- How to rent a car?
- Is it easy to drive?
- Tips for renting
- Price for a rental car
- Where to rent a car?
How to rent a car in Costa Rica
The advantage of renting a car in Costa Rica is obvious; you can go where you want at your own pace, without being limited by other schedules such as those of tours or public transportation. You’ll get to experience Costa Rica like a local.
Even though it is relatively small, more than 50% of the country is covered in thick, lush rainforest, meaning that destinations can be much further than you think. This guide will tell you exactly how to rent a car in Costa Rica and what you can expect when driving there.
What do you need to rent a car in Costa Rica?
When you rent a car in Costa Rica, you’ll need to bring the following documents:
- Your driver’s license from your home country
- Your ID (passport)
- Credit Card in your name
- Costa Rica car rental insurance
The legal driving age in Costa Rica is 18 years old; however, the minimum age for renting a car varies, depending on the agency. Most of them will ask you to be over 25 years old, although some accept drivers from 21 and over for an additional fee.
All drivers must provide a valid driver’s license, a passport including a valid tourist visa stamp, and a credit card to make the payment and hold the deposit. An international driver’s license is not required in Costa Rica unless your driver’s license is not in Roman script.
There are often random checkpoints by the traffic police, where you’ll be asked to show your driver’s license and ID. Try to keep these with you when driving the car. Note that your passport must have an entry stamp into the country that is not more than three months old.
Rental car insurance in Costa Rica
When renting a car in Costa Rica, you must get liability insurance which covers you for third-party damages. This insurance can’t be declined or removed and is typically not yet included in rental agencies’ quotes. Try to keep this in mind when booking your car and expect to pay an additional 10 – 30 USD per day on top of the advertised price.
Additional coverage such as a Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) or extended protection is not mandatory but recommended. Note that your purchased insurance is limited to 30 days, so if you’re renting for longer, you’ll have to arrange a new contract for after.
To get the insurance, most agencies require a credit card that has enough credit on it to cover the rental costs as well as the deposit hold. The deposit is an ‘authorization only’ transaction that doesn’t charge your card unless in the event of damage to the car. The exact number of the deposit depends on the type of insurance you select. For example, if you only purchase mandatory insurance, your deposit might be much higher than in the case you purchase full-coverage insurance.
Is it easy to drive in Costa Rica?
Before renting a car in Costa Rica, it’s good to know some of the road rules and customs of the country.
Driving through the stunning landscapes of Costa Rica is a great experience, and the roads are continuously improving as well. The highways are generally in good condition, and only on every other route, typically on unpaved dirt roads, you’ll find some potholes. This makes it easy to get to lovely hotspots like Uvita or Puerto Viejo.
The standard speed on the motorways is 90 km/h, but sometimes it can be 120 km/h. On secondary roads, the speed limit is 60 km/h and 40 km/h in urban areas, dropping to 25 km/h near school zones or hospitals. Keep in mind that the speed limits displayed on road signs are in kilometers per hour, not miles.
Roads and signs
In urban areas, narrow roads and one-way streets are very common and can sometimes be recognized by an arrow that shows the direction of travel or by the sign ‘no hay paso’ (do not enter). Outside urban areas, you might encounter steep hills, mountain routes, unpaved roads, river crossings, and bridges.
When you spot the sign ‘ceda el paso’ on a one-lane bridge, it means you should yield to oncoming traffic. Sometimes there’ll be impromptu signs made of a stick in the ground with some sort of flag to indicate a hazard ahead, such as broken pavement, big potholes, or mountain debris. Always keep an eye on the road and try to be especially slow and cautious at river crossings.
Note: It is not allowed to drive on the beach in Costa Rica. Apart from the problems it may cause you or your car, it can also severely damage the beach and potentially the wildlife.
Safety of driving in Costa Rica
Driving in Costa Rica is a fantastic experience, it is perfectly safe and not chaotic at all. In the 9 weeks that we were there, we didn’t have any situations on the road. Many of the roads have drastically improved over the last few years, and apart from a few potholes here and there, most of them are well paved. As long as you drive cautiously as you would in any other country, you’ll be fine.
As Costa Rica is known for its lush jungles, always be cautious of what’s on the road. Apart from other drivers, look out for pedestrians, little carts, and the abundance of wildlife. Next to that, there’s barely any light at night – try to avoid driving in the dark if you can.
Tip: Keep things out of the car when you’re not in it because petty theft does happen. If your car has a sticker on it indicating that it is a rental car, see if you can remove this to avoid a potential break-in by thieves.
Do I need a 4×4 in Costa Rica?
Almost all tourist destinations in Costa Rica do not require a vehicle with 4WD. As mentioned before, most roads are good to drive on and only consist of some potholes and higher (speed)bumps. The most popular destinations like Manuel Antonio or La Fortuna are, therefore, easily reached by any type of car.
Unlike in Europe, opting for a bigger car might make the rides more comfortable on the lesser maintained gravel roads; however, choosing a standard car is more than worth it if you stick to the main roads. The cost for a regular car might be half the price of an SUV or 4×4 vehicle. While you don’t need to rent a 4×4 in Costa Rica, getting a car with some clearance from the ground is recommended. That way, you’ll feel comfortable driving over potholes without the extra costs of a 4×4.
If you plan on jungle offroading or want to go wild camping in Costa Rica, a 4×4 is needed.
When you’re planning on traveling to Costa Rica during the rainy season, a 4×4 is recommended in certain areas, such as around Monteverde. Always read the fine print of your rental agreement to see what’s covered when you rent a 4WD vehicle.
Top tips for renting a car in Costa Rica
Some important tips when you decide to drive through Costa Rica are;
- Always point out and record the existing damages when picking up the car at the rental agency. Also, carefully check for any potential safety issues, such as bald tires or bad suspension. You can check this by stepping up on the bumper and hopping off. If the vehicle bounces up and down for a few seconds, ask for a new car. The more you appear to know about what you’re doing, the better.
- You can’t count on road signs for navigation. As mentioned before, signs might be difficult to see, or they’re non-existent. A good navigation system and an offline map are typically best. The Waze app is a good option as it’s community-based and updated by locals in real-time.
- Finding parking won’t be an issue as almost all restaurants and hotels have a parking lot. The only place you might have to pay for parking is at some national parks. Often there’ll be a park guide to help you park – make sure to tip him for the help!
- If you get a fine, you won’t have to pay it on the spot with the traffic officer but at the rental agency once you drop off the car. Make sure to do this as there is a law that can prohibit you from exiting the country if you don’t.
- Rental cars can’t be taken across the international borders into Panama or Nicaragua. You can, sometimes, drop one car off at the agency in Costa Rica and pick up a new car on the other side for a fee.
Getting gas in Costa Rica
You can find gas stations all over Costa Rica, and most of them are open 24/7. You’ll typically find them in towns near tourist destinations or a few kilometers away. It’s important to remember that in rural areas, there might just be one gas station. Google Maps and other navigation services typically show you which one is nearest to you.
Unlike in most European gas stations, there’s always an attendant to fill up your vehicle for you. It’s recommended to speak a bit of Spanish, however, English is pretty common in Costa Rica.
You can have either unleaded gas (gasolina) or diesel (diesel) and it’s important to always check this before filling up. If you’re ever in doubt about which type of fuel you need, try to find the sticker in your rental car that provides that information. This can usually be found on the car key, on the dashboard, or fuel door. The current cost of gas in Costa Rica is around 1024 CRC per liter (5,60 USD per gallon). Typically, filling up in cities is cheaper than in smaller towns.
How much does a car rental in Costa Rica cost?
Rental cars in Costa Rica are significantly more expensive than in the US or Europe. Especially if you rent a car for just yourself, it’ll add up. It’s best to split the costs with a group of people when you plan on visiting multiple locations, as this is more favorable than going everywhere by bus. The total price of the rental typically depends on a few things; the time of the year you’re renting, the duration of your trip, the type of car, and the type of insurance.
The most expensive time to rent a car in Costa Rica is in the high season, which runs from mid-December till the end of April. Especially around the holidays, prices drive up. If you’re booking for these dates, try to do it well in advance to secure a better rate.
If you’re visiting in the low seasons, between May and September, you can book up to a couple of weeks beforehand for more affordable prices. The time you decide to rent a car also influences the total price. Renting a car for a longer period usually brings down the daily price, meaning that 5 days of rental might just be slightly more than 3 days, for example. If you can, consider exploring Costa Rica for at least a week!
Getting the right vehicle
Additionally, check your itinerary to see if you need a 4×4 vehicle or not. Renting a regular car with some clearance from the ground instead of an SUV can save you some costs. Opting then for a manual car instead of an automatic will additionally save you an extra 40 – 75 USD a week. Lastly, the type of insurance and extra fees in your rental agreement will determine the total price.
Tip: Third-party sites only show the car rental price, not the insurance, deposits, taxes, and potential fees; it’s best to contact these companies directly to figure out the total price. This way, you avoid being hit with unknown extra costs and feeling like you got scammed.
Where do I rent a car in Costa Rica?
There are plenty of car rentals in Costa Rica to choose from, and you can research them beforehand. If you’re planning on renting a car during the high season, try to arrange this in advance. It is not uncommon for Costa Rica to run out of rental cars, everywhere. Reserving in advance ensures that you secure the type of car you want, possibly at a lower price, and allows you to compare options.
You won’t find any rental agencies at the small airports of San José or Liberia Guanacaste, but there are some a couple of kilometers away. However, despite these agencies not actually being at the airport, they will include a so-called ‘airport tax’ on top of your rental. Cars rented ‘from the airport’ are subject to an additional government-imposed tax of 13 – 14% of the total cost of the rental. If you can, avoid renting from places close to the airport to avoid this extra cost.