Renting a Car in Costa Rica: Clearing Up the Confusion

If you’ve looked into renting a car for your trip to Costa Rica, you may be uneasy about the details. Maybe you’re unsure about the process of renting. Maybe you’re confused about the prices. Or maybe now you’re questioning your quote after hearing stories of getting charged more money upon arrival. If this sounds like you, this article has the answers.

 

Renting a Car in Costa Rica: Clearing up the Confusion

 

First, don’t be discouraged. Renting a car doesn’t have to be stressful and is a great way to explore Costa Rica. In our years living in Costa Rica, we have rented dozens of times from at least 5 different rental car companies. We also deal with rental car agencies on a daily basis for our clients and know what to watch for. Below we’ll give you the latest information about renting a car in Costa Rica and provide the resources you need to check your quote or get a new one (with a discount).

Rental Car Agencies in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has more than 30 different rental car agencies (and probably upwards of 50 if you include the very small ones). Some of them are global corporations that you might recognize like Alamo, Enterprise, Eurocar, and Hertz. Others are quite small and may have names like Mango J’s Car Rentals. The point is, with all this competition, there is a lot to sort through.

Going with a bigger company has its advantages. These agencies usually have multiple locations around Costa Rica and more support staff. They also tend to have newer cars in better condition. Some of the discount or smaller agencies may use older models that are less reliable. 

IMPORTANT: If you are looking at prices for one of the bigger companies, make sure to search for their Costa Rica website if they have one. The quotes that come from big corporate websites are often lacking Costa Rica-specific charges like insurance (more info below). Same goes for third-party websites like Priceline, Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, and Holiday Autos. Their rates may seem outstanding but are rarely accurate.

The company with one of the largest fleets in Costa Rica surprisingly is not a global giant. It is a Costa Rican company called Adobe Rent a Car. This is who we recommend all the time because of their transparency and customer service. We also offer a great discount through them for our readers. Adobe has 16 offices around the country and all new cars in their fleet. We’ll talk more about some benefits of them throughout this article.

Where Can You Rent a Car in Costa Rica?

Most of the rental car companies have main offices near the San Jose (SJO) or Liberia (LIR) airports. The larger companies have additional field offices around the country in popular destinations. It is possible to rent in one office location and drop off at another. You just have to pay a fee, which varies by company and pickup and drop off location. Some people also just shuttle between destinations and rent a car locally for shorter periods during their trip.

Airport Pickup

If you are picking up at one of the international airports, it is important to note that none of the rental car agencies have actual offices there. Instead, they have desks or representatives that will meet you. These employees will direct you to their complimentary shuttle van, which will drive you 5-10 minutes down the road to their actual office. These vans can hold your entire traveling party, with luggage. Some companies charge an airport pickup fee (more on this below).

 

Airport Pick up for Rental Cars in Costa Rica
Typical airport shuttle van

 

Process of Renting a Car in Costa Rica – What’s Required

To rent a car in Costa Rica, you will need the following:

1.) A Valid Driver’s License – Most travelers can use their driver’s license from their home country to drive in Costa Rica. But be sure to check with the rental car company for their specific requirements. Some companies require you to have had a license in your home country for at least two years. You may need an international driver’s license if your license is in an alphabet other than the Roman alphabet (e.g., Mandarin).

2.) Passport with a Valid Immigration Stamp – A current passport with a valid entry stamp is required. You’ll receive this stamp at the immigration desk when you enter the country and it is normally valid for 90 days.

3.) Minimum Age – Drivers must be a certain age to rent a car. This varies by company. Some have strict policies and others charge extra per day for young drivers. Here are some examples:

  • Adobe Rent a Car – Minimum age 23
  • Alamo, Budget, Enterprise, Hertz – Minimum age 21 (between ages 21-24, an additional fee applies)
  • Economy and Poas Rent a Car – Minimum age 18 (between ages 18-20, an additional fee applies)
  • Toyota Rent a Car – Minimum age 21

4.) Credit Card – You also will need a credit card (in the driver’s name) to put down a deposit. A few companies will accept a debit card as well, if it is a major card company (Visa, Master Card, etc.). Deposits vary but are typically around $1,000-$2,500. This hold is released when you return the car but could take several days or up to a week to process.

How Much Should You Expect to Pay?

Prices for rental cars fluctuate greatly by time of year, type of car, the company, and supply and demand. In general, prices are higher during peak travel months when inventories are lower (December to April, and also July). Be sure to rent several months in advance when visiting during the busiest times (especially Christmas, New Years, and Easter Week) because cars do sell out. On the other hand, prices in the low season can be very appealing, especially in September or October when tourism is at its slowest. Here is some general information about what you can expect to pay.

Estimated Cost of Renting a Car in Costa Rica
   High Season 4×2 Sedan $250 to $450 per week
   High Season 4×4 SUV $650 to $850 per week
   Low Season 4×2 Sedan $200 to $300 per week
   Low Season 4×4 SUV $300 to $650 per week

 

These prices are general estimates to give you an idea. They include the basic insurance that is mandatory (more on this below). If you’re seeing prices that are drastically lower, keep reading to find out why.

Rental Prices & Insurance – WHY IS IT SO CONFUSING?

When getting a quote for a rental car in Costa Rica, you will see huge differences in price from one website to the next. The biggest reason there is so much confusion is insurance. A certain level of insurance coverage is required by Costa Rican law and not all companies or websites include this cost in their quote. In fact, many of them hide it!  

According to ACAR (the Costa Rica Car Rental Association), most online travel booking sites rarely include the mandatory insurance.

“For pricing to appear competitive, often fees, taxes and surcharges are buried in small print or dismissed in a vague statement.” –ACAR

Adding up to as much as $25 per day, this mandatory insurance can increase the overall price of your rental car by hundreds of dollars. When you arrive in the country and suddenly find out that your quote did not have this, you have two choices: waste your precious time trying to find another rental car agency or pay the extra money and drive away with a bad start to your vacation.

 

Watch out for the fine print on rental car contracts!
Beware of the fine print!

 

The above example is one of the biggest reasons that we advise our readers and clients to use Adobe Rent a Car. Like we mentioned above, this company is completely transparent with their quote. They include all charges, including mandatory insurance, right from the beginning. Additionally, we offer a discount of 10-20% off their base prices, which makes them a great value compared to competitors.

What to Look for on Your Rental Car Quote

Base Price and Required Insurance

Regardless of the company, every rental car quote for Costa Rica should have the following three items. The first two are fixed/required charges and the third may be avoided if you can meet the requirements. If any of these charges are left off your quote, you should look further at the fine print. They WILL charge you for them when you arrive.  

1.) Car Base Price – This is the daily price for the car itself, before any insurance or add-ons. It typically ranges from as little as $1 per day to as much as $75+ per day. This is always included so don’t fret over this one.

2.) Liability Insurance – This is the third-party liability insurance that is required in Costa Rica that we talked about above. It covers damage you cause to third parties and their property. Coverage is limited and there is often a deductible so be sure to check the specifics with the company you are using.

This is the most common insurance that is not included in rental car quotes. It can add hundreds of dollars to your quote. The price varies depending on what type of car you are renting but typically ranges from $12 to $25 per day. Usually the larger the vehicle, the more expensive it is. Depending on the agency, this insurance might also be called:

  • Liability Protection (LP)
  • Third Party Insurance (TPI)
  • Third Party Liability (TPL)
  • Supplemental Liability Insurance (SLI)
  • Additional Liability Insurance (ALI)

3.) Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) or Loss Damage Waiver (LDW) – This is not an actual insurance but is a waiver of financial responsibility for damage to or theft of the rental car. So basically it covers damage to the rental car itself if you’re in an accident or the car is stolen. It has certain coverage restrictions (often does not cover vandalism, towing charges, etc.) and usually has a deductible.

CDW or LDW is required by all rental agencies but often can be declined if you show your own coverage. People with major credit cards often have this benefit through their card agreement. Visa, for example, provides CDW coverage. To decline, you will need to show proof of your own coverage through a letter from your credit card company. This is something that can be done with a quick phone call. They have a form letter that they usually can email to you. Most rental car companies require that the letter have the name and the credit card information of the primary driver.

Be aware that your credit card agreement may contain restrictions or caveats (e.g., definitions of major roads and “off-roading,” type of vehicles that are covered, time limits to the rental period). These special terms may make filing a claim more complicated. CDW/LDW is typically around $5-$15/day if you choose to get it through the rental car company.

Optional Insurance

Just like with cars you have rented in your home country, there is always some type of higher coverage you can purchase. Considered something of a full or premium coverage, this insurance typically gets rid of the deductibles for third-party liability and CDW/LDW. It may also increase coverage limits to a high dollar amount.

People often ask us if they should pay for this. The truth is, it is a very personal decision and one you have to make on your own. Many people do opt for the extra coverage for peace of mind, while just as many go without. The price for this insurance ranges from around $13-21 per day, so it can add up. Depending on the agency, it may be called Extended Protection, Super Protection, Deductible Protection, Limited Loss Waiver, or something else.

Here’s a quote that includes all of the necessary options:

 

What to look for on a rental car quote in Costa Rica

 

Other Things to Watch Out for on Your Quote

Big Deposits and Credit Card Holds

Almost all rental car agencies will put a hold on your credit card. The amount depends on the type of car but normally ranges from $1,000-$2,500 (Adobe’s is $1,000-$1,500). We first learned about giant deposits being charged when we met a nice couple visiting Costa Rica for the first time. They told us they were having a great time aside from getting their rental car at the airport. They used a small company (unknown to us), and when filling out the paperwork, were told the deposit was $5,000! This couple was planning to use that credit card for purchases during their trip, so a hold like that was devastating. They eventually figured out a solution, but it took several hours and some scrambling. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it to their first destination that night because of the time they had wasted.  

Extra Charges and Hidden Fees

Sometimes the price of your rental car includes the insurances listed above and seems like a fair deal. However, once the rental car agency starts adding on charges (sometimes hidden), your price keeps going up. Keep an eye out for these extra charges that can really hurt your wallet.

Airport Fees

Some companies charge up to 13% of the total price for this fee. So a $500 rental (base price plus insurance) can become $565. Note that most companies don’t charge an airport fee. The ones that we know of that do are Alamo and Enterprise.

Environmental Fees

These are not very common and usually less than $1/day but add up on longer rentals.

License Plate Fee

We have seen this one on Alamo and Enterprise as well. They were charging $1.50 per day for this.

Mileage (Distance)

Most rental car companies have unlimited mileage but at least one that we know of, Hertz, has mileage restrictions and related charges for shorter rentals of 1-2 days.

Pick up/Drop-off Fees

These fees are normal, if you are picking up at one location and dropping off at another. They can be as little as $20 or upwards of $100 (for a cross-country journey). Just make sure that they are included in your quote from the beginning and aren’t exuberant. Some companies, like Adobe, have a list of the specific fees on their website.

Local Delivery

Some companies may charge you if you request car delivery to your hotel. Others, like Adobe, will deliver to hotels or rentals within a certain range of their office for free.

Optional Add-ons

Some add-ons are not so scary and will actually help you during your trip. Most companies offer the same options. This is one area where being a Two Weeks in Costa Rica reader really can be beneficial. Not only do we offer the rental car discount of 10-20% mentioned above, but many of these add-ons are either discounted or free when you book through our site.

Extra Driver

Having an extra person be able to drive can be really nice, especially on long hauls. Most companies charge around $10-$13/day for this. Our readers get 1 extra driver (2 drivers total) free of charge through Adobe.  

GPS

GPS works fairly well around Costa Rica, but if you’ve ever had one, you know that they sometimes can take a while to get the hang of. Be patient setting your course or ask the rental car associate to help you before heading down the road. Ten minutes of technical stuff can save you hours if you get lost. GPS devices range from $12-$15/day for most companies. These are $6/day when rented through our link.

WiFi

This is not offered by all companies but is really cool. It’s a small portable stick that works off the local cell phone towers (like your phone does) and makes a hotspot in the car. Wifi ranges from $10-$15 per day. This is great for navigation. You can download the Waze App on your phone, which works really well here, or follow along on Google Maps (fairly accurate but can take you down some backroads). It is also beneficial if you have Internet junkies in your family or someone who needs to check in with work (hopefully not!).

Cell Phone

A handful of companies offer cell phone rentals for around $10/day. When you rent through our link, a cell phone can be requested, free of charge. These phones are nothing fancy. They’re a basic track phone that you can use if you need to call a local number or the rental agency. These are loaded up with a few hours’ worth of minutes and you can add more at most supermarkets.

Car Seats for Kids

These are an important add-on and are required in Costa Rica for children 12 and under (up to 57 inches/145 cm or 79 pounds/36 kg). Our post Traveling with a Baby in Costa Rica has more on the specific requirements.

Most rental car companies have infant bucket seats, convertible seats, boosters with a back, and backless boosters for older kids. Some of the smaller, budget companies may not have all these options so be sure to ask if you’re not sure what they are offering you. If you are uncomfortable with unfamiliar brands (the types offered vary), we suggest bringing your own.

Our readers receive free car seats when booking through our discount link with Adobe. Other companies charge around $5-$10 per day for these.

 

Renting a Car in Costa Rica and Car Seats
Examples of the car seat types available through Adobe

 

Surf Racks

If you’re coming to Costa Rica with your surfboard, you’ll want to make sure you have the proper vehicle to carry it. Surfboard racks can be requested from many agencies. If you’re using our Adobe link, you can request one free of charge. Just be sure to communicate with the reservations department ahead of time since these are limited and only fit certain car models.

Conclusion

Costa Rica’s car rental industry is indeed complex. But if you know what to look for, you can cut through the confusion. We can’t emphasize enough how important it is to pick a reputable company with a strong track record. Double check your quote, read the fine print, and make sure you understand what’s going to happen (and what you’ll be charged for) when you arrive.

If you need a quote or want to switch companies, we highly recommend Adobe Rent a Car. We’ve used them ourselves, for friends and family, and have had thousands of readers and clients use them as well—all with excellent feedback. They lay it all out for you beforehand and have great customer service if you have questions. When renting through Adobe, be sure to use our discount to take advantage of those savings and benefits that we mentioned above.

And most of all, leave the rental car confusion behind and enjoy Costa Rica!  

 

Adobe banner 3Book through our Adobe Link to get the following benefits:

  • 10-20% discount on car prices
  • Discounted GPS (only $6/day)
  • Free second driver
  • Free delivery to hotels nearby
  • Free cell phone
  • Free car seats for kids
  • Free surf racks
  • Free cooler
  • Awesome customer service!

 

This article is based on our knowledge of the rental car industry as a travel agency and website. It is only intended to be a resource for what to look for when getting a rental car quote in Costa Rica. We are not experts on insurance. If you are unsure about any of the coverages and limitations with the company you are booking through, we recommend doing your own due diligence and contacting them directly.

Have a question about renting a car in Costa Rica? Post your comment below. (Subscribers, click here to post your comment online.)

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