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Do you need to rent a car in Costa Rica?
Driving Across a River in Costa Rica
Doesn't Always Involve a Bridge

Right now I'm struggling, for some reason, to follow my own advice:  I do not recommend driving cars while traveling in other countries. I think it is much safer, easier, wiser, and even worth a small extra price for the convenience, to simply book cars with drivers, rather than driving a car myself, on international journeys. But, according to what I've read, Costa Rica is a unique case. Or is it? In this post I'll explore the common question of whether it's best to drive a car in Costa Rica, or allow yourself to be driven by someone else. My first consideration was...

...the usual one: the price. You'll see plenty of bogus teaser rates like "Five Dollars a Day!" but when you try to actually book the car, that price shoots upwards quickly. I just did a few more searches online while writing this post, and saw $5 a day, $8 a day, and even a laughable ad for "$0" a day.

Good rates on Costa Rica car rentals
Take those teaser rates with a grain of salt; note the word "from"

The lowest-priced cars would hold approximately two thin adults and one fanny pack, and the advertised rates are just part of the mandatory costs. Any normal, small compact car is priced higher, with the prices going up and up as you reach the smaller SUVs. And of course, a smaller SUV won't hold a big family. The largest cars are even pricier.

Some rental agencies, particularly the international ones, will allow the booking to be made without any mention of numerous additional taxes and mandatory purchases, which get tacked on at the rental counter once you are in-country.

Stuck in traffic in San Jose Costa Rica
City Traffic in Costa Rica

When we travel with our four children, the smallest car we can rent would be a 6-seater, and those are easily 6 to  20 times the teaser price. Still, the idea of having our own transportation and driving ourselves around in another country seemed enticing, despite my personal policy against it.

I have pretty strong feelings about driving in other countries, and I'm generally against it, as I explained in these prior posts:

Still, the advice to rent a car specifically in Costa Rica is repeated, by others, perpetually. So I listed out the pro's and con's of renting a car vs. paying for a private transfer (meaning, booking a prearranged van or shuttle to pick up the family at the airport and take us to our first destination; then having a second prearranged shuttle/van transfer us from there to our second destination, and so on).  If we go with the private shuttle option, we won't have a car with us while staying in each destination, which definitely has its drawbacks.

One quick disclaimer here: I have not yet traveled to Costa Rica, as of the time of writing this post. I'm relying on secondhand info, some of which may be old and outdated. Things may have changed. The photos of the incredible bridges and road conditions in this post may reflect conditions that no longer exist, or they may reflect a reality that can reoccur at any time or place in Costa Rica or other countries. That's one of the challenges of pre-trip planning: getting accurate, reliable info prior to a journey can be difficult. Anyway...

Road Conditions in Costa Rica
What I have read over and over about Costa Rica is:  "Rent a car."  Everybody wants you to rent a car. I mean, of course the car rental agencies do - but even other travelers, upon their return, will heartily recommend car rentals. Apartment rental hosts tell you to rent a car. The gist of the advice is:  "You should really rent a car to see this place." However, a similarly-frequent piece of advice is to be sure to get a full-fledged 4x4 vehicle so that you don't have to give up on a road and turn around.

Dangerous road conditions in Costa Rica
Call me crazy but that bridge looks kind of iffy

There are numerous roads in Costa Rica that have steep inclines, and crossing a river doesn't always involve a bridge. A great many river crossings in Costa Rica are accomplished by driving the 4x4 car through the river. When the river is high, sometimes a kind-hearted local will put up some rocks or some other type of an obstruction as a little warning: "Don't cross the river here." Travelers have found that they had to backtrack 2 hours to get around a flooded-out river crossing. GPS estimates on travel distances can be wildly inaccurate, with "3 hour drives" taking 6 or more hours due to road conditions.

Having to change driving routes in Costa Rica
There are conditions GPS just doesn't see

One other type of danger notice used on Costa Rican roads is that a small, colorful flower will be placed in a little container on the road, just before the gaping hole in the road or other major hazard (such as a missing road lane destroyed by a landslide). I've heard that red roses mean love, and white roses mean sympathy, but apparently in some areas, a gorgeous, pink, tropical flower means "If you drive past this point you'll total the rental car."

My Ignorance as a Driver in Costa Rica
I always try to keep in mind when traveling outside the U.S. that there are customs, rules, practices, and laws, both minor and significant, of which I am totally unaware. Of course, I read up on our destinations before going there, and my wife and I speak Spanish fluently, but being a foreigner in a new place basically means being as helpless as a 2-year-old in some ways.

I'm sure 200 locals a day can cross that flooded river with no problem, but I'd be the moron who gets the car's engine flooded, or drives in the wrong spot and floats merrily right on down the river.  I'm sure dozens of people a day successfully navigate the mountainous roads, but I'd be the idiot who involuntarily takes the shortest route off the mountain (straight down). Even taking a car on a simple ferry crossing could be unexpectedly confusing and have unintended consequences.

Stupid things tourists do in Costa Rica
This is NOT the recommended way
to park on the Paquera ferry in Costa Rica

So, What to Do?
Here's a summary of what I have found:

The Price
Some of these costs are hard to estimate until we get there - the amount to be spent on gas, for example, could be double my estimate. But here's my best guess:

Rent a Car:
$495 Rental Price for 3 weeks (booked well in advance, at the lowest price I can find online)
$400 Mandatory liability coverage (they force you to buy this regardless of what coverage you have at home or what sort of credit card benefits you think you have - more on that below)
$150 Gas estimate, probably a low estimate
$75 Parking
$0 Taxis
$1120 Total


Private Transfer:
$875 Total base costs of city-to-city transfers (we're staying in 4 places; this is average of 3 quotes)
$0 My cost for liability insurance
$0 My cost for gas out of my pocket
$250 Taxis/Ubers for getting around any cities that aren't walkable - taxis aren't cheap in Costa Rica!
$1125 Total

So, hmm...both estimates are about the same ($1120 vs. $1125), so this is one of those decisions where the direct financial costs cannot help me even begin to choose the best option. So I had to dig deeper...

Muddy Watefall cascading across road during bad storms in 2017

Pro's of Renting a Car

Renting a car and driving it myself means:
  • Freedom!
  • Go anywhere, anytime
  • Quite possibly, see more of Costa Rica, and find hidden gems by exploring on our own

Pro's of Private Transfer Services

When you let someone else do the driving, you get to:

  • Sit back and relax!
  • Focus on enjoying the scenery
  • Feel secure with the pre-planned convenience of knowing something is scheduled and will happen
  • Have someone waiting at the airport holding up a sign with your name on it
  • Be less mobile in each destination, so we'll slow down more and enjoy where we end up
  • Let the driver deal with the vehicle's security, and guard our bags when we get out at a grocery store or point of interest
  • Let the driver take you to the hidden gems that he or she probably already knows by heart, so maybe we'd "see more" this way anyway!

Unmarked train crossings create hazards for drivers in Costa Rica
And, I can let the professional driver worry about
when it's safe to cross the (unmarked?) train tracks

Both options could be considered to support the local economy, whether at the rental agency, or in the form of the drivers and the companies that organize the driving services. But what are the drawbacks?

The 6 Con's (Disadvantages) of Private Transfers

If we use private transfers to get from region to region, then that means we won't have a rental car during our trip.  So that causes a few disadvantages: :
  1. Having to deal with calling taxis and Ubers to get around locally, within each town
  2. Paying the extra expense of those taxis and Ubers 
  3. Being stuck with a prearranged pick-up time for all city-to-city trips (no matter how late we stay up, that car will be there at 8am sharp, or whatever time we established days in advance)
  4. Making fewer outings and excursions when staying in a city, to avoid dealing with taxis
  5. Having fewer stops on long trips between cities
  6. Walking to some places to which we would have driven, if we had a car.

The 18 Con's (Disadvantages) of Renting a Car in Costa Rica

If we choose to rent a car, then we are accepting personal responsibility for these issues:

  1. Our personal liability for wrecks (though the mandatory insurance offsets that somewhat)
  2. Our personal liability for any/all damages to the car (scratches, dents, and worse)
  3. Our unfamiliarity with local driving laws
  4. Dealing with the road rules, roads flooded by rivers, and other road hazards (sharp rocks that can puncture a tire, cattle using the road, people walking down the unlit streets at night)
  5. Coping with the stress of driving as well as the stress of handling any wrecks or mishaps
  6. Being responsible for not getting us lost (GPS will be in and out, and many houses and businesses in rural Costa Rica have no specific street address; addresses are given like "70 meters north of the town cemetery")
  7. Figuring out for ourselves where to make good stops for meals, groceries, and sightseeing
  8. Figuring out how to get from the airport to the shuttle stop to the car rental agency offsite
  9. Spending the time to get to and deal with a car rental agency for pick up and drop off
  10. Learning how and where to fuel it up
  11. Making sure we don't run out of fuel in the middle of the jungle
  12. Ensuring we get off the roads by dusk (foreigners would be well advised to avoid night-time road travel, particularly in rural, jungly, or mountainous parts of Costa Rica)
  13. Fixing any type of car break-down, such as a flat tire, overheating, mechanical failure, etc.
  14. Being hassled by shady parking scammers (people who demand a fee for "watching" your car, meaning a fee for not intentionally damaging your car)
  15. Paying for any parking tickets, speeding tickets, or other traffic violations
  16. Incurring the risk of car theft, break-in, or burglary
  17. Feeling the need to babysit the car to avoid break-ins (meaning one of us, most likely myself, would end up sitting outside with the car to guard it, whenever we went to a grocery or almost anywhere, especially if we had luggage in the car)
  18. Figuring out how to pay for toll roads (in some areas, such as Houston, toll highways can be designed in a way that seems intentionally confusing - like letting you get on a road without proof of having a prepaid pass, then informing you via signage posted on the route itself that you would be breaking the law if you attempt to exit the road without a prepaid pass; but I'm guessing there are cash toll booths in Costa Rica).

Not getting your deposit back on Costa Rica car rental
A broken axle will put a bit of a damper in your plans,
if you're a car renter

And how does all that compare to just paying a little more and having a private minivan transfer?  Well, with a private transfer, none of the above 18 issues would apply to us. We wouldn't have to worry about coping with handling and caring for the car in any way. We'd be passengers. There's a world of difference between being a coddled passenger and a responsible driver.

Excerpt of News Story Published in Costa Rica in 2017

Don't Forget to Double Your Quote
If you rent a car in Costa Rica, the purchase of Third Party Liability coverage is mandatory, which will almost double your costs for a car rental. Now, you may be thinking what I was thinking:

"Oh, not me! I have a great travel credit card 
and they provide free coverage for that, 
so I won't need to buy it." 

No luck there, bud. This coverage is not optional. It is a specific type of coverage with very specific (and high) coverages, required by Costa Rica. The so-called benefits and pseudo-coverages offered by travel credit cards are not in that league.

After checking 3 different agencies in Costa Rica, calling two of them, and spending an hour on the phone with my credit card company (which offers excellent travel card perks and benefits, compared to any U.S. card issuer), I am now certain that car agencies in Costa Rica will not accept any sort of "credit card free benefit" insurance perk.  I obtained the fine print on my credit card's benefits, and now feel that this perk is very flimsy, not nearly as valuable as advertised to be, and very often totally invalid outside the U.S. (it depends on which country you visit). And even though mine would apply in Costa Rica, the car rental agencies in Costa Rica will not accept it as third party liability coverage.

High hidden fees on car rentals in Costa Rica
The mandatory purchase of Third Party Liability Insurance will increase your costs by roughly 80 to 100%

Still not convinced?  Think about it from the perspective of Costa Rica's citizens and drivers. If one of them gets injured or has their property or vehicle destroyed by your rental car, would they want to deal with your credit card company's third party administrator (in the U.S. or Pakistan or wherever they are) which handles travel claims (and whose primary job is to deny those travel claims), or would they want to be able to take your rental car agency's insurance provider to court, in their own country?  If a tourist is driving and gets in a major wreck with a Tico (a Costa Rican), the tourist may be legally prevented from leaving the country until the matter is resolved. Literally, a tourist can get stopped at the airport counter and told that they are wanted for a legal matter, and cannot board the plane home. Resolving the traffic incident may involve signing documents to assign legal rights to your rental car agency or their insurer, which would allow them to represent you in court so that you don't have to hang around waiting for a court date. [I am not an attorney and nothing on this website is intended to be taken as, or should be construed as, legal advice; if you need legal advice, hire an attorney in the country where you need legal representation.]

After reading numerous reviews of car rental agencies, written by travelers, a theme I saw appear repeatedly was that the traveler was surprised when the agency insisted upon the purchase of this always-mandatory third party liability insurance. Many travelers believed it would be covered by their credit card's benefit package, and those same travelers were surprised and dismayed when they were forced to fork over the extra payment, totaling hundreds of dollars, unexpectedly.

The booking websites will happily let you skip or decline that coverage. But when you show up to get the car, you'll be required to pay for the insurance before the keys are handed across the desk.

If you've had a different experience, please let me know in the comments. But based on several hours of research, I think there is likely no way around purchasing this costly third party liability insurance for a rental car anywhere in Costa Rica, from any agency. Plus, I wouldn't want to drive in Costa Rica without it, considering the legal consequences of wrecks.

Traveling with a big family in Costa Rica
4x4s are recommended for many routes in Costa Rica

Other Hidden Costs
My price estimates in this post also include using a car rental agency that is located offsite, not directly inside the airport. This would involve the minor hassle of figuring out where and how to catch (or call and wait for) a shuttle to the car rental agency, and the additional delays that brings. But if you rent directly in the airport, you can expect another hefty surcharge, or increased daily cost, for that convenience.

Also, for many areas of Costa Rica, a 4x4 is the only suitable vehicle. You may get by without a 4x4 if traveling only to certain regions and only on certain routes, but be sure to read all the reviews for your lodging, because a common complaint with some home rentals is the inability to access the house without driving across rivers and up steep inclines. Another common complaint is that the traveler wasn't able to reach the rented home at all, because they had failed to rent a 4x4 and the road was inaccessible to other types of vehicles. Property owners and managers should not be expected to provide a refund (and they don't) just because the renter failed to realize the home was near the summit of a mountain with no paved roads, and was unable to ever reach it.

And don't forget to check out the price of gas - as of this writing, it is roughly double the cost of gas in the U.S. If you are being chauffeured around in a private transfer for a prearranged fee, the fluctuating cost of gas is not something you'll have to consider, other than as it may affect their quote.

Renting a car with a big family in Costa Rica
Would you prefer to drive, or be driven, across this kind of bridge?

Theft from Vehicles
One piece of advice I've seen repeated dozens of times on travel sites is to be aware that in many areas, if you park your car and leave anything at all of value inside of it, that thing will be stolen. This is seen as common sense; travelers who park somewhere, then go shop or eat, and leave all their luggage in the backseat, should, supposedly, not be surprised if they come back to the car and find a window smashed, and all of their things stolen. Leave a phone or tablet on the front seat, come back to find it gone and the window broken. Leave a camera on the backseat and go have lunch, come back to find the car has been broken into, and the camera is missing.

Some larger stores in some areas may have fenced parking with security guards. In other areas (commonly, at beaches frequented by tourists), you'll find a shady character on foot, who demands a fee to "watch" your car. This is protection money. Fail to pay, and upon returning later you may find that you now have a major scratch in the paint, or other intentional damage has been inflicted upon your rental car, for which you are responsible. Again, this is all just based on what I've read in my many hours of research for this trip.  I haven't been there yet, and I do hope these issues are not common.

Items stolen from tourist's car in Costa Rica
Smashed Car Window in Costa Rica
Violent theft is rare, but petty theft is said to be commonplace. People pop into a store for 3 minutes to buy a soda, and when they come back they find someone trying to jimmy the car window, who runs off when they are seen.

I've read that theft from vehicles is very, very common, in certain areas. It is a possible risk/danger in all areas, but of course, it is more common in some areas than in others. This risk gives me feelings of stress and alarm, just thinking about it. To some degree, I made my decisions about where to stay based on things like the number of reports of theft. I avoided one very popular, beautiful beach based on 1-star reviews multiple tourists posted about being mugged at sunset, and that others posted about having to use a taxi so as to avoid being followed from the beach back to their condo.

Those things could happen anywhere, but when you stay at the kind of beach area or other tourist zone where a very large percentage of people are foreign tourists, the risks of theft are elevated. Of course, my country, the U.S., has a shockingly high rate of crime, including violent crime, compared to other industrialized nations. There are a great many U.S. cities where it would be foolish to display valuables like $800 phones or cameras, or wads of cash, or to walk around alone after dark. And, just as in Costa Rica, if a tourist attempts that after-dark walk in an unfamiliar area while drunk, the risks are exponentially higher.

So I hope this article doesn't sound too hypocritical: a person from the U.S. actually being worried about crime while traveling outside the U.S., ha!  Imagine that!  Right?  But I'm simply considering all forms of risk associated with renting a car, including not only the possibility of theft from break-ins, but my own ignorance of what is common knowledge for locals, such as where it is safe to park and where it is unsafe to park.

Unmarked road hazards in Central America for car rentals
Example road condition illustrating why it's best to avoid night driving

Free Pick-Up & Drop-Off
Before deciding, I had to also consider our itinerary. We don't actually follow a strict itinerary (other than for days when we check out and change destinations), but I still have a list of possible things to do in each place. I have seen that some of the activities we would like to do include free transportation to/from your lodging as part of the price. So that's one less time a rental car would be handy. And if we need lunch afterwards, I'm sure I can get them to drop us off somewhere, then we can either walk back to our rental (15 or 30 minutes) or grab a taxi or Uber from the restaurant.  

Our Travel Style
If you're going through the same decision process, bear in mind that our family's travel style is very slow-paced. One of the places we'll be visiting is often used for a 1-, 2-, or 3-day stop. We're staying for 7 nights. A travel planner I consulted said this was inadvisable because "people will get bored" and she would never put anybody there for more than about 2 nights, tops. We're still staying for 7 nights. This place is a home in the jungle, with a river to explore, a swimming hole, waterfalls, hot springs, numerous restaurants, and various places to hike or take a tour. Doesn't sound boring to me.

One of our best stops in Thailand was a 4-night stay at a place where the vast majority of tourists only go for 3 or 4 hours. We just like to find the kind of places, in small towns, where we can spend a week and experience a glimpse of what it might feel like to live there.

Also, we kind of enjoy being stuck in one, isolated, beautiful spot, and not going anywhere except for places that are reachable by walking. We walk a lot, generally, and are prepared to, and expect to, walk an hour or more every day when we travel, no matter where we are staying.

We don't mind planning our days so that there is only one major outing per day, and we have to remember to bring back everything we need for dinner before heading back to the rented home for the evening. But if your travel style involves spur of the moment decisions, and popping out for cooking oil after forgetting it at the grocery, or driving around as a source of entertainment, you might want to weigh that heavily into the process of choosing whether to be a driver or a paying passenger. 

The Decision
So far, my plan is to avoid renting a car. The pro's, as well as the price, are fairly equal, but the list of con's for a car rental in Central America is devastatingly long. When I travel, I tend to want to avoid hassles and stress, so for me personally, the idea of dealing with a rental car, and being responsible for it, equals an absolute ton of stress.

Of course, my decision here is heavily biased by my personal career-related skills and career-influenced personality: it's part of my job to assess risks, and make decisions to mitigate those risks.  And I don't like the looks of the risks of driving a car myself in any other country, let alone one that is believed to have this particular set of risks.

Let me know if you disagree!

[Update: This trip has now taken place. And I surprised myself by deciding the only way to deal with a certain destination in Costa Rica was to break one of my own rules. More on that in a future post...]

Traveling with kids in Costa Rica
Landslides - another hazard of mountainous Central American roads

Please note that all photos in this post may be subject to copyright of original creator. Since I haven't been to Costa Rica yet, I had to use photos found online for this post.

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