How to Plan a Costa Rica Vacation: 6 Tips to Make it Phenomenal

By Rob | September 27th, 2016 | 2 Comments
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There’s a big difference between living abroad and vacationing abroad.

When my wife and I tell people that we spent 3 months living in Costa Rica we get a lot of crazy responses.

Sure, there are many people who say “that’s awesome”. But there are an equal number of people who make some kind of comment about us taking a super long vacation.

One guy at the airport even said “You must have rich parents”!

We weren’t sure how to respond to that…

While my wife and I did spend slightly over 3 months living in Costa Rica, most of that time was not vacationing. Just ask my wife. My schedule wasn’t any different than when I’m here in the US – spending a good 10-12 hours working on most weekdays.

However, we did decide to spend two weeks at the end of our trip actually vacationing. Which was a blast!

On the ferry to Puntarenas after spending 3 months in Montezuma, Costa Rica. My hair got a little out of control!
On the ferry to Puntarenas after spending 3 months in Montezuma, Costa Rica. My hair got a little out of control!

After spending most of our summer in Montezuma, we decided to travel to central Costa Rica to explore San Jose, La Fortuna, and Liberia. Although we never made it to the Caribbean Coast or the Panama border, we have seen a lot of Costa Rica.

During our time in Costa Rica we made a few discoveries that we wish he had known about ahead of time. If you’re planning a Costa Rica vacation, hopefully these tips can help make your trip a little easier, more affordable, and fun!

1. Book the right airline when you fly to Costa Rica

I booked our tickets using Chase Sapphire points, which was awesome — a completely free flight (other than tax). Unfortunately, I booked this flight on United Airlines. 

Big mistake on my part! Although I am generally happy with United’s international service, this route(probably because I booked the cheapest one possible) wasn’t so great.  Rather than going straight from Sacrament to Costa Rica, we spent a night in Houston airport – both directions.

Have you ever spent the night in Houston airport? Don’t! There are many sleep-friendly airports, but Houston is not one of them. With lights and TVs on all night long, we didn’t get any sleep.

When we first settled in for the evening we were both optimistic about the amount of sleep we would get in Houston airport.
When we first settled in for the evening we were both optimistic about the amount of sleep we would get in Houston airport.
Unfortunately, the lights and TV stayed on all night long! Brooke tried to bury herself -- but it didn't do much good.
Unfortunately, the lights and TV stayed on all night long! Brooke tried to bury herself — but it didn’t do much good.
This is what my wife looks like at 5 am after an all-nighter (still a hottie). We were so thankful for the two United Club passes we had (although you can't sleep in there either).
This is what my wife looks like at 5 am after an all-nighter (still a hottie). Although they don’t let you sleep in the United Club, we did enjoy our complimentary club passes that came with my Mileage Plus card. We at least found a few comfortable chairs!

When booking my tickets, what I didn’t realize was that Southwest now flies to Costa Rica! I could have used fewer points (as the Sapphire converts to both United and Southwest) and we would have had a direct flight.

So, my recommendation when flying to Costa Rica — avoid Houston and don’t forget to check fairs on Southwest.

2. If you rent a car in Costa Rica, know the real cost

Renting a car in Costa Rica is very tricky (i.e. expensive if not done right)!

Jump over to Orbitz and you’ll find rental cars available for as little as $1/day in Costa Rica. What luck!

Unfortunately, what these “deals” don’t include is the required SLI insurance that costs anywhere from $25-50 a day (and your credit card insurance coverage doesn’t cover SLI). If you just show up in Costa Rica, even if you booked your vehicle in advance, you’ll be stuck paying about $50 a day for your rental car.

That is, unless you do your research…

We rented a Jimny 4x4 for driving around the Nicoya Peninsula. Although it doesn't have much power, it did the trick! Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
We rented a Jimny 4×4 for driving from the airport to Monetezuma — at the end of the Nicoya Peninsula. Although it doesn’t have much power, it did the trick! However, it cost us $80 for a single day because we had to purchase the $50 insurance. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

If you want to be safe and smart, then you can get bids for auto insurance ahead of time through a site like Insurance4CarHire. I haven’t used them, but they are the most frequently stated alternative on Trip Advisor. So you’ll save a few bucks by going with them instead of the rental agency — while still covering your tail.

Or, if you’re a bit of a risk taker like myself, you can actually get out of purchasing SLI insurance. In fact, my wife and I rented a sudan in Costa Rica for two weeks for a total of $165!

We rented a Toyota for our final 2 week road trip around Costa Rica -- and it cost us a total of $165!
We rented a Toyota for our final 2 week road trip around Costa Rica — and it cost us a total of $165! Keep reading to see how we did it. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Do I have to pay for SLI insurance when renting a car in Costa Rica? Absolutely not!

Here’s how to rent a car for cheap in Costa Rica and avoid SLI insurance

I was able to rent a car for cheap in Costa Rica and avoid the SLI insurance by doing a lot of research and finding one little loophole.

Now, I did have a $3,000 hold placed on my credit card during the rental, but I saved $500 in insurance costs!

And, although the car was insured by my card’s regular insurance, I was told that I would be liable for any injuries that I might cause. But, because hospital bills in Costa Rica seem to be about $100, and I dislike dishonest corporations, I decided to take the risk (which was probably foolish).

If you also like the idea of paying $10/day for your rental car (rather than $50), here’s how you can get out of paying for the SLI insurance in Costa Rica.

First, book your car through Budget.co.cr ahead of time (And don’t use the US site!). If it’s not at least 24 hours ahead of time, you won’t be able to get out of having to buy insurance. Budget seems to be the only dealership that has this caveat in their terms – so I would just stick with them. Besides, they have a lot of great dealerships and excellent staff around the country.

Next, go to the Budget.co.cr FAQs page and notice that the very first point says that “SLI is not mandatory”. Take a screenshot of this image (or use the one I’ve included here) and bring it with you to the counter. When you show up at the airport rental counter they will tell you that “it is required” and you’ll need to show them that their terms say it’s not required – then you’ll be warned, but not charged.

do-i-have-to-buy-sli-insurance-costa-rica-no
Show this screenshot to the Budget counter agent as proof that you don’t need to buy SLI insurance.

And that’s it! You’re now able to rent a car in Costa Rica for just a few dollars a day without being required to pay the added insurance. Just know that you will have to pay for any damage caused by you to others.

It is definitely a bit risky and, because we didn’t get in any accidents, I can’t tell you what happens if you do cause damage to something or someone. So be careful.

Additionally, the car rental agencies will try to charge you an absurd amount for other services as well. Save yourself money by avoiding these…

Additional Costa Rica car rental money saving tip:

  • Use T-Mobile to save BIG. If you’re a frequent traveler, than T-Mobile’s latest plan is perfect for you. Not only does it cost just $35/month for unlimited talk, text, and data with 4 users, but it also allows you to use your data in nearly every country on earth for free. So, if you use T-Mobile when traveling Costa Rica, then you have access to your data and texting at no additional cost.
  • Don’t rent a GPS for $10/day. If yu don’t use T-Mobile, download the free app Maps.me – which allows you to access your GPS for free without using any data or minutes on your phone! It turns out that smartphones already have a GPS chip built in, and they only use data to download maps. So, if you download the maps ahead of time, you can use your phone for a GPS without requiring data.
  • Don’t rent WiFi for $15/day. In Costa Rica the main phone carrier is called Kolbi and you can get a sim card with 30 minutes of talk time for $2! Then, you can reload just about anywhere. Unless you won’t have WiFi where you’re staying and need to have computer access while traveling, just get a sim card and use your phone while traveling. Even if you use a ton of data it shouldn’t cost you more than $10/week.

3. Know what hotels to stay at when in Costa Rica’s cities

Costa Rica is beautiful, but some of it’s cities aren’t so nice – particularly the capital, San Jose.

Although there are a few things you can visit in the city, from a US perspective it doesn’t have a lot going on and many parts are a bit dirty.

This is particularly important to keep in mind when booking hotels. While you can find deals for $30-50/night, these hotels will often be in questionable parts of town, charge you a fortune for shuttle/taxi service to and from the airport, and not have a lot going for them.

In fact, the first San Jose hotel we stayed at looked like a great deal with decent reviews – but turned out to be one of the worst hotels I’ve ever stayed at. While we only paid $50, it was probably one of the worst deals I’ve ever come across – we should have just slept in the car.

For a modest and comfortable stay in San Jose with an airport shuttle, consider Hotel Palma Real

hotel-palma-real-Costa-Rica
Palma Real is minutes from the airport, just down the street from the soccer stadium, and relatively close to downtown.

The second hotel we stayed at was quite a bit better. Although still a budget accommodation, Hotel Palma Real offers free airport pickup, affordable drop-off, a decent buffet breakfast, and decent rooms.

This hotel is by no means a resort, but it’s convenience to the airport and downtown make it a solid option for your arrival/departure and exploration of San Jose without a car.

We didn’t mind having this place as our home-base while exploring the city of San Jose.

The outside of Hotel Palma Real. Although an older hotel, it is kept clean compared to many others in San Jose.
The outside of Hotel Palma Real. Although an older hotel, it is kept clean compared to many others in San Jose.

For a pricier but nice stay in Escazu (a suburb of San Jose), consider the Studio Hotel

We really enjoyed our stay at the Studio Hotel. As this was the very first hotel we stayed at after spending 3 months in Montezuma — battling bugs with minimal A/C — it was paradise!

Not only does the Studio Hotel have an awesome rooftop pool and nice rooms, but the buffet breakfast was exceptional! Meanwhile, the entire hotel is set up as an art gallery — with paintings and sculptures from local artists covering nearly every wall.

This hotel was a bit more expensive, but if you’re looking for something nice (and have a vehicle to get around with) this is certainly a hotel worth checking out.

For an awesome experience and affordable stay in Escazu via Airbnb, stay at Lisa’s incredible house!

One of our favorite places in the San Jose area was Lisa’s bed and breakfast – which consists of a gorgeous, massive home with 9+ rooms.

To find her listings, jump on Airbnb (get $35 off your first booking with this link) and search for “LUXURY LIVING FOR PEANUTS” on Google. All of her units should come up and you can pick the one that fits you best.

One of the best things about Lisa’s place is that she is incredibly knowledgeable about Costa Rica and can give you tips on places to go and things to do. Plus she always seems to have awesome people staying at her place, so breakfast conversation is fascinating.

Although we had a rental car, I’m sure she can help you find a way to get to her place using public transportation if needed.

In short, when it comes to visiting cities in Costa Rica – don’t jump to the cheapest listings. Even if you want to be frugal, keep in mind that there are some very cheap hotels in Costa Rica that are still over-priced for what you get. Meanwhile, there are some amazing places that offer a great night’s sleep and an awesome experience.

4. Don’t just visit the beaches – enjoy Costa Rica’s mountains

There’s more to Costa Rica than the beautiful beaches and busy capital. In fact, if you don’t explore some of the mountainous regions you’ll be missing out on quite an experience!

Don’t get me wrong, Costa Rica’s beaches are awesome. If you don’t spend time at the beach in CR, you’re definitely missing out.

But don’t stop there. We spent a few days at La Fortuna and had an amazing time hiking and exploring. 

chapel-on-road-to-la-fortuna
Awesome cathedral on the drive to La Fortuna.

From the incredible hot springs to the impressive volcano, there’s a lot to do in La Fortuna. On our hike around the volcano we came across a few monkeys — and this massive tree (no monkeys here):

tree-by-the-volcano
My wife on our hike through the La Fortuna jungle.

Our favorite stay in Costa Rica

While we enjoyed many parts of Costa Rica, our favorite part of the entire summer was spending three nights at Hacienda Guachupalin in the mountains about 30 minutes from Liberia.

This incredible ranch includes an organic/local buffet breakfast (including local honey, jams, coffee, orange juice, and eggs) in an amazing outdoor restaurant with a fantastic view.

Guachupalin restaurant. Photo via TripAdvisor
Guachupalin restaurant. Photo via TripAdvisor

Free access to a hot springs and mud-bath….

Kids get in trouble for playing in mud -- adults pay big bucks for it! At Gauchupalin, you get access to mineral mud and hot springs for free! A whole new experience for me.
Do you even lift, bra? Well, not as much as I should… But despite my modest muscles, I did have fun playing in the mud at Gauchupalin.

And the ability to book a whole plethora of activities – from zip lines, to horseback riding, to whitewater tubing. You can even help round up the 50+ horses and milk the cows!

I've got rafting before -- but this was my first white water tubing experience. It's like a 3 mile long water slide. Awesome!
I’ve gone rafting before — but this was my first white water tubing experience. It’s like a 3 mile long water slide. Awesome!
Sometimes you just have to pet the donkeys (Brooke had to do it ALL the time).
Sometimes you just have to pet the donkeys (Brooke had to do it ALL the time).

Although this ranch is a bit on the more-expensive side for money-conscious travelers, it’s definitely an awesome place. If you are looking for an amazing “wild west” experience, definitely consider Hacienda Gauchupalin.

Ultimately, the beaches are what Costa Rica is famous for, but there’s an incredible cowboy culture that you don’t want to miss.

Horseback riding in Costa Rica's
Horseback riding in Costa Rica’s “Wild West” at Guachupalin National Park.

5. Give yourself plenty of time when traveling by car or bus – and don’t be afraid to drive

Driving in Costa Rica is completely safe. Especially if you buy the insurance that I didn’t, you have absolutely nothing to worry about.

Are the roads smaller at times? Yes. Are the driving rules slightly different than in the US? Sure.

But, provided you’re a decent driver, driving in Costa Rica is incredibly easy.

The police are friendly and laid-back, the locals are respectful, and everyone drives slow. In fact, that’s the main reason you don’t need to worry about driving in CR – the speed limits are so low!

On the highways the speed limit maxes out at 80 kilometers (about 60 mph) in most places.  Meanwhile, most side roads seem to be 30-60 kph – meaning you are constantly driving as if you’re in a school zone.

Although you should be smart and alert when driving – and pay attention to the guidance and suggestions offered by your rental agency – good drivers won’t have a problem driving around Costa Rica.

What you will want to pay attention to, however, is how long it will take you to get anywhere. Whether by bus or car, 60 miles can take you 3 hours. So give yourself plenty of time when planning out a drive, and again, download a free GPS app like Maps.me for a smooth journey.

Also know whether you’ll need a 4×4. Sometimes the roads are paved, sometimes they aren’t. While you can get to most parts of the country with a regular car, some places will definitely be easier to reach with a 4×4 – especially when it’s raining. While you can get to the main cities without a problem – you may want a 4×4 if you plan to head out to the end of the Nicoya Peninsula or southern parts of the country.

Although slow speed limits are annoying for some of us -- it does make it easier to spot the monkeys!
Although slow speed limits are annoying for some of us — it does make it easier to spot the monkeys! Like this cool little Capuchin.

6. Practice your Spanish ahead of time — and during your trip

Although many people know English in Costa Rica, Spanish is definitely the dominant language – and there are some parts of the country where you will have a difficult time getting around without at least a rudimentary understanding of the language.

Fortunately, people are friendly and they will work with you to figure out what you need – but it certainly helps when you at least understand the basics before you get there.

Although my wife understands Spanish quite well, we both used the free app, Duolingo, to improve our Spanish (before and during the trip). Another great option is to explore Rosetta Stone. Although a bit pricier, they are certainly the global leaders in language learning software.

Having the basics of Spanish down, along with a phrase book or app, will save you a tremendous amount of time trying to explain yourself with gestures and making wrong turns.

In short, embrace the Pura Vida lifestyle

In my opinion, the best way to travel is with a full, yet flexible, itinerary. Do research ahead of time so that you know what areas and activities interest you most – but don’t schedule everything 3 months ahead of time.

Thanks to the many apps we have now, you can plan everything during your trip – even your lodging with the hotels.com app. I usually wouldn’t book hotels until 1-2 days before we planned to be there – and it gave us a lot of flexibility.

By ensuring that you schedule flexibility into your agenda, you will be able to stop randomly on the side of the road to look at monkeys, sloths, or (in our case) 8 foot crocodiles!

While driving to Jaco we saw a random group of people standing on a bridge. So we pulled over and saw these 60+ crocs! Costa Rica is full of surprises.
While driving to Jaco we saw a random group of people standing on a bridge. So we pulled over and saw these 60+ crocs! Costa Rica is full of surprises.

For the comments: If you’ve been to Costa Rica, what are your thoughts on the country? Do you have any more tips to share? Meanwhile, if you’re planning a trip to Costa Rica, feel free to ask questions below and I’ll certainly provide an answer.

About Author Rob

Rob blogs at Money Nomad - where he shares strategies and tips for becoming a remote entrepreneur. When not working on his own projects, Rob writes articles for businesses and thought leaders. You can find him on Twitter @rlerich.

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