It’s tempting to look at a 25 minute flight time compared with a four hour drive and think it’s an obvious choice but it’s often misleading. We recommend flying on a few select routes where a small plane is the cheapest and fastest transport
What are the Problems with Flying
A few things conspire to make touring Costa Rica by air an inconvenient, expensive pain in the neck. A quick look at the map of scheduled routes reveals the biggest problem – every flight is to or from San José. Unless “here” or “there” is San José you literally “can’t get there from here“.
No Direct Flights and Poor Connections
For example, flying from Arenal Volcano to Tamarindo Beach would only be about 20 minutes in the air if there were a direct flight. In fact it’s a 16 to 18 hour logistical challenge requiring two flights and due to scheduling misalignment probably an overnight stay in the capital.
Charters may be a quick and direct alternative to schedule flights with bad connections. If you have four or more people they can be reasonably inexpensive, but sometimes they charge you to bring a plane to you from San José.
Time Consuming Transfers
Ground transport also adds to the time, cost and complexity. Even high end lodges and resorts don’t have free shuttles to or from the small local airports and there aren’t always taxis sitting there waiting when a flight with only six passengers arrives. If you’re going to fly domestically you’ll need to arrange transportation on both ends as well as the plane tickets.
There’s an art to crafting a Costa Rica travel itinerary. There are no simple rules for deciding when to fly but there are some times and places that make more sense than others from a time, cost and even environmental impact perspective.
Destinations Where there are No Flights
There are no airports near Monteverde Cloud Forest. Not surprisingly most mountainous destinations don’t have airports – San Vito, San Gerardo de Dota and Chirripó.
A couple of others where you’ll probably do better trying to rearrange your itinerary instead of covering a lot of ground in the air are Arenal and Tenorio.
There is an airport on the southern Caribbean (Limón is the third largest airport in Costa Rica and can handle jets) but oddly no scheduled flights. It’s not clear whether this has anything to do with rising sea levels pushing the occasional wave onto the poorly planned runway. A new terminal is being built in 2019/2020 so scheduled flights may be added.
If you’re headed to Cahuita or Puerto Viejo it might be worth checking into a charter flight to Limón since construction to expand the Guapiles Highway has snarled traffic on this main route to the Caribbean into an absolute nightmare (completion 2025 at the earliest).
Unpredictable Weather & Traffic
Almost without exception domestic flights originate or terminate in San José so we’re often asked if it’s a good idea to schedule a domestic flight before or after an international flight from or to Costa Rica. Hop from the beach to San José and then on to Chicago an hour or two later.
It sounds good in theory.
If you do plan a local flight connection with an international make sure to leave plenty of time (¿ 3-4 hours at least ?) between them. Weather delays are common up north in the winter and during the rainy season (May through November) in Costa Rica. Extremely limited numbers of available seats could mean several days before you can reschedule a domestic ticket. Changes to international tickets due to missed flights can be very expensive.
There are two San José area airports and while they are only a few km apart a taxi between them can take an hour if traffic is bad.
Where a Small Plane Does Make Sense
We do recommend some flights in Costa Rica.
Tortuguero and Corcovado
Tortuguero and Corcovado (on the Osa Peninsula Drake or Puerto Jimenez airport) are each about as far away from San José as you can get and still be in Costa Rica.
Roads are rough, seasonally impassable or even non-existent and once you arrive there are many attractions you can only reach by water or walking trail so there’s little need for a vehicle.
Their remoteness and inaccessibility means that getting there by a combination of ground transportation and boat can take most of a day while a flight is an incredibly scenic hour.
Another region that’s not quite as remote but still difficult and time consuming to reach is the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula – Montezuma, Cabuya, Caba Blanco, Santa Teresa and Mal País.
There is a car ferry from Puntarenas to Paquera but it takes about an hour and you have to be at the terminal at least an hour ahead of time (sorry no online reservations available). Add a couple ours driving on each side and the possibility of horrific traffic between San José and the coast and a flight into the Tambor airport can be very appealing.
Remember though that if your international flight is into Liberia you’re probably better off taking ground transportation to the Guanacaste or Nicoya Beaches because a domestic flight will probably mean making a connection in San José.
When a Domestic Flight Does Make Sense
Again, a glance at the the map of domestic flights makes it obvious that if you’re already in San José or trying to get to San José is the best time to consider taking a local flight.
If you’re not starting or ending in San José it rarely makes sense to fly.
For example flying from Manuel Antonio to Arenal actually involves a 30 minute shuttle to the Quepos airport, a 30 minute flight from Quepos to San José, a layover of 1-4 hours, a 35 minute flight from San José to the Fortuna airport and finally a 30-45 minute shuttle ride to a lodge near the volcano.
A direct flight would only be about 45 minutes but unless you charter a whole plane there are no direct flights. The drive takes about four hours which works out to be faster in most cases.
There are no rental cars at the domestic airfields so you’ll need to take a taxi even if you’re planning to drive yourself.
The only scheduled domestic flights available from the other international airport in Liberia (Daniel Oduber, LIR) are to San José so if you’re flying into Guanacaste it probably doesn’t make sense to consider air travel within Costa Rica.
If you’ve got the money for a private helicopter then these rules go out the window and by all means have your pilot file the flight plan!