Costa Rica is one of the best destinations in the world for travelers who want the very best of nature, sunshine, sea, and Latin American culture. It has everything, and the best way to make the most of your time is to hire a car and explore with the freedom and flexibility you deserve.
If you have never rented a car in Costa Rica and have some apprehensions about doing so, fear nothing! I’m an ex resident, investor, and now serial visitor to Costa Rica and have dozens upon dozens of rentals under my belt!
For the most part, you will find friendly drivers, simple road systems, and endless stunning scenery at every turn- it really is a good idea to get behind the wheel and explore as there is no better way to see Costa Rica than renting a car.
I have tried to cover all the must-knows and helpful tips I have gathered over my various experiences with rental cars in Costa Rica. Companies that provide the best car rental, Costa Rica driving tips, the ins and outs of insurance, and some ways to get a better deal are all things I hope can help you plan your next adventure!
What Are the Requirements for Costa Rica Car Rental?
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You cannot rent a car in Costa Rica if you are younger than 25 unless you pay an extra premium. Drivers aged between 21 and 25 can still hire a car, but it will cost them more per day. Drivers younger than 21 cannot hire a car in Costa Rica.
The driver must have a valid driver’s license from their home country. You don’t need an international driver’s license or international driving permit- just your regular license will do. It must be a full license- not a learner permit, and it cannot be expired.
Be prepared to pay some sort of security deposit for your rental car. There are very few companies who don’t ask for one purely as a protective measure for their business. Paying a deposit is standard practice for car hire in most places- unless the rental agency has a top-tier insurance option for which you pay top dollar.
How much exactly it will be is hard to say. I have seen deposit requests starting at a few hundred dollars up to $5000. It is usually lower if you take out insurance coverage with the rental company.
The good thing about security deposits is how they are taken. It is not usually taken in cash- the company just places a hold on your card. Again, this depends on the agency and its policies.
Security deposits are returned in full as long as there is no damage to the car or breach of contract in some other way- late return, for example.
Possibly the most important requirement for people to consider is the Costa Rican mandatory insurance for all car rentals. You cannot hire a car without it.
How Does Costa Rica Car Rental Insurance Work?
The rental insurance rules in Costa Rica can be a little confusing at times. It doesn’t help that some companies try to take advantage of people’s uncertainty and charge over the odds. There is so much conflicting information given that the whole insurance system can feel like a bit of a scam. Luckily, when you understand the actual rules, it is much easier to pinpoint what you should and should not be paying.
I will say it again- all these problems can be avoided if you book with the right rental companies. All my experiences with Discover Cars have been completely straightforward. I always knew exactly how much insurance I was paying and had the choice to pay less or more depending on the coverage I wanted.
In case your provider is less clear, here is an overview of the different types of insurance you can have for your rental car- and the rules you need to follow.
Costa Rica’s mandatory insurance laws are what cause the most confusion. It is essentially a third-party insurance that covers liability- usually up to $100,000 if the policy doesn’t have a deductible.
You cannot hire or drive a car in Costa Rica without this insurance- it is mandatory, after all.
This is where it can get a little complicated. Some people say you can only get this insurance inside Costa Rica at the rental counter. Others think it is automatically included in the cost.
Put simply, the insurance is specific to Costa Rica- so it won’t be covered by travel or credit card insurance. It may be included in the cost of a rental car, but only if it specifically says so. Discover Cars, for example, always shows this insurance on the booking. You might still need to pay for it if you don’t see it mentioned.
The problem then is not knowing how much you will be charged on the spot. Most reservations require at least a deposit or partial pre-payment and do not accept last-minute cancelations without a charge. If you arrive to collect your car and are suddenly hit with a huge bill for mandatory insurance, there isn’t really a way out that doesn’t lead to lost money.
Just remember this:
- You must have this insurance to rent a car.
- Bigger rental companies may include it in the price, but you must double-check.
- Some rental agencies take the mandatory insurance payment at the counter when you collect the car. Find out before you book how much it will be.
- If a company mentions nothing about mandatory insurance at any point, view it as a bit of a red flag. It could be an illegitimate company.
Car Protection Packages
Car protection insurance pays for repairs to damaged rental vehicles and covers the driver and agency in case of theft. It is important to have it- unless you are prepared to fork out your own cash to buy the rental company a new car.
Some people have this type of coverage through their credit card company- in which case there is no need to include it again. If that doesn’t apply to you, most reputable car rental companies offer it as an optional add-on.
Extended Protection Insurance
Extended protection packages are just what they sound like- fairly comprehensive coverage for any issues related to hiring or driving a car overseas. You don’t need this type of insurance- some rental companies don’t even offer it.
That said, it is pretty reassuring to know all bases are covered- especially if you plan on taking a longer road trip to the most remote parts of the country. It is the best option if you feel nervous about having access to support. Extended protection insurance covers breakdown services, roadside assistance, medical access, etc.
You may find it as an optional add-on to your travel insurance as well as from a car rental company. If you have it in your general travel insurance package, you don’t need to pay for it again just to hire a car.
Where Is the Best Place to Hire a Car?
It really depends on your itinerary and where you want to set off from. If you are pre-arranging your rental before you arrive, it makes sense to pick up the car at the airport on arrival to save yourself time later. Of course, that only applies if you want to start driving right away.
Some companies let you pick up at one place and drop off elsewhere, which is super handy if you are not planning a round trip.
Popular Car Rental Locations
- San Jose Airport
- Juan Santa Maria Airport
- Tobias Bolanos Airport
- Downtown San Jose
Comparing Car Rental Companies
When you start looking at specific companies to find the best fit, there are a few key things to compare.
- Look into the locations available- and check if it is possible to drop off the vehicle somewhere else.
- Explore the company’s fleet and see what types of cars they have- some have a much better selection than others.
- Read as many online reviews as you can to get a feel for the company’s reputation.
- Consider contacting the customer service line just to test how quickly they answer and how helpful a response you receive.
- Check the insurance policies- including what they offer and how much they cost.
- Look closely at the terms and conditions of the rentals!
What Is the Best Car Rental Company in Costa Rica?
As far as I am concerned, the best rental car company in Costa Rica is Discover Cars. Ask around to regular hire car connoisseurs in the area, and you will most likely get the same answer.
Discover Cars is an online aggregate comparison car hire company that searches deals across all the top suppliers in Costa Rica. It checks availability and prices and brings everything together in one user-friendly, convenient space.
You can filter your search by car type, supplier, number of seats, extra features, pick-up locations, and price- to name a few. There is also a section to check out hot deals and promotions available around your chosen dates.
I like how easy it is to browse options and compare deals, and I have never had any issues with reservations, payments, or insurance.
Why Discover Cars Beats Going Direct
- Compare Local Rental Car Companies
- Lower Prices
- No Hidden Fees
- One Stop Shop With No Hidden Fees
- Zero Hassle at Pick-Up (No matter who you choose)
- Read Real Customer Reviews Prior to Booking
- Free Cancellation
Why Choose Discover Cars?
- The website is very easy to use and gives a clear overview of cost options.
- Discover Cars includes mandatory liability insurance in the cost of their rental cars, which is not all that common.
- All the costs are laid out transparently before you even make a reservation. Hidden fees are the worst thing about Costa Rica’s car rental industry, so it feels good to know you can trust this company to be honest from the get-go.
- In my experience, customer support has always been brilliant! Lots of places claim to offer great customer service 24 hours a day- but when push comes to shove, they don’t. Discover Cars is different- the agents answer quickly, are friendly, and have always been able to answer my questions quickly.
- You can cancel your reservation until 48 hours before the pick-up. That might not seem like much, but it is a lot more than most companies offer! The best part is the free booking changes- you never know when plans might need a bit of a tweak.
- The insurance options are great. You can choose the standard option, which includes the mandatory insurance and a collision damage waiver- or you can upgrade to full coverage for a few dollars per day.
- There are pick-up and drop-off offices at all the main airport locations and in major cities.
- Great value for money is all but guaranteed. I have always felt like I was getting a great deal- especially considering you pay more elsewhere and receive a fraction of the perks and services.
How Much Do Costa Rica Car Rentals Cost?
There is no set price for car rentals in Costa Rica. It depends on a few factors, including the time of year, the rental term, and the type of car. Prices also vary between rental companies.
In general, you can usually find car rentals for between $20 and $60 per day based on a two-week term and a standard model. If you opt for a four-wheel drive or an SUV, the average price is a bit higher- more like $50-$100 per day (including insurance).
We have rented a few cars during our time here- all at slightly different rates. The average cost I have experienced is between $40 and $50 per day. I always go for four-wheel drives and always with the maximum insurance coverage, so the prices are good value all things considered.
If I had chosen a less comprehensive insurance package and gone for a smaller vehicle, the price would have been significantly lower. On one occasion, when a friend was in charge of organizing the rental, we had a small car with only basic insurance. We had it for two weeks and it worked out at less than $20 per day.
As you can see, it is impossible to put a specific figure on Costa Rica car rental. The best solution is to get online and have a look at what is available.
It is worth noting that car rental costs are very different in summer and winter. Make sure you research costs for the same time of year you plan to visit. Otherwise, your estimations could be way out.
Top Tips for Getting a Better Deal
Okay, so how can you make sure you get the best value for money? I say value for money rather than the lowest price because cheapest does not mean best- it is about getting the right balance and not paying over the odds for something you could get for less.
Here are a few deal-hunting tips I have picked up throughout my car rental experiences in Costa Rica.
Check Prices at Different Times of the Year
As I briefly mentioned, prices are very different in the two seasons. December until April is the dry season- a.k.a. the tourist boom and the most popular rental car period. It is also the most expensive time to rent a car. Wet season (May until November) is much cheaper- with October ranking as the cheapest time overall.
If you are visiting in high season, you can’t really avoid the higher prices, but if you are in Costa Rica for a while, it is worth comparing different weeks or days. December is especially expensive- particularly over Christmas. Easter break also brings price spikes.
People considering a Costa Rica visit and trying to plan ahead may want to prioritize visiting when prices are low if they want to rent a car for the duration of their trip.
Rent for Longer
The longer you rent a car, the less it costs per day. Obviously, the total cost is higher, but it is better value day by day if you plan a longer itinerary. Choosing to rent a car for longer won’t save you money, but it can help you feel like you are getting more for your money- because really, you are!
Only Book through Aggregate Booking Sites
If there is one piece of advice you take from me today, make it this: book your rental car through an aggregate booking website. They take the hard task of comparing prices, exploring insurance options, searching different models, and looking at different dates by putting everything in one place with quick, handy filters.
Most of the best aggregate sites pull deals from all the registered providers- so you know you are always getting the best prices. For me, nothing beats Discover Cars- I won’t use anyone else anymore!
Check the Fine Print
Just because a deal looks great at first glance doesn’t mean it actually is. Some companies have a habit of advertising one price in big bold type, then putting all the other expenses in fine print somewhere else.
When you view a deal, look at what the price includes and check for any information regarding additional costs. Don’t forget to look into what insurance comes with the price- some offer various packages with clear prices for each, but others offer nothing and then hit you with an unexpected on-the-spot bill at the rental counter.
Use a Rental Car Company with a Great Reputation
You can avoid complications and secure the best deal by choosing a reliable, established company such as Discover Cars.
Top 10 Reasons to Travel Costa Rica by Car
Why choose car travel for your Costa Rica vacation? Whether you are there long term and want to fit in some adventure, have a specific spot you want to see during your trip, or like to have the option to jump in the car and go- there are plenty of reasons to opt for Costa Rica car rentals.
Here are 10 of the best reasons to rent a car when you visit Costa Rica.
1: Escape the Tourist Trap
Tourism brings great benefits to the country, but it can also make some popular hot spots very busy and certain times. The problem with taking tours or using provided buses is the fact that everyone else is using them too.
Peak times at popular attractions coincide with tours and busses- detracting from the natural beauty and calm of Costa Rice. While there is nothing wrong with using services provided for tourists, hiring a rental car is better in several ways.
First, you can visit before or after the tourist wave to have more space to enjoy yourself (and get better photos!). You can also spend less or more time at a particular spot if you are not being herded by a guide.
The other side of tourist-free car rental travel is the variety of places you can go. There is more to Costa Rica than the headlining attractions. When you have a car, you can visit what YOU want to see, not what the tour guides say you should.
2: Free Yourself from the Constraints of Public Transportation
It doesn’t matter if you are on the streets of your hometown or in the paradise of Costa Rica- waiting for public transportation is not much fun. When you are in Costa Rica, waiting for a bus is not how you should be spending your vacation time.
There are two primary reasons to choose car rental or public transport (not including the convenience):
- Public transport wastes time
- – and it wastes money!
To be clear, renting a car is not cheaper than taking a bus, but it does eliminate the potential extra costs of transfers and overnight stays in places you don’t want to be just because it is what the transportation schedule allows.
Something else to consider about using a public bus is the stoppage time. Most routes are lined with endless pick-up points- meaning the bus stops every mile or less. If you are keen to get somewhere, this gets pretty frustrating pretty quickly!
We have traveled using public shuttle buses before, and we ended up spending money and a whole lot of time that we wouldn’t have had we hired a car. When traveling the same routes with a rental car, the journeys took significantly less time and cut out the need for extra meals and overnights.
3: Take Things at a Pace that Works for You
Pura Vida is all about enjoying life and letting things flow- not being over-scheduled and tied into a strict time frame. My favorite thing about having a rental car in Costa Rica is knowing that I can come and go as I please.
When you follow the busses, you need to move on their time. If you are part of a planned tour, you have a timetable to stick to. With a car, it is up to you when you go, for how long you stay, and whether or not you want to leave at all!
It wouldn’t be the first time someone planned a one-night stop en route to a must-see destination and fell in love with the place. When you have a rental car, you can stay longer without worrying about missing your bus.
The other great thing is the freedom it allows on the journey itself. If you are in a rush and want to get there quickly, there is nothing to stop you (unlike public transport!). If you feel like stopping you can, and you can take a driving break for as long as you want.
4: Make Life Easier when Transporting Belongings
I love adventure travel- exploring with a backpack and seeing where the wind takes me. However, I don’t love the constant packing and unpacking and sitting squashed beneath said backpack on five-hour bus journeys. Again, this is much easier with a car.
Instead of stressing about organized packing practice, having easy access to things in an emergency, and second-guessing whether or not your belongings are safe and secure- you can throw the bags in the trunk and spread little day packs or quick-access bags around the car as you see fit.
As long as nothing blocks your view or impairs your driving, it doesn’t really matter how your belongings are organized. This is especially beneficial if you have a full adventure travel kit- but even those heading on shorter trips can breathe easier when they are not clutching their stuff, squeezed on a small seat, and surrounded by a bunch of sweaty strangers.
5: Discover Hidden Gems On Your Journey
There is a famous cheesy that talks about how ‘it’s about the journey, not the destination’- and there is quite a bit of truth in it. Traveling is not only about the bucket list items- it is also about the small moments and unexpected highlights along the way.
For me, this is the best part of having a rental car for a Costa Rican adventure. The whole place is packed full of natural beauty, vibrant culture, and colorful life happening all around- and you can immerse yourself in it all as you drive between the main locations.
Small towns with the best traditional food, hidden waterfalls a little off the road, and surprise viewpoints over sprawling jungles as you weave your way toward your destinations are just some of the hidden gems you would miss out on without a rental car and the freedom it allows.
6: Save Money on Endless Tickets and Tours
I already talked about the money-saving potential when you don’t have to hang around between shuttle buses- but that is only part of it. Although you pay something to hire a car, it works out as far better value for money than paying individually every time you want to take a bus, taxi, tour, or shuttle transfer.
Many of Costa Rica’s best attractions are remote, so you need some sort of transportation to get there, but the places themselves may cost very little (or nothing at all) to see. Tours charge a lot to take you there and show you around, despite the fact you could visit alone for next to nothing.
Obviously, some things have an entry fee, but you can pay when you get there or book an entry-only ticket online. It costs less than shared transfers overall – especially if you combine it with other stops on the route.
7: Steer Clear of Travel Sickness
My friend has a really difficult time with travel sickness. The windy, often bumpy Costa Rican roads are not exactly sympathetic to her woes. Another issue with buses and shuttles is the lack of control over airflow, temperature, speed, and breaks.
I don’t usually have too much trouble with travel sickness, but three hours on a hot public bus with no AC over bumpy roads winding around a hill was enough to put me off for life.
The beauty of a rental car is the freedom to roll windows up and down, turn the AC on or off, and stop as many times as you need to to keep the nausea at bay.
8: Enjoy the Laid-Back Driving Style
It is worth noting that driving- for the most part- is pretty relaxed in Costa Rica. We both found it much easier than the busy highways at home- with the exception, perhaps, of San Jose, which was a bit crazy in parts.
You wouldn’t be the first person to feel apprehensive about driving abroad- especially on roads you don’t know. Luckily, Costa Rica is one of the easier places to give it a go. People tend to be courteous of other road users and stick to speed limits, and the traffic is light once you get out of the city and away from San Jose Airport.
9: Arrive, Park, and Enjoy
Parking is excellent in Costa Rica. Most accommodation options, national parks, and attractions have on-site parking, so you don’t need to worry about where to leave the car.
Bear in mind that some national parks ask for a small fee to access the parking lot- although the majority of other places we visited had plenty of free parking space nearby.
10: Create Lasting Memories on a Fun-Filled Road Trip
All of the previous nine reasons to hire a car in Costa Rica lead to this key point: visiting Costa Rica is better, more enjoyable, more convenient, and more FUN when you take a road trip in a rental car.
Between the ease of picking your own pace, route, and schedule and the freedom to change your mind about it all- nothing is standing between you and the Costa Rica Pura Vida experience. Taking a road trip- whether it lasts a few days or a few months- through the country is an unmatched way to explore and absorb what the place has to offer!
Things to Know about Driving a Car in Costa Rica
Now that I have explained all the reasons why you should opt for a rental car in Costa Rica, let me share a few driving tips and things to be aware of when you take to the roads to ensure a safe and stress-free journey.
You will come across some questionable roads- particularly if you are heading off the beaten path. Impressive potholes and crumbling road edges are fairly common, so pay attention to where you are driving.
Speed bumps are also dotted around all over the place- often without any warnings or marking. Some are big enough to do some damage to the car if you don’t slow down properly, so be smart, and stick to the speed limit!
The general road conditions are not excellent in the rural spots, but they are also not dangerous (for the most part) if you drive with care.
Semi-trucks are common sightings all across Costa Rica- even on those little winding roads we talked about earlier. Whenever you approach a sharp bend or blind corner, be sure to hug the edge as much as you can in case a truck is coming the opposite way.
I always pull off the road and stay put to let the truck pass. If you want to keep going, you are a braver driver than I am, but remember that doing so could put you at risk. What’s the hurry? Pull over, let them pass, and be on your merry way.
Always keep some change handy to pay for toll roads. There are a few on the popular roadways around San Jose that charge in the vicinity of $0.60- $1.30. The expense isn’t the problem- it’s the holdup you could cause if you are not prepared!
We kept a tub of change to hand just in case- I suggest doing something similar to get through these busy tolls as smoothly and quickly as possible.
Cell Signal and Internet Access
Don’t expect everywhere you go to have cell coverage- especially using international data. It is best to get a local SIM card with emergency numbers in case you get stuck and don’t have internet access.
Another good idea is to download the maps for areas you are traveling to. That way, even if the signal drops, you can still track your route and know where to go.
Is it Safe to Hire a Rental Car in Costa Rica?
Feeling safe wherever you go and however you get there is important, and it is understandable when people feel nervous about hiring a car in a country they don’t know. In my experience, I have actually felt safer using a rental car than I did traveling without one.
If your safety concerns are about the driving itself, then you can rest assured that is it probably a lot easier than most busy places back home!
About traveling by car, we always felt safer knowing that we could leave somewhere whenever we wanted and were in charge of our own belongings. Because the parking is so great, you shouldn’t have to leave the car somewhere you don’t feel comfortable.
Many people are mainly concerned about the safety of scam rental car companies. They exist- just like anywhere else in the world- but there are plenty of ways to make sure you don’t fall for a fake offer or get caught up in extortionate hidden fees. This is pretty important, so I have included a whole section below!
Top Tips for Renting a Car in Costa Rica
Here are a few tips to help you through the car rental process- from finding a reliable car rental agency to avoiding nasty surprises with the bill.
Use an Online Car Rental Company
There are some local car rental agencies around Costa Rica. Normally, I am all about supporting smaller, local companies- but for the sake of reliability and consistency, this is not one of those times. Although there are smaller agencies in-country that offer a great service, the safest way to go is with recognized online car rental companies.
Using an online company is the better choice for a few reasons, actually. The choice of vehicles and pick-up/drop-off locations is more varied, the contracts are clearer- and they usually have better insurance options.
You can find more reliable services- including roadside assistance- with larger online companies. There is also a better chance you will get the vehicle you want.
Take Pictures of the Rental Vehicle Before You Go
It is very important to take pictures inside and outside the rental car before you accept it and leave the rental location. These photos act as proof of the condition the vehicle was in w