Renting a car in Costa Rica is the absolute best way to get around the Country. It gives you the freedom to explore at your own pace and avoid wasting time and money on expensive taxis, which can be difficult to find in certain areas. For those who really don’t want to drive themselves, we recommend the shuttle company ILT Costa Rica. We’ve used them multiple times when traveling with bigger groups and their English-speaking drivers were professional and friendly.
Be sure to make a reservation for a rental car. It not only locks in a price that you’re comfortable with, but it also makes the whole process much easier when you get to the rental counter. It also helps if you’re arriving on a late flight so they are prepared to shuttle you to the pickup location. We used to use Expedia to search and find our rentals but Economy Rentals Cars is now our favorite. Their cars are always newer and typically in good condition. National and Enterprise are good too but the cars we’ve received aren’t as new as Economy.
Picking up the car
The rental car pickups are outside of the airport so your rental company will shuttle you to the proper location. After you land and get through customs, head over to the rental car counters near the exit of the airport. There’s usually one person at each company kiosk. Confirm your reservation with them and they will arrange a shuttle to take you to the pickup location. If you get in late and there’s no one at the counter, continue exiting and there should be someone with your rental company’s sign waiting for you.
In San Jose
The process at the San Jose Airport is the same as in Liberia. You’ll find the agent for your rental company and take a shuttle to the rental car area, which is located outside of the airport. Most of the rental companies are located about 10-20 minutes out of the airport zone. Normally they get you there fairly quickly and you’ll be off soon.
What are the insurance and other fees?
So this can be a tricky one. If this is your first time renting a car in Costa Rica, we recommend that you get whatever insurance that you are comfortable with. The main highways in Costa Rica are actually very easy to drive in (except in downtown San Jose which can be crazy in rush hour). The downside of full insurance is that it can often add up to more than the daily rental car rate.
We usually decline all insurance. Our Chase Sapphire Reserve or Capital One Venture X credit cards provide primary international rental coverage as a perk of the card. We have yet to need this primary coverage, but you never know where your adventure will take you. Economy requires some proof of coverage from your credit card company. If you’re using credit card insurance, remember to take a screenshot of your card benefits page or you may be required to pay for their insurance.
There is also a required liability waiver that you cannot decline. For average vehicles, it’s about $25/day on top of the rental fee.
Should you rent a 4×4?
The main highways are paved but dirt roads are a norm in much of Costa Rica. Like insurance, this one comes down to your comfort level getting around on dirt roads in a new area. Most midsized vehicles like the Hyundai Tucson come with all-wheel drive standard which is all you should need. We’ve made the mistake of not having a 4×4 in the rainy season so our general advice is to get 4×4 to be safe.
Unlike in San Jose, driving from the Liberia International Airport is very straightforward. The biggest mistake you can make is trying to drive aggressively like some locals and speed well over the posted limit. You can get a speeding ticket and some roads are just plain dangerous with vehicles passing slow freight trucks.
It’s okay to pass slow traffic when you can do so safely but we advise caution as other drivers on the road don’t always use good judgment when passing. We’ve seen motorcycle accidents first hand and it’s a sobering reminder to use caution and drive smart.
Bring a battery pack for your cell phone if you plan to use it for navigation. Not all rental cars have a USB port, and night driving is much easier when your phone is charged. We recommend the Anker magnetic charger if you have an iPhone. You won’t need to mess around with a cable and it doubles the battery of your phone.
Filling up the tank is very easy in Costa Rica. The stations are full service, so pull to a pump and an attendant will ask if you want a dollar amount or a full fill. Pay with cash or a credit card and you’re on your way. Most gas stations have a one-way entrance so be sure to go with the flow of traffic to avoid an embarrassing rerouting from the attendant.
Dropping off the rental car
Nothing special here. Pull into the rental drop-off area where you picked up the car and flag down someone to check you in. The shuttle will get you back to the airport on the next round and your post-trip blues will probably start to sink in. We use this time as inspiration to plan the next trip!
Costa Rica Driving Tips
Check the wipers
Check the windshield wipers before you leave the rental pickup area. If there is anything wrong, ask for another car. It rains often and not having working wipers can be flat out dangerous.
Keep your phone charged
Don’t forget a phone charger or battery pack because GPS apps will drain your battery quickly. We always use this Anker Wireless Magsafe Charger in case the rental doesn’t have a USB port.
Check for damages
Check for damages to the vehicle before you leave the rental pickup area. Most rental cars will already have some scuffs and dings so make sure they are noted on the inspection form that you will have to initial.
Do a video walkaround
We always do a quick video walkaround in case there are any damage disputes after you drop off the vehicle. It takes less than a minute and could save you time and money later if there are any issues.
We’ve been told by many rental car employees that Waze is the best navigation app for driving in Costa Rica. We’ve had good experience with Waze but Google Maps has always worked well too. Apple Maps doesn’t navigate in Costa Rica so be prepared with a different app if that’s your usual go-to.
Research your route
We made the mistake of following Google Maps blindly, which tried to save us 5 minutes of drive time and took us down Highway 911 to the coast. It was 9pm at night in the rainy season and we had a 2WD rental car with horrible windshield wipers. The pavement quickly turned into a dirt road full of potholes, a river crossing, and narrow passing areas. All of this could have been avoided if we just looked at the alternate route options before heading out. Needless to say it was all part of the adventure and we made it to Playa Flamingo in one piece.
Renting a car in Costa Rica is our favorite method of transportation. Enjoy the freedom to explore on your own terms.