Planning on driving in Costa Rica? You’re in the right place. It allows you to get around Costa Rica at your own pace. Since there are gems all over to see, its helpful to have a car to go at your own pace.
Costa Rica seems like a small country, but many of the key places most tourists want to see (La Fortuna, Monteverde, Manuel Antonio National Park, Jaco, Tamarindo) are several hours apart in the car – the driving distance between them is exacerbated by the mountains in between.
We rented a car and did a lot of driving in Costa Rica with our 8-month old baby and older chid. From this experience, we can tell you that Costa Rica is very travel-proof, and many tourists choose to drive their way around the country.
We’re going to go through everything you need to know about driving in Costa Rica. So, let’s jump in!
Driving in Costa Rica
Here is everything you need to know about driving in Costa Rica, whether you’re a party of adults, or a family with kids.
There are a number of car rental companies in Costa Rica: Enterprise, Adobe, Paradise, Budget, Vamos and Target, and renting a car and driving in Costa Rica is a very popular way of getting around the country. It allows you to come and go everywhere as you please, and if you have little ones – you don’t have to worry about different car seats in different vehicles.
Here are the pros and cons of renting a car and driving in Costa Rica. (I personally feel that the pros outweigh the cons, as long as you’re a confident driver.)
Pros and Cons of Driving in Costa Rica
Pros of Driving in Costa Rica
-You have the flexibility and privacy in making stops whenever you feel like it.
-No need to worry about communication with a driver; you plan your trip as you go
-You can customize your own itinerary
-Less risk of items getting lost; when you’re always in your own rented vehicle, you don’t have the worry that you left those sunglasses in the shuttle you rented
-If you’re travelling with babies or toddlers, the extra stops allow for more potty breaks, feeding, diaper changes, to stretch their legs etc. You can also bring your own car or booster seat from home (or rent one from the car rental company) install it, and you’re good to go for the duration of your trip!
Cons of Driving in Costa Rica
-You’ll have to figure out directions. You’ll be using GPS and Google Maps a lot.
-You’ll have to worry about things like getting lost, as well as gas re-fills
-Some of the drives can be treacherous and challenging; uneven terrain with rocks, potholes through the mountains. This is especially true for the Monteverde region
-Many of the drives in Costa Rica are hours long, so you have to be ok with driving long distances.
Is it Safe to Drive in Costa Rica?
Overall, Costa Rica is a safe place to drive in. Be aware that the speed limits are posted in kilometres, not in miles.
Driving from San José or Liberia to most touristy areas (such as Guanacaste, La Fortuna or the Manuel Antonio regions) should not be too hard. Just be aware that there are some dirt roads, and pot-holes.
If you’re planning to drive in the Monteverde area, I’d recommend that you only do so if you feel pretty confident with your driving. Monteverde is very hilly, uneven dirt roads with cliffs beside them – also lots of potholes. If you get caught in the rain (like we did.) it can be especially difficult.
Overall, renting a car and driving in Costa Rica is the most flexible way to explore the country. There are other good options which we mention below, but ultimately – I’m glad we chose to drive as a family with kids in Costa Rica.
Requirements for Renting a Car in Costa Rica
These requirements are universal among all the car rental companies in Costa Rica. So regardless of which company you rent from, you can expect to see these requirements.
- A valid driver’s licence from your home country, and your passport. The only exception is if your driver’s licence is written in a different alphabet, such as Mandarin, Arabic, or Hebrew. (In this case, you’ll need an International Driver’s Licence.)
- You are permitted to drive in Costa Rica for as long as your visitor’s 90-day immigration permit is valid. (However, some car rental companies will only rent to you for a period of up to 60 days.)
- Liability Insurance on a car rental from the Instituto Nacional de Seguros (INS) is required by law in Costa Rica, and can’t be replaced with any sort of credit card coverage.
In addition to the above, each car rental company will have its own age requirements, prices, set of other rules and perks. Let’s go through each of them below.
Cost for Renting a Car in Costa Rica
Here’s what you need to know about the average daily rate, insurance costs, and what we paid
You can expect to pay between $100-$200 per day for the rental of a standard car in Costa Rica if you’re going with any of the big name brands (Avis, Hertz, Budget, Enterprise, etc) but there are some Costa Rican-owned car-rental companies where you can rent a car for cheaper – Sixt, and Vamos, where they rent cars for anywhere from $30-$80 USD per day.
On top of the base car rental price, you’ll also be charged for insurance.
- The mandatory insurance required by law that we mentioned above ranges from from $10-20 USD per day depending on the vehicle. This insurance only covers damage to other people, their cars, or property. It doesn’t cover damage to your rental car.
- Basic Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) is an optional insurance that you’ll be offered at the time of renting. It will cost you an extra $15-40 UDD per day depending on the company and vehicle. You’re still responsible for all losses or damages in the case of negligence, vandalism, road damage, or theft. It doesn’t cover tires or windows.
So in total, you’re looking at spending an extra $25 – $60 per day on insurance, on top of the cost for the rental for the vehicle in Costa Rica.
What we paid for our car rental in Costa Rica
In 2022, our grand total for a car rental for 10 days in Costa Rica was $1300 USD for a Toyota Rev 4. This included the required liability insurance, and a GPS (that we added on but didn’t use). We rented from Budget. It does not include the CDW insurance that we added when we picked up the car.
Reputable Car Rental Companies in Costa Rica
If you’re interested in renting a car in Costa Rica, here are the most commonly used companies to choose from.
- Minimim age: 23 years
- Maximim age: none
- Child safety seats: $5.00 USD per day
- Additional driver: $5.00 USD per day
- You cannot leave the Costa Rican boarders with your rental car
- Prices can be pretty hefty, with the rentals costing $100/day at minimum (not including insurance.) With Avis, I believe you’re paying for the reputable name.
- Minimum age: 21
- Maximum age: none
- Drivers between the ages of 21 and 24 will incur an additional daily fee.
- You have unrestricted driving in Costa Rica, and you can cross boarders. Renters wishing to visit Nicaragua or Panama must prearrange at time of rental
- Customers can only rent the following vehicles- Economy, Compact, Intermediate SUV and Standard SUV.
- A customer can drive in Costa Rica using their drivers license from country of origin for up to 60 days. If staying in country longer, they will need an International Driver’s Licence.
- Enterprise employees cannot install the child seats for customers but can give out directions that explain how to properly install them.
Must present a major credit card in the renter’s name at the time of rental.
Economy Rent a Car
- Minimum age: 21
- Maximum age:
- Drivers age 18-21 may rent a vehicle for an additional charge of $10.00 per day with higher L.D.W deductible.
- Vehicles cannot be taken outside the country of Costa Rica.
- A shuttle is provided from SJO airport to the pickup location
Budget Rent a Car
- Minimum age: 25
- Maximum age: 75 years.
- The vehicle may not leave the borders of Costa Rica.
- There is an additional charge if you’re dropping the vehicle off from a different location you picked it up from.
- Child seats cost is an additional $12 per day
- A shuttle is provided from SJO
- Minimum age: 18
- Maximum age: None
- Car seats or booster seats are free of charge with your rental vehicle (remember to specify which one you need when making the reservation
- Cars range from $30-$45 per day. They have some premium SUVs that cost more.
- The Basic Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) deductible is doubled for drivers between 18 and 20 years of age — including those signed as additional drivers.
Sixt Rent a Car
- You must have had a valid driver’s licence from your home country for at least 1 year
- Drivers under the age of 21 are charged an additional fee.
- Drivers over the age of 75 are billed an additional USD 5.65 per day.
Carseats and Booster Seats in Costa Rica
Travelling with young children in Costa Rica? Here’s what you need to now about driving with them in Costa Rica
By law in Costa Rica, children under the age of 12 require safety seats and ride in the back seat of the vehicle. Failure to comply can result in fines up to 360,000 colons (roughly $670 USD) for the first offence.
There’s a height and weight requirement that factors into this too. Here are the rules depending on your child’s age:
- Infants up to one year (up to 28.5 pounds/13 kg or 29.5 inches/75 cm) – Rear facing carseat
- Babies and children ages 1-4 (20-40 pounds/9-18 kg or up to 43 inches/110 cm) – Front facing carseat
- Children ages 4-6 (33-55 pounds/15-25 kg or up to 57 inches/145 cm) – Booster seat with a back.
- Children ages 6-12 (48.5-79 pounds/22-36 kg or up to 57 inches/145 cm) – Booster seat without a back.
Other Transportation Options in Costa Rica
If you’re unsure about driving, there are other ways to get around Costa Rica.
1. Stay in a hotel and take day trips
A lot of hotels and resorts offer a free shuttle from the airport, and have day trips and excursions that you can sign up for while you’re staying at that hotel. You can stay in one place for the whole week (or however long you’re there) and just do tours. Many people find this option simpler, easier and more relaxing.
Pros of staying in the same hotel
-Being able to stay in one place, and not have to pack up and move again.
Cons of staying in the same hotel
-Depending on what you want to see, and where you’re staying, here could be long bus or car rides to see everything you want to see in the country
-If you’re travelling with a baby or toddler, it can be tricky with shuttles not having a carseat for you
Hotels that make a good ‘home base’ while you’re in Costa Rica
These hotels make a good ‘home base’ in Costa Rica, because of the amenities (breakfasts, swimming pools, A/C, proximity to nearby attractions) they offer.
- Auténtico Hotel – San José
- Casa Luna Hotel & Spa – La Fortuna
- Camino Verde B&B – Monteverde
- Parador Nature Resort and Spa – Manuel Antonio
- Ten North Tamarindo Beach Hotel – Tamarindo
*These hotels don’t organize tours themselves, but you can book tours through Viator that could take you to different places in the area, and out of town.
2. Hire a private shuttle service
Riding in a private shuttle is a very popular option for getting around Costa Rica. You can do shared shuttles, or private shuttles, obviously the ladder being pricier. If you’re a family of 3 or 4, the private shuttle is the perfect option because it works out to be about the same as if you shared shuttle with two other people. A private shuttle is a great way for families to explore Costa Rica also because similar to a car, you have the freedom to make stops when you need to.
For a 3-hour trip in a private shuttle in Costa Rica, you can expect to pay around $200 USD on average.
|Pros of a private shuttle service||Cons of a private shuttle service|
|-Comfortable and easy|
-The whole family can relax while in the car, or take turns entertaining younger kids
-Most come with A/C, a complimentary water bottle, free wifi
-They are willing to make complimentary stops along the way, even for meals
-You don’t have to worry about directions, gas re-fills, car insurance or getting lost
|-Shuttle companies have booster and baby seats available, but they don’t have seats for all ages. The majority have seats for 3 years and up. You will need to confirm that they have the exact kind of seat you’re looking for, or bring your own from home|
-Its pricier than renting a car to drive yourself around
Keep in mind that its possible to mix up your transportation options; many people do this. For example, you can land in San Jose, and then take a shuttle to Puerto Viejo. From Puerto Viejo, you rent a car. Some people don’t want to deal with the hassle of car pick up at the international airport after a long flight, so this is an option to.
Reputable Private Shuttle Companies in Costa Rica
If you’re interested in hiring a private shuttle service, then here are some of the most commonly used shuttle services in Costa Rica.
- ILT Costa Rica Standing for “I Love Travel”, ILT Costa Rica provides private shuttle services, private flights, water taxis. Their shuttles includes A/C, bottled water and free wifi. ILT is the perfect option for families of 4-9 people, but there are also large coach buses for large groups.
- Costa Rica Shuttle Service is a good option for large groups of 9 people or more. Their smallest vehicle holds 9-10 passengers.
- Private Shuttle Costa Rica is an option for groups of 6 people or less. Their shuttles have A/C, bottled water, and will make unlimited complimentary stops along the way.
Should I tip my shuttle driver in Costa Rica?
A tip isn’t mandatory, but if you decide to leave a tip for your Costa Rican shuttle driver, then a normal amount would be 10% of the cost of your trip.
What if my flight is delayed?
You provide your flight details when you schedule your private shuttle, so they use that information to track your flight and will aim to pick up up when it arrives.
3. Taking a Bus
Taking the bus in Costa Rica can be challenging because there isn’t one single bus company. There are multiple bus companies. However, taking the bus is the cheapest way to get around Costa Rica. It also helps to know someSpanish, as many of the drivers do not speak English.
Which airport in Costa Rica should I fly into?
Costa Rica has two main airports: Liberia and San José. The one you fly into will depend on where you want to visit and what you want to see. Here’s a break down of the two airports, benefits of each and what’s close by.
- Smaller airport
- Closer to Tamarindo and the Guanacaste region
- Perfect for people who want to visit beaches!
- 2.5 hours from La Fortuna and and 2 hours and 45 minutes from Monteverde
- Close to all-inclusive resorts
- Surrounded by well-paved roads, which means a smoother ride with less traffic
- Its in Alajuela, not right in San José
- Generally cheaper than flying into Liberia (you could save a good $300)
- 2.5 hours from La Fortuna and Monteverde
- Closer to Manuel Antonio National Park, and Jaco Beach
- Faster to get through than Liberia (but definitely not at peak times like March break.)
Good to know: San Jose Intl’ Airport is often called Juan Santa Maria Intl’ Airport
Both international airports in Costa Rica are similarly close to La Fortuna and Monteverde, which provide you with opportunities to experience the rainforest, jungle, coffee and chocolate farms, hot springs, and animal encounters.
What it comes down to is:
- If visiting Costa Rican beaches is apart of your plans, and if so, which ones you prefer to spend time at. Puerto Viejo and Tamarindo are both much closer to the Liberia airport (plus, they have many family-friendly beaches in that area) Quepos and Jaco beach are much closer to the San José Intl’ Airport.
- If you want to visit Manuel Antonio National Park – in this case, San José would be better to land in
- If you want to visit the Limón region – Liberia would be closer
- Budget – if you want to save a few hundred bucks, then San Jose is your best bet
We chose to fly into the San José airport. All inclusive resorts aren’t our area of interest; we were more interested in seeing rainforests, volcanos and mountains. We had a good experience flying into and out of SJO; we had a baby with us, and when we arrived they moved us to the very front of the line in customs. We hopped onto a coach at SJO that took us to Budget to pick up our rental car.
Transportation around Costa Rica with a Baby or a Toddler
What is the best way to get around Costa Rica with a baby or toddler in tow? We would recommend renting a car, as long as you’re a confident driver. It gives you the most flexibility, and less hassle having to move the carseat in and out of different vehicles.
FAQ: Driving in Costa Rica
Here are all the commonly asked questions about driving in Costa Rica, and that we wished we’d asked before our trip too.
What is the best car rental company in Costa Rica?
There are a lot of good, reliable car rental companies in Costa Rica. Personally, we had a positive experience with Budget. However, we wish we’d known about Vamos – they’re Costa Rican owned, well rated, and are a fraction of the price.
What is the average price to rent a car in Costa Rica?
With insurance during high season, renting from the big names, such as Avis or Enterprise will cost an upwards of $200 USD per day. However, you can rent significantly more affordably from smaller Costa Rican companies like Vamos or Sixt.
Is it safe to drive in Costa Rica?
Costa Rica is a safe country to drive in. Renting a car is safe and reliable, and generally, the roads are safe as well. In some areas, you might have to be mindful of treacherous roads and uneven terrain. In the mountain areas like Monteverde, is where it’ll be more challenging.
How far in advance should I book a rental car in Costa Rica?
You should book your rental car at least a month in advance, to avoid missing out on your preferred car. You should especially book cars, hotels and experiences in advance if you plan to be in Costa Rica during the peak months (December and March) as things fill up faster during that time.
Should I get GPS with my rental car in Costa Rica?
If you have a Smart phone with a decent roaming plan, then I wouldn’t recommend you pay for a GPS in Costa Rica. Google Maps on your Smart phone will be enough to get you to where you need to be, even those most remote AirBnbs. We paid for a GPS, and regretted doing so, because we didn’t use it – our phone was more than enough.
How do you get around Costa Rica without a car?
If you want to get around Costa Rica with out a car, you can take a private shuttle, taxis, the bus, or stay in one hotel and take day trips. There are many private shuttle services offered through their private website, and even on Viator, and these drivers are usually very flexible with making the stops you want to make, and provide you with cold water in their air-conditioned cars.
Conclusion: Driving in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a highly popular travel destination for couples, families and solo travellers and families, and has been for a couple decades now. Renting a car and driving in Costa Rica is safe, reliable and gives you the opportunity to see and spend as much time at each stop as you’d like.
Driving in Costa Rica was a positive experience for us, but there are other options too if you decide it isn’t for you. Overall, we had a positive experience driving in Costa Rica, and I personally wouldn’t want to see the country any other way.
We hope that this guide has been helpful for you in planning how you in figuring out driving in Costa Rica!