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.
Major Credit Cards 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. We were told we could not use it to rent a car because it didn’t have the raised 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.
As of 2017 – 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 because we don’t have a bumpy number credit card. We have yet to have a pre-paid reservation flat out 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” or “concourse fee” of 13% (SJO San José) or 14% (LIR Liberia Guanacaste) on the total cost of the rental.
There are no rental cars available at SJO or LIR. The lots are several km away. Additionally, according to the rental car association of Costa Rica there is no such thing as a government imposed “airport tax.” We have asked several rental car agencies what this charge actually is and never gotten a straight answer.
We have not been able to deconvolute these policies but we have found by experience that if we do not provide a flight number when making the car reservation and we do take a taxi to the rental office (instead of the airport shuttle) there’s usually no “tax”. To avoid hassles 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).
Since it’s a percentage and not a flat fee it might cost $100-200 when renting “from the airport” depending on the length of your trip. The charge 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.
There are a couple good reasons for renting an SUV (although actually needing 4WD is not usually one). 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.
When you sign the contract you’ve also agreed to stay on national highways and routes…some of which include hazards like rivers without bridges which technically makes even the official route verboten at times.
Some popular tourist destinations are impossible to reach without breaking the rules – Ostional, Drake, and Carate (Corcovado) for example. You’ll either have to cross your fingers or park the car and 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 completely paved by late 2014, or 2015…or 2017… er… uh… or… maybe now it looks like… 2018…
Debit Cards are Impossible or Cost Double
Double might be an exaggeration but using a debit card instead of a credit card for the rental car deposit may cost significantly more.
Most agencies require a credit card. Agencies that accept debit cards 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.
Inspection 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.
While checking out the vehicle for hidden damages you should also check carefully for any potential safety issues. Completely bald tires are surprisingly common even from the large “reputable” international agencies.
Bad suspension is another one you can check for without a tool kit. Step up on the bumper and hop off. The vehicle should rebound in a single fluid motion. If it bounces up and down for five seconds ask for a new car. Not only will a shot suspension make the ride miserable but it’s extremely dangerous for cornering a breaking on Costa Rica’s winding mountain roads.
Without a diagnostic computer and a mechanics license you probably can’t do a thorough safety inspection and mostly you just have to trust that the company did it for you (although the frequency of bald tires doesn’t inspire much confidence…)
As in the U.S. and most other countries appropriate child seats are required for every occupant under 12 years of age. If you are the parent of small children you’re probably familiar with current standards but basically in Costa Rica infants under one year and under 25 lbs require a rear facing seat. Kids up to 6 require a full seat with lateral supports and kids 6-12 require a booster.
The fine for non-compliance is 198,000 colones (about $350) per child.
Most car rental agencies provide seats at an additional charge but it’s a very good idea to reserve them in advance to make sure the size(s) you need are available.
It’s not uncommon to find vehicles that do not have the standard seat anchors so if you’re bringing your own seats be sure you’re familiar with how to secure them using only the seat belts.
Getting the Best Deal on a Costa Rica Car Rental
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 2017 $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). For years we recommended Vamos (local agency, good rates, excellent customer service, slightly older fleet) without hesitation as a local alternative. Vamos was purchased by Poas Rent a Car and for now is being maintained as a separate company under new management. We’re waiting to find out if they can maintain the previously high standards.
We’ve rented from nearly every agency in Costa Rica and these two are our current favorites.
…and a Few Final 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 may be allowed through immigration when attempting to leave the country… seriously. As inefficient as bureaucracy usually is it’s amazing how well the traficos and migracion communicate on infractions.
- You typically need at least $1,500 (plus the rental cost) available credit on a card to use it for rental and deposit. The deposit should be an “authorization only” transaction. It does not actually get charged to your card unless there is damage to the car. It does however reduce your available credit.
- Most agencies have a minimum age of 25 for rentals although some will accept drivers 21 and over for an additional fee. Vamos is an exception with a minimum age of 18 and they happen to be a very good local company as well.
- Rental Cars cannot be taken across the international borders to Panama or Nicaragua. Some agencies will allow you to drop one car off in Costa Rica, cross the border on foot and pick up a new car on the other side for a fee.
- Costa Rica sometimes runs out of rental cars – totally, everywhere, every agency – 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 they sometimes are in the U.S., Canada or Europe.
- 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.