Costa Rica has two international airports – Liberia (Daniel Oduber, LIR) and San José (Juan Santamaría, SJO). Both are fairly modern and efficient but are also operating well over their designed capacity. Your itinerary, interests, budget, timing and other factors will determine which is better or whether a combination of both is best.
- Location, location and location – Depending on where you’re headed one airport may be far superior to the other. For the Caribbean, Central Pacific and all of southern Costa Rica SJO is your best bet. If you’re headed to the beaches of Guanacaste you’ll want to fly into LIR.
- Cost – Airfares used to be higher into LIR but as the number of airlines serving the route has increased prices have dropped and bargains have popped up (we got tickets for $89 each way, non-stop, Denver – LIR, seriously…). Cost differences probably aren’t a deciding factor.
- Flying in or out of LIR may squeeze an extra beach day and night into your itinerary. Most people try to avoid staying in the big, noisy, polluted city but depending on flight timing, traffic and the danger of driving at night you may have to waste a night at SJO.
- Connections – Domestic flights are only available from San José. There are a couple of internal flights from Liberia, but for the most part if you want to fly elsewhere in Costa Rica you have to do it from San José.
- SJO may be closed at any time due to volcanic ash – see below
- SJO may be blockaded by taxi drivers protesting Uber, truck drivers protesting taxes, or even students protesting unisex bathrooms. Starting in 2018 blocking access to the airport became a popular method to get attention for a cause. At least a day or two each month there are traffic delays of 1-4 hours. As of early 2020 LIR has not yet been targeted.
Map of Costa Rica’s Airports
Plan a Sensible Itinerary
Although Costa Rica is a small country it can take a long time to get from one place to another. Choosing the wrong airport could easily cost you a whole day of driving instead of enjoying the beaches and rainforest.
Creating an itinerary that loops back around to the airport you arrived at doesn’t always make the most sense. Often times you can save 4-6 hours of ground transportation or driving time by planning a one way route where you fly into SJO and depart from LIR or vice versa.
Connecting to Local Domestic Flights
If you’re catching a domestic flight then you’ll want your international flight to land at SJO since nearly all domestic flights originate there or from the nearby Tobias Bolaños airport in the suburb of Pavas.
Small eruptions caused slight delays twice in 2019 and there were several impressive eruptions in 2018 including some with lava flows but most did not impact flight operations. However, on December 12, 2018 a handful of flights from SJO were delayed for several hours due to ash. One flight headed to SJO diverted and landed at LIR instead.
Although no one can predict eruptions accurately it’s more likely that eruptions will cause closures in the dry season. During the peak travel months from December 2018 through April 2019 the prevailing winds winds will shift to aim the ash clouds at the airport and there’s no rain to knock the ash out of the air.
For example in early January 2017 SJO airport was closed for two days preventing over 120 flights from taking off or landing during one of the busiest travel weeks of the year. Many of the 3,000+ passengers who were impacted spent at least one night in the terminal and it took almost a week for the backlog to be cleared.
Scientist from the volcanology institute believe that intermittent eruptions of Turrialba will continue or increase.
To give you an idea of how frequent the interruptions in service are flights were cancelled at SJO in May 2016 and again at the end of September 2016 due to large ash eruptions. In March through May 2015 ash clouds from eruptions of Turrialba volcano closed Juan Santamaría Airport (SJO) for several hours on a number of days significantly disrupting flight schedules. Activity increased again in February 2016 but the prevailing winds directed the ash plume to the east and northeast away from SJO preventing additional closures.
It’s possible though highly improbable that Liberia airport could be shut down by volcanic activity. The nearest active volcano, Rincón de la Vieja, is much quieter than Turrialba and aligned far enough to the north that prevailing winds are less likely to send ash over LIR.