Any time you travel your best bet for getting a good deal on airfare is to plan ahead and set an alert or notification on a search site like kayak.com for both SJO (San José International) and LIR (Liberia International)
Important Note: As of mid 2016 most airlines are including the $29 departure tax but some still do not. This can make a cheaper fare look more expensive (you must pay the tax whether it is included or not). For example on a recent search United Airlines total price was $509 and Spirit Airlines $499 but the Spirit price did not include the departure tax so the comparable total was really $528 Spirit, $509 United. Please see Departure Tax and Is It Included? for more information.
If You’re in Colorado You’re Lucky: From experience we can tell you that if you’re flying from Colorado to Costa Rica the best choice by far is Southwest (see details and skip everything below).
Airline Ticket Search Engines
An article in the New York Times Travel Section confirmed what we’ve observed for years. Despite the author’s initial vehement admonition that they’re not all the same, most airfare searches eventually show more or less the same flights and prices on any given route.
A non-scientific and random sampling of Expedia, Travelocity, Routehappy, Kayak, Orbitz, Momondo, Hipmonk, GetGoing, GoogleFlights, Adioso, Vayama and others revealed that while each has it’s own gimmick (Hipmonk downrates flights with “agony” factors like long layovers and promotes “ecstasy” like non-stop) checking one or two will will usually show the lowest fare.
Our favorite is still kayak, but Google does stand out for its blazing fast speed (ten times faster than any other) and a helpful lowest fare in a 60 day window feature which is most helpful when you’re just browsing around and don’t have fixed dates.
What is a Good Deal?
The most important thing to know when searching for a good deal is “what’s a good deal?”
We’ve been purchasing flights to Costa Rica for twenty years. One of the most amazing things is how cheap it still is to fly to Costa Rica from the U.S. (and to a lesser extent Canada). While the cost of flights to Europe has approximately tripled, the costs for Costa Rica have barely risen in the past twenty years. This is probably because the popularity of Costa Rica has increased immensely and more airlines are competing with more flights.
To get an idea of the best fares, first find your city below, then read the approximate fares (2-6 month advance purchase, round trip, including all taxes and fees). If a city appears in two lists it’s because it varies a lot.
Average Cities – Baltimore, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Jacksonville, L.A., New York, Newark, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco
Most flights from these departure cities require one stop and the total fare tends to depend on the fares to the domestic stopover city.
Average High Season – $650
Average Low Season – $550
Good Deal – $450 or less
Great Deal – $375 or less
Expensive Cities – Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Portland, Seattle
Average High Season – $750-850
Average Low Season – $700-800
Good Deal – $650 or less
Great Deal – $550 or less
Cheap Cities – Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Miami, New York, Newark, Los Angeles (L.A. jumped onto the cheap list in spring 2016 when Southwest started direct flights)
These cities all have direct flights to either SJO (San José International) or LIR (Liberia International) or both which generally means prices are lower.
Average High Season – $550
Average Low Season – $500
Good Deal – $450 or less
Great Deal – $350 or less
Fares vary wildly from Canada but generally it’s fairly expensive compared to the U.S. Some Canadians have told us they do better avoiding U.S. stopovers (TACA, AeroMexico). Others have told us the opposite. They all agree that if they can drive to a U.S. airport they can save a lot.
Average High Season – $750-1150
Average Low Season – $700-800
Good Deal – $700 or less
Great Deal – $600 or less
Remember these are average prices. That means that for everyone who saves a hundred bucks someone else is paying a hundred bucks more than the price displayed. If you start looking early, your dates are flexible and you can travel mid week you’ll have a better chance of getting or beating the average.
Last Minute Bargains?
Unlike domestic flights where purchasing far in advance is the best way to get a cheap flight we’ve noticed that sometimes prices start high for two to six month advance purchase but drop by as much as 30% for two to four weeks advance purchase. Perhaps this is because people are willing to pay more for the security of knowing they have a flight and can make hotel and activity reservations.
Waiting could mean the dates you desire are no longer available or the rates actually go up but if you’re flexible and can choose other dates it could save you a few hundred bucks. Don’t wait until the last minute to book for a planned vacation, but if you’re thinking about flying to Costa Rica on the spur of the moment the airfares might pleasantly surprise you.
The Low Season isn’t So Low
While hotel, rent a car, domestic flights and tour prices certainly decrease in the off season airfare to Costa Rica doesn’t necessarily. Airlines cut their capacity dramatically and some even stop flying altogether instead of operating partially full flights or offering bargain fares. There may be a few deals around but overall airfare tends to be similar or even higher in the low season.