Renting a Car in Costa Rica

Renting a car in Costa Rica can be expensive and confusing!  This post features advice from my favorite guest blogger, tico and mechanic:  my husband.

My last couple of rentals down here have been through Enterprise (the Airport branch – most of their other listed locations don’t really exist) and I have been very pleased with their level of service.

I have tried local agencies and did OK with them too but the cost differential is minimal.

Online booking rates are very attractive but don’t always tell the full story.

EVERY SINGLE CAR RENTAL IN COSTA RICA (without exception) requires the purchase of mandatory liability insurance. This is in addition to any collision damage insurance you choose to purchase for the rental period.

I just called the Enterprise office by the airport and for a Hyundai Tucson type vehicle ( more on that in a minute) the mandatory liability insurance is $10.95 per rental day, which is comparatively reasonable – rates go up with vehicle class. Any additional drivers must register with passport AND driver’s license when the car is picked up and cost $5 daily per additional driver. These rates vary by vendor but if you are shopping around  — always ask specifically about the cost of the mandatory (obligatory) national liability insurance. It is an unavoidable charge but they all have different rates.

Mountain ridge road in the Boruca Indigenous Reserve

Supplemental insurance rates should be posted online but I would HIGHLY recommend enrolling in American Express premium rental protection (assuming you have an Amex card) and using that to cover the vehicle. They offer a two tiered flat-fee per rental period (up to 42 days) comprehensive collision policy. Tier one is something like $15 per rental ( as opposed to $50 per day) and covers up to 40 or 50 thousand dollars’ worth of car (like a Hyundai Tucson type car). I use tier two which is $25 per rental period and covers up to 100K and also includes vans and SUVs (read the exclusions on the lower priced policy and then decide if it’s worth the 10 bucks….). DO NOT ASSUME that your de-facto credit car rental coverage will apply in Costa Rica – most do not. It takes a couple of days to get the requisite documentation from Amex so if you want to go that route, sign up early and get a copy of the policy to bring with you. Keep the customer service number handy because you will be required to call Amex while you are checking out at the rental agency to verbally verify coverage before they will let you drive off without purchasing the extra collision insurance. One other note, the AMEX premium policy is a primary policy so they pay out first before any additional coverages, like you standard insurance or whatever else. It’s an amazingly good deal. This little trick can save you hundreds of dollars – even on a weekly rental and not just at enterprise. I do not get any kind of commission for that pitch but if it works out for you, please consider buying me a beer.

Getting lost in the hills around Atenas

The downside? If you do not purchase the Enterprise insurance, they will put a $2,500 deposit hold on your credit card  — which they clear off promptly when you bring it back in one piece. Just make sure you have that kind of space on whatever card you use (AMEX?).

Most of the US national brands down here are local franchises. If you choose to book online (probably better rates and you get points) do so but make sure that once you have your confirmation number, you call the local office to confirm your reservation. When I did this 8 months ago, my web reservation did not flow into their computer system. That may be better now but definitely, call and confirm.

All rentals where you are picked up at the airport by a shuttle are subject to a 10% airport rental tax. You can avoid that fee by showing up in a Taxi after calling ahead.  If it is just for a week, you may be better off just paying the 10% and taking a shuttle from the airport – – way less hassle all around (assuming you are OK with driving in a challenging foreign country right after flying with or without children.   They usually speak some kind of English like language at the agencies.

As far as driving in a challenging foreign country…. If this is your first time here, DO NOT start by driving at night. If your flight arrives after dark – get the car in the morning. Roads have intermittent lineage and signage, there’s lots of poorly declared one-way streets, unpainted speed bumps, non-reflective pedestrians, man-eating potholes, one lane bridges, blind turns, etc. Just spare yourself.

Surprise river crossing while driving just outside of Atenas

Navigation is not a MUST here but it is very helpful. Google maps works well down here in offline mode (download Costa Rica maps first) as long as you stick to main roads — , HERE maps is OK in offline mode, I know nothing about Apple Maps, WAZE is probably your best friend in Costa Rica. That and WhatsAPP.

Cellular service is generally OK here but there’s lots of variability on data speeds and plenty of dead zones so if you have the ability to download at least on offline map set, go for it. Check with your cellular provider for roaming terms and decide if it is better to roam or have one local phone. Sim cards for pay as you go cost $2 and per minute rates and a-la-carte data are very reasonable (ten bucks should get you through the week) assuming you don’t have a non-SIM carrier.

If you choose to go with a local SIM, your absolute best low-hassle options are to either buy a sim card from the Kolbi (national carrier) kiosk in the baggage claim area at the airport – they can sell them, activate and verify on the spot (passport required).  Anything other than that will be a total pain in the butt for a non-resident. If you have a good windshield mount phone holder, bring it. You don’t want to be glancing down at your nav screen while trying to handle Costa Rican roads / Traffic. If you don’t have one, Amazon is your friend (or whatever you feel comfortable with, just don’t expect your phone to actually sit on the dash unassisted – it will be wildly entertaining for everyone in the vehicle except you).

Last point – I mention the Hyundai Tucson / Rav-4 ish class because chances are, you will never need actual 4WD down here but the crossover is almost essential for ground clearance and visibility. Unless you really need tons of space, an overly large vehicle will just make you nervous in traffic and will be a total dog on curvy roads. Spoiler alert – this is a mountainous country so almost all roads are curvy. Sitting up high will be extremely comforting if you get stuck in traffic and provides the best sightseeing experience for passengers. Go with something taller and rent only as big as you need – no bigger – lots of tight squeezes and faith-based passing on these roads. You can get a corolla or similar nice and cheap but you will have a better time in a crossover. I have two big old Land Cruisers because I am an immature macho redneck idiot who hates the environment or whatever but I am also totally comfortable with the roads and local driving style.

Landslide repair on the country’s most modern highway

If you are coming from the airport and going straight to a rental agency, keep in mind that there are toll roads in Costa Rica and they don’t take plastic.

The money-changers in the airport charge 10% — which is nutters BUT, if you plan to take a toll road from the airport to wherever, save yourself a ton of hassle and go ahead and change ten dollars so you have local toll money.

If you forget, go ahead and ask at the car rental desk – they may buy a couple of dollars from you. There is a quickpass system but I don’t know if rental car companies offer that option like in the states (and not ALL the tolls use quickpass – there is one on the way back from the rental agencies that does not). For all I know, the toll booths may take USD but don’t expect it and if they do, don’t expect it to be a smooth transaction unless you’re prepared to just hand ‘em a one dollar bill, smile and give a thumbs up. Nobody’s doing the math for a 50 cent toll.

Pretty much everywhere else takes credit cards (know your card exchange policy in advance, some charge unfavorable rates PLUS per transaction fees) and if you bring cash money, we can buy your dollars and get cash from the ATM – much easier and faster than going to a local bank. One caveat there though – if you plan to stay at any local hotels or hostels or B&Bs or whatever always confirm in advance if they take credit cards. For some reason, many of them do not and in those cases, you will need to know how much cash to bring (most WILL take USD or Euros though…).

Don’t forget to enjoy the scenery!

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