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18 Things to KNOW Before Renting a Car in Costa Rica

18 Things to KNOW Before Renting a Car in Costa Rica

Situated in Central America, Costa Rica is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world! With its seemingly ever-present sun, gorgeous beaches, national parks galore, and out-of-this-world surfing, it’s no wonder people flock to this beautiful country. 

Despite its seemingly small size, you can easily fill your entire bucket list with all the incredible activities Costa Rica has to offer. To get around and visit as many places as possible, renting a car may be on your agenda.

From our experience, renting a vehicle in Costa Rica gives you the advantage of setting your own agenda. That means visiting those hidden gems or going to popular tourist spots outside of busy times. It’s a great way to customize your trip to what you want it to be!

Having an easy way to get around the country will make your vacation that much more enjoyable – whether you’re spending a week in Costa Rica or longer.

That’s why we’ve pulled together the important things to know before renting a car in Costa Rica. We’ll answer the most common questions you might have to make sure your time driving around the country goes as smoothly as possible! 

1. Is renting a car in Costa Rica worth it?

View out the window of a rental car driving around Costa Rica between San Jose and La Fortuna
It’s the best way to explore Costa Rica!

Absolutely! 

Driving around Costa Rica is the best way to cover a lot of ground and see more of this incredible place.

Renting a car in Costa Rica is one of the most affordable ways to get around without the hassle of trying to navigate public buses or trying to find taxis. 

Having your own vehicle also gives you the freedom to get off the beaten path to some of those trickier to get to places that you don’t want to miss out on.

If you only have a limited amount of time to explore Costa Rica, renting a car means you’ll reach destinations a lot quicker. Whilst buses are cheap, they are notoriously slow and not as comfortable. Having a car means you won’t have to stop on the side of the road at a random bus stop or at every town waiting to transfer buses. 

Related read: While planning your trip, check out the best tours in Costa Rica! Some may include transportation, but you’ll often need a way to get to a meeting spot or main city, so your rental will come in handy.

2. What do you need to rent a car in Costa Rica? 

Daniel drives our rental car in Costa Rica
Knowing how to drive is a must as is a valid driver’s license.

A driver’s license 

You do NOT need an international driver’s license to drive in Costa Rica unless your home driver’s license is not written in English or what is known as “roman script.” Your license should be valid, and more than two years old.

If you have a driver’s license written in a different alphabet, you will need to purchase an international driver’s license from your home country. These are usually inexpensive and can be used across the globe. 

To be 21 or older

A lot of car rental companies in Costa Rica actually require you to be at least 25 to rent a car! However, some will allow you to rent from the age of 21 with a young driver’s fee. Adobe Rent a Car has a minimum age requirement of 23. While companies like Alamo, Enterprise, and Hertz have a minimum age of 21 but charge a young driver’s fee for renters under 25 years old.  

A passport

A passport is required when you go to pick up your rental car, so don’t forget this! You will also need to show your valid immigration stamp. This is the stamp you receive when you enter the country and states how long you are able to stay in the country for. 

Insurance

Liability insurance is mandatory for driving in Costa Rica. This is likely not included in your rental price but you can buy it through your rental company. This mandatory insurance is a hidden fee that often catches a lot of renters by surprise! 

Make sure you check with your rental before your arrival for the full inclusive fee so you know how much your final price will be, including insurance. 

A credit card 

Often you need at least a $1,000-$3,000 credit limit to rent a car in Costa Rica. This will depend on your rental company but they need to know they can charge your card if there are any damages to your rental vehicle. 

3. Do you need to rent a 4WD in Costa Rica?

Our rental car parked up in Costa Rica
Daniel poses for a photo with our rental car at a waterfall in Costa Rica

Not necessarily. If you are only planning on visiting the main tourist destinations in Costa Rica, you won’t need to rent a four-wheel drive as they are mostly connected by main highways. 

If you are dreaming of a long road trip, off the beaten path to some more rural areas, a 4WD will definitely come in handy! They can easily go up steep hills, over bumps, and through rivers a lot easier than a regular car. Also, 4x4s are a lot safer and you will be thankful for it if you do find yourself in an accident. 

Unfortunately, four-wheel drives are more expensive to rent, but if your budget can stretch to it, we highly recommend opting for one. 

Related read: One of our favorite easy drives in Costa Rica is just outside the beachy community of Dominical to visit the beautiful Nauyaca Waterfalls!

4. What side of the road do you drive on in Costa Rica?

People drive over a bridge in Costa Rica
Those from North America won’t have any trouble driving on the right-hand side!

Similarly to the US and Canada, in Costa Rica, you drive on the right-hand side of the road. This means if you’re coming from either of these countries, you won’t have to get used to driving on the “wrong” side of the road. 

However, if you are coming from the UK or Australia, you might find having the driver’s seat on the left and driving on the right-hand side takes a bit of getting used to! 

5. Tips to save money on a rental car in Costa Rica 

A rental car parked in a parking lot in Costa Rica
Getting a smaller car saves you a ton!

Visit in low season

Visiting in the low season (or what’s known as the green season) will undoubtedly save you money on hotels in Costa Rica, tours, and of course, your car rental. 

The low season runs from May to mid-December which also coincides with the rainy season when the country gets a lot fewer tourists. While it will be more cost-effective during this period, the roads can be a little dodgy and are not as safe as in the dry season due to floods and wet weather.

Rent a manual (stick shift)

If you are skilled enough to be able to drive a manual car, it can be a great way to save money on your vehicle rental! 

Manual cars are usually a lot cheaper to rent in Costa Rica as there is a higher demand for automatic cars. While automatic cars are a lot easier to drive, especially up some of Costa Rica’s steep hills, if you do get stuck in the mud, you might appreciate having a manual car! 

Avoid renting a 4WD if you can

Renting a four-wheel drive can be considerably more expensive! 

Depending on when and where you are planning to visit, you might not need a 4WD. There are some locations like Monteverde and La Fortuna that are super hilly and you will definitely appreciate having a 4×4, especially in the rainy season.

However, in areas like San Jose, Quepos, and Jaco you could easily drive around in a normal car and save yourself a good amount of money! 

Use credit card insurance to save money

Most vehicle rental companies will require you to purchase the Costa Rican mandatory insurance that is required by law. However, if you have rental car insurance which is covered by either your credit card or travel insurance, some companies will allow you to use that instead. This can save you around $15-25 USD a day. 

Ask your chosen rental car company if that is possible for your insurance policy.

Rent from major locations

Renting from the airport cities of San Jose and Liberia as well as popular tourist locations like Jaco, Manuel Antonio, and Tamarindo can actually save you some money. 

A lot of the smaller towns that don’t get as many customers will often have extra hidden fees and might require you to drop your vehicle back to that location. 

Related read: If you’re traveling Costa Rica on a budget, check out all the free things you can do in La Fortuna, Tamarindo, and Santa Teresa!

6. Can you trust online websites when booking? 

Daniel and Bailey take a selfie with a friend in Costa Rica
Unfortunately, most online websites don’t show the full price!

Unfortunately, a lot of the online rental websites do not include the mandatory insurance (more on that below) which often leaves people feeling like they got “scammed”. The truth is that insurance is mandatory and not all companies will accept credit card insurance (we feel like this is unfair.)

So, in the end, you’ll pay what you’re supposed to but get the shock of the final bill. If a deal sounds too good to be true, it usually is, so keep this in mind when using online booking sites.

The only one we would recommend using is Discover Cars, as we have had good experiences with them in the past. Nonetheless, be sure to select the full coverage option to get the correct pricing.

7. You need liability insurance, but the others are optional 

An ATV drives passed us while driving in Costa Rica
You have to keep an eye out for everything including ATVs!

You definitely need insurance for renting a car in Costa Rica, in fact, liability insurance is mandatory! While we definitely recommend you get as much coverage as possible as accidents do happen, only liability insurance is required by law and the other types are completely optional. 

Liability insurance 

As we have mentioned above, depending on your rental company, you might be able to use your liability insurance through your credit card or your travel insurance. If not, your rental will add liability insurance to your daily rental price. 

Liability insurance, also known as third-party insurance, covers any damages you might cause to a third party, so it basically only covers any costs you might have to pay if you damage someone else’s vehicle or property. 

Car protection

Car protection is often available at an extra cost if not already covered by your credit card. This will cover any damage to your vehicle meaning if you accidentally hit a tree or scrape your car while parking, damages will be covered.

It also can cover partial theft, which is not uncommon in Costa Rica. Whilst car protection is optional, if you do not have it, you could be responsible for some hefty fines from your rental company if the car does get damaged. 

Full coverage

Full coverage or zero liability is the best kind of insurance you can get for renting a car in Costa Rica. While this is completely optional, it covers theft, vandalism, third party, and any kind of car damage.

It also offers roadside assistance if you were to break down and need to be towed. I always opt for this because it’s better to be safe than sorry, right?!

8. Do you need to pay a deposit when renting a car in Costa Rica?

Most rental companies will require a deposit to cover damages for your rental in Costa Rica. It is worth calling up your rental company before you arrive to find out your final price including deposits.

Most car rental companies in Costa Rica charge anywhere between $1,000-$3,000 for a holding deposit, and some companies even charge as much as $5,000! 

Some companies may offer to add extra to your daily fee so you don’t have to pay a deposit. However, if you do have the funds or have a credit card, leaving a deposit is likely the best option, as you’ll get that money back in the event you return the vehicle in the same shape as you left it.

9. What extras are available when renting a car in Costa Rica?

A rental car parked on the side of the road at a waterfall in Costa Rica
We often get a 4WD but we love to explore hidden gems!

Depending on which car rental company you choose, there are various additions available to you at an additional cost. 

GPS

GPS is a common extra that people add on when renting a car. If you aren’t using a smartphone or don’t want to run your data up, adding GPS can be a great idea. The roads in Costa Rica are notoriously difficult to navigate and a local GPS will likely be more up-to-date on Costa Rican roads than your one from home. 

That being said, if you are able to use your smartphone, the Waze app is the most useful navigation app to use in Costa Rica. Plus, you can download your route at your accommodation to use during your journey even without data/wifi.

Adding GPS to your rental cost will likely cost you around $5-10 USD a day, but often you will be expected to put down a deposit of around $200 USD. 

Children and baby seats

If you are traveling with a baby or children, you will likely be able to rent a baby car seat or booster seat from your rental company that meets regulations.

However, if you are renting a car with a newborn, most companies require you to bring your own car seat. 

A baby seat will cost around $3-5 USD a day and a booster seat will likely only cost around $1 USD per day. If you are renting a car for a long period of time, you might find it cheaper to go into one of the larger towns or cities and purchase your own booster seat. 

Wifi 

Some rental companies offer a 4G hotspot as an addition to your vehicle. This can be a great option if you are using your own device for navigation and going on long road trips. 

These vary in price depending on how much data you are likely to need on your travels. Be warned that coverage will also depend on your location, so won’t be entirely reliable and may not be worth the extra cost.

Roof racks

Costa Rica has a huge surfing scene so it’s not uncommon to see surfboards tied to cars on roof racks. If you are planning on surfing or paddle boarding during your holiday, roof racks are a common add-on to your vehicle rental. That is, if you rent a car large enough to accommodate it! Roof racks typically start at around $3 USD a day fromcar rental companies in Costa Rica. 

Roadside coverage 

You may also want to consider adding roadside coverage to your rental package, However, this can sometimes already be covered under your travel insurance or credit card, so double-check before you add it as an extra. 

Quick passes

Some rental companies offer quick passes as an extra with your rental vehicle. This means you can go straight through road tolls without having to queue. 

In our experience, the wait wasn’t too long at tolls, and unless you are planning on going through a lot of tolls during your travels, it isn’t really that necessary. 

Extra driver

If you are not planning on a solo adventure, you might want to put at least one extra person as a named driver on your rental. That way if one of you gets tired on a long journey, someone else can take over. 

Most companies charge around $7-12 USD per day for an extra driver so it is worth working out whether this will be cost-effective for your trip. 

10. Tips to follow when renting a car in Costa Rica

View out the front windscreen while driving on a rural road in Costa Rica
A rural road in Costa Rica

Check what roads you can drive on

Remember to double-check with your rental company what type of roads you can drive on. Some rentals will not allow you to drive off-road or too close to river crossings, especially if you are opting to not rent a four-wheel drive vehicle. 

It’s also worth noting that driving through rivers is not covered by any kind of insurance and is not recommended! 

Always carry rental documents and registration in the vehicle

You should always carry all of your documentation in your vehicle with you when out driving. Routine stops by police officers and traffic wardens are common and you will likely drive through some checkpoints. 

These officers will likely ask to see your license, registrations, and rental documents just to check they are all valid and that you are driving legally. 

This is why it’s so important that if more than one person wants to drive your vehicle while in Costa Rica, they are listed as a driver on your rental and insurance. 

Don’t worry if you do get stopped by an officer, they are usually very friendly and are solely stopping you to check your documents and then will let you on your way.

Take your own photos when doing the inspection

Before driving off with your vehicle and being on your way, take a lot of photos during the inspection. That way, you can document any scrapes, scratches, and dents already on the vehicle before you rent it.

This can avoid any extra charges that the rental company might try to charge you when you return your vehicle. It is also worth emailing these photos to the rental company of the day that you pick up the car, that way they will have proof of the date that the photos were taken and shows the company you were aware of any damages. 

Child seats are required

Child seats are mandatory, so if you are renting a car with children in Costa Rica. Don’t forget to bring your own seat with you or rent one to ensure your child is safe on the road.

Babies are required to be in a rear-facing car seat, ideally in the middle section of the back of the car. 

Children between the ages of 1-4 must travel in a car seat designed for the back seat. Similarly, children aged 4-6 must travel in a booster seat with a backrest.

Children 6-12 must have a booster seat, but it is up to you whether they have the back support. If the child is particularly tall and their feet touch the floor when they sit on the seat without a booster, no car seat is necessary. 

Costa Rica has become really strict on car seats for children in recent years and often issues fines of up to $400 USD.

A parking inspector checks vehicles in Costa Rica
A parking inspector checks vehicles in Costa Rica

Pay your tickets (fines) before going to the airport 

If you get any kind of fine while driving in Costa Rica, whether it be parking or speeding, you don’t pay on the day as you will pay once you drop off your rental. 

Whoever issues you your ticket will take down your details and rental documents so you are able to pay these all at the end of your trip. This is to help stop any scams and corruption from ticket officers. 

There are laws prohibiting you from leaving the country if you have unpaid fines, so do get these paid before going to the airport to stop things from getting tricky when you try to fly out. 

You can’t cross the border with your rental car

Unfortunately, all the rental agencies in Costa Rica do not allow you to drive your rental straight through the international border and into Panama or Nicaragua. 

However, if you are planning on extending your road trip into some more of Central America, some companies will allow you to drop off your rental car at the border and pick up another in Panama or Nicaragua. It is not uncommon for this service to be provided, so it is worth asking your rental company. Do bear in mind that this service can be expensive. 

Follow the road rules

While enforcing road rules can be somewhat sporadic in Costa Rica, they can be very strict with certain rules, so it is best to follow them at all times. This is even if you see the locals breaking these rules! Some of the rules to be aware of include: 

  • No drunk driving 
  • Always wear a seatbelt 
  • No passing on a bend, bridge, or double-lined road
  • No driving without a valid license 
  • No littering from the vehicle 
  • No speeding – speed limit signs are few and far between but always follow them 
  • Never use your phone while driving even if hands-free – tourists often get picked up on this 
  • Always carry your documents and registration – you can get fined for not having them

11. Do you need insurance to rent a car in Costa Rica?

Stopping at a strawberry stand in Costa Rica on the side of the road in a rental car
Having full coverage is a good idea because there are a ton of hazards including strawberry stands!

Yes, you do need insurance to rent a car in Costa Rica. 

There is mandatory insurance required by the National Insurance Institute (INS) to drive a vehicle in Costa Rica. This is despite any kind of travel insurance or credit card insurance you might already have. 

This type of mandatory insurance is required by law and covers any damage to other vehicles and property, rather than your own car or rental. It costs around $15-20 USD per day but many rental car companies will have this included in your rental price. It’s best to check with your company before making any purchases. 

Additional insurance such as collision damage waivers are often available as an add-on from rental companies. These limit the costs of how much you will have to pay for the damage if you do get into an accident and damage the vehicle. 

However, this type of insurance does not protect against break-ins or theft. This additional type of insurance usually costs around $5-$25 USD a day depending on the vehicle and company. 

If you want to be fully protected, zero liability or full coverage insurance is available and worth getting. 

Protection against theft and damage to your vehicle is worth purchasing so if something does happen and you get in an accident or your car gets stolen/broken into, you will not be liable from your rental company. It’s best to buy this kind of insurance from a separate provider, either a dedicated travel car insurance or through your credit card. 

However, you will still need to purchase the mandatory insurance alongside the zero liability insurance, so don’t forget that!

12. Where should you rent a car from in Costa Rica?

Bailey and her friend get out of our rental car in Costa Rica
Choosing a great company is a must!

There are heaps of car rental companies out there so you will not struggle to find one suitable for you. 

It’s best to go for reputable companies with plenty of recent reviews so you are less likely to run into any issues. You can request online quotes, but many don’t mention the hidden fees, so it is best to contact these companies directly to ensure you know what the final price will be. 

Common pick-up points include airports in San Jose and Liberia, and main areas such as Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Limon, Quepos, and Tamarindo. If you are flying into Costa Rica, we recommend staying overnight in a hotel before picking up your rental so that you are refreshed for the next day and can avoid driving at night. 

Here are some rental companies we recommend: 

Related read: While roadtripping across the country, make sure you try some of the delicious traditional Costa Rican foods!

13. How much does it cost to rent a car in Costa Rica?

Numberplate of a rental car in Costa Rica
A typical Costa Rica number plate!

Compared to other popular tourist destinations, Costa Rica is relatively cheap to rent a car. Don’t get too excited though, it may not be as cheap as it seems due to those pesky hidden costs.

The cost of a car rental in Costa Rica depends on the season. In the low season, you can hire a basic two-wheel drive car for as little as $5 USD a day! However, in high season these can go up to as much as $50 USD without the added insurance and deposit. 

For a four-wheel drive car, you expect to pay upwards of $60 USD a day in high season but sometimes in low season, you will be able to find one for around $20 USD a day. 

A lot of local companies will offer deals for longer rentals so this is definitely worth looking into if you are planning on staying in Costa Rica for a while. 

These rates don’t include insurance and liability insurance is mandatory to drive in Costa Rica. This can cost around $15-20 USD a day for just the basic required insurance, but it is best to be fully covered if your budget can stretch to the full coverage insurance. 

Luckily there is a lot of free parking scattered about so parking up shouldn’t eat too much into your budget but expect to pay between $1-$4 USD at national parks and shopping centers. 

Fuel is also quite expensive at around $1 USD a liter and larger vehicles will undoubtedly cost a lot more to fill up so this is worth considering when choosing your rental. 

Although it might seem expensive at first, if you are planning to go to multiple locations during your stay, you will save a considerable amount by not having to book tours and shuttle buses around the country.

14. What are the road conditions like in Costa Rica?

Highway in Costa Rica with a dangerous drop off
Remember to pay attention because Costa Rica lacks barriers!

The road conditions in Costa Rica really vary depending on where in the country you are. In the larger towns and cities like San Jose and Jaco, you will find the roads are a lot smoother and easy to drive on. That being said, expect potholes everywhere! 

The main highways in the country are paved and are in good condition, but the other roads are mainly dirt tracks which aren’t maintained very well. 

If you are visiting in the rainy season, the roads are slightly more tricky. Rain brings wet roads, flooded tracks, and a lot more mud so be extra careful when driving around. You will find during large downpours, many drivers will pull over and wait for the rain to stop before continuing their journey. The rain might seem crazy but showers can be as short as a few minutes so you might find waiting for it to clear is a good idea. 

Although the roads can be bumpy and unpredictable, you don’t necessarily need a 4×4 to get around. The roads between the cities are fine to do in a normal car, just be prepared for a bumpy ride if you are heading off the beaten track. 

Related read: To know more about what the weather might be like while you’re driving here, this guide to the best time to visit Costa Rica is full of helpful info!

15. What should you do if you get in an accident in Costa Rica?

A 4WD drives along a highway in the hills of Costa Rica

The most important thing to remember if you get in a car accident is to not move your car. No matter how small of an accident, do not move your car, even if it means blocking the whole road. 

This is because for all accidents, even minor collisions, they need to have a ticket written by a traffic officer unless all parties agree that there was no damage. Unless you are fluent in Spanish and can be sure that everyone agrees there are no problems, it is best to leave your car in position and call 911. 

911 will send the traffic police to your location so that they can write you up a ticket to give to your insurance provider. It’s best also to note any other parties’ details in case you have trouble reading the ticket given to you. 

Basically, if you get into an accident in Costa Rica, don’t move your car, try to remain calm and avoid arguing with anyone else involved, call 911, and wait for the traffic police to arrive. 

16. Should you leave baggage and valuables in your car?

Daniel with his rental car he was driving around Costa Rica
Only leave valuables at parking lots on private property with staff.

You should really avoid leaving anything in your car where you can. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, like if you are stopping off somewhere on a day trip in between hotels, but it’s best to avoid it where possible! 

Most of the common theft that happens in Costa Rica, happens when cars are left unattended. Try to hide anything you do need to leave in your car unless the parking lot has security, like in some hotels. 

We personally do occasionally leave baggage in our car when driving around Costa Rica, but it is a big risk that we don’t really recommend. 

Related read: Read up on the top safety tips to know before traveling to Costa Rica so you’re prepared!

17. What are the major hazards on the roads in Costa Rica?

A river crossing in Costa Rica
A river crossing in Costa Rica

Potholes

Costa Rica has some of the biggest potholes we have ever seen, they are really quite impressive! However, they are not ideal for driving around and can cause some damage to your car. Be extra careful and try to avoid them where possible.

One lane bridges

You will likely come across one lane bridges when you’re driving around Costa Rica. If you don’t know how they work, they can be quite tricky. Usually, they will have a sign showing which side has the right of way. People don’t always take notice of these so be careful, drive slowly and be sure that people on the other side can see you when you go over. 

River crossings

While driving around you might come across a river crossing with no bridge, especially in the rainy season. You might well just see a road disappear into a river and reappear on the other side. 

You must be really cautious when approaching these as it can be tricky to tell how deep the water is. If you are lucky, you might be able to see someone who knows the roads a bit better to drive through first to test whether your car is suitable to drive through. 

If you didn’t opt for a 4×4 and you can’t test how deep the water is, we would definitely recommend trying to find another route to be safe! 

Drunk drivers

You might come across drunk drivers, especially in larger towns and cities so always be aware and careful when driving at night. 

Wildlife 

Iguanas, monkeys, sloths, large birds, alligators, you name it, and it’s probably free roaming around here! Keep an extra eye out for wildlife in Costa Rica while driving around, especially in the more rural areas.  

It is also not uncommon to be stuck in traffic for a while and find out the hold up is a full herd of cows crossing the road. So plan ahead and expect delays for your journeys, that’s the pura vida lifestyle! 

Heavy rain 

As we said before, heavy rain brings some more hazards when driving in Costa Rica. Mudslides and flooding are not uncommon, especially in the rainy season. Try to avoid driving during and straight after a heavy downpour, but don’t worry the sun dries up the roads pretty quickly! 

18. Is it easy to fill your car with gas in Costa Rica?

Daniel fills up our rental car in Costa rica
It’s super easy!

Yes!

You will not struggle to find a gas station in Costa Rica as they seem to be everywhere unless you go out to the middle of nowhere. In this case, we would recommend filling up before you start adventuring! 

Gas stations take both cash and card and they often fill up the car for you, making the process super easy. Gas in Costa Rica is measured in liters and usually costs around $1 USD per liter which works out to $4 USD a gallon.

Pura Vida! 

Three people take a selfie with a rental car in Costa Rica
Thanks for reading!

Renting a car in Costa Rica really is one of the best ways to get around the country! With so much to explore, there is nothing better than having the freedom to go at your own pace and see the sights that you want to see during your trip. 

If you are planning a trip to Costa Rica, check out some of our other Costa Rica guides! We have traveled all across the country and even lived here. We would love to help you plan your dream trip.

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