How to Save a Million Colones Traveling in Costa Rica…sensational title for some sensible advice
A million Colones is about $2,000 and the tips below add up to way more than that for two travelers spending a week in Costa Rica.
Obviously not everyone can take advantage of every money saving idea but the more you try the less you’ll spend.
- Credit card car insurance $15-$25 a day [save $105 two people for a week]
- Pile in! There are beach houses for rent in the $250 a night rage that sleep up to 8-10 people and quadruple occupancy in hotel rooms is about half the price per person compared to double occupancy. It’ll be close quarters but you can [save up to $400 a person for a week]
- Buy the local coffee for souvenirs instead of the tourist brands. There are some excellent coffees like 1820, Leyenda and Rey that sell in the supermarket for less than half what Britt costs in the souvenir shops in the airport and it’s more authentic. [save $5 to $50 on one to ten pounds]
- Use your miles/points for airfare instead of hotels or rental cars. 30,000 miles can buy $600 – $900 worth of airfare but only about $300 worth of rooms or cars [save $300 – $600 when spending 30,000 miles]
- Compare apples to apples because if you compare apples to lobster tails you’ll probably get ripped off. Other ways of saying this might be “if it seems too good to be true it probably is” and “you get what you pay for (or sometimes less but never more).”
- Try the local cuisine. Food is pricey in Costa Rica but hearty meals called casados are available for $5-$7 in local “sodas”
- Pay for things in the posted currency. If the posted price is ¢10,200 pay in colones and if the price is $18 pay in dollars. There’s always a little extra cost built into the exchange. Save 2-10% by paying the exact posted price in either currency. If prices in both currencies are posted it usually doesn’t matter which one you use. [8% of a $75 dinner tab is six bucks but it adds up]
- Never change currency in the airport. The commissions are outrageous and you can make do with dollars until you can get to a supermarket (great exchange rates). [save up to $20 when changing $250]
- Signing up for a new Southwest Airlines credit card miles earned us enough miles for free airfare for a direct flight from Denver to Liberia $765 [save $1,530 two people round trip]
Of course you have to have good credit and be capable of managing your money for this tactic to pay off. We always pay our bills in full and on time and never pay interest or fees. Most cards require you to make at least one purchase to get your free miles but then you can cancel at any time without losing the miles.
Most cards with big bonus miles have fees ranging from $89 to $259 per year but we only sign up for the ones that waive the fee for the first year and of course we cancel the card before the fee kicks in at the beginning of the second year.
This year alone we’ve each earned two round trips to Costa Rica, a trip to Australia/New Zealand, another to Europe and half a dozen domestic flights just by acquiring new credit cards.
- Beware of discount site fees – priceline, xpedia, travelocity all add up to 28% to their published prices when you checkout. You may think that $66 a night on Priceline is the cheapest rate until you try to checkout and they add $17 (26%). In our experience with hundreds of hotels in Costa Rica the best are not available on discount travel sites and the ones that are available are ultimately (with fees) priced higher than if you book directly or through an agency. [save $40 – $100 two people for a week]
- Reserve a “garden view” or “jungle view” room ($150/night) for a couple of nights instead of beachfront ($245/night) if you know you’ll be busy all day and out all night anyway. You won’t even notice the difference. [save $190 for two nights]
- Bring power bars etc. They are very hard to find and cost $3-6 each in Costa Rica – save $4 x 1 per person per day x 7 days = $56 just on snacks. Cheap local delicious tropical fruits make great snacks but sometimes aren’t as practical as energy bars…have you ever seen a mango after it’s ridden down a waterfall rappel in a butt pack…not a pretty sight. [save $56 two people for a week]
- Eat before you head to the airport. Especially in Liberia the airport concession prices are astronomical. Two slices of pizza and two bottles of water $44 – skip it! [save $34 two people]
- Eat fresh and eat local. The more prepared the food is and the more it’s targeted at tourist or expats the more expensive it is. You can pay anywhere from $5 to $75 for the same nutrition. From cheapest to most expensive – Mercados < Sodas < Supermartkets < Tipico < Restaurante < Cuisine/AI Resort Dining (paid in advance obviously but still by far the most expensive calories in Costa Rica).
- Taxes are not always included when making reservations directly. Tourism taxes of 13% are often not included when you reserve on hotel’s or activity’s website. These are all in addition to any fees your credit, debit or atm card charges for international use and a credit card surcharge over the cash price. (see below…). Make sure the price for what you’re reserving includes everything you think it does. [save $40 – $100 two people for a week]
- Use a credit card that does not charge international use or exchange fees (Chase Sapphire VISA – this one is great because it also comes with 50,000 miles to use on any airline, United Airlines MasterCard etc.) and get a no-fee ATM card (Charles Schwaab) – the charges can easily reach 5% of what you spend or nearly $100 in a week if your budget for two people is around $250 a day. [save $100 two people for a week]
- Pay Cash or Bank Transfer for hotels. Credit card acceptance fees can be as high as 8% in Costa Rica and most lodges and hotels post cash prices on their websites and price cards. Many will take a credit card number when you make a reservation but nearly all just use the card to guarantee the reservation and will give you a bill for the cash price.
If you choose to pay with a credit card there will be an additional fee of 5%-10% added at the time of checkout. This is in addition to the international use and exchanged fees mentioned above which are added to the bill by the credit card issuer after you return home.
International bank transfers for pre-payment are typically free for the sender and are commonly used in Costa Rica instead of credit cards. [save $75 – $125 on a week of mid-priced hotels]
- Fly into LIR out of SJO or vice versa and save a transfer and half a day of travel time [save $120 two people]
- Avoid Christmas and the week before Easter. Premium peak season pricing up to 50% higher will cost you between $400 and $1000 for a one week vacation for two people. [save $400 – $1000 two people for a week]
- Don’t waste gas looking for the cheapest gas. In some countries you can pay 20% more for gas near the beach or other tourist destinations but fuel prices are fixed by the government in Costa Rica and exactly the same everywhere. Don’t waste a gallon or two hunting for a better price.
- Use your library. Most public libraries carry the latest Costa Rica guidebooks in print, kindle, and other e-book formats. I carry a couple of guides, four or five novels and a great free interactive audio visual Audubon bird guide on my kindle fire. Retail price for all my books $159.43 – paid $0.00 checking them out virtually from our local public library and the kindle lending library. [save $60 – $200 two people]
Many people don’t realize that you don’t have to spend a few hundred bucks on a Kindle or i-pad to buy e-books. Just visit Amazon.com and download one of their free readers for your home or laptop computer, phone or other device.
- Choose the right mode of transportation. A rental car sitting around unused for three or four days while you boat into Tortuguero (no roads) will not only cost you $200 in rental fees but another $60 for secure parking. Sometimes using provided transportation makes more sense. [save $260 two people]
- Skip the luggage. Everyone is used to shelling out for checked bags on domestic flights but recent changes mean you may have to pay up to $75 each way for each bag on international flights and that includes carry on bags. You’re headed to the tropics and it’s not entirely unreasonable to consider living out of a small personal item sized bag for a week and skip the luggage altogether. A pair of flip-flops, a swimsuit, extra shorts and t-shirts wrapped around your i-pad will teach you the meaning of less is more. If you can’t bring yourself to go minimalist at least reduce; our 25lb Packing List is a good place to start minimizing. [save $150 – $450 two people]
- A base tip of 10% is included in restaurant (and sometimes bar) tabs. Traditionally this has been the only gratuity but as U.S. customs have migrated south servers have come to expect an additional 5-10% when they do a good job. Menu prices may appear with or without the service charge and with or without the 13% tax so a $10 pizza could cost either $10 or $12.30 at the cash register. Look for servicio incluido and I.V.I. or impuestos incluido which indicate tip and tax are included respectively. See all the tipping tips [save $5 or more by not double tipping accidentally]
- Ask about and take advantage of free things to do. For example there’s a free walking trail to the peak of Cerro Amigos on the west side of the Monteverde Cloud forest reserve while going in through the main entrance costs $17 and the bird watching tour costs $64. It’s all the same reserve and while guides add a lot to the experience if you’re on a limited budget the free option gets you in and the free trail is always less crowded.
Use discretion when taking this advice and don’t fall into the trap of missing out on once in a lifetime adventures just to save a few bucks. If there’s something free that sounds great go for it but some things can only be experienced with professional guides and tons of equipment. [save $100 – $350 on one to three tours]
- Buy exit tax on arrival and save the $5 the hotels charge as a convenience fee [save $10 for two people]
- Tour shuttle drop offs can sometimes be used like a taxi. Most tour operators pick-up and drop off at several hotels and as long as you don’t ask them to take the whole van load of people out of the way they are happy to drop you along the route. Instead of going back to the hotel, taking a cab to the butterfly garden and then another back to the hotel get dropped of at the butterfly garden on the way back from the morning rafting trip. Takes a bit of advance planning but it saves valuable vacation time too. [save $5-$20 each time you use this tip]
- Bring your student ID. Museums, educational attractions and sometimes National Parks have discounts for students through university level.
- Use a laundry service instead of a hotel or lodge. You can easily blow through clean changes of clothes at the rate of 3 outfits per day in the tropics so even if you’re only staying a week you may want to do some washing. Laundromats are nearly non-existent but laundry services are common even in tiny towns (look for a sign saying lavanderia or lava ropa). You’ll pay about $6-$12 a load instead of $1-$5 per item if you stick it in the laundry bag provided by many hotels or resorts [save $10-$20 per wash load]
- Choose the right vendor for tours and activities. The best way to get a good value for tours is to pay in person at the tour location or reserve in advance with a full service agency.
Full service travel providers will not blow a $1,000/9 day/hotel/transportation/guide/activity sale by overcharging for a tour. In fact they frequently use wholesale discounts to reduce the cost to help drive high ratings, reviews and recommendations they can’t survive without.
Direct booking with the tour operator or location also means you can review your experience and the price you paid. If you’re not reserving in advance the next best price will usually be “at the door.”
It’s easy but you’ll pay the highest price if you reserve through the concierge or tour desk at your lodge. If the built in convenience surcharge is worth it to you then hotel tour desks typically offer high quality. They know you’re a captive audience and some hotels make up to 50% of their income on tour sales.
Kiosks and small tour offices in major tourist towns advertise some incredible low prices but you get what you pay for. For example, there can be big differences between a $55 and $85 rafting trip: bilingual, naturalist trained guides with a sense of humor are more expensive; private put-in and take-out locations give access to unique segments on many rivers; transfer vans with A/C that works and no springs sticking out of the seats cost more; high quality correctly fitted equipment and safety gear; good food; etc… Sometimes the bargain tours are a blast, but remember kiosks and the tours they represent don’t have to worry about reviews and ratings.
$5-$25 per person per tour [save $50 – $200 two people]
Add it all up and it’s savings of $2,850 to $4,375 for two people on a one week vacation. That’s over a million colones each!
With the addition of business deductions (not listed above but if you have legitimate business in Costa Rica check into the State Department per diem rule from the IRS) we not only usually travel for free but sometimes literally get paid to travel in Costa Rica.