Money-Getting it, Carrying it and Spending it in Costa Rica
Three main factors determine the best way to access funds while traveling in Costa Rica.
The most convenient and economical way to carry and spend money would be to just stop by your bank at home, get $5,000.00 in U.S. cash and stick it in your pocket. Obviously this doesn't score well on the safety scale. The best way to pay depends on your budget, length of stay, current credit card debt, and mathematical ability.
How to Use Money—A Good General Plan
The best way to access your funds while traveling in Costa Rica depends on your budget, length of stay, current credit card debt, and mathematical ability.
Get the most for your money with a good general plan including three parts.
First, pack a couple of day's worth of cash or traveler's checks away from your day-to-day money supply as emergency funds. If you only have exactly enough money to cover your trip, spend this reserve over the last few days.
Second, keep the bulk of your funds with you as American Express US dollar traveler's checks or in your checking account at home. Cash enough traveler's checks at the bank, or withdraw enough colones to cover three to six days at a time from ATMs using your debit card (See ATM tips).
Third, use credit cards for major purchases (when no cash discount is offered) and emergencies. See the specific details about credit/bank/debit cards below.
ATMs & Debit Cards
ATMs In Costa Rica - Bank/Debit Cards
Bank or debit cards in an ATM are generally the recommended way to access your funds while traveling in Costa Rica. Check with your bank before you travel to ensure that they charge reasonable fees and you will find that ATM access to your checking account is faster and cheaper than traveler's checks, safer than carrying large amounts of cash, and less nerve-wracking than dealing with unpredictable credit card fees. You'll also be able to take advantage of cash discounts at many places that accept credit cards but only with a surcharge. The PLUS system is the most widely distributed international ATM (CIRRUS is available at many major tourist destinations).
Debit and Bank cards are convenient, safe and quick. You'll generally pay between 0 and 1% exchange commission, plus flat fees of $US 1-3 per transaction.
General tips for ATM (cash machine) use
In addition to the general common sense practices for using cash machines (don’t go alone at 2:00 a.m., withdraw $500, and then stand next to the machine counting it out loud) there a few others specific to traveling in Costa Rica.
Before you leave home, check with the card issuer to determine exchange commissions, convenience fees, and to get a list of machines that are within their system in Costa Rica.
Bank cards (for savings or checking withdrawals) and debit cards usually cost less to use in ATM machines than credit cards.
If you are having trouble with a transaction be careful about repeating it because the machine may confiscate your card.
It's a good idea to have two different ATM cards. You'll have a better chance of matching the local system and avoiding fees, you'll have a backup if one card is eaten by the automatic teller, lost, or stolen, and sometimes even though the signs all say it will a particular card just won't work (it is still Central America after all).
Always try to use machines that are within your system (Plus, Cirrus, etc.) to minimize the transaction and convenience fees.
It's typically most cost effective to withdraw the maximum amount allowed (typically $US 300-500 in Costa Rica) because convenience fees are per transaction.
Charles Schwab Bank Debit Card Guarantees No ATM Fees
We carry a Charles Schwab bank debit card that guarantees we will never pay an ATM fee in Costa Rica or anywhere else in the world. If there is a fee applied to the transaction by the local bank or ATM machine system, Schwab refunds the amount of the fee to our account at the end of every month. There are other online banks that have similar offers, but be sure to read the fine print.