12 Tips for Renting a Car in Costa Rica
Updated: Sep 13
For the flexibility and freedom to go where you want, when you want, renting a car for your Costa Rican vacation is your best option! There are many car rental agencies, including well-known names such as Hertz, Avis, Budget, and Enterprise. There are also Costa Rican based companies such as Vamos, Amigo, and Adobe. Here are our 12 tips for renting a car in Costa Rica for a safe and comfortable car rental experience.
1. Book early, especially during “high season” (approx. December - April). As soon as you have your plane ticket booked, lock in your rental car reservation.
2. Do your research and compare between companies! You may be drawn in by what sounds like a great daily rate, only to experience sticker shock when you complete your reservation. There are some mandatory add-ons, such as liability insurance, and some optional services such as additional coverages for damage and theft, navigation packages, etc. In general, we recommend purchasing the additional coverages for damage and theft. If you don’t and there is damage to your car, you will be responsible for it. We recommend Costa Rican-based rental car companies: Adobe Rent a Car, Amigo, and Vamos Rent a Car.
3. Makes and Models - a RAV 4 may not be a RAV 4! You may notice when you select the make and model of car you would like that it might say “RAV 4 or Similar” or “Suzuki Grand Vitara or Similar.” Our experience is that you will most likely get the “or Similar” car! Have no fear. Car companies often change the model names and some features for their cars depending on the country.
4. Consider renting a 4x4. The roads in Costa Rica are not great. Especially in rural areas, potholes are numerous, and there are lots of unpaved roads and occasional washouts or seasonal flooding. This combined with any off-the-beaten-path exploring you may want to do are good reasons to consider choosing a 4x4.
5. Manual vs. Automatic Transmission. Manual transmissions in cars are still very common in Costa Rica. If you don’t know how to drive manual, be sure to specify automatic transmission on your reservation. If you accidentally choose manual (been there, done that), they may not have a car on the lot that they can swap for yours.
6. Do a thorough inspection of your car and take pictures. No one likes surprises. Walk around your car before you leave the lot, and note any scratches or other damage. Be sure to take pictures and have your rental agent make note of any existing damage. Check the tires to be sure the tread is adequate. If you encounter rain, the roads can become slippery.
7. Use navigation apps! Waze is commonly used in Costa Rica. If you are planning to use your cell phone company’s international plan while visiting, you may not need the navigation package offered by most rental companies. However if you are traveling to remote areas where cell service may be spotty, you might want to consider purchasing a navigation package.
8. Plan to drive during daylight hours. Visibility is challenging when driving at night in Costa Rica. The lines are often faded or non-existent, there are minimal shoulders, and almost no streetlights once you leave populated areas. This combined with potholes, animals crossing the road, people on bicycles or walking, and a lack of adequate road signage, can make traveling to your destination challenging. Give yourself adequate time to travel during daylight hours (generally between 6am and 6pm).
9. Consider renting a golf cart instead of a car! If you are going to be mostly staying put in the area once you arrive at your lodgings, you could consider renting a golf cart for your group. They are less expensive than a car, and are a common sight on the local roads in our area. We don't recommend this for anything except local destinations in areas where golf carts are commonly used in this way. A good strategy for this option is to hire a shuttle to and from the airport, and rent a golf cart for use once you have arrived. Contact us for a referral to the best golf cart companies!
10. Never leave ANYTHING in your car. Here’s a scenario you don’t want to encounter – you’ve just arrived in Costa Rica and you’re on your way to your AirBnB and decide to stop at the grocery store en route so you’ll have some food in the fridge. Your suitcases are safely locked in your car so off you go, only to return to find everything gone. This can happen even in a busy grocery store parking lot. Most crime in Costa Rica is property theft, especially in popular tourist areas, and rental cars are a prime target, especially when they are full of valuables, such as your luggage. We recommend that you get to your lodgings and empty your car before you venture out to a restaurant or grocery store. If this is not possible, someone from your party should stay with the car. We have recently heard about a device that emits a signal preventing your car’s key fob from locking the door. So be sure to check the door manually to ensure it is locked. If you are unable to lock the door with your key fob, do not leave the car unattended. Many Costa Ricans leave their cars unlocked so they don’t come back to a smashed window. To safeguard your belongings, just make it a habit to take EVERYTHING with you.
11. Pay attention at the gas station. Gas stations in Costa Rica are full service stations, and the attendants will often clean your windshield, which is a nice amenity. While not a common practice at all, we have been hearing about certain stations that may not always zero out the gas pump before starting to pump your gas, effectively charging you for gas from a previous sale in addition to the gas they put in your car. You can get out of the car and walk around to the pump side so you can see what’s going on, or have a passenger sitting on the pump side of the car confirm that the pump is at zero before they begin. Again, this is not common, and there is no need to be confrontational – we just recommend staying alert.
12. Use common sense and you should be fine! Most ticos (Costa Ricans) are not going to steal your things. Most gas stations are not trying to rip you off. In fact, Costa Ricans are some of the friendliest, most helpful and hard-working people you will meet. We have been overwhelmed with the kindness we have encountered over the years. If you follow the tips outlined above, and stay alert whenever you are traveling within Costa Rica, you will avoid unpleasant surprises and can enjoy every minute of your vacation.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by the thought of navigating your way around Costa Rica in a rental car, visit our transportation page to see the options for booking private shuttles, destination transfers from one area to another, and the option of hiring a private driver for some of your transportation needs. And if the golf cart idea sounds appealing, send us a message and we can connect you with a good company.
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