By far the best way for travelers from the U.S. to simplify currency exchange is to eliminate it altogether by spending U.S. dollars.
Many things along the tourist trail are priced in U.S. dollars because of instability of the Costa Rican currency called the Colón (plural Colones).
If you want Colones wait until you’re inside Costa Rica to exchange.
Do not exchange in advance at home. The worst exchange rate you’re likely to find will be at your local bank in the U.S.
Colones are a very minor currency and no U.S. institution will have them on hand. They will need to order them, it will take a long time, and incur high fees.
The second worst conversion rate will be at the counter in the airport. The airport exchanges prey on peoples fears that they’ll be stranded without local money. They give terrible rates and charge high commissions.
Pound, Euro, Loonie & Other Currencies
If you are not from the U.S. then by far the best way to get your hands on local currency is to use a no fee Debit or Bank card at an ATM (cash machine, cashpoint, bancomat).
The second best option for spending cash is probably to convert your local currency into U.S. dollars before you leave home because other currencies are difficult and expensive to change into Colones.
Skipping cash altogether is a good option if you have a credit card that offers zero international transaction fees.
If you insist on changing pounds, euros, loonies or other currencies to the Costa Rican Colón you will need to go to a walk up teller at a bank. They may require you to do a double exchange. First into U.S. dollars then into Colones with commissions on each.
If you do find yourself spending colones you can use the simple exchange equivalencies below to know about how much you’re spending.
Update Aug 2018 – After nearly a decade around ¢500 the Colón depreciated to between ¢550 to 575 and has been holding steady for almost 2 years – a ¢50,000 price tag is now the equivalent of only $85 instead of $100.
The old calculation (see below) was much easier but don’t complain too much because the devaluation of the Colón means now you get more Costa Rican currency per U.S. dollar, British pound, Euro or Canadian dollar. Of course prices have gone up too…
Since most tourist items are actually priced in dollars the changes in the exchange equivalency hasn’t really impacted visitors too much. The Costa Rican people however are feeling the squeeze of significant inflation.
At the current exchange rate you should expect to get at least the equivalents shown it the image above.
The Old Easy Estimate
NOTE: some merchants are still using ¢500 to the dollar in exchange transactions — they are definitely ripping you off.
Prices are often posted in dollars and colones making it unnecessary to do a conversion, but for the times when do need to convert it’s very easy. Prior to February 2014 when the currency took a nosedive this estimate was pretty exact.
This rough equivalent is still okay to get a general idea of how much things cost when looking at a price tag or menu but when doing the exchange you should request the actual current rate.
So as shown in the image a 5 mil colones bill is almost a 10 dollar bill, 10 mil colones a 20 dollar bill and 50 mil colones is nearly a hundred bucks.
Just do the same for prices, although there you won’t see such round numbers and instead of saying “mil” the price tags probably show the full number. It’s still easy though, just change the comma to a decimal point and double it.