If you are planning a trip to Costa Rica and wondering what’s the best way to get around, a rental car is the answer. Even if you have never had a rental car, Costa Rica is a great place to try it!
I recently spent three weeks exploring the beautiful country with a friend in a hired car, and it was the best travel decision I have made in a while.
We didn’t know much about how it all worked before we did it, and there were a few things we would have loved to have known in advance- which is why I have put together is comprehensive guide to car rental in Costa Rica for whoever may be interested.
It covers how and where to rent a car, what you need to know about the process, a few tips for renting and driving cars in the country, and- most importantly- how much it is likely to cost.
If you want to get off the beaten path and experience Costa Rica at your own pace with the freedom to really take it all in, then this guide is for you.
Where to Rent a Car in Costa Rica
You are here because you want to know how to rent a car in Costa Rica and where to do it, so before we get into all my top tips and helpful insights, let’s answer the most important question.
If you are looking for (in my humble opinion) the best rental car company in Costa Rica, my vote goes to Discover Cars. Trust me when I say we looked everywhere to compare the very best deals, and this company came out on top.
It is an online car rental website that compares all the best suppliers in Costa Rica to find the best deals. The site also offers the mandatory rental car insurance required by the country’s government if you want it, which is something we didn’t find in many other places.
Why Do We Recommend Discover Cars?
There is no shortage of places to hire a rental car. Costa Rica has a few well-known rental companies, but Discover Cars stands out for several reasons.
What appealed most to us at first glance was the impressive choice of cars. It is an easy-to-use website with plenty of filters to narrow down your search, including vehicle categories, price ranges, seat numbers, and a few special features.
The next thing we loved was the price. Discover Cars is significantly cheaper than the other companies we looked at, even with the optional additional charge for full coverage liability insurance. There were no hidden fees or sneaky extra costs- just straight-up, honest, and transparent prices.
10 Reasons to Get a Rental Car in Costa Rica
If you are asking yourself, should I rent a car in Costa Rica, then we have ten reasons to share with you why the answer is yes.
It wasn’t our original intention to hire a car for any more than a couple of days, but we quickly realized it was the best thing for our trip in many ways.
Here are 10 reasons why you should hire a car on your next trip to Costa Rica.
1: Get Off the Tourist Track
Costa Rica is a major tourist attraction, and depending on what time of year you go, it can be incredibly difficult to escape the crowds wherever you go.
A big part of why is that most transportation options focus on the classic attractions and hot spots. If you are tied to public shuttles and transfers, then you are tied to the same schedule as everyone else.
There is a whole lot more to Costa Rica than the well-known tourist spots. It is bursting with hidden gems and secret wonders, but you can’t get there unless you have a car to take you.
Short of spending a small fortune on a private driver, the only way to discover the lesser-known beauties and best bits of Costa Rica is to drive there yourself in a rental car.
2: It is More Cost Effective than Public Transportation Overall
Let’s just be clear here- rental cars are not cheaper than local buses in Costa Rica.
However, to get where you want to go, you may have to take multiple buses from multiple locations combined with overnight stays while waiting for connections and taxi journeys or shuttles to fill in the gaps that the buses don’t cover.
Shuttle services run between major cities and well-known destinations primarily for the sake of tourists, and you can also hire a private shuttle to take you somewhere specific. These services work out more costly (on average) than hiring a car.
All things considered, when you include the potential additional expenses incurred during waiting periods or extra costs for taxis and shuttles, hiring a rental car is the more cost-effective option.
3: Don’t Waste Time Using Local Buses
Money isn’t the only thing we saved by deciding to hire a car. We were able to fit significantly more activities and locations into our Costa Rican adventure thanks to all the extra time we had.
After two weeks of attempting to use the local busses as much as possible, we realized we were losing entire days for journeys we could have done ourselves in a few hours. Budgeting is one thing, but missing out on valuable exploration time wasn’t worth it for us.
What we didn’t realize at first about the public buses is just how often they stop. Just about every mile (sometimes less), the bus would pull over to let more people on. This not only doubled the time it took to get from A to B, but it also meant that the bus very quickly became overcrowded and sweaty!
4: You Can Really Get to Appreciate the Beautiful Scenery
One of my favorite things about Costa Rica is its uniquely stunning scenery. My least favorite thing? Having to squint out the windows of a shuttle to try and get a good look before we disappear around a corner.
If, like me, you want to soak up as much of the country as you can and get great photos that are not through a blurry window as you drive past, the rental cars are the way to go.
Having the freedom to pull over whenever we saw something worth stopping for (as long as it wasn’t on a dangerous part of the road) was a game-changer for me in Costa Rica.
Some of my favorite sites were things we happened upon on our way from one place to the next. Had we not been in a rental car, we wouldn’t have been able to stop and spend some time admiring the country’s beauty.
They say the journey is as important as the destination, and in a rental car, it can be!
5: Driving in Costa Rica is Pretty Easy
Something that puts a lot of people off renting a car when they travel is the fear of driving in a place they don’t know. I have been in that boat, especially in places known for their hectic road systems and driving styles!
Luckily, Costa Rica is not one of them. Other than in central San Jose and around San Jose airport, we found the driving pretty laid back and easy to get the hang of. Most drivers are courteous, stick to the speed limit, and follow the rules- and most of the roads are simple.
Some secondary roads are a bit twisty, winding, and narrow, but as long as you take it slow and pay attention at corners, you shouldn’t have any problems.
On top of that, we didn’t come across much busy traffic (with the exception of San Jose), and when we did, it wasn’t nearly as stressful as we have experienced elsewhere.
It is also worth noting that Costa Rica uses the right-hand side of the road for driving, just like the USA.
6: There is Plenty of Parking Available
We never had an issue with parking at any of the places we stayed or visited. Other than a couple of National Parks and tourist attractions that charged a few dollars for the privilege of using the parking lot, we were usually able to find a safe and free spot to put the rental car.
Sometimes, we purposefully looked for hostels, hotels, or other accommodations that advertised free parking on-site, but other times, when we just showed up with a walk-in booking, we were still able to get it with no problem.
The choice of places to stay with parking is good, so you are not limited in accommodation options just because you have a rental car.
7: It Is Easy to Transport All Your Things
I’m sure I am not alone when I say I dread spending hours on public transportation with my backpack, day bag, camping gear, and whatever else I happen to have with me on the trip. I even hate having to properly pack everything up every time we move from one place to another.
Ah, but wait! Renting a car in Costa Rica changed all that for me. It is hard to pick the best part of having a rental car, but the lazy packer in me definitely gives this part a huge thumbs up.
We were able to keep the bulk of our stuff in the car between trips and could spread our day-to-day items out so they were easier to access in the back of the car. It also means no more worries about your things getting damaged or lost during long journeys using public transport.
8: Move at Your Own Pace
As much as I enjoy a travel plan, I don’t love feeling restricted on when I have to go somewhere and how long I can stay. Using a shuttle service means planning your visits around the days and times they run, which can mean not having enough time somewhere, or being stuck somewhere a little too long.
With a rental car, you can move at the pace that suits you best. Get somewhere and love it way more than you thought you would? No problem, stay another night! Are you not quite feeling a destination and ready to move on? Hop in the car, and off you go!
The overall convenience of having a car is unbeatable. From not having to worry about staying in line with schedules to forgoing the 5 a.m. wake-ups to make the bus on time, it is just a much better way to travel.
You can also stop as many times as you want, set the AC how you like it, or roll down a window and enjoy the fresh air as you drive. If I was pushed to pick a favorite thing about renting a car in Costa Rica, it is the freedom it allows.
9: Beat Travel Sickness
Travel sickness has been a major issue for me in the past, especially on winding narrow roads like the ones in Costa Rica. Being stuck on a hot bus with very few opportunities to stop and get off for some fresh air only makes it worse.
On this trip, whenever I felt a little rough, we simply pulled over at the first safe and convenient spot and took a pause to refresh, reset, and feel better. It also makes a big difference being able to sit comfortably in the front seat- rather than being squashed in with a bunch of other people in the back.
10: A Road Trip Through Costa Rica is Great Fun
At the end of the day, there is a whole kind of enjoyment you can get from a road trip in a rental car through a stunningly unique and special country like Costa Rica. It is just a whole different experience to drive around with complete freedom than to be limited by timetables and bus routes.
Turn up the fun levels by creating a great playlist with your travel buddies, stocking up on snacks and treats for the road, and live your best life in your rental car in Costa Rica!
How to Get the Best Deal on Costa Rica Car Rentals
Our experience and the experiences of others we met who had also hired rental cars for their trip gave us some great insights into how to secure the best deal.
There is quite a range of prices and some potentially costly mistakes that you will want to avoid. Here are my top three tips for getting a good deal on your Costa Rican rental car.
Use an Aggregate Booking Site to Compare Car Rental Companies
We used Discover Cars, an aggregate rental car reservation site that gave us the best impression and value for money. Whatever website you choose, look for one that compares deals from multiple locations and suppliers for your dates and travel needs.
They not only give you a broader view of what is available, but they also usually offer better savings and discounts because of the deals they have with rental car suppliers in-country.
Read the Fine Print
Always, always read the fine print on your rental car agreement. We met a lot of people who had been caught out by hidden fees and extra costs that they did not expect when they first hired their rental cars.
Costa Rica has a bit of a reputation for rental car scams, but the truth is that many companies are just not upfront about the full extent of the costs.
Pick a Rental Car Company with a Good Reputation
Resist the temptation to pick the cheapest rental cars you can find- unless they happen to come from a company with a recognizable name that you trust. We actually found the prices on Discover Cars to be amongst the lowest, even once we added on insurance.
Some companies advertise an attractively low price at first, but when you get there, there are all kinds of other charges, vehicle qualities are not what they said they are, and they may try to charge you for damage that you didn’t cause.
This is not necessarily the case, but it is better to have the peace of mind that comes with a reputable brand name- rather than taking the risk.
Are There Any Restrictions on Who Can Rent a Car in Costa Rica?
Before you get too excited, I need to point out that there are a few restrictions on who is allowed to hire a rental car in Costa Rica.
Age and License Restrictions
You must be at least 25 years old and have a valid driver’s license from your home country. Most companies will ask to see your passport, although some accept any second form of photographic ID.
There is no need to have an international driver’s license or other international driving permit to hire a car in Costa Rica- your US driver’s license or license from whatever country you come from is enough.
In almost every case, you are required to give a security deposit of anywhere between $500 and $5000. It is usually taken as a hold on your card rather than an upfront payment, and the rental company has the right to deduct costs if you damage the car or are late in returning it.
Every company is different, but it is very unlikely that you will have no deposit hold. Sometimes, having good insurance reduces the hold amount, but not always.
Our security deposit hold was $2000, but we know people who had more from their provider. Make sure the limit on your card is high enough to cover it.
As long as you hand the car back on time without any damage, the hold will be released, and you will get to keep the entire amount.
Car Rental Insurance Requirement
Costa Rica has a mandatory insurance policy for all car rentals. Some companies include it in the price automatically- others offer it as an extra.
You are usually also required to have extended protection through a separate policy, but many travel insurance policies have this included.
We paid just under $8.00 a day on top of the rental car fee with Discover Car to cover the mandatory insurance and high-level coverage up to $3000 in case of an emergency.
What Is the Average Cost of a Rental Car in Costa Rica?
The cost of car rental in Costa Rica varies depending on the type of car you hire and how long you hire it for. There is also quite a vast range of prices between companies, and the insurance you have will make a difference.
You can rent a standard car for two weeks for between $20 and $60 a day (rental car insurance included). SUVs and other 4×4 vehicles usually cost a bit more in the range of $50 to $100 per day if you opt for full coverage insurance as part of the package.
Again, these are rough figures that will change from time to time. Also bear in mind that shorter rentals usually have a higher daily price, and longer rentals cost less per day.
We paid a little over $40 a day for a fully insured and protected 4×4 compact SUV for three weeks. The rental period was in early July, and we hired the car online through Discover Cars.
In comparison, friends we know who were traveling at more or less the same time rented a small car for three weeks through the same rental car company and chose not to include the provided insurance (they already had coverage through their travel insurance package and a separate policy for the mandatory insurance). Their total price was just under $350, which worked out to around $16-17 daily.
There are plenty of great low-budget options, but I am glad we decided to go for the bigger car and feel it was worth it to include the insurance coverage.
Does the Cost of Costa Rica Car Rental Vary Throughout the Year?
Yes, they do. The cost of rental cars in Costa Rica changes depending on the season and the demand. It can be quite a difference depending on the car you rent and how far in advance you book it.
Cheapest Time for Rental Cars
You can usually get a cheaper deal on car rentals if you visit Costa Rica during the wet season, which is from May until November.
October is the cheapest month of the year since it has the highest chance of rain and is least popular with tourists.
Most Expensive Time for Rental Cars
The dry season in Costa Rica runs from December to April. It costs more to rent a car during this time, especially if you are there during the festive period or Easter week.
We compared the prices for the car we rented in July with the same car for the same length of time in December, and it was four times more expensive. Other months in the dry season are not quite as expensive as December, but it is good to know the top end.
Understanding Costa Rican Rental Car Insurance
One of the things we wish we knew a little more about before our car rental experience was the rules and regulations surrounding insurance. We also met quite a few others who shared that sentiment, and some who ended up overpaying because they didn’t know the rules.
Insurance is the complicated part of the Costa Rica car rental business- so much so that we read a lot of online feedback calling it a scam. Some small rental companies do, unfortunately, take advantage of the confusion a little- based on things that happened to people we know.
They don’t mention insurance at all when you first reserve your car. You are given a price- maybe even pay in advance or leave a deposit- then when you get there, you are hit with a bill that can double your costs or more. Considering many suppliers do not accept last-minute cancelations without charging something, it is easy to see where the frustration comes from.
Luckily, we booked through Discover Cars, and all the insurance we needed was included in our final quoted price. You can get a free quote by using this widget below:
The mandatory insurance covers third-party liability up to $100,000 if there is no deductible. Protection is usually up to $20,000 with 20%. You cannot drive a rental car in Costa Rica without it, so make sure you know the cost before you confirm your reservation.
Car Protection Insurance
Most leading suppliers also offer car protection insurance, which covers theft losses and vehicle damage and repairs after an incident or accident.
You can opt out of this insurance coverage from your rental company if you want to since it is generally covered by insurance from the credit card company or in your travel insurance. Make sure that it is though. Otherwise, you won’t be covered for any financial losses if your rental car is stolen or damaged.
Extended liability insurance is completely optional, so if you are on a tight budget, you may prefer to leave it out. If you want the best coverage for breakdowns, roadside assistance, and any other potential issues, this is a good thing to have.
Every rental car company handles insurance a different way, and not all will offer extended protection as an option. You can, however, arrange it separately through your travel insurance company if it is something you want.
Does Travel Insurance or Credit Card Insurance Cover It?
The mandatory insurance imposed by the Costa Rican government is not included in card or travel insurance, but the additional coverage you need might be. You can also take out a separate policy just for that.
Many of the best rental car companies offer policies that include this insurance, so you don’t need to stress about being charged more when you go to pick up the car.
It is important to check your policy to find out- and speak to your rental car company about their options for paying for the mandatory insurance and whether or not it is included in the price already.
Remember, you cannot remove this part of the insurance- it is required by law.
Is It Safe to Rent a Car in Costa Rica?
Safety is always a major concern when traveling somewhere new, whether or not you decide to rent a car. Overall, we felt really safe throughout the process- from the support of the rental company to our confidence on the road.
I get that it is a scary concept, so let me explain why we feel it is safe to rent a car in Costa Rica.
When You Pick the Right Company, You Have All the Information and Support You Need
We felt safe from the beginning of our rental car experience because of how well Discover Cars explained everything. All our insurance was sorted, the contact numbers we needed were provided, and the car we were given was good quality and well-serviced.
Drivers Are Mostly Courteous, and the Roads are Easy Enough
Road safety is a biggie for me as I am not the most confident driver. Of all the places my friend and I have driven overseas, this was one of the easiest. Other than a few freaky corners and tight single-lane passes, we didn’t come across much that made us feel unsafe.
As long as you take it slow and pay attention on the country roads, the driving is quite enjoyable.
We Actually Felt Safer Having a Car
Having our rental car not only felt totally safe, but it made us feel a lot more comfortable and confident on our travels. It was good to know that we could head off whenever we wanted and had our own personal transport that we didn’t have to share with anyone.
Five Tips for Renting a Car in Costa Rica
Next, I wanted to share some of my top tips for renting a car in Costa Rica to help you get the best out of the experience.
We were pretty lucky because we chose a great company and had a good car, and some friendly people were helpful enough to give us some great advice near the beginning of our journey.
Now, I want to pass it along to you!
These are my five top tips for renting cars in Costa Rica.
1: Opt for a Four-Wheel Drive
My top tip for renting a car in Costa Rica is to spring for a four-wheel drive if possible. Unless you will be staying in San Jose the entire time, you are likely to come across a few rough roads.
This is particularly true if you want to get off the beaten path a little (which I recommend because some of the best hidden gems are slightly out of the way).
On our recent trip, I would not have felt comfortable without the four-wheel drive in a lot of the areas we visited. There were a lot of gravel roads and steep hills, and generally, we enjoyed the peace of mind that came with having a more versatile vehicle.
Four-wheel drives also tend to have a higher clearance, which definitely came in useful on some of the bumpier roads. A small car with a low bumper would have taken a few hits on parts of our route.
2: Rent a Car Online
It seems like you can get a much better deal by checking out Costa Rica rental car companies online first and booking there rather than on location. Just from our experience, the quote we were given in-store was more than double what we ended up paying online for the same car for the same length of time.
Booking online also avoids any issues with availability. Walking in, you run the risk of not getting the car you want when you want it, but you can book online well in advance to secure what you need.
As an add-on to this tip, if you are traveling during a peak season, make sure you make your car rental reservation well in advance- at least a couple of months.
3: Take Pictures of the Car Before You Drive It
It is extremely important to take lots of photographs of your rental car inside and out before you leave the store. No, it is not for your Instagram- it is to ensure you are not charged for any damage or scratches that are already there.
If you notice any dents, scrapes, or parts that look questionable in quality, address it there and then. Never accept a car that seems unsafe, and if it is just a few surface issues, be thorough in your recording of them at the time of renting.
Many Costa Rica car rental companies, like anywhere else in the world, ask for a deposit. When you return the car, they check every inch for damage and will take money from the deposit to pay for repairs. Insurance covers a lot of this, but small issues (especially in smaller agencies) can end up costing you a lot.
Hiring a car through a reputable car rental company negates this risk a little, but lesser-known businesses have been known to try and charge for things that were already there.
If you have photographic evidence of what the car looked like when you picked it up, it is pretty hard for them to make the charges stick.
4: Save Money by Renting for Longer
Maybe you only want a car for a couple of days for a specific journey. That is fine, but bear in mind that the longer you rent it, the better the value for money becomes.
Your daily price for a Costa Rica car rental is lower if you hire it for longer. Say it costs $25 for a day. Rent it for two weeks- and the daily price could drop to $20. Keep it for a month, and that number should be even lower.
Basically, try to put together a plan for everything you want to do- and everywhere you want to go- that you need or want a car for. Make it one big trip, rather than renting a car short term several times during your visit.
5: Be Aware of Hidden Fees
This comes down to the rental car company you choose to work with. Some are super upfront and transparent with costs, but others are not. With some companies, the prices you are quoted are nothing like the final cost of your rental after they add on the other charges they didn’t mention at the start.
The main thing that trips people up on cost is the insurance. A company may quote you $20 a day online, but when you go to pick up the car, you are hit with an extra $20 daily in mandatory insurance costs.
We personally didn’t experience this because we booked through Discover Cars- a company that is 100% clear on the final price of your rental car right from the get-go. Unfortunately, we met some others who did get caught out.
This ‘scam,’ as people call it, is one of the negative things you hear about car rental companies in Costa Rica, but if you book with a reputable, well-known brand such as Discover Cars, you don’t have anything to worry about.
Five Tips for Driving in Costa Rica
We have covered my tips for renting a car in Costa Rica, but what about driving it?
As I already mentioned, driving in Costa Rica is pretty straightforward, but there are still a few things worth knowing and some steps you can take before you hit the road to make your trip easier and more enjoyable.
1: It Is a Good Idea to Get a SIM Card
This may technically not have much to do with physically driving your rental car, but it does play a massive role in managing your trip and having a safe, comfortable, and happy time.
Knowing you have a connection to data and local phone numbers is invaluable for your peace of mind. Getting a local SIM card is always at the top of my to-do list when I get to a foreign country, and Costa Rica is no exception.
It seemed even more important when driving, as it meant we had a safety net when moving from place to place.
Just make sure you have an unlocked phone that accepts a SIM card from any network. Otherwise, you won’t be able to connect locally.
Furthermore, save the important numbers on your phone. These include the rental car company, your accommodation, any contacts you have in-country and breakdown service numbers where applicable.
2: Look Out for Potholes and Speed Bumps
As well as being essential for your comfort and safety on the road, looking out for potholes and speed bumps (of which there are many) helps limit the risk of damaging your rental car. It’s a fact that Costa Rica is known for potholes and subpar roads.
It can be difficult to see potholes when light conditions are low, and some roads are pretty bad when you get far away from the usual routes.
Speed bumps are often unmarked, which also makes them easier to miss. They are pretty common in towns, especially near school zones, so keep your eyes peeled and stick to the speed limits.
3: Keep Some Change for Toll Roads
There are a couple of toll roads in and around San Jose. Prices are low (the equivalent of around $0.60 to $1.30), but it helps to have change ready for a smooth journey.
They tend to be pretty busy, so you won’t be popular if you create a holdup. To be safe, just keep some coins handy in the front of the car just in case you pass a toll booth.
4: Download Maps Before You Go
Even if you ignore everything else, follow this tip! Having offline maps available was a godsend for us on many occasions, and I would never want to rent a car and drive around any country without it.
Using Google Maps like normal is fine as long as you have a constant cell phone signal everywhere you go. In our experience, Costa Rica has some areas worth visiting where signal is not one of the strong points.
There is a simple solution- download Google Maps Offline.
This lets you track your route, see nearby restaurants, amenities, towns, and attractions, and follow your progress even if you don’t have a connection.
Setting it up is easy. Just go to the Google Maps app, click to zoom in on Costa Rica, click the icon on the search bar, a click Offline Maps.
From there, you want to choose Select Your Own Map and click on the area you plan to visit. Each square covers a pretty big area- but you will need to do this more than once if you want to map the whole country.
Once you have selected the area, click download. Make sure you do this before your trip when you are connected to WiFi. It will then be stored in your maps whether or not you are connected to the internet.
5: Watch Our for Semi Trucks
Last but not least, take extra care on the road if and when you come across semi-trucks. They are pretty common in rural areas and on country roads, which is a little inconvenient considering how narrow some roads are.
If you meet one coming the opposite way, it is best to pull in at a safe place and let them pass. Be extra cautious when you go around corners in case one is headed your way.
I am not a brave enough driver to attempt to overtake a truck on a single road, but if you are, do so with extreme caution and only when you can see clearly well ahead of where you are.
A Few Other Useful Things to Know
- We spent a little over $100 a week (average) on gas for more than 900 miles of driving. The gas stations are super easy to use. Someone else does the filling for you, and you pay out the window.
- Take a look at the available car rental locations and where you can drop your car off when you are done. Some companies need it to be at the same office. Others can accept the car at the other end of your route.
- Get your car cleaned before handing it back. You can find a local service for the equivalent of a few dollars, but if you hand back a really dirty car, you could be charged well over $100.
Explore Costa Rica the Right Way with a Rental Car
If there was ever a place to rent a car, Costa Rica is it. When it comes to car rentals Costa Rica is affordable, manageable, and straight up enjoyable.
The decision to rent a car changed our entire experience for the better, and we got so much more out of our visit than we would have otherwise. Discover Cars has the best car rental Costa Rica deals- all things considered.
To sum up everything we have shared, here are three take-away statements about renting a car in Costa Rica.
- You can get the best deal by booking online through an aggregate booking sight such as Discover Cars and traveling between May and November.
- Always, ALWAYS check the details of the price- and make sure the quote you have includes at least mandatory insurance.
- There is no easier, more convenient, or better way to see the real Costa Rica than in a rental car. The freedom and flexibility it gives you are incomparable- you just get so much more out of your time when you can go and come as you please.