Avoid _______ Rent-a-Car in Costa Rica
Go ahead and fill in the blank. It’s finally happened. I’m pretty sure we’ve been worked over at least once by every rental agency in Costa Rica.
In a couple of decades and dozens of rentals our we’ve had every imaginable major failure. We’ve experienced the following (parenthesis show number of times)…
- reserved vehicle not available (7)
- break downs (3)
- insurance misrepresentation (5)
- “mistakenly” charged the deposit to our card instead of deleting the hold when the car was returned in good condition (1)
- miss marked fuel level (1 – caught it before we left the lot)
- double charge rental on credit card (1)
- bogus $250 car wash fee (1)
- attempted to blame us for pre-existing damage (2 – video proved otherwise)
- tire slash robbery attempts (2 – I know that’s not the rental agencies fault but they were more concerned with charging us for the tire than our safety or getting us back on the road)
- flat tire (3 – in addition to the slashes – wouldn’t fault the agency except the tires were bald)
- screwed up the credit card number and didn’t charge us for the car… maybe we’re too honest but when we did our taxes the next year and saw the missing deduction we went back and paid them the $1737.
Dollar, Hertz, Adobe, Toyota, Avis, Budget, Thrifty, Tricolor, Solid, Europcar, National, Poas have all participated in the poor service at one time or another. We’ve never even rented from any of the fly-by-night, TravelPedia type bait-and-switch internet fronts but judging from the horror stories on TripAdvisor and elsewhere they are even worse.
Alamo had a perfect record with us for years until high season 2016 when for 3 out of 4 rentals in the past two months they did not have the vehicle we reserved months earlier and re-confirmed the day before. They also did not have an upgrade and forced us into downgrades that didn’t fit our party.
In one case it was 36 hours before they had any vehicle for us. We also met three other renters going through the same issues. Alamo was obviously systematically overbooking.
NOTE: Seven subsequent rentals from 2017 to 2020 have been perfect so Alamo was officially out of the dog house.
NOTE: in early 2020 the Alamo.com online reservation form began forcing CDW coverage…you can no longer unselect it. We do not know if Alamo has changed policy to force all rentals to purchase CDW but as soon as we get an answer we’ll post it. The reservation below for March 2020 was made in November and does not include CDW.
Vamos is a local agency that has always been near the top of our list for good customer service. They deliver the promised vehicle (a bit more worn than other fleets but the right size and transmission), don’t apply bogus charges, and were fair and helpful when our car was damaged while parked at a hotel (credit card covered it).
Vamos was also extremely helpful the two times our cars broke down and replaced them very quickly. Unfortunately I can’t call those flawless rental experiences because the cars did break down, and it’s an inconvenience and waste of valuable time.
NOTE: Vamos was sold to Poás rental car in mid 2016. Poás has always been okay but not outstanding. We’ve had nothing but good reports through 2017 and 2018 so the Vamos division still appears to be outperforming the competition.
There are no market forces in Costa Rican rental cars. In the high season the agencies can get away with anything because there are more renters than vehicles and they sell out no matter what. In the low season they know most of the cars will sit idle anyway so they don’t have to care.
Return business is a small fraction and agencies do much better bringing in new suckers with false advertising than trying to provide good service to build a reputation. Besides each agency knows the one next door is just as careless with customer service and they can just swap dissatisfied renters on the next trip.
What To Do?
In almost every case on the list above we stood our ground, insisted on being treated fairly and ended up getting what we had contacted for in the first place. It was always a huge pain in the ass, a big waste of time and a source of unnecessary stress.
Renting a car may still be the best way for you (and us) to get around in Costa Rica. We still recommend booking well in advance, reconfirming and now crossing your fingers. We haven’t quit renting but we’ve started catching more buses, taking more taxis, doing more flights and private transfers when possible.
We also actually started planning failure flexibility when picking up a car (stick in an extra day near the airport, look at back up transportation if we have to have the car delivered later, etc.) because it’s become so likely that there will be a problem.
Renting through a travel agency can help because then the travel service deals with the car rental agencies hijinks on our behalf and they may have more leverage.