Costa Rica has incredible, adventure-packed destinations across the country. Now, these destinations may be separated by miles of thick bush and rainforest, but they’re all worth visiting. The best way to see it all? Renting a car and hitting the roads at your own pace.
We’ve explored many remote corners of the country that we wouldn’t have been able to without a rental car. And if you’re staying for an extended period, car rentals in Costa Rica are a very budget-friendly option. With the cost of living in Costa Rica being relatively low, you won’t need to worry about tours or expensive private shuttles and you can set your own schedule.
To help navigate the sometimes confusing process, we’ve put together a guide to car rental companies, insurance, and more. Here is everything you need to know about renting a car in Costa Rica.
Common Questions About Renting Car in Costa Rica
Do You Need to Rent a Car in Costa Rica?
Technically no, you can get around by public buses, tours, or a private shuttle. Buses are cheap and safe but certainly not convenient. Especially when it comes to travelling between tourist destinations. Meanwhile, tours and shuttles can add up quickly. We’ve found that you can actually save money on your trip by hiring a car and being your own chauffeur.
Why Should You Rent a Car in Costa Rica?
If you’re planning a trip and wondering “should I rent a car in Costa Rica?” The answer is yes! You’ll be exploring Costa Rica at your own pace and can see more of what the country has to offer. Keep in mind that more than 50% of the country is densely forested so destinations can be further than you think.
With a Costa Rica rental car, you have the freedom to come and go on your own schedule. Spend as much time exploring national parks as you like and enjoy the scenery along the way. It’s way more convenient and driving yourself usually ends up faster than relying on buses or tours. Plus, you’ll be able to reach remote and off-the-beaten-path Costa Rica destinations—which we all know are the best ones!
Is it Safe to Drive a Car in Costa Rica?
Yes! As long as you drive cautiously as you would in your home country, driving in Costa Rica is perfectly safe. That said, there are many things to look out for and local drivers are notoriously bad for signaling. Check out our driving tips at the end of this article for the best experience.
Do I Need an International Driver’s License to Rent a Car in Costa Rica?
No, as long as your original driver’s license is at least 2 years old and written in Roman script. This means that American and Canadian drivers do not require an international drivers license.
However, if your license is written in a different alphabet (ex. Russian, Arabic, etc.), you will need an international drivers license. They’re usually around $20 USD and can be purchased ahead of time in your home country. You’ll still need your original driver’s license to accompany it.
Remember that while driving around the country you will need to have your passport or photocopy of your passport on you at all times in case of a traffic stop. The officers will want to check that you have a valid tourist visa.
Are Rental Cars Expensive in Costa Rica?
Prices can vary depending on your vehicle and the time of year. Prices can be as cheap as $1/day in the low season (rainy season) and $100/day for the same car in the high season.
But, insurance is almost never included in rental car companies’ quotes (especially through third-party websites). So those low prices aren’t always as low as they seem. Expect to pay around $10-30/day extra on top of the advertised price based on the vehicle class rented.
Just like in the US and Canada, any additional features also carry a price tag. Things like GPS, WiFi, car seats, and different drop-off locations will all add to the cost.
And don’t forget to factor in gas prices. Gas stations can be few and far between but you’ll want to return your rental car with a full tank. Average prices in February 2022 are 714 CRC per litre, or USD $4.20 per gallon.
Reasons Not to Rent a Car in Costa Rica
If you prefer to keep your costs as low as possible, opting for public transportation is a great alternative to Costa Rica car rentals. Like we said before, there are many buses available that are cheap on the wallet and safe. But, you’ll just have to sacrifice the convenience of having your own wheels and limiting where you can go.
Additionally, arranging tours to explore Costa Rica often have transportation included. So you’ll still be able to visit remote places without worrying about a car rental. This is especially handy if you’re mostly going to stick to one area without doing too much exploring.
Lastly, if you’re not the most confident driver, you’ll probably be a little stressed out driving in a foreign country. With bumpy unnamed roads and very little signage, skip the car rental in Costa Rica if that worries you.
What Kind of Car Should You Rent in Costa Rica?
Costa Rican rental car agencies offer many different options for rental cars. Don’t expect huge American-style trucks, but compact and mid-size SUVs are very common.
For cheap rental cars in Costa Rica, opt for a sedan. You’ll have options like a Hyundai Accent or Toyota Yaris, which are great for zipping around.
But, if you want a more equipped adventure mobile, ask the rental car agency for an SUV. Something like a Toyota Rav4 or Geely Gx3 is equally compact as it is durable.
Lastly, if you’ll be really off the beaten path, Costa Rica car rental companies offer several 4×4 SUVs. These certainly won’t be the cheapest price but come in handy if you plan to do lots of adventuring. A common Costa Rica 4×4 rental would be a Mitsubishi ASX, Toyota 4runner or Suzuki Jimmy.
Do You Need a 4×4 in Costa Rica?
While you don’t need to rent a 4×4 in Costa Rica, we do recommend getting a high clearance vehicle. This way, you’ll feel more comfortable driving over potholes and dirt roads without the extra costs of a 4×4 rental.
If you stick to main tourist areas and national parks, you really won’t need 4×4. But, there are a couple of places like Uvita and the Osa Peninsula where a 4×4 rental car is recommended. Most people look for a Costa Rica Jeep rental to tackle these roads.
Automatic vs Manual Costa Rica Car Rentals
Costa Rica rental cars are usually available in both automatic and manual. Choose whatever you’re comfortable with, keeping in mind that roads will be a little rough. A manual rental car in Costa Rica will be cheaper, but make sure you’re confident driving it.
Should I Get Rental Car Insurance for My Costa Rica Car Rental?
Definitely. In fact, liability insurance is the mandatory insurance coverage required by Costa Rican law. Some rental car companies allow you to arrange this through a third party but many automatically add it to your bill. It may also be called third-party liability protection or supplemental liability insurance. Remember, this usually isn’t included in the estimated cost so prepare for the additional daily fee.
Liability is the only mandatory car rental insurance in Costa Rica but we recommend adding additional coverage as well. When you rent a car in Costa Rica, rental companies will charge for even the most minor damage and it can be pricey.
We recommend car protection with either LDW or CDW coverage since rough road conditions can easily lead to bumps and scratches. This is something you can discuss with your credit card company since many major credit cards offer this through credit card insurance. It might also be part of your travel insurance.
**Effective October 1st, 2021, VISA will not offer to its cardholders of Gold and Platinum cards the benefit of the collision damage waiver for the rental cars in Costa Rica. Therefore, if you wish to decline LDW or basic coverage, you will not be able to do so with a VISA credit card. We recommend checking with your credit card provider before coming to Costa Rica so there are no surprises.
You can also get extended protection or third-party insurance to cover vandalism, windshield damage, or roadside assistance. It’s totally optional but some travellers like it for peace of mind.
Requirements for Renting a Car in Costa Rica
There are 5 major requirements for renting a car in Costa Rica:
- Valid driver’s license: From your home country with an accompanying international driver’s license if necessary. These must be originals, not photocopies.
- Original passport: Your passport must have a valid tourist visa stamp and not be a photocopy.
- Meet the minimum age: The minimum age for renting a car in Costa Rica is 21. All rental car companies in Costa Rica have their own policies. For example, Adobe Rent a Car is 23 while Hertz and Budget is 25. Budget will allow younger drivers for an additional fee but others don’t offer this option.
- Money/room on your credit card for deposit: Based on your chosen insurance coverage, your deposit can range from $500-3000. You’ll need a credit card for this as debit cards aren’t always accepted.
- Costa Rica car rental insurance: As noted above, liability insurance is mandatory for Costa Rica rental car companies.
The Process of Renting a Car in Costa Rica
First, start by doing your research online to find the best car rental in Costa Rica for your needs and budget. Choose your rental car company based on price, availability, and their locations.
There are lots of large international companies like Avis, Budget, Economy, and Hertz car rental in Costa Rica. There are also smaller local companies like Adobe Rent a Car and Next Car Costa Rica that offer competitive rates and car selections. If you want to rent a car in San Jose, Costa Rica, you’ll have lots of options but other locations are more limited.
Just don’t get fooled by rock bottom prices. Remember that insurance is rarely included in your quote so we recommend always double checking rates with the company.
Once you’ve booked your rental car, you can pick it up from the arranged location. Most car rental companies in Costa Rica have several pick-up and drop-off points. There are lots of rental cars in San Jose, Costa Rica, along with Tamarindo, Jaco, La Fortuna, and Puerto Viejo.
Bear in mind that because San Jose Airport and others are small, the actual rental offices are a few minutes away. On occasion, there might be a shuttle to get to your Costa Rica vehicle rental but you’ll usually have to pay for a taxi.
Inspection & Fees
Once you get to the rental office, be sure to do a thorough inspection of the vehicle. Take photos of any damage, even if it’s a brand new car.
At this point, you’ll go over all the charges and pay your security deposit. Make sure to ask questions about any fine print if you’re unsure of anything.
Returning Your Rental Car in Costa Rica
Unless otherwise arranged, return your rental to the same place you picked it up with a full tank of gas. If you have a late night flight and the office is not available, some companies have a designated drop-off point. They may allow you to leave the car in the parking lot of San Jose international airport with keys in the glovebox. If you do go the after-hours car rental SJO Costa Rica route, just be sure to arrange this ahead of time.
If the company identifies any damage, this is when your photos during the inspection can come in handy.
Our Tips for Renting a Car in Costa Rica 2022
Do your research – There are pros and cons to both well-known companies and smaller providers. While big companies are reliable, they may have higher costs and additional fees. Meanwhile, smaller local companies likely have fewer locations and options. If you opt for an unknown company, just make sure they’re legit and trustworthy.
Look on aggregator websites – Using websites like Expedia, Orbitz, etc show the most inventory even in the highest of seasons. It’s a good way to compare rates, fees, and locations, to find the best rental car company in Costa Rica.
Know what your online quote includes – Almost all online quotes do not include the mandatory insurance. Many people consider Hertz to be the best place to rent a car in Costa Rica because their prices do include insurance. So the price you see online is actually what you’ll pay.
Confirm pricing with the car rental agency – If you want to be sure what the final price is, call or send a Whatsapp to find out. During the high season, call or Whatsapp to double-check that your car is reserved. We have heard of too many stories of people whose car rentals were booked but not there upon arrival. This is especially important if you booked through a third-party aggregator website.
Be aware of extra or hidden fees – Read the fine print and watch out for things like license plate fees, an airport fee, or charge for unlimited mileage. There’s also always a one-way fee if you pick up and drop off from different locations.
Be prepared to put down a security deposit – Your deposit is based on what insurance you selected. This can range from $500-3000 for a few days rental. Be sure your credit card limit will allow for that. Note that it is not possible to pay the deposit (or the rental fee) in cash.
Inspect the rental car as soon as you pick it up – Always take detailed pictures and video of your car during the walk-through so you don’t get blamed for any damage upon return. Even if you’re using the best car rental company in Costa Rica, this is important to protect yourself.
Report incidents immediately – If you get into an accident, report it to the rental car company ASAP. Note that no car rental company will cover any damage associated with crossing rivers.
Don’t smoke in your rental car – This is usually part of your rental agreement and will incur a hefty fine if you do.
Tips for Driving in Costa Rica
Drive carefully – Be aware that the standard of driving in Costa Rica is not great and can be dangerous. People aren’t big fans of using their turn signals or waiting for the light to turn green. Road conditions can also vary with lots of bumps and potholes. And be especially slow and cautious at river crossings.
Be aware of speed limits (in kilometers per hour, not miles) – Highways have minimum and maximum speed limits while most secondary roads are 60 km/h (37 mph) or 40 km/h (25 mph) in urban areas.
Download a navigation app – For cell phone apps, we recommend Waze over Google Maps. It’s community-based and updated constantly by locals, which we find better than all the other navigation apps. Just remember that most street names and numbers don’t really exist so prepare for vague, landmark-based directions.
Obey ceda el paso on bridges – This means “yield” or “give way.” When approaching a one-lane bridge, be sure to yield to oncoming traffic.
Avoid driving at night – With poor road conditions, limited shoulders and few street lights, driving at night can be dangerous. If you must, drive slow and use your high beams.
All in all, Costa Rica renting isn’t all that different from that of the US or Canada. The main takeaways are to do your research, buy the correct insurance, and drive carefully. Renting a car in Costa Rica will allow you to explore the country in the best way possible.