Last Updated: September 28, 2020
As any parent knows, taking a trip with the kids is always an adventure. Routines are inevitably disrupted and everything that is familiar changes. But that shouldn’t deter you from planning an amazing family vacation to Costa Rica. With some careful research and planning, you can have a stress-free trip and create lifelong memories.
Over the years, we have helped hundreds of parents plan their family vacations to Costa Rica. In this post, we’ll share some of our top family travel tips so you can plan your own visit. We’ll cover making an itinerary, choosing destinations, hotels, and activities, as well as some more general information.
Selecting an International Airport for Your Family Vacation to Costa Rica
Getting the trip off to the right start is essential for having the whole vacation be a success. That’s why it is so important to choose the right airport to fly in and out of. You don’t want to fly into one airport, then have to drive six hours to your first destination, only to find out that the country’s other airport was three hours closer.
Costa Rica has two international airports. One is in Alajuela in the mountains in the middle of the country (San Jose/SJO Airport). This is the largest airport in Costa Rica. The other, Liberia/LIR Airport, is in Guanacaste, in far northwestern Costa Rica.
San Jose Airport
Since it is more centrally located, San Jose Airport is closer to many destinations. It provides easy access to the central Pacific coast, southern Pacific coast, and Caribbean coast. SJO Airport is also only about 2-3 hours from the popular destinations of La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano and the Monteverde Cloud Forest. So it’s a good all-around airport to fly into.
Liberia Airport, however, can be more convenient in some situations. It is much closer to beach destinations in Guanacaste/the northern Pacific coast (e.g., Tamarindo, Playa Conchal, Playa Flamingo, Playa Hermosa, Nosara, Samara). Similar to San Jose Airport, La Fortuna and Monteverde are also about a 2-3 hour drive from Liberia.
Tips on Deciding on an Airport
The point is that when deciding which airport to fly into, you should already have a fairly good idea of your itinerary to make sure you’re limiting drive time. Costa Rica is small, but mountainous terrain and bad roads can make for long drives between destinations.
Something else to be mindful of is that most flights into Costa Rica arrive in the early afternoon. With kids, especially younger ones, it’s often easier to stay overnight near the airport to get your bearings before setting off again. Especially after an already big day of travel. Click here for the hotels we recommend near SJO Airport.
If your family is very active and you’d rather get to your first destination the day you arrive, this is totally possible with some careful planning.
If you’re flying into Liberia, the easiest is to head to the beach. Places like Tamarindo, Playa Flamingo, and Playa Hermosa are only 30 minutes to about an hour away. If you would rather start inland and end at the beach, La Fortuna is about 2.5 hours and Monteverde is 3 hours.
Keep in mind that we don’t recommend driving between destinations after dark because of road and weather conditions. The sun sets consistently around 6:00 p.m. in Costa Rica, so try to plan your driving accordingly. For more tips on driving, read our post Driving in Costa Rica: What to Know Before You Go.
Choosing Destinations for Your Family Vacation to Costa Rica
Costa Rica has a lot to offer and it can be hard to narrow down where you want to go. A good starting point is our Destination Guide. This gives a brief overview of all the destinations we cover on our website (almost 30 so far). You’ll get a feel for each town and its top activities, along with a link to a more detailed article.
Other than drive times, it is important to consider if a destination is a good option with kids specifically. Costa Rica is well developed for tourism in general, but some areas are better than others when traveling with kids. The most popular destinations tend to have more kid-friendly hotels and restaurants, as well as activities that are good for families.
Family-Friendly Destinations in Costa Rica
Some destinations that we always find ourselves recommending to families include the following.
La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano
Most kids think Arenal Volcano is super cool, so this alone makes it worth a stop. Arenal is a huge, conical-shaped volcano that forms the backdrop of the small town of La Fortuna. Not only does it have the volcano, but it also has tons of other activities for kids. Hanging bridges, zip lining, hikes along the old lava flows, easy rainforest walks, river float trips, water parks, and many kinds of wildlife tours are just some of the many things to do for families. La Fortuna also has a good selection of restaurants, many with kids’ menus.
Read our post La Fortuna: What to Expect from Costa Rica’s Most Popular Destination for more info.
Monteverde is another popular destination that has a lot of choices for families. Some fun things to do with kids include cloud forest hikes, hanging bridges, a tram ride, night walks to see wildlife, butterfly exhibits, a bat exhibit, reptile exhibits, and family-oriented coffee and chocolate tours. Read our post Monteverde: A Forest in the Clouds for more information.
Manuel Antonio is one of Costa Rica’s most popular destinations. It has thick rainforest filled with wildlife like monkeys and sloths. Manuel Antonio is a great place for families because everything is located in one small geographic area near the beach. It also has tons of choices for restaurants and hotels. Read our post Manuel Antonio Trip Planning for additional details.
Samara is in the Guanacaste region on the northern Pacific coast. It’s smaller than Manuel Antonio, but has a nice downtown right along the beach with plenty of amenities. Playa Samara is a calmer cove so a great option for swimming with kids. Read our post Samara: Guanacaste’s Most Overlooked Beach Town for more information.
North of Samara, Tamarindo is a busier beach town with tons of amenities. You can stay near the center of town and be within walking distance or a short drive to almost everything. There’s even a mini-golf course in town. The beach in Tamarindo is best for surfing, but it’s close to other beaches with calmer water. Read our post Tamarindo: Where Paradise Meets Convenience for more details.
In northern Guanacaste is Playa Hermosa. This is a quieter town with a scenic beach that is excellent for swimming. The small community has a handful of good restaurants and is close to Playas del Coco, with more options. It’s a good place to spend 2-3 nights. Read our post Playa Hermosa (Guanacaste): Costa Rica’s Northern Beauty for more information.
There are also plenty of lesser-known towns if your family prefers off-the-beaten path travel. But this list has places that will appeal to most families.
Read our post Best Beaches for Families in Costa Rica for some more ideas.
Choosing Hotels or Vacation Rentals for Your Family Vacation to Costa Rica
Once you have your flights booked and itinerary finalized, you can move onto reserving your hotels. The main things to be aware of here are location and amenities.
We have always found that being centrally located can make for an easier trip. In some beach towns in Costa Rica, you can be within walking distance to the sand. In many places, however, the beach is harder to get to, requiring a steep walk or short drive.
Similarly, some inland destinations, like La Fortuna, are more spread out. Hotels may be on one end of town, while the majority of activities and attractions are on the other.
So be sure that you understand each town’s layout before deciding on a specific hotel or vacation rental. You can find some great deals at places well outside town, but it may not be worth it if you have to drive a half-hour or more each way to get to and from your hotel.
Like anywhere in the world, many hotels in Costa Rica have pools, which almost every family is looking for. Some hotels have family pools, with fun slides or water features. If you have young kids, you may be able to find a pool with a nice shallow end where they can splash around.
Some hotels also have things like a playground (or one nearby), so if you have little kids, this can be worth exploring.
In terms of the types of accommodations available, many hotels in Costa Rica have villas/bungalows. These are completely standalone spaces so can give families a lot of privacy. Often you can find them with more than one bedroom to provide separate spaces for adults and children, which is always a bonus!
Most hotels in Costa Rica, especially nicer ones, do not have rooms with kitchens. If you want a kitchen, your best option is probably to get a vacation rental. All the major destinations in Costa Rica, and many small towns as well, have listings on Airbnb and VRBO.
Choosing and Scheduling Activities for Your Family Trip to Costa Rica
You know your kids best, so reading through different activity options will give you a good idea of which activities will work for your family. Costa Rica is an extremely family-friendly destination, so you should have no trouble finding things to fill each day.
For how to schedule activities, we have found from helping people that one to two a day works well for most families. Any more than that will be rushed, unless your family is very active and doesn’t mind going from one thing to the next right away.
Although many parents fear being overbooked by reserving things in advance, we have found that it helps people get organized if they have a solid plan for how each day will go. Usually that means making reservations in advance for the one or two daily activities, with free time in between.
It can be very difficult in Costa Rica to book things last minute. So having an itinerary in place with what you will be doing each day and what time it will start and end can make the trip go a lot smoother. With pre-planning, you also won’t be spending your precious evenings figuring out what will happen the next day. We all know that getting the kids to eat, bathe, and go to bed is challenging enough!
Transportation Options for Families
For most families, renting a car is the best way to get around. With at least four people, it’s usually the most affordable too. Having a car is also nice because it gives a lot of flexibility to make stops and go at your own pace. With kids, especially, pulling over to take in a view or check out a waterfall can be key to keeping everyone happy during a long drive.
Tip: If you’re a family of four, a regular mid-size SUV should give you enough space for yourselves and your luggage. An SUV will give you higher clearance if you’re visiting anywhere with dirt roads.
With a family of five, we usually recommend a seven-passenger SUV. A standard five passenger probably wouldn’t have enough room for your luggage. So going the next size up is usually best.
You won’t need 4×4 for many destinations in Costa Rica unless you plan on exploring. It can be nice to have, though, because it lets you go on smaller dirt roads that often lead to remote beaches or trails. For a list of places where you need four-by-four, see the FAQs section of our Rental Car Discount page.
If you decide to rent a car, you can check pricing and availability for your dates on our Rental Car Discount page. Our readers get 10% off through Adobe Rent a Car plus extras like free car seats for kids, a complimentary second driver, and emergency cell phone.
Shuttles are also a great way to get around the country if you’d rather not drive. They can be very affordable too.
Shared shuttles go between the bigger destinations and cost around $45-60 per person per trip. Younger kids are usually half-price. These shuttles take a little longer because they make stops to pick up and drop off other passengers. They are a good option if your family has three or fewer people.
For four or more people, private shuttles are usually less expensive or about the same price. And they are a lot more convenient and direct. They will pick you up at a time you choose and make quick stops along the way for you as part of the service. You’ll also get to chat with the van driver, who can teach you some interesting facts about his or her home country.
If you need a shuttle, we’d be happy to help book you with one of the reliable companies that we work with. Check out our Private Shuttle Bookings page for pricing and to get more info.
Car seats are required for children 12 and under up to 57 inches/145 cm or 79 pounds/36 kg. Rental car companies offer them (sometimes free, sometimes for an additional charge). You can request them when you book a shuttle van transfer as well, for no charge.
For lots more information, read our separate post Car Seats in Costa Rica.
Once you have your itinerary set and all your bookings made, all that is left to do is dream and pack!
Despite its small size, Costa Rica has several different microclimates so it’s important to pack for each region you’ll be visiting. In Monteverde, for example, temperatures can be quite cool (into the 60s F/15-18 ˚C at night), while most beach towns are hot and steamy. You also may need some special gear for visiting remote destinations, like a flashlight or covers to waterproof your luggage.
For a detailed packing list that will get you ready no matter where you are visiting, refer to our post, Packing for Costa Rica: The Essentials.
If you will be traveling with a baby, there’s a lot to know about Costa Rica. Most hotels do not have bathtubs, for example, so that can be hard with little ones. We have two articles that should help. Our post, Traveling with a Baby in Costa Rica, will let you know what to expect. And our post Packing List for Traveling with a Baby in Costa Rica will help you sort out what to bring and what you can leave at home.
We hope this post has helped you with the planning for your family vacation to Costa Rica. Although organizing a big trip can be overwhelming, these steps should get you on your way to having a stress-free vacation with the kids.
Last Updated: September 28, 2020
Looking for more information to plan your family vacation to Costa Rica? Check out these posts:
Family Travel: Why Costa Rica Is the Perfect Destination – Learn what makes Costa Rica the perfect first international trip with kids.
Rental Car Discount: For families, renting a car is usually the most affordable and practical way to get around. Check out our discount to save at least 10% and get free car seats and other perks.
La Paz Waterfall Gardens: Wildlife Up Close – A fun day trip from San Jose is La Paz Waterfall Gardens. The many wildlife exhibits and lush gardens here make for a perfect day, both for kids and adults.