Transportation is usually one of the most stressful parts of a planning a trip to Costa Rica. There is so much conflicting information about road conditions, safety, and if you should chance driving on your own. Our Driving in Costa Rica post may help convince you one way or the other. But if you have already decided that you’d rather not drive, this post is for you. Here, we will explain when you may want to use shuttles, the difference between private and shared shuttles, and how we can help you book the right ones.
When to Use Shuttles
You may be considering a shuttle if:
- You’re uncomfortable driving or taking the bus in a foreign country
- You arrive late and don’t want to drive at night
- You want to sit back and enjoy the beautiful scenery on the way to your destination
- You have a group larger than 5 (most rental cars hold only 5 passengers comfortably with luggage). You can always rent a car locally once you get to your destination and unload your bags. See our Rental Car Discount if you plan to rent a car.
In Costa Rica, shuttle van transfers are an extremely popular way to get around. When you visit, you are bound to see countless numbers of these vans at the airport and zipping along highways or on backroads. Compared to many other developing countries, Costa Rica’s shuttle industry is very professional and the service is reliable. Tourism is the country’s number one source of revenue so the industry is very developed.
Types of Shuttles
There are two types of shuttle options available in Costa Rica: private and shared. With either, you will be riding in a small-to-medium sized van that is air conditioned, insured, and properly licensed by the government (both vans and drivers require special permits). Shuttle vans typically hold between 5 and 14 passengers, including space for luggage. The drivers usually speak at least basic English and some are fluent.
Main Differences Between Shared and Private Shuttles
Here are the main differences between shared and private shuttles.
Number of People
Shared shuttles have other passengers onboard, while private ones carry only you and your traveling party.
Pick up Time and Location
Shared shuttles run on a set schedule and pick up only at certain places, mostly hotels (i.e., hotel-to-hotel service). Private shuttles, on the other hand, will pick you up at a custom time and place, including vacation rentals.
Because shared shuttles run on a set schedule, your flight has to get in early enough to make the designated time(s). Most shared shuttles cannot do pick-ups at the airport so you have to take a taxi to the nearest pick up location.
Private shuttles can pick you up right at the airport when your flight arrives. The driver will be waiting outside the airport door holding a sign with your name on it.
Length of Trip
Shared shuttles take a bit longer because they have to make stops to pick up and drop off other passengers. We once had friends take a shared shuttle from San Jose to La Fortuna. The ride was estimated to take about 3.5 hours. Instead, it ended up taking close to 5 hours! The reason was that they were picked up first and dropped off last. Their San Jose hotel was located on the outskirts of the downtown and their La Fortuna lodge was also far from town, towards Lake Arenal. They had to sit and wait while the van loaded and unloaded passengers from about eight other hotels before they finally got to where they needed to go. The reverse could also happen of course, making your trip the shortest.
Private vans are direct so take about the same amount of time as if you drove yourself.
Time for Stops
Shared shuttles include a short stop to use the restroom or eat a quick snack. Most private shuttles include an hour for time to stop along the way (if desired) to see a quick attraction, grab a bite to eat, stop at the grocery store, etc.
With shared shuttles, you are limited to one carry-on and one piece of luggage per person. Surfboards and other bulky items are not allowed.
Private shuttles have enough room for several pieces of luggage per person (within reason, of course).
Both shared and private shuttles can provide car seats and booster seats free of charge. They just need to be requested in advance.
A Mini Tour
Many private shuttle drivers will break up the trip with some casual conversation about Costa Rica and maybe point out something cool along the way. We have heard back from clients who have had the driver stop for them to see a sloth in a tree! Shared shuttles do not include this.
Cost Comparison Between Shared and Private Shuttles
A big deciding factor for everyone is cost. Of the two options, shared shuttles generally cost less at first glance. They typically range from about $45-65 per person, depending on the exact connection. Children 12 years and younger are half price with most companies. Shared rides can be a great deal for a lot of people. They can add up, however, if you have a larger family or group. We usually recommend private shuttles for a family of four or larger because the price is the same or even lower, depending on the ages of the children.
Private shuttle prices vary widely depending on the distance you are traveling and how common the route is. To give you a general idea, expect to pay around $175-$200 (total, not per person) to get somewhere that is 2-3 hours away. For an accurate list of private shuttle rates, visit our Private Shuttle Van Transfers page. If you scroll towards the bottom, you’ll see a list of some popular routes with pricing.
Here’s a quick comparison for a shuttle route between SJO Airport and La Fortuna:
Shared Shuttle: $54 per person. Leaves only at 8:00 a.m. or 3:00 p.m.
Private Shuttle: $174 (up to 5 passengers). Leaves at a custom time.
As you can see from this example, the shared option is much more affordable if you are an individual or small group, but the schedule needs to work for you. If you are a group of 4 or more adults or teens, the private shuttle ends up being the more affordable option. It is also more convenient since the pick-up time is flexible.
Booking Your Shuttles
Once you have decided what shuttles you need, it’s time to pick the right companies. You don’t want to be the person chugging along the highway in a shuttle van that is billowing black smoke! This is where we can help. We’ve guided many people over the years with their shuttle needs. In the process, we’ve learned who to trust for different routes. The drivers and companies we use are reliable and professional, and will pick you up at the requested time. Their vans are modern and comfortable.
If you need a private shuttle, just go to our Private Shuttle Van Transfers page. We have a form where you can contact us and let us know your needs. If you are looking for help with shared shuttles, check out our Discounts Page. We have some information there about how we can save you 10% on shared shuttles through Interbus.
With either type of shuttle, we recommend booking several weeks in advance. This is especially important if you are traveling near holidays like Christmas, New Year’s, or Easter Week (Semana Santa). At those times, transportation options in Costa Rica get very booked up and the best companies are sometimes unavailable (this is true with rental cars too). Prices for shuttle vans don’t fluctuate, so you are better off reserving your spot well ahead of time.
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We hope that this post has helped you figure out how shuttles work in Costa Rica and what types you’ll need for your upcoming trip. In our opinion, using shuttles is the most convenient way to get around if you don’t want to drive. As a bonus, the van drivers are usually very friendly and will sometimes share some of their local knowledge with you.
Still have questions about taking a private or shared shuttle in Costa Rica? Leave us a comment below. (Email subscribers, click here to post your comment online.)
Looking for more help planning your Costa Rica transportation? These articles might help:
- Driving in Costa Rica: What to Know Before You Go – If you are still on the fence about renting a car, read this for basic driving info.
- Getting to Tortuguero – Don’t be scared into a hotel package that includes transportation. If you want to get to Tortugero on your own, this article will tell you how.
- Road Conditions of Specific Routes in Costa Rica – Curious about the roads? Here’s our report on the most popular routes.
- Taking the Puntarenas-Paquera Ferry – If you are heading to the Nicoya Peninsula from San Jose or the Central Pacific Coast, consider crossing the Gulf on this ferry to save time.
- Rental Car Discount – If you think renting a car is a better fit for you, check out our Rental Car Discount to save 10% or more and get a free second driver and other extras.