There are a number of rather bizarre aspects to renting a car in Costa Rica and we’ve made this list of tips for choosing a company and navigating the actual rental process.
Many Major Credit Cards Are NOT Accepted
Sounds impossible? It’s not.
We started running into this about five years ago when we got the cool new “Sapphire” VISA signature card from Chase bank. It was smooth anodized aluminum instead of plastic and we were told we could not use it to rent a car because it didn’t have the stamped-in raised relief number, name and expiration date compatible with the old fashioned carbon copy “ca-chunk” imprint type machines.
For a while we just used another card but now all of our cards are chip style and none include old fashioned raised imprint numbers.
Official Policy Budget Car Rental Costa Rica FAQs – “Budget Car Rental accepts cards without [raised] relief? – No. Without exception and the numbers have to be raised on the front of the credit card”
It’s not just Budget. We’ve had to get managers involved at several agencies to rent vehicles without providing a bumpy number credit card. We have yet to have a pre-paid reservation denied, so be persistent and you should prevail. Hopefully within the next few years the car rental companies will all modernize…
Cars rented “from the airport” are subject to an additional tax of 13% (SJO San José) or 14% (LIR Liberia Guanacaste) on the total cost of the rental.
There are no rental cars available on SJO or LIR property, but if an agency picks you up at the airport and takes you to their lot they typically charge the tax. To avoid the hassle and cost we usually take a taxi to a hotel and have the rental car delivered the next day (many agencies provide free delivery for nearby hotels and it saves us the tax plus a day of rental charge).
We have not been able to deconvolute the official government tax policy but we have observed that if we do not provide a flight number when making the car reservation and we do take a taxi to the rental office there’s usually no tax.
For a two week vacation it might cost $150 additional to rent “from the airport,” so it’s worth asking your agency. The tax may also be imposed if you rent a vehicle at (or near) one of the domestic airports or landing strips whether you’ve taken a flight or not.
Choosing a Vehicle – 4WD?
99% of the destinations that tourists visit do not require 4WD and most of the SUVs available for rent aren’t capable of negotiating actual 4WD terrain anyway.
Although needing 4WD to travel around Costa Rica is not one, there are a couple good reasons for renting an SUV. First, the larger tires and more significant suspension will make the ride more comfortable on poorly maintained gravel roads and second, larger SUVs are significantly safer in a collision.
If you have fantasies of a jungle off-road expedition there are plenty of places to do it. You can rent a 4WD and buy zero liability total coverage but there’s a catch-22. The coverage is void if you go 4-wheeling.
Rental agreement fine print typically states that you are personally and solely responsible for all damages if you drive through rivers or standing water, on beaches or drive on any road that may damage the vehicle. You’re also restricted to national highways and official routes (although many of these include the above hazards). Some popular tourist destinations are impossible to reach without breaking this rule (Ostional, Drake, Carate, Monteverde) so you’ll either have to cross your fingers or arrange for shuttle transportation.
Some rental contracts specifically prohibit travel to Monteverde but the highway department is working on the road and it’s scheduled to be paved by late 2014… or… 2015… er… uh… or… maybe… 2016…
Getting the Best Deal
The first thing you need to know about getting a reasonable rate in Costa Rica is that 50% or more of the cost may be hidden in mandatory fees or “insurance.” The situation has improved, but if you reserve a “sounds too good to be true” $9.95 a day rate on the internet you will end up paying more.
The second thing to know is that there are immense variations in rates both with time and between companies. We usually start 6-8 months in advance, make a reservation then check back in 2 or 3 months. If there’s a significantly better rate we make a new reservation and cancel the original one. Repeat in 2-3 months.
Third, rentals are significantly more expensive in Costa Rica than the crazy deals you’ll find in the U.S. (we just paid $12.95 a day for a full size from San Diego airport, seriously). If you’ve found a mid-sized SUV for around $50 a day, including everything, in high season, you can probably stop looking because you won’t do much better.
We’re usually renting for 5-15 weeks at a time so hunting for the best price is definitely worth our while. Our final cost (all in with all insurance etc.) for a 7 passenger Toyota Land Cruiser (Prado) for the month of January 2016 $1,433 or $334 per week. We had quotes as high as $6,347 along the way.
Frequently promotions, coupons, deals, airline points and other special offers do not apply in Costa Rica. Read the fine print.
We recommend and use Alamo (international corporate agency, good rates, new vehicles) and Vamos (local agency, good rates, excellent customer service, slightly older fleet). We’ve rented from nearly every agency in Costa Rica and these two are currently clearly the best.
Debit Cards Cost Double
Double might be an exaggeration in some cases but using a debit card instead of a credit card for the rental car deposit may cost significantly more.
Agencies that accept debit cards for deposits typically require you to purchase the maximum available damage waiver coverage policy ranging in price from $22 – $48 per day. The cost of this policy may exceed the cost of the rental and may be declined when using a credit card but not with a debit card.
Some agencies do not accept debit card deposits under any circumstances. No agencies accept cash or traveler’s checks for deposits although some will accept them for payment.
Photo & Video Documentation
The soundtrack to the most boring vacation video ever might sound like “…oooh look, it’s our rental car…look here’s the front, now I’ll walk around back, here’s underneath, that’s the inside, and oh my what a nice luggage rack.” Boring that is unless you need it to dispute charges for pre-existing damages, scratches, dings or dents. It only takes a few seconds so why not.
…and a Few Other Tips
- U.S., Canadian and European drivers licenses are valid in Costa Rica and a current one is required to rent.
- Traffic tickets may be paid to the rental agency when you return your car (but not to the patrol officer…that’s a bribe). If you do not pay you will not be allowed through immigration when attempting to leave the country (seriously).
- You typically need at least $1,500 (plus the rental cost) available credit on a card to use it for rental and deposit.
- Most agencies have a minimum age of 25 for rentals.
- They do sometimes run out of cars (totally, everywhere) in high season. Reserve early or be willing to take the bus.
- Each extra driver costs $5-$15 per day. Spouses are not included for free as is typical in the U.S.
- Credit card insurance coverage is limited to 30 days so if you’re renting for longer than that you’ll have to arrange for multiple contracts of 30 days each.