I just got back from Costa Rica a few weeks ago and there were many things I wanted to share about my experience. However there was one component that was most pressing. It’s in regards to renting a car in Costa Rica. From my experience and first hand observations, I wanted to inform travelers to consider not renting a car when visiting Costa Rica. This may sound like an overstatement and must make you wonder why I feel the need to say this or even suggest this? To better clarify, I came up with ten reasons you shouldn’t rent a car in Costa Rica.
This is the one topic that came up continuously on my trip to Costa Rica and what my travel companions said I must share with people.
We rented a car because we knew we would be exploring many areas and figured it was the most economic and easiest way to get around. Boy were we ever in for a surprise. Even right from the start there were unexpected issues.
10 REASONS YOU SHOULDN’T RENT A CAR IN COSTA RICA
1.There are hidden fees at car rental companies in Costa Rica.
Before heading to Costa Rica and planning on renting a car, I was aware that it was highly suggested to get the extra insurance when doing so. Thus, while booking my car rental through Expedia, I opted for the extra insurance, which was another $11.00/day. This was no big deal I thought. The price for the car rental was only $7.00 per day (which I thought had to be an error because it was so cheap), so when you add the extra insurance, it still only came to $18.00/day. I usually spend around $35.00/day for a car rental, therefore I thought the price was great and the extra sense of security would be worth it. However, when we got to the car rental place, that all changed.
They told us extra insurance or any insurance, for that matter, from a company in the USA did not cover for anything in Costa Rica. What? How is that even possible and why would they offer it then? This is one of the hidden fees that I feel is so wrong. They use this loop-hole to pressure you into buying extra insurance, through them, and propose that you also give a $500.00 flat fee, to cover anything, which is (btw) non-refundable. So much for the great deal I thought I was getting! This was supposed to be $50.00 (for the car rental)+$77.00 (added insurance)= $127.00. I knew that was too good to be true. It was.
After we said we didn’t want to cough up the non-refundable additional $500.00, he told us, then he would have to hold $2,500.00 on a credit card in case of damages. So basically, even their insurance covered nothing! That was on top of my extra insurance through Expedia and my extra insurance through them! It seemed completely ridiculous!
We ended up spending $408.00 for the week for all the added fees, GPS, hotspot, and extra insurance through them, and they held $2,500.00 which was released 48 hours after the car return. I really don’t understand how they can advertise such a cheap price on the internet, when it’s a total lie. This is even worse if you are a budget traveler. We saw four young backpacker guys renting a car at the same time as us. When they were explained all the hidden fees, especially the $2,500.00, they were flipping out. That was all of their money. They didn’t have a credit cards, only debit cards. This could absolutely ruin someone’s vacation if they weren’t aware of this and didn’t have the money. They ended up scrambling the $500.00 flat fee between them, but you could tell they were already upset about the unexpected spending that they were trying to avoid, and they were only there for less than an hour. $125.00 to a young backpacker is a lot of money. Welcome to Costa Rica!
2. Costa Rican drivers are very aggressive.
I’m not trying to say the locals (or Ticos as they are called in Costa Rica) are not nice people. They are just the opposite. Every Tico or Tica I met was warm and friendly. It’s just that their driving is very aggressive and there seems to be no road rules that people follow. Now I’ve driven in New York City and other extremely intense driving situations, but nothing compared to the chaos that is felt on a busy traffic street in San Jose or a dirt cliff road in San Raphael, Costa Rica. Actually, that isn’t necessarily true, India was way worse, but nobody rents a car in India. That would be considered suicide! Luckily my husband was the one driving and he is a much better driver than I, but he agreed that they were the worst drivers he has ever dealt with.
3. The road conditions in Costa Rica is very bad.
The road conditions in Costa Rica go from bad to worse, depending on the area. If you are in the city of San Jose, the traffic is nuts and the road construction and potholes in the street make for bad driving conditions, not to mention the way they drive. If you get out of the city and feel relieved that you got away from all the craziness, it is almost worse in the mountains, but in a different way, especially if you are afraid of heights, like me. Many of the roads are dirt and have huge rocks throughout and if its raining, turns into muddy conditions, that without 4-wheel drive vehicle, it would be almost impossible to drive through. Then, you add the cliff drops on both sides of the road, shared bridges and the constant passing of cars, its enough to give anyone a heart attack. If that’s not bad enough, there is also fog when you get to higher elevations that is so thick that you can’t see one foot in front of you? We experienced this near Monteverde and the Cloud Forest. This area is eerie, beautiful and almost mystical to witness, but driving in it is so scary.
4. The risk of car theft in Costa Rica is high.
Everyone told us over and over not to leave anything in our rental car because it will be stolen. We figured since we would be moving around a lot that we could keep all of our valuables in the trunk. “No way!” a Tico told us. “Everything will be stolen!” That was a huge inconvenience, especially when we were leaving one hotel, going on our day trip, and then checking into another hotel later that day. “Were we supposed to take our laptops and suitcases hiking with us?” It was awful. In certain situations we had to park and leave our stuff. We really had no other choice. We just took our money and passports with us and crossed our fingers. Fortunately, nothing was stolen, but the worry it would cause us, while we are trying to enjoy a nice hike through the amazing jungles of Costa Rica, kind of dulled our enthusiasm bit.
5. Driving in Costa Rica is so stressful.
For most people, when you are on vacation you like to relax and enjoy yourself. The thing with driving in Costa Rica is you are always feeling stressed, whether you are scared while driving, hoping not to get into a car accident or drive off a cliff, or you’re worrying about the car getting broken into. How is this a fun and relaxing vacation? It’s not. On our worst day of driving, we had been on a four-hour drive from Jaco to La Fortuna and we drove literally over a mountain. It was the scariest, most intense car ride I have ever experienced. Being in the fight or flight response mode for that long was overwhelmingly exhausting. Once we arrived and were relieved that it was over and we didn’t die, we all were mentally and emotionally drained. I had a migraine and none of us barely spoke at dinner, we felt traumatized. It was really that bad.
6. Driving in Costa Rica is time consuming.
Most likely when you go on a vacation you have only so much time. With that being said, would you want to spend most of your one or two-week, hard-earned vacation in a car, fearing for your life? Me neither. I think one of our biggest mistakes about Costa Rica is how far each area was to one another. On a map, locations may not appear to be too far from one another, but if add the road conditions, construction, and traffic, you will most likely double the time you were initially expecting your journey to take. I think the best way to explore Costa Rica is to choose one area, and not four. If you are really keen on seeing more than just one area, then booking a tour might be the best option. That way you can leave the driving to the bus driver, who is used to these conditions and you can just sit back and relax.
7. The chances of getting into a car accident is very high.
This one is an obvious one due to all that I mentioned above. The car rental place basically said to us that we were more likely to get into a car accident than not. Awesome! How is that for reassurance? I also had read about this and heard about this from others, which made me a little worried, but I thought it might be an exaggeration or at least I hoped it was. We hadn’t even gotten the rental car and we were mentally preparing ourselves that we would most likely get into a wreck. That seemed crazy to think like that, but we did. My head was spinning.
Thank goodness we didn’t get into a car accident, but there were numerous times that we came uncomfortably close to one. Each time it happened I thought, “Welp, here it is. They were right!”, but for some reason though, we narrowly escaped from any. I like to think it was because of my reiki energy protecting us and my husband likes to think it was because of his Nascar style driving skills. Maybe he is right? lol
8. Addresses in Costa Rica don’t always exist.
If you do, after reading my warning about renting a car in Costa Rica, decide to give it a go, make sure you get a GPS and even better, one with a hotspot. If you don’t, you will definitely get lost. Even with the GPS and hotspot that we opted for, there were some places that just didn’t have an address. Some places may have coordinates, but no physical address. This was extremely difficult for finding things. So, what I would also suggest is if you have a place you want to go to and they have no physical address, try dropping a pin in the area you think it would be. Then, drive to the pin and keep your eyes peeled for signs. It’s much better than driving through the mountains or jungle aimlessly. That just reminded me of another tip. If at all possible, don’t drive at night. It’s hard enough to drive during the day. Driving at night would just add to your anxiety and stress and if you are lost, it would be a total nightmare.
9. Parking in Costa Rica is sometimes a challenge.
Parking is another tricky thing to deal with because some areas have nowhere to park, while others have parking, but you aren’t really sure if it is safe. The last thing you want to do is come back from an activity and find your rental car is gone or broken into. There were many times that we skipped stopping to see something just because we didn’t know where it was safe to park. A total bummer.
10. They try to scam you out of more money at car rental places when you return your car.
I met a women while we were at a dentist office in San Jose, for our dental tourism story, who was from Alaska and this was her fifth visit to Costa Rica for dental treatment. We of course discussed the driving and how nuts it was! She learned as we did, that driving in Costa Rica was for the birds. When she comes to Costa Rica now, she refuses to rent a car. “The stress of it all is just too much!”, she said. She gave me a really good tip, that I’m so glad she did before we returned the rental car.
She told me that the car rental companies (not all, but many in Costa Rica) have a sneaky way of adding charges at the end. She said it happened to her, a few of her friends, as well as to people that she has met along the way through her travels in Costa Rica. She didn’t want it to happen to me.
What they do is check the car for damages after. That’s the usual part. It could be anything from a scratch to a dented bumper. They look, jot a few things down and then ask you to sign the release form without saying anything and while you are signing, another worker takes the car off the lot. What’s unusual is, then when you get back home you may find a charge for $100.00 for damage to a rental car, taken straight out of your deposit that you signed for. By that time, going through all the steps to remove it becomes such a hassle that most people don’t bother fighting it.
She suggested you stay with the worker while they are looking and when they ask you to sign, look at what they wrote, even if they say, “it’s just signing that you returned the car.” Also, if possible, to have someone stay in the car. That way they can’t use the excuse,“Well there was a scratch on the car but now its off the lot so you can’t see it” That’s what they did to her and they knew she was in a rush to get to the airport and didn’t have time to wait for them to go back and get it. How convenient.
They, in fact , tried to do this with us. I stayed in the car while my husband walked around with the worker, he wrote something down and asked my husband sign. My husband asked what he wrote. He wrote that there was a scratch and they were charging us $50.00 for it. When my husband asked,” Where?”, the guy couldn’t produce a scratch. He was pointing to an area of the car that just had some dirt on it.
Luckily, he knew we were on to his scam and didn’t charge us for it, but otherwise, I’m sure the same exact thing would have happened to us. Can you imagine how much extra income they make from this little scam that unknowing tourists fall for on a daily basis?
I hope this warning will help better inform those who are considering renting a car in Costa Rica. Even after reading this, you may still decide to rent a car, which is totally fine, but I’m convinced that learning these tips and words of caution beforehand would be very beneficial. I know I wish I knew what we were getting ourselves into in hindsight.
In closing, I want to express, although I would never rent a car again on any upcoming visits to Costa Rica, that doesn’t mean I didn’t love this country. It was a gorgeous country with so much biodiversity. This place is absolutely beautiful and offers so much in one small country. Costa Rica is literally a nature lovers dream. I will be going back in six month for my husband to finish dental work he is in the process of getting in Costa Rica. On this next trip, however, we will leave the driving to the Ticos. You live and learn.