Car Rentals in Costa Rica are sort of a mystery to many travelers. After living here for seven years and speaking with thousands of clients about their travels, most of whom feel ripped off by the car rental agencies, we’ve done a bunch of research to find out why the prices are so high, and which are the best rental car agencies to rent from in Costa Rica. But first a bit of background:
Why are car rentals so expensive in Costa Rica?
There are two main reasons:
1. The first reason is that the roads in Costa Rica are terrible, and many of the most popular areas such as Monteverde, Tamarindo, Santa Teresa, and the Osa Peninsula, have dirt/gravel roads that simply DESTROY cars. The country also attracts hundreds of thousands of surfers who drive like crazy in their small 4WD rental vehicles, and all thus all the maintenance has to be paid by everyone who rents here, making the prices very high. It’s normally $70-$90 PER DAY for the smallest 4WD cars, and if you want to go to many of the best places in Costa Rica, you’ll need one, such as a Terios or Bego.
2. Most of the big international brands are owned by many members of the same extended family, and so because it’s a small country, there’s not a lot of real competition. Of course that keeps the prices higher than if there was more fierce competition like there would be in larger countries.
What are the main problems to watch out for when renting a car in Costa Rica?
1. We hear again and again that the price quoted online isn’t the same when they arrive. What happens is that they will get a quote of say $45-$50 per day over the internet, and when they arrive, there will be a very high daily insurance rate that is NOT optional. We have found that for the most part, no matter which agency you get a quote from, once you arrive they will nearly all be the same, in the $70-$90/day, based on the season. That’s for the smallest 4WD car and it goes up from there.
2. Costa Rica car rental agencies charge a very high deposit. When you rent the car, they will charge $2000 or more to your credit card, and then refund it once you return the car intact. If you don’t have at least $2000 in credit available on your credit card, then they won’t rent you the car. They will usually NOT tell you this before you get here… or perhaps it’s in the fine print somewhere that you don’t read.
3. The car rental agencies in Costa Rica will not accept your DEBIT CARD for the deposit. Apparently they say it’s difficult to refund the money when you return the vehicle, so they will only take a credit card. They may both say Visa or Master Card on them, but they’re not the same in the system here in Costa Rica, so, make sure you bring a CREDIT CARD with minimum $2000 on it if you want to rent a car here.
How to save money on a Costa Rica car rental?
1. There are a few local agencies, such as Vamos, that charge $10-$20/day less than the international brands. They have the same cars as the more famous name-brand agencies, but they don’t have to pay franchise fees or spend money on advertising, so they charge a lot less. Be careful though, be sure to read online reviews before choosing ANY car rental agency in Costa Rica, whether it’s a name-brand or not.
2. Rent a house or stay in a hotel that doesn’t require you to have a car. For example, there are many beachfront houses or hotels in Santa Teresa that have a large choice of restaurants within walking distance. If you’re staying for a week, then perhaps consider renting a car just for the last three days of your stay, and during that time you can explore the area by car. Many travelers rent a car and it sits in the parking lot of their hotel most of the time.
3. Rent an ATV / Quad instead. Believe it or not, they’re not really much cheaper (still $55-$75/day) and they don’t fit the whole family on them. But, you can plan your trip so that you can walk to most of the places you want to go, and just rent ATVs occasionally when you want to check out more far-flung places.
4. Rent a sedan when possible. It can be $15-$20/day cheaper for a 2WD sedan type car. Depending on where you’re going, you can sometimes get by without the 4WD, especially in dry season. Be sure to ask the hotel where you’re staying if you absolutely need a 4WD.