Making the decision to rent a car or opt for provided transfers is not always a clear or easy decison. The following are key considerations about this topic:
Dependent on where you are going and for how long, a rental car can be efficient or expensive. Rental cars in Costa Rica are generally substantially more expensive than in the United States, Canada or European countries. On average a small SUV will run between $50-75 a day, with larger models pushing $100 per day. Sometimes slight discounts can be found for models that are 4 plus years old if you are willing to take that risk. If you have found significantly lower rates than this, you are all but guaranteed to pay surcharges, hidden fees, insurances and it is likely a scam.
Nearly all tour operators pick up and drop off at the hotels, so while you are off enjoying activities, you will be paying for a parked car. Few operators offer a discount if you drive yourself.
The government of Costa Rica has a law that requires a mandatory minimum insurance for all vehicles. They do not govern the cost of the insurance which has led many rental agencies to charge ridiculous premiums, often at the same price or higher than the rental car amount. If you find an attractive price such as $150 a week, it is likely that when you show up to rent the vehicle, you will be required to pay an additional insurance of $140-250.
In the United States, it is common to use a credit card policy to pay for rental car insurance. This is almost never accepted in Costa Rica by any of the rental car agencies. They often get away with this by referring to the combination of insurances which the credit card companies will not allow. Hence, if you pay the mandatory basic insurance as required by the Costa Rican government, you are not eligible to combine with your credit card company’s insurance. Most credit card companies are unwilling to pay the mandatory insurance as it is not by international standards, which means you are left footing the bill.
Due to irregularities with different rental car providers, insurance company regulations, credit card company regulations, and ever-changing Costa Rican laws regarding this, we do NOT include insurance with rental cars, effective March 19, 2015, unless clearly stated otherwise directly on your itinerary. We will however always display the amount you will be required to pay in a daily amount on your itinerary.
Gasoline should not be overlooked as prices generally hover above $5 USD per gallon. The mountainous, windy roads which are at times unpaved definitely add to fuel consumption.
Keep in mind though that stopping between destinations with luggage in your car is a bad idea as break-ins are common in popular tourist stops. The best and safest way to explore is from your hotel after checking in and leaving your luggage locked in your room. With that said, you are actually better off with private transfers if you want to explore hidden treasures between destinations as your driver can watch your luggage.
There are few street or route signs in Costa Rica which can make driving difficult or add to the adventure – dependent on how you choose to look at it. With that said, a good map and co-pilot or GPS can eliminate the confusion.
You can often save money with a rental car if you are going off the beaten path. Provided transportation costs can be significantly higher for rural destinations and shuttles are usually not available at all.
Be prepared if you plan to drive off the beaten path as these destinations are often cut off by rivers which can become impassable during heavy rains. If you are going to Drake Bay or Tortuguero, you will have to plan to board a boat at some point as they are not accessible by road.
You must also consider that nearly all insurance policies become null and void if the moment you turn on to an unpaved road.
Car theft and break-ins are quite common in tourist destinations. The thieves move surprisingly fast, so it is always advised to leave someone in the car with valuables and NEVER leave a vehicle with items in it unattended. Sometimes the thieves wear uniforms (crooked police officers) and request bribes in return for not issuing a speeding ticket.
Rental car companies reserve the right to assign similar model vehicles or upgraded models when inventory dictates.
There are obvious pros and cons to renting a car. If you do, remember to take photos from all angles before taking the car. Use common sense and stay alert.
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