I recently helped a family of 4 work through the best transportation options to get around Costa Rica and we were surprised by the results.
They arrived late at SJO so planned to spend the night at the Holiday Inn Express before traveling to a rental house in Manuel Antonio the next day.
We were all surprised to discover how much more it would cost to take the public bus – both more money and much more time – compared to renting a car. All drive times assume no traffic or other delays.
Rental Car – 2.5 hours/$50 to $75 for four
Some agencies will drop your car at your hotel for free and others provide transportation to their pick-up locations near the airport. There’s no need for 4WD since the entire route is paved. Most agencies charge around $35 to $55 per day for a small SUV with insurance and extras. Another $9.50 for a couple of gallons of gas and $4.85 for tolls and the total will be somewhere between $50 and $70.
Add 30-60 minutes to the total time if you have to pick up the vehicle. If you won’t be needing the car for the remainder of your trip you can pay a $50 one way rental fee to drop it off in Quepos and the total price is still less than many options.
Public Bus – 5 to 6 hours/$70 to $100 for four travelers
Shuttle from Holiday Inn Express to SJO Airport – free (but other hotels you may have to take a bus ¢240 each or cab $6) then the bus from SJO to San José – ¢840 each ($6.40 for 4 people). Taxi from the corner where the airport bus drops off to Southern Zone Bus Station ¢3,200 ($5.19), Bus San José to Quepos – ¢8,742 each ($53.74 for 4 people), Taxi from Quepos bus terminal to rental house $10-$20.
It’ll end up taking at least an hour to get from the hotel to the downtown bus station where you’ll want to be at least 60 minutes early to buy tickets. Another option would be a taxi from the hotel to the bus terminal ($30 and 30 minutes). It’s about 3 hours on the bus to Quepos plus another 30 minutes to find a cab or figure out the local bus, transfer the luggage and get from the Quepos bus terminal to the lodging. Total of roughly 5 hours.
For some destinations it’s possible to catch the bus close to the airport instead of going to the terminal downtown. That seems like a brilliant idea – save the two hours and twelve bucks that it costs to get downtown – except that on popular routes if you don’t board at the main terminal (and sometimes even if you do) it will be standing room only…for 3-4 hours…
Domestic Flight – 2 hours/$192 to $452 for four
Shuttle from Holiday Inn Express to SJO Airport – free. Flight to Quepos $43 to $113 per person. Taxi from the Quepos airport to Manuel Antonio lodging $20.
Although the flight is just over 20 minutes the total time door-to-door is similar to a private shuttle or driving a rental car. It takes 10-15 minutes to ride the shuttle to the airport, where you need to arrive 30-45 minutes early then on the other end it takes another 15 minutes to pick up luggage and load into a taxi for the 20 minute ride from the airport out in a pasture by the highway into Manuel Antonio.
All five of Costa Rica’s domestic airlines have strict luggage limits – usually a single carry on sized bag 25 lbs to 40 lbs depending on how much you pay for your ticket.
In this case it may be cheaper, just as fast, and more convenient to drive or use a transfer but some longer flights are much more beneficial.
Taxi – 2 hours/$262-$350 for four passengers
A standard taxi on the meter costs $1.18 per kilometer or $177 for the 150 km trip. However meters are not required for long distance trips outside the metropolitan area and it’s more likely that you would negotiate a fixed price somewhere between $125 and $200 if you can cram everyone and the luggage into a Toyota Corolla.
More likely a van taxi would be necessary for four people with luggage. Vans cost $1.75 per kilometer or $262.50 on the meter and the negotiated price could be higher.
Private Transfer – 2 hours/$160 to $320 for four
Depending on the season, company used and advance purchase it can be as little as $160 per van to as much as $320 for a two hour trip. Prices available to the public are typically higher and availability significantly less that what local services have access to so it can be worthwhile to request a private transfer from a travel planner.
Shared Transfer – 3 hours/$220 to 280 for four
Tourist shuttles charge between $55 and $70 per person for shared transportation between San José and Manuel Antonio. While they do provide door-to-door service unless you’re extremely lucky and the last to be picked up and first to be dropped off you’ll need to estimate an extra 15 to 30 minutes at each end to get the other passengers from and to their doors.
Uber – 2 hours/$180 to $300 for four passengers
Uber is banned at the airport but it’s relatively easy to get a ride from the Holiday Inn Express. A family of four would require and Uber black or XL if they have luggage.
The Best Transportation Options
There’s definitely no set rule for the best transportation around Costa Rica. The ideal method or combination of methods will depend a lot on where you’re headed, how long you’ll stay and what you plan to do while you’re there. The number of travelers also has a big impact.
Obviously the public bus is a poor choice for a family of four when compared to a rental car on this trip. It costs 50% to 100% more and wastes nearly a full day of vacation time.
We recommend figuring out where you want to go first and determining the best transportation second.
Hidden Costs of Public Transportation
In Manuel Antonio there’s a cheap ($1 per person per ride) frequent (every 30 minutes) public bus that plies the loop between Quepos town and the National Park six km to the south. However once you arrive at many places the points of interest are farther apart and not served by public transportation. Local taxis and shuttles can add up fast at $15-$80 a ride adding to the cost of not having your own vehicle.
There are also often hidden time costs. A public bus may be a bit slower than driving especially if it makes a few stops but the largest time differences usually come from getting from where the public transportation begins or ends to where you really want to be. In the example above it’s no faster to fly at 300 kph than drive at 75 kph because of the additional time to and from airports.
Another huge time suck with transportation is just figuring it all out. Since every bus route in Costa Rica is operated by a different private company finding schedules and purchasing tickets is difficult and often must be done in person. Bus stations and small airports aren’t usually located where travelers want to stay so each transfer really requires figuring out three transfers – the main bus or plane ride plus a walk, taxi, bus or shuttle to and from the terminals.
Each method of transportation also has a different environmental cost. You might think the bus is always the obvious winner in the efficiency category, but you’d be wrong – see the environmental costs of transportation.
Backpackers & Public Buses
The equation changes a lot when you’re traveling solo. Obviously private transfers are ridiculous and renting a car may be prohibitively expensive.
Shared options like tourist vans, public buses and domestic flights make more sense financially.