Shuttles in Costa Rica: How They Work and When to Use Them

Last Updated: June 12, 2024

Transportation is 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 drive on your own. Our Driving in Costa Rica post may help convince you one way or the other. But if you have already decided you’d rather not drive, this post is for you. Here, we’ll explain all you need to know about shuttles, the difference between private and shared shuttles, and how to book the right ones.

Shuttles in Costa Rica

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 
  • You have a group larger than 5 (most rental cars hold only 5 passengers comfortably with luggage). Note that 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.

General Information

In Costa Rica, shuttle vans are an extremely popular way to get around. When you visit, you’ll see countless shuttle vans at the airport and along highways or 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 well developed.

Types of Shuttles

There are two types of shuttle options 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 licensed by the government (both vans and drivers require special permits).

Shuttle vans can hold 5-16 passengers, including space for luggage. Drivers usually speak at least basic English and some are fluent.

Differences Between Shared & Private Shuttles

Here are the main differences between shared and private shuttles.

Who’s in the Van?

Shared shuttles of course have other passengers onboard, while private ones carry only you and your traveling party.

Pickup 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 will pick you up at a custom time and place, including at hotels or vacation rentals/Airbnbs.

Airport Pickup

Because shared shuttles run on a set schedule, your flight has to get in early enough to make the designated time(s).

Some shared shuttles cannot do pickups at the airport so you have to take a taxi to the nearest pickup location (usually a nearby hotel or restaurant).

Private shuttles will 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 longer because they make stops to pick up and drop off other passengers. Our friends once took a shared shuttle from San Jose to La Fortuna. The ride was estimated at 3.5 hours. Instead, it took them close to 5 hours!

The reason was that they were picked up first and dropped off last because of their specific hotel locations. They had to sit and wait while the van visited eight other hotels before they finally got to where they needed to go. 

Private vans are direct so take about the same amount of time as if you drove yourself. Compared to the case above, a private shuttle from San Jose to La Fortuna would take about 2.5 hours (not 5!). 

Time for Stops

Shared shuttles include a short stop (15 minutes) to use the restroom or eat a quick snack. These are at set locations, like at a large restaurant/rest stop along the highway.

Most private shuttles include up to one hour to stop at a restaurant, buy groceries, take pictures, etc. The driver will help you decide where to stop based on their experience with the route. 

Luggage & Pets

With shared shuttles, you are limited to one carry-on and one suitcase 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).

If you are traveling with a pet, a private shuttle will probably accommodate you, but a shared shuttle will not.  

Car Seats

Both shared and private shuttles can provide child car seats and booster seats free of charge. They just need to be requested in advance.

Keep in mind that the quality of car seats can vary greatly and you may not be familiar with the brands. Read our full article for more about Car Seats in Costa Rica.

If you are worried, we recommend bringing your own car seat or using something like a portable Rider Safe Vest. We have these for our kids and love them. They fold up into a small pouch and are easy to use.    

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

Shared shuttles generally cost less at first glance. Prices range from about $50-75 per person, depending on the exact route. Children 12 and under are half price.

Shared rides can be a great deal for smaller groups (1-3 travelers). They can add up, however, if you have a larger group. We usually recommend private shuttles for groups of four or more because the price is usually almost the same or lower than shared options. 

Private shuttle prices depend on the distance you are traveling and how common the route is. For a quick estimate, expect to pay around $80-100 per hour of driving time (total, not per person). So if your destination is 2.5 hours away, $200-250 is a rough estimate for the cost. This is very general but will give you an idea.  

To see prices for routes all around Costa Rica, visit our Shuttle Transfers Page

Here’s a quick comparison for a shuttle route between SJO Airport and La Fortuna

Shared Shuttle: $65 per adult, $32 per child. Leaves only at 8:00 a.m.

Private Shuttle: $213 (up to 8 passengers). Leaves at a custom time based on your flight’s arrival.

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/teens, the private shuttle ends up being the better option. It is also more convenient since the pickup time is flexible.

Shared Interbus Shuttle in Costa Rica
Loading into an Interbus shared shuttle

Booking Your Shuttles

Private Shuttles

Once you know what shuttles you need, it’s time to pick the right companies. This is where we can help.

We’ve booked thousands of shuttle trips over our 9+ years as a travel agency. In the process, we’ve learned who to trust for different routes. 

If you need private shuttles, visit our Shuttle Transfers Booking page. Simply put in your destinations and click search. You’ll see applicable routes with pricing and can place an order quickly. 

Popular Shuttle Routes

Shared Shuttles

We don’t currently book shared shuttles, but Interbus is a good option, if their schedules work for you.  

When to Book & Holiday Travel

With either type of shuttle, we recommend booking several weeks in advance, if possible. 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).

Conclusion

We hope that this post has helped you figure out how shuttles work in Costa Rica. 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 their local knowledge with you.

Last Updated: June 12, 2024

Still have questions about taking a private or shared shuttle in Costa Rica? Leave us a comment below.

Looking for more info to help plan your trip? Check out these articles:

Rental Car Discount – If you think renting a car is a better fit, check out our Rental Car Discount to save 10% or more and get a free second driver, car seats, and other extras.

Best Hotels near SJO Airport – Instead of staying at a bland chain hotel, spend your first or last nights at a more authentic and comfortable option. 

Packing for Costa Rica: The Essentials – With all the different climates, you’ll need to be prepared. Shorts one day and raincoats the next!  

Using ATMs & Credit Cards in Costa Rica – Use these tips to limit the amount of cash you carry and avoid horrible exchange rates. 

 

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