Advice on Transfers vs Renting a 4x4 Costa Rica

We don't own or operate a rental agency or transportation company so we're free to suggest Costa Rica vacations using the most sensible, convenient, comfortable and economical transportation for every segment traveled.

There are two huge misconceptions about transportation in Costa Rica. One is that a rental car will give you more freedom to explore and the other is that chauffeured transfers (shared or private) are too expensive to consider.

The advice below is as frank and unbiased as we can make it based on almost twenty years traveling by every conceivable means.

Cost Advantages and Disadvantages of Renting a 4x4 in Costa Rica

Depending on your vacation's itinerary renting a car can be quite expensive or relatively economical.

Renting costs significantly more in Costa Rica than the U.S. During the high travel season a tiny to small 4x4 will cost between $50 and $70 per day and a 4 passenger plus luggage SUV around $100. A few good local companies offer slightly lower rates if you're willing to drive a three or four year old vehicle. Any rate that is significantly cheaper is likely a rip-off and will be increased by hidden costs and required insurance charges.

Every day the car sits in a parking lot while you go out white water rafting, mangrove estuary kayaking, beachcombing or canopy zip-lining makes it more expensive. Nearly all tours and activities include door-to-door transportation and commonly there is no discount for driving yourself.

For one or two people renting a car is often more expensive than a combination of private and shared transfers. For three to five travelers renting a car may be more economical.
Driving on Playa Manzanillo.  One of the few spots left in Costa Rica where there isn't a more reasonable inland route and the only way to pass this section of the Nicoya coast is on the beach.

Driving on Playa Manzanillo. One of the few spots left in Costa Rica where there isn't a more reasonable inland route and the only way to pass this section of the Nicoya coast is on the beach. (More Photos)

Freedom and Convenience When Traveling by Rent-a-Car in Costa Rica

Flexibility and convenience is both an advantage and disadvantage of renting a 4x4 or car in Costa Rica.

One thing travelers often envision is pulling off for a short hike or to explore a butterfly garden on their way between destinations. Unfortunately breaking into parked vehicles is rampant especially where tourists with their luggage stop.

If you want to explore you'll have to do it before you check out of one lodge, after you check in at your next destination or leave someone with the car and luggage. If you leave anything of value in an unattended vehicle it will be stolen and you'll likely be responsible for the cost of the damaged locks or windows.

You'll actually have much more flexibility to take an interesting side trip if you use a driver who can keep an eye on the vehicle and your possessions while you're bird watching or enjoying a leisurely lunch.

Once you're rid of your luggage it is sometimes more convenient to have a vehicle to go exploring nearby beaches or wildlife refuges.

Safety and Security Driving a Rental Vehicle in Costa Rica

From personal experience in the cities and countries with the most notoriously horrific drivers in the world I can say without a doubt if you rent a car you'll be sharing the road with some of the worst. Bangkok, Beijing, Rome and New York have nothing on Costa Rica when it comes to bad driving and the statistics back up my opinion. Costa Rica has one of the highest rates of fatalities per mile driven.

Even in 2010 most smaller rental vehicles do not have air bags. Consider upgrading to one that does. If you've decided to drive read over these tips to help prepare for the adventure.

Getting lost is not likely to be dangerous but it is likely. Even with a gps and the best map available, the lack of signs and ubiquity of disorienting one way streets in every tiny town you traverse mean you'll almost certainly end up off route at some point.

If you're secure with unexpected detours and adventures then by all means get behind the wheel. If you want to get where you're going with only the requested stops choose private or shared chauffeured transportation.
Rental car companies frown on fording rivers and immediately void all of your insurance if you do

Rental car companies frown on fording rivers and immediately void all of your insurance if you do (More Photos)

Rental Vehicles Off the Beaten Path

A few off the beaten path destinations are expensive or difficult to reach using transportation services. Without your own vehicle it can be harder to explore or go out to eat from some outlying lodges, but you can almost always call a jeep taxi for significantly less than a day of rental.

On the other hand some destinations are so out of the way they either cannot be reached by road at all or are much faster or more convenient to arrive at by air or water. Even if you rent a Humvee with a snorkel you'll have to park it and load into a small boat to visit Tortuguero and a one hour flight can replace ten or twelve hours of driving if you're headed to Drake on the Osa Peninsula.

Another consideration when you head off the beaten path in a rental vehicle is that when you leave the national highway system and ford the river to head off on a rugged four wheel drive adventure (or even the eroded five kilometer long driveway to a private reserve) nearly all insurance, damage waivers and credit card coverage becomes null and void and you're personally responsible for the full value of the vehicle (at Costa Rica prices which are about double what you'd pay in the U.S.).

Oh, and by the way the picture of the car on the beach above - another no-no that will get your insurance voided.

Other Considerations When Deciding Whether to Rent a Car in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has recently rolled out extremely severe new drinking and driving laws and they're actually enforcing them. If you go out to dinner and want to have a beer or glass of wine it's not a bad idea to leave the rental car at the lodge and call a cab.

Police corruption is less common in Costa Rica than most Latin American countries, but it's not unheard of. If you don't like the idea of being shaken down for a bribe you can skip the rental car or check out our tips for avoiding legitimate or fraudulent traffic stops.

One of the most common crimes committed against tourists involves disabling their rental vehicle by slashing a tire in traffic or while stopped then stealing their possessions while pretending to help. (read more)

Agency Policies

As if corrupt cops and felons ripping you off on the roadsides and in parking lots aren't enough rental car companies in Costa Rica often operate according to policies that can leave their customers feeling ripped off as well.

The first unusual policy you'll probably experience is one involving insurance. Costa Rica has a government mandated liability insurance that is charged on every car rental. You are obligated to pay for insurance as well as the basic rental cost and while the government sets the cost for the insurance it does not control how much the agency can charge.

This has led to a situation where many agencies use the insurance as a way to disguise the actual cost to the consumer. It's common for the insurance charge to exceed the rental charge. If you find a great deal like $160 a week on a small SUV, it's likely that the insurance will be an additional $140 to $280 a week. It's not illegal, and the agencies are not all deceptive about the practice but the final bill can leave you feeling cheated.

Other less common practices that we've experienced with both small local agencies and the large multinationals are closer to larceny. The dirty car charge fine print exists in every rental contract but in the U.S. it's typically reserved for exceptional cases — you slam on the brakes and your takeout pizza splatters all over the upholstery. In Costa Rica you may be told that the mud on the fenders will cost you $50 to $100.

You can get a much bigger shock if you're a victim of a damage policy. In the U.S. a quarter size dent can cost over $300 to repair at a good body shop (more like $15 in Costa Rica) and when you return your car in Costa Rica you may be told that you've done several hundred dollars worth of small scratch and dent damage. In some cases this is pre-existing damage that was not properly noted on the checkout form.

If you do rent take half a dozen digital photos of the car from every angle and write "other damages photographed" across the front of the checkout form. It makes it much less likely they'll try to charge for any damages you didn't do.

Don't count on any "insurance" you've paid for to cover these damages. There's nearly always a deductible of around a grand and if the intent is to overcharge for the rental they won't be shy about invoking the exclusions and clauses.

The final extra charge you're probably used to — the fuel surcharge. This works the same as it generally does in the U.S. Return the car with as much or more fuel as it had when you picked it up or plan on paying about double the going rate to fill-er-up.

Summary

In summary renting a 4x4 or car in Costa Rica may be the best option if you are 2-5 self reliant travelers with a sense of adventure interested in exploring three or more destinations. If you'd also prefer hopping in the SUV, heading to the end of the road and hiking up a riverbed until you find a waterfall over a white water rafting trip (transportation is included with rafting and other tours and there's usually no discount for driving yourself) then renting may be right for you.

If you prefer flexibility to explore between destinations, convenience and avoiding hassles and unexpected "adventures" then you probably should not rent a car. A combination of private and shared transfers is probably a much better and surprisingly often more economical than renting a car for this type of travel.


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