The Complete Guide To Renting A Car In Costa Rica

Renting a car in Costa Rica is a great idea if you want to travel on your own schedule and if you want to visit some destinations that are a bit more off the beaten path. This is a country of spectacular natural beauty and vibrant culture. Situated in Central America, Costa Rica is known for its tropical climate, rugged coastline, sandy beaches, rainforests and biodiversity.

There’s so much to do in this country, you won’t know where to start! While San Jose is where you’ll find many of the historical and cultural landmarks, the many national parks highlight the country’s biodiversity. You’ll have a chance to spot sloths, iguanas, monkeys, turtles, pumas and a wide variety of birds.

Costa Rica is also a fabulous adventure destination: there’s no shortage of opportunities to go ziplining, bungee jumping, white-water rafting, kayaking, sky diving and snorkeling.

If you want to take in all that the country has to offer, you should consider renting a car in Costa Rica. Not sure if this is a good idea, and worried about the technicalities? Don’t worry. I have done it myself and I am about to share everything you need to know.

Make sure to read my post The Best Things To Do In Costa Rica.

things to do in Costa Rica

Should You Be Renting A Car In Costa Rica?

While there are many tours and public buses available to get you from place to place in Costa Rica, the best way to take in all of the country has to offer and more is to rent a car and embark on an independent adventure.

Buses in the country are known for being off-schedule and if you only plan to be in the country for a short time, renting a car will allow you to see more. Forget about waiting around for buses that only get you so far or having to follow an itinerary. Having a car at your disposal equals ultimate freedom to do what you want when you want!

Costa Rica is a fairly small country so you can cover a lot of ground if you have your own car. The country is bordered by the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other and it only takes about 5.5 hours to drive from coast to coast – it’s not far at all actually, but a mountain range cutting right through the middle makes traveling much slower (and may give you a good dose of car sickness too).

Furthermore, much of Costa Rica is rural and remote so there can be quite a long distance between villages and points of interest.

There’s no need to have a car while in the city as most of the things you’ll want to access are easily accessible by walking or taking a bus. Besides, parking can be a hassle in urban areas. But let’s be honest – you don’t exactly go to Costa Rica to spend time in a city, do you?

Part of the adventure when visiting Costa Rica actually is that some of the villages can’t be accessed by car so you can give yours a rest and hop on an ATV to explore these off-the-beaten-path places.

Now that we’re clear on why you should be renting a car in Costa Rica, let’s see everything you need to know about it.

Want to have an idea of prices? Check out the prices of car rental in Costa Rica here.

renting a car in Costa Rica

What You Must Know Before Renting A Car In Costa Rica

How much does renting a car in Costa Rica cost?

The average cost to rent a sedan can be as high as USD$ 450 per week in high season or as low as USD$ 200 per week in low season.

The cost of renting a car in Costa Rica varies a lot depending on how far in advance you book, which car company you go with and the kind of car you get. One thing to keep in mind is that advertised prices often don’t represent that final price because they only advertise the base rate without mentioning the many fees and insurance. That really good deal that you found online might not be so great after all. I always recommend reading the fine print and find out the total cost before booking.

Generally, it is best to book in advance and keep checking every few weeks to see if a better deal comes up. It’s also cheaper to rent a car when you pick it up and return it to the same location. Renting a car from the airport also comes with additional fees.

Remember that you can’t take your rental car across the border!

Want to have an idea of prices? Check out the prices of car rental in Costa Rica here.

The cost of gasoline in Costa Rica

Gasoline in Costa Rica is actually quite cheap – at least by European standards. At the time of writing, a liter costs about $1.2 USD, and a gallon comes at $4.535 USD (Source Global Petrol Prices). Only full service is available.

driving in Costa Rica

Book in advance

Renting a car in Costa Rica can be a complicated affair, especially if you wait until the last minute. It’s always best to book in advance to ensure that a car is available when you need it and to avoid long waits. It’s common for there to be shortages of rental cars, especially during peak tourist season.

Book your car rental in Costa Rica here.

Rental car companies in Costa Rica

Some of the companies available locally include Alamo Rent a Car, Enterprise, Vamos, Amigo Car Rental and Sixt Rent. While it’s possible to rent in person at the airport upon arrival or at a local outlet in one of the cities, you can also rent directly over the internet either with the car rental company or through a third-party booking site. The latter is usually the cheapest way to go as it allows to compare prices and policies.

I swear by Discover Cars as it allows you to compare the prices and the conditions across various companies. And their customer service is great!

Want to have an idea of prices? Check out the prices of car rental in Costa Rica here.

renting a car in Costa Rica

Insurance requirements

Personal car insurance isn’t required in Costa Rica but mandatory liability insurance is required to be added to rentals. This insurance covers very little so it’s highly recommended that visitors get full coverage. In other words: even if it’s not required by law, you should get the best insurance cover available.

You can get insurance through the rental company but it may be cheaper to get it elsewhere. For example, you can call your credit card company and check if car insurance is included on your card. If you own a car, your insurance may include rental cars or you may be able to add more coverage to your policy.

Check out the prices of car rental in Costa Rica here.

driving in Costa Rica

What documents do you need to rent a car in Costa Rica?

Foreigners don’t need an international driver’s license to rent a car in Costa Rica. All you need is a valid driver’s license from your home country and your passport with a valid tourist stamp. Once the date on the tourist stamp expires, you’re no longer eligible to drive in the country and temporary driver’s licenses and copies of the original are not accepted.

You will also need a credit card with a hold on it – the amount on hold varies depending on the company you rent a car with, but it usually is a minimum of $1,500. This is basically to cover any damages you may do to the car.

While it’s possible to rent a car with your debit card, many people don’t realize that there are substantial fees involved so it’s best to rent with a credit card.

How old do you need to be when renting a car in Costa Rica?

You have to be at least 21 years old to rent a car but most agencies may require drivers to be at least 25 years old. Vamos, on the other hand, offers car rental even to drivers who are just 18!

renting a car in Costa Rica

Should you rent a 4WD?

Whether you rent a vehicle with 4WD capabilities or not will depend on where you’ll be going. If you plan to stick to highways and the main roads through villages, you can get away without it.

However, if you don’t mind paying a bit more and want extra peace of mind, having a 4WD can get you out of some sticky situations if you plan to travel in remote areas where gravel roads can be muddy and rough.

Check the car conditions

Before driving off the lot with your rental car, be sure to walk around the car and take photos of its condition to ensure you don’t get penalized for scratches or dents that were already there. Also check for safety issues, such as worn tires, because it’s not unheard of for even the most reputable companies to rent out cars that are not up to standard.

renting a car in Costa Rica

Rental car scams in Costa Rica

Like everywhere, rental car scams happen in Costa Rica. Be wary of the one where the agency “upgrades” your vehicle without telling you. Make sure you see the rental before you sign any documents or you might end up paying more than you intended.

Download maps

One thing that will help you navigate the country is maps. Google Maps is definitely a good app to use, as well as Maps.me – however, keep in mind that even if you have a local SIM card, some places are so remote that you may end up with no phone reception and unable to use the apps. You can get around this issue by downloading maps offline. Trust me, this can be a life saver!

Final Tips

Driving in Costa Rica can be a lot of fun, but it can also be incredibly challenging, depending on when you visit. While road conditions are generally good close to cities, they aren’t quite as good in rural areas, and they can get especially bad during the rainy season.

You should also beware of pedestrians walking along the street – many places don’t have a sidewalk – as well as animals crossing the road (there are lots of stray dogs around, unfortunately).

Finally – and this is a rule that really applies to any country – never leave your valuables in sight in the car, especially when leaving!

Further Readings

Are you planning a trip to Costa Rica? These posts should be useful:

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Read what you must know before renting a car in Costa Rica - via @clautavani

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