Know Before Traveling to Costa Rica
Travel experts and basic common sense will tell you that it’s wise to know a little bit about your destination before you head out. It’s also a good idea to prepare for and gather a few essentials, we’ll highlight some of the more critical ones below related to Costa Rica tourism.
1. Bring your passport and make sure it’s not expired. It goes without saying that traveling to a foreign country will require that you utilize your passport. Make sure to keep it on you in a safe place when going into and out of Costa Rica. In addition, ensure it’s not about to expire.
2. For a one week trip, take out around $200 American dollars prior to your trip and convert $100 to Costa Rican Colones. In Costa Rica, the currency there is dubbed the “Colón” or “Colones” plural. It’s entirely up to you as to how much cash you’d prefer to keep on you. I recommend $200 total as it’s enough to last a week while at the same time isn’t so much that you have to stress should anything happen to it.
Most US banks SHOULD give you a fair conversion to colones (although Bank of America attempted to screw me at 0.00179). Expect a conversion of 0.0019 Colón to 1 USD. If you can’t or don’t want to convert your dollars to colones in the US, you can do so in Costa Rica. In the baggage claim area of SJO (San Jose International, Juan Santamaria Airport), towards one of the last belts before passing through the final customs checkpoint, there’s an ATM in both English and Spanish that dispenses colones. Don’t use the currency conversion counter — you’ll get a worse rate. Take out some money at the ATM and you’ll get a better deal.
A rough rule of thumb, multiply however many colones you have by 2, and you’ll be able to determine the approximate US value. IE: 10,000 Costa Rican Colones = around $20.00 USD.
3. Practice a bit of Spanish before hand. I say this no matter what Spanish speaking country I travel to. It’s an invaluable resource to keep in your backpocket. Not only will you be able to navigate the country more efficiently, but you’ll have a more immersive travel experience. The locals will also think more highly of you when you attempt to speak the language.
4. Consider getting Global Entry & TSA Pre-check. Global Entry and TSA Pre-check will make your life a whole lot easier, especially if you’re returning to an airport like FLL (Fort Lauderdale International Airport). Note that if you’re flying Spirit, as many who travel to Costa Rica do, they are not partnered with Global Entry.
5. Enroll in any and all travel rewards programs associated with your trip to maximize your earnings. If you’re reading this site, you know that we’re travel hackers. Why not make your dollar go further and earn points for your bookings? See our mostly-complete list of travel rewards programs you should enroll in for free.
6. Do your homework, but don’t over-plan. Costa Rica is the kind of destination you’re going to want to soak in. I really don’t recommend a super action-packed itinerary for this trip. Instead, book your flights, book your hotels and book your modes of transportation. When you arrive at your hotel(s), figure out your activities there. Take some time to enjoy the ambiance, the culture, the views and sit back and have a glass of wine.
There’s something special about Costa Rica, in that as soon as you arrive you feel at peace. Savor that feeling and don’t stress yourself out with too many pre-planned activities.
7. Book your transportation between cities ahead of time. I learned this the hard way. Basically, there are 3 main methods for getting around Costa Rica. First, you can rent a car. Second, you can hire private transportation. Third, you can take a cab to your hotel. The last two options are expensive. For example, private transport to Arenal from SJO, Arenal to Manuel Antonio and then Manuel Antonio back to SJO will cost you around $700 total. A cab one-way in any of those directions will be at least $300. If you rent a car, you’ll get a far better deal.
The best rental companies get booked up quickly. Note, however that we only recommend renting a car into Costa Rica if you’re a highly-skilled and alert driver. The roads can be dangerous and the drivers are even worse. Getting through some of the towns had my hair standing on end as they are very third-world and traffic laws don’t exist.
8. Liability coverage for renting a car in Costa Rica is required, but collision coverage is not. Almost all car rental companies will try to cram extra coverage down your throat. Only get what you need unless you feel more comfortable otherwise. You only need to pickup the bare minimum in liability coverage.
A couple months before planning our trip, I booked what I thought was an amazing deal through Economy Rent a Car on Expedia. I thought I would be getting a mid-size SUV for $10 per day. One week before our trip, I researched the satellite office I was to pickup the SUV at and quickly found I’d made a huge mistake. I found that this company would force unnecessary collision coverage and other outrageous charges. The insurance itself was triple the cost of the daily rental rate.
Keep in mind that the Costa Rican government REQUIRES that you purchase liability coverage. In terms of collision coverage, the best way to get it for free is through the right travel credit card. CDW waivers are included in credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, so if you’re already covered then don’t pick it up through the rental company. If your credit card does not come with collision coverage, I’d recommend picking it up in Costa Rica as the roads, drivers and remoteness can pose a real risk. Roadside assistance also isn’t a bad option that most companies offer on the cheap.
9. You will need to put down a security deposit when renting a car. Depending on the vehicle and other factors associated with the rental company, they’re likely going to put a hold on your credit card for at least $1,500. Keep this in mind prior to renting so you don’t get any surprises. Separately, don’t let them put a hold on your card for more than is necessary, as has happened in the past with Economy Rent-a-Car. Hint, don’t rent from Economy in Costa Rica.
10. Get a GPS or rent one when you arrive. Unless you want to use an old-fashioned map and compass, a GPS in Costa Rica will make your experience a lot more pleasurable. Consider purchasing a reliable GPS like the Garmin nüvi and be sure to download the Costa Rican maps ahead of your trip. You can also rent one through most car rental companies in CR for around $12/day.
11. Costa Rica doesn’t use addresses. Yes, you heard that correctly. They go by points of interest. So if you’re looking to get anywhere with your GPS, make sure you search by POI and than set as a favorite any destinations that you’ll be heading to.
12. If you’re renting a car, observe the agent do a walk around of your car and have him or her mark any nicks, dents, scratches or other damage. While we had a very pleasant agent through Avis, I’ve heard horror stories of people losing their security deposits for tiny nicks and scratches that were there before they rented the car. Don’t let it happen to you and take pictures of anything you notice prior to leaving with the vehicle.
13. Bring a few essentials with you prior to your visit to Costa Rica. Items such as bug spray and suntan lotion are absolutely essential in this country. If at all possible, pickup travel-size bug spray and suntan lotion and be sure to pack both in a clear, quart-sized ziploc bag for transporting through security at the airports in the U.S. and Costa Rica.
14. You don’t need any special shots to travel to Costa Rica. This question comes up often, but there are no critical diseases you need to safeguard yourself against via vaccinations prior to visiting Costa Rica. Keep in mind however that the Zika virus may be spread through mosquito bites in Costa Rica.
15. Credit cards are accepted at most modern facilities. Most hotels, modern restaurants and tourism centers accept major US credit cards. In the rural areas and at small shops for souvenirs you may need to use cash. If you plan on using a credit card, be sure you call your card company ahead of time to let them know you’ll be out of the country so they don’t freeze your account.
16. You will need to pay an exit visa fee at the airport before you leave Costa Rica. Costa Rica requires that you pay an exit fee upon departing the country. Currently, the Costa Rica exit visa costs around $29 per person and will need to be viewed by security on your way to the gate. Note that when they charged me at SJO for my exit visa, it appeared on my credit card statement as a Cash Advance. If you know credit cards, that’s no bueno considering it will accrue interest on the charge at a higher rate. If that happens to you, pay off the amount immediately when you get home.