, May and November/early December, are great times.

I just want to add that in 99% of the cases you can cancel the booking up to 48 hours prior to your trip. This is why I usually book well in advance, even if I am not 100% sure of the plan, so I get the best selection and price. Moreover, once booked, I can contact the rental agency directly to inquire about other possible costs or hidden insurance/taxes.

Insurance: What You Need to Know

I wrote extensively about car rental insurance in Costa Rica. What you need and what you don’t, including scams and how to avoid them. Here below in short the most important things.

Take photos of the car before you drive away

Doesn’t matter what insurance you are going to take, even the most comprehensive one, make sure to take as many photos as possible of the car before driving away. I personally take also a couple of videos.

Do that on all sides of the car, including above and below, if possible. The more the better. I had one occasion when they wanted to charge me because of the dent which was already there. The photo helped to clear off the issue.

Also, take pictures of the inside of the car (very important) because this is typically not covered by any insurance. Damages from cigarettes or even that white stain typical of the salty water on the seats.

Make sure finally that the tire change kit is in the car, for your safety, and because the rental agency will check if it’s still there when you return the car and charge you if it’s not in the vehicle.

Take photos of the inside especially where you see white halos
Take photos of the inside especially where you see white halos

Mandatory Insurance in Costa Rica

Costa Rica law requires all drivers to carry liability insurance, known as “Responsabilidad Civil.” This coverage is mandatory and generally included in your car rental. It covers damages to other people or property if you cause an accident but doesn’t cover the rental vehicle itself.

Sometimes renters give you a cheap, even $10/day, quote for the car omitting the liability insurance. They will overcharge it at the counter when you do not have any option than accepting it. Read carefully what is included.

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

Additional insurance options that are not that optional

Beyond mandatory liability insurance, rental companies offer several optional insurances. The most common is a Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) which covers damages to the rental car in case of an accident.

CDW is very often required by car rental companies.

Then you have Supplemental Liability Insurance (SLI) that covers damages caused to others while driving the car. Also available are theft protection, personal accident insurance, and Roadside Assistance.

It’s important to understand what each covers, the cost, and to decide if it’s necessary for your situation.

Credit card insurance

Many credit cards offer rental car insurance as a cardholder benefit, but coverage varies and might not apply in Costa Rica. First, confirm with your credit card company if they provide international rental car insurance.

Then ensure that it covers liability, CDW, and whether there are any exclusions that apply to Costa Rica. Remember, you’ll likely need to decline the rental company’s optional insurance and pay for the rental with that card for the coverage to apply.

Here below is a table that summarizes the level of insurance, with a short description and the risk you take when you do not take it

Insurance TypeDescriptionRisks for Not Having It
Responsabilidad Civil (Mandatory Liability Insurance)Required by law. Covers damages to third parties or their property if you cause an accident. Doesn’t cover the rental vehicle. Some rental agencies do not include it in the rental quote, which is, in my opinion, a scam because you will have to pay it at the car collection when you don’t have options and they can ask you more than the market average.It’s mandatory. You cannot drive without it.
Collision Damage Waiver (CDW)Optional coverage to protect you from financial loss if the rental car is stolen. Some limitations may apply. Technically it’s not mandatory, however, most rental agencies require it.Financial responsibility for damages to the rental vehicle
Theft ProtectionOptional coverage increases the amount of liability coverage beyond what’s required by law.Financial responsibility for a stolen rental vehicle
Supplemental Liability Protection (SLP)Optional coverage that increases the amount of liability coverage to the vehicle, and third-party damages, and it often includes extras like roadside assistance.Higher financial responsibility if you cause an accident
Full Insurance (No Excess)It typically covers not only third-party damages and personal injuries but also any damage to or theft of the rental vehicle itself. In many cases, it also includes additional services such as roadside assistance (no out-of-pocket expense for the insured).Financial responsibility for all types of potential losses
Personal Accident Insurance (PAI)Optional coverage that provides medical benefits for the driver and passengers in the event of an accident. This is typically already included in Travel Insurance, assuming you have oneFinancial responsibility for medical costs in case of an accident
Credit Card InsuranceCoverage provided by some credit card companies. Can vary widely, so check with your credit card company for specifics.Depending on coverage, could be responsible for various financial losses
Summary table of the possible insurance in Costa Rica

Undoubtedly, insurance is one of the hottest issues when deciding to hire a vehicle. Car dealers in Costa Rica are certainly not helping, adding plenty of confusion in the small letters of the contract. Scams are not unheard of, in fact, they are not as uncommon.

There is a lot to write about it, plenty of exceptions, and mandatory options (if that makes sense). I may add that the country of residence plays a big role too (even more confusing).

That is why I have decided to write a full article about Costa Rica car rental insurance that answers all the questions that you have (leave a comment if you are still unsure, I usually reply in no time).

Make photos of every side of the car even if you do not see any damage
Make photos of every side of the car even if you do not see any damage (this was an easy spot to find)

Driving in Costa Rica: What to Expect

Hitting the road in Costa Rica is an adventure that offers a freedom of exploration you won’t find elsewhere. But with freedom comes responsibility, so here are some crucial points to consider to ensure you make the most of your Costa Rican road trip.

Driving conditions in Costa Rica vary widely, from smooth, well-paved highways to pothole-ridden roads or dirt tracks. Remember, you’re driving in a tropical country where heavy rainfall can quickly deteriorate road conditions, and flooding can be common in the rainy season.

Road signage can be sporadic, and GPS can sometimes mislead, so a good old-fashioned map might come in handy! I still remember how both Google Maps and Waze sent us through an unsealed road which probably was good once, but certainly challenging even for a 4×4 when we drove there.

This takes me to an important tip: budget more time than any GPS will suggest to you. Road conditions change and sometimes you will have to revert back and do another road, adding even more time.

On Costa Rican roads, the speed limit is usually 40-60 km/h in towns and 80-100 km/h on highways, but speed bumps (‘muertos or reductors’) are commonplace, even on highways.

Ticos (Costa Ricans) are generally patient drivers, but don’t be surprised by sudden lane changes or overtaking on blind corners. Remember, it’s always better to prioritize safety over speed. Take things slower than you would do back home. At the end of the day, you are in Costa Rica, Pura Vida.

Fuel stations, locally known as ‘bombas‘, are common in towns and on main roads, but can be scarce in remote areas. It’s wise to top up when you can – fuel is priced similarly to Europe, however, it’s more expensive (30-40%) than in the USA or in Australia.

When filling up, an attendant will typically do it for you, and remember, Costa Rica uses regular and super unleaded fuel, not diesel.

One allure of Costa Rica is off-roading, especially when reaching remote beaches or navigating through mountainous landscapes. However, it’s crucial to be cautious, drive slowly, and only attempt if you’re confident and your vehicle is suitable.

On one occasion, we rented a car that was not 4×4. It was certainly cheaper but we were limited in the roads we could take. In Santa Teresa, we had to rent an ATV/quad to explore the region (end of the rainy season), which is fun but it adds up on the expenses.

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

Even more interesting, if you do not have a 4×4 make sure, when you book the accommodation, to read how is the access to the property. I have experienced some amazing views during my trips but I do remember as well the pretty steep road up, sometimes unsealed.

In case of an emergency, the number to call is 911. You may not find English-speaking operators in all regions, so learning key Spanish phrases could be lifesaving. That’s handy of course even if you do not rent a car.

Being stopped by traffic police (Transitos) is a common experience in Costa Rica. Always carry your passport, driver’s license, and car rental papers. Speeding and not wearing a seat belt are common traffic violations, and fines are usually paid at any local bank.

If cars in the opposite direction start flashing, there may be a police check ahead, so make sure you are within the speed limit. Locals usually help each other, and you should too.

Lastly, understanding local driving etiquette can go a long way. Ticos appreciate politeness, so a wave of thanks when someone lets you merge can make a world of difference. Also, honking is usually reserved for alerting someone of a dangerous situation.

Once again locals are usually very relaxed in life, including when they drive, they tend to take things slowly, so forget about the rush of life back home and just go with the flow, with no stress.

I already talked about it, but I want to emphasize once again how driving at night is not a good idea. Lack of street lighting and poorly marked roads make driving particularly dangerous. Moreover, animals can suddenly jump onto the roads, especially in rural areas.

Crossing borders in a rental car can be tricky. Policies vary by company, but typically, it’s not allowed due to insurance reasons. If planning to visit Nicaragua or Panama, consider public transport or flying.

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

Renting a car in Costa Rica with kids

Costa Rica law mandates that all children under 12 or smaller than 145 cm must travel in a child seat. Here below I have organized a quick table with the general guidelines.

Age GroupWeight GroupType of Child Seat
0-1 yearUp to 10 kgRear-facing infant carrier
1-4 years9-18 kgForward or rear-facing baby seat
4-6 years15-25 kgForward-facing child seat
6-12 years22-36 kgBooster seat with back
Over 12 years or taller than 145 cmOver 36 kgSeatbelt

For the most up-to-date regulations, you should check the official website of the Costa Rican Road Safety Council (COSEVI).

Most rental companies offer child seats, but to ensure availability you need to book it in advance. Unfortunately, the quality may be questionable based on my experience.

For this reason, I suggest always bringing one from home. This will save you also some money because they typically charge $5-$10/day.

Navigating Costa Rican Roads

Navigating Costa Rican roads can be an adventure in and of itself. As you drive through local towns, serene coastlines, and cloud forests, you will thank that day when you decided to rent a car and be totally flexible with your trip.

Car GPS and navigation apps

No questions asked, you need to organize a navigation system for your trip. Nowadays it’s very easy to just download an App.

My favorite two are Waze and Google Maps. Get both, although you will end up using Waze most of the time. It’s better updated, and it includes a social environment where drivers add closed roads, incidents, and police checks too. So you will be fully aware of what is happening ahead of you, including traffic.

Remember to download offline maps if you’re planning to explore more remote areas where internet access might be limited. Santa Teresa is for example an area where reception is problematic.

The car GPS system is often outdated and not reliable simply because it is not online and it can’t give you information on traffic and most importantly closed roads.

Toll Roads

Toll roads, mainly on the highways leading out of San José, can offer a smoother and quicker driving experience. You may be tempted to take a secondary road to save some money but the route condition can be problematic and you will end up spending triple the time.

Moreover, the cost is generally affordable, ranging from 75 to 800 colones (USD1-1.5), so honestly, it’s a no-brainer.

Take some cash with you because they don’t accept credit cards. Automatic toll systems are becoming more common but don’t count on that.

Rural Roads

Driving in Costa Rica’s rural areas can be an eye-opening experience, with astonishing views of nature, but requires careful attention. Narrow roads, unexpected wildlife, and weather conditions are factors you’ll need to account for.

What on a map looks like a clear shortcut, in reality, may be an impossible way through, even with a 4×4. Before starting driving, ask the locals for advice. They are always so friendly and happy to help out, even if you don’t speak Spanish.

Also if you plan a zip line or a visit to a park, call them and ask about the road conditions leading there (everyone uses WhatsApp for calls). I remember when we visited the Rainmaker, an amazing rainforest park between Jaco and Quepos. Fortunately, we called the day prior and they advised us that 50 meters of the road were very challenging but past that it was all right.

So we drove there knowing that those 50 meters were the only issue, otherwise, we would have turned back.

Roads in Costa Rica are quite often unsealed but still very doable
Some rural roads in Costa Rica may be unsealed but still very doable

Parking and Security

When it comes to parking, always look for designated parking areas. These could be parking lots associated with your hotel or restaurant, or paid parking spaces in city centers or popular tourist sites.

Of course, the newer and more expensive the car, the more attention will attract. Leaving the car in an isolated area for hours is never a great idea.

At night, always park in well-lit and guarded areas. Usually, the accommodation provides parking areas inside the backyard or hotel parking area

I have been always very lucky, but you should be aware that car theft and break-ins can happen. To prevent this, never leave valuables in your car, especially in plain sight. Take always your belongings with you, even if for a few minutes.

You can hide your bags in the trunk but make sure they are not visible through a gap or even worst you open the trunk when you arrive at your destination and the locals see what’s inside.

Always lock your car, roll up windows, and ensure that the alarm system, if available, is activated when you leave the vehicle. In addition, try not to draw unnecessary attention to your vehicle. Keep maps and other tourist information out of sight, and avoid flaunting expensive gear, or better say any gear.

Most of the popular destinations have unofficial parking attendants along the beaches and popular attractions where you can leave your car with more peace of mind. And honestly, the cost is neglectable and you should see that as a donation for the local community.

Parking in Jaco is free and very easy to find
Parking in Jaco is free and very easy to find

Dealing with Car Problems

In case of problems do what you would do back at home. Look for a place on the side to stop the car, turn on your hazard lights, and check the issue. The best places to stop are usually next to restaurants because there are always locals around happy to help out.

Keep the emergency contact number of your rental company on hand. They will assist you in arranging a tow, repairs, or even a replacement vehicle if needed.

A flat tire is one of the most common issues in Costa Rica. The road conditions, especially the potholes, do not help.

When it happened to me a local offered to change the tire for a small tip. I accepted of course. I then fixed the flat tire at a local shop and I continued my trip ($5-$10)

Even if I had full insurance I honestly preferred to pay some small money and resolve the problem in a couple of hours without calls and possible extensive waiting time.

In Costa Rica, the emergency contact number is 911. This number can be dialed for any emergencies, including vehicle-related ones. It’s also advisable to have the number of your rental company and insurance provider stored in your phone.

Remember to report all accidents, big or small, to your rental company and insurance provider (if not provided by the car dealer). They can guide you on the necessary steps, such as filing a police report if required.

The shoulder of the road in Costa Rica - basically non existent
The shoulder of the road in Costa Rica – basically non existent

Returning the Car

The process for returning the car usually involves a basic inspection by the rental agency. They’ll check the condition of the car, including the exterior, interior, and mileage. Be sure to keep all your receipts for gas fill-ups, especially the final one, as some companies require the tank to be full upon return.

It’s also beneficial to clean the inside of the car before returning it, as some rental agencies may charge a cleaning fee if the car is particularly dirty.

When it comes to additional charges, the most common ones are for fuel, damage to the vehicle, or extra mileage if there was a limit on your contract.

Make sure to arrive no later than the agreed time otherwise they may charge you an extra day’s rental fee. I usually add on the contract one hour more to my planned time, just to cover any delay.

A one-way drop-off charge is usually included in the original quote, in case you will leave your vehicle in a different location from where you picked it up

To ensure a smooth return process, aim to arrive during business hours and allow some extra time in case there’s a queue or any disputes. Of course, make sure to take everything with you and don’t leave any belonging behind.

Lastly, remember to ask for a receipt or confirmation that shows you’ve returned the car and settled any charges. This could be useful if there are any discrepancies later on. Following these steps should help ensure a hassle-free car return experience in Costa Rica.

There are many eateries and cafes along most roads in Costa Rica - Great places to stop and respite
There are many eateries and cafes along most roads in Costa Rica – Great places to stop and respite

Final tips for Renting a car in Costa Rica

TipsDescription
1. Avoid Late Night DrivingMany roads are unlit and signage can be inadequate. Better to travel during daylight.
2. Inspect the CarThoroughly check the car for any damage before leaving the rental agency and take pictures as a record.
3. Check TiresDue to rough terrain, check tire condition, and make sure the spare is usable.
4. Bring a Portable ChargerHelpful for keeping GPS and other devices powered on long trips.
5. Understand Fuel TypesCosta Rica uses “regular”, “super”, and “diesel”. Know which your car requires.
6. Book in AdvanceParticularly during peak season (Dec-April), book your car well ahead.
7. Have a Printed Copy of ReservationA physical copy can be handy in case of any dispute.
8. Rent a 4×4For more rural or off-the-beaten-track areas, a 4×4 might be necessary.
9. Beware of Animals on the RoadWildlife crossing the roads is common. Stay alert to avoid accidents.
10. Be Cautious with GPSGPS can sometimes direct you to roads unsuitable for your vehicle. Use common sense.
11. Learn Basic Spanish PhrasesIt can be helpful if you need to ask for directions or help.
12. Ask for Emergency ContactsGet all necessary contacts from the rental company in case of emergency.
13. Be Mindful of Volcanic AshCosta Rica has active volcanoes and ash can occasionally affect road visibility.
14. Check River ConditionsSome rural routes involve river crossings, which can be risky during the rainy season.
15. Enjoy the Scenery7. Have a Printed Copy of the Reservation

Conclusion

Costa Rica is such an amazing and diverse country that really requires a car to be fully enjoyed. The hidden gem that you will find along the route will be the highlight of the vacation more than the destinations themselves.

Remember to bring your driving license, passport, and credit card with you. Be aware of the potential hidden fees and thoroughly understand the various insurance options available to protect yourself.

I always suggest contacting directly the rental company after you book your car to see if there is any other fee, tax, or insurance not included in the quote. You will be better prepared once you pick up the car, no surprises.

Driving in Costa Rica comes with its unique challenges – from navigating the varying road conditions and observing local driving habits to understanding local customs and being prepared for potential car issues. But don’t let these dissuade you; armed with the right information, you can confidently navigate Costa Rica’s roads.

Remember, thorough planning and research are the keys to a smooth car rental experience in Costa Rica.

FAQs

What are the requirements to rent a car in Costa Rica?

You need a valid driver’s license, a Passport, a credit card, and must be at least 21-25 years old, depending on the rental company

Is it necessary to have an International Driving Permit in Costa Rica?

No, a valid driver’s license from your home country (in Latin letters) is accepted for the first three months of your stay

What insurance is mandatory when hiring a car in Costa Rica?

Liability Insurance, also called SLI or PLI, is required by Costa Rican law. A CDW is often enforced.

Can I rely on my credit card insurance?

Credit card insurance may cover some damages, but it doesn’t replace mandatory insurance. Check with your credit card company beforehand

How are the road conditions in Costa Rica?

Road conditions can vary significantly. Major cities and tourist destinations are usually well-maintained, but rural areas might have rough or unpaved roads.

What should I do in case of a car breakdown?

Contact your rental company immediately. They should provide assistance and might replace the car depending on the situation.

Are child seats mandatory in Costa Rica?

Yes, children under 12 or those shorter than 145 cm must use an appropriate child seat

Can I drive a rental car out of Costa Rica?

Typically no, most rental companies don’t allow their cars to be driven outside of Costa Rica. Always check the company policy

What to do if I’m stopped by the police?

Be polite and provide the requested documents. If fined, you should not pay directly to the officer but at a bank

Is GPS necessary for driving in Costa Rica?

It’s highly recommended due to the lack of road signs, especially in rural areas. Use either Waze or Google Maps, more reliable than the car’s built-in GPS.

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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