Rental Car vs. Private Transport in Costa Rica - which is right for you?
Updated: Sep 13
Most people who come to Costa Rica want to travel around the country a bit. And with so many unique regions with vast differences in elevation, terrain, and road conditions, one of the most common questions we get is “should I rent a car or should I hire private transportation for my upcoming trip?” There is no one-size-fits-all answer, but it may help you to explore rental car vs. private transport in Costa Rica to ensure a great vacation.
Do you like driving in general? For some people driving is relaxing and enjoyable, and for some it is anxiety provoking. If you really enjoy driving, then maybe a rental car is for you. If driving causes some amount of worry or distress, then driving in Costa Rica is really not something you should attempt. We’ll explain some of our reasons below.
Are you a good driver? Pretty much everyone says yes to this question, but it’s not universally true. To be a good driver in Costa Rica you will need to be a REALLY good driver. Unflappable and confident. Alert and cautious. Decisive and quick thinking. There are so many factors that come into play when driving here. We belong to a lot of Facebook groups devoted to travel within Costa Rica, and there are often people who post that driving here is a piece of cake and no one should think twice about renting a car. We are happy that those particular people didn’t encounter any difficulties. But we read just as many posts from people who had horrible experiences (from rental car nightmares to driving at night on unlit roads with no shoulders and no painted lines, to internet dead zones resulting in no navigation, hidden costs that challenged their budget, etc.). So, when things don’t go smoothly, that’s when you really need to be level headed, confident, flexible, adaptable, and courteous to successfully navigate your way around Costa Rica.
Can you read road signs in Spanish? It’s important to understand basic Spanish in order to navigate safely. If you are going to drive here, it's a great idea to study up on the Spanish road signs which are common to Costa Rica. Most signage here will only be in Spanish. And remember that distances and speed limits will be in kilometers instead of miles. Here is a handy pdf that offers translations of common road signs in Costa Rica.
How much driving do you plan to do? If you are headed to an all-inclusive resort, having a rental car is not of great value. If you want to leave the resort to do a tour, transportation will be provided. If, however, you are splitting your time between an all-inclusive and a hotel stay or AirBnB at a different location, then maybe renting a car just for that portion of your trip makes sense. A lot of car rental agencies will deliver a car to you. Just be sure you are clear about how to return the car.
Can you adapt to changing situations quickly and with ease? If you are used to driving in North America and most parts of Europe, you are used to infrastructure that is well maintained with lighting, painted lines, road and street signs, shoulders, guardrails, and a population who can be relied upon to mostly follow the rules. It is slightly different here. City roads may be in better shape than rural ones, but city drivers can be quite aggressive and unpredictable. Rural roads are not well maintained which leads sometimes to hazardous conditions and road closures. Anytime you leave the main roads (which are generally paved) local roads will almost always be dirt/gravel. Potholes can be large and deep. Night driving is its own thing and not something to be brushed off. Our roads are super dark at night and hard to navigate, very often without painted lines, etc. Without shoulders for safe passage of pedestrians, they often walk in the road, as do dogs, and sometimes, unexpectedly, cows. Road signs and common driving etiquette sometimes seem like mere suggestions here. If you feel like these challenges are in your wheelhouse, a rental car probably sounds like an option that can work for you! If you would rather not deal with these types of obstacles, private transport is a great choice (and very often the same cost or less expensive than a rental car, surprisingly).
Does the cost of a rental car fit within your budget? Many people are surprised at the total amount of their car rental. Low daily rates sound enticing, but fees and insurance can quickly add up. And there is a risk of potential damage to the vehicle. Damage to a vehicle can cause headaches, delays, and can add to the cost of your rental. And damage insurance can be voided if you drove your 2WD car in an area where 4WD is recommended, and which resulted in damage. That can be an expensive mistake. For more tips on renting a car in Costa Rica, read our blog post about this here.
Which is more expensive, a rental car or private transportation? Private transport can seem extravagant and pricey, but it might be worth considering. For example, a package we recently put together included private transportation for a family of four from San Jose airport to Poás Volcano; then from Poás to Monteverde; then from Monteverde to Arenal; and finally back to San Jose airport. The cost for private transport for this group was $500, which is less than an 8-day car rental would have cost them. Tours at each of the locations this family visited included transportation to and from hotels, so there was no additional transportation cost (unless they wanted to hire a taxi for additional outings – easily arranged at concierge desks). The family was able to sit back and relax and talk with their driver, and not worry about whether they were on the right route. Conflict and tension around driving were eliminated and this family were able to enjoy the drive to each of the locations they visited on their vacation.
Visit our transport page if you want to get some ideas about cost for the destinations you plan to visit (we can also quote you specifically if you share your proposed route with us). And for even better deals, consider having us help you plan a custom itinerary. You can tick off all your bucket list items, and skip the hassle of vacation planning. Get started by filling out our custom itinerary form and we'll get to work! No matter what transportation option you choose, we hope you have a great vacation in Costa Rica!
For general information about all of our travel services, visit our homepage. ¡Pura Vida!