Greg GordonSurf CR

When to Rent a Vehicle versus Taking Private Transportation in Costa Rica

Surf CR logoI have been asked this question over 100 times – Should I rent a car or hire private transportation? Well the answer is not that easy and there are a few things to consider. The first is how many people are traveling in your group. The second is how much it is going to cost. The third is where are you going. The fourth is when are you going. And most importantly is how much you like driving.

How many people are in your group? If it’s just 2 to 4 people there are SUVs that fit you comfortably and can be rented fairly cheaply depending on the season (see consideration #4). If you have 5 or more passengers then you will want a Premium SUV like a Toyota Prado which can get expensive, and with 6 or more passengers you would need to rent a van. The most passengers with luggage that should fit with luggage would be eight without feeling like sardines in a can. With private transportation, their shuttle vans can usually fit up to 8 people with luggage easily. Many companies offer larger shuttle buses that can fit 12, 15, or even 20 people.

You can rent this Staria van for a decent price in the low season or a hefty price in the high season, or just ride in one and enjoy the views – if you have the budget.

Most travelers consider the cost the most important option. Smaller cars and SUVs are less expensive in general to rent, but you have to add gas, tolls, and possible tickets and accidents to that equation. To make it equitable to private transport, you would need to pay for full coverage insurance since when you are just riding in the van you don’t have to worry about paying for any damage. Of course, before agreeing to any ride be sure the company and driver are licensed and insured. It’s only part of their obligations to put a ‘Turismo’ sticker on the back quarter panel.

How do you know which is less expensive? That takes the third consideration – where you are going. If it’s a short trip, less than 90 minutes from either airport, the cost for private transportation can be less than renting a vehicle, especially with a larger group. But if you are traveling to three or more destinations and they are two plus hours from the airport the costs can go up, which makes renting a vehicle a better option. Also, you will want to consider if any of your lodgings are far off the paved road since most transportation companies don’t have the vehicles to get you up steep unpaved hills.

The time of the year you travel also plays a factor in price comparison. The last two weeks of December and the week called Semana Santa (Easter Week) have the highest rates for car rentals. During the months between them and the peak of the United States summer break (July and August) the rates are still quite expensive. The rest of the year they are a pretty good deal. Private transportation has a similar price cycle – high, low, and peak season – but there are fewer options and the drivers may be all booked around the holidays – especially the affordable ones. It’s not just the price that fluctuates with the seasons, it is the weather, too. They call it the rainy season for a reason, June it kicks in but it is mid-September to mid-November that the down pours hit their peak (on the Pacific side – the Caribe is another matter). Some mountainous locations have to deal with landslides and there can be flooding closer to the coast.

I wanted to pull over while going around
Lake Arenal to snap this photo.

This connects to the final consideration, and to me the most important one – how much do you like driving? Costa Rica has some of the most scenic drives in the world, with the windows down you can hear toucans and monkeys, and see waterfalls, towering trees, and ocean vistas right along the side of the highway. With a rental you can just pull over and enjoy the view. If you drive, it’s on your schedule. You can decide at the last moment to sleep in or get on the road early. Outside of the city and major towns and thoroughfares it is mostly all agricultural. You don’t need to drive fast, you drive slow and enjoy the warm air and see the smiles on the families that live along rural roads. Even the cows look like they are smiling at you. Yes, there are downsides. Traffic, death defying truck passing, getting lost, a smattering of corrupt cops, blown tires, crazy lightning storms – an experienced driver takes all that in stride and can even relish the challenge of getting back to the airport on time or driving up a remote muddy hill.

Then maybe you don’t want to drive. Leave all those downsides to the driver and just enjoy the view. As someone who has made over 40 trips to Costa Rica and has driven extensively along both coasts and the central region of the country, I understand the stress the driver can have. And why stress if you are on vacation? A driver will get you from point A to point B, and if you want to stop they will. Plus they look after your belongings if you need to grab a bite or shoot some photos. Many drivers know their country well and will be happy to share their knowledge with you if you ask. How can you put a price tag on this liberating experience?

So what is the answer? It depends on these considerations. There is no straight answer to give. And then I would be remiss not to include two other options – shared rides and hiring a private driver for your whole trip. The first option makes the most sense if you don’t want to drive, are just 1 or 2 travelers going to a popular location, are on a budget, and can leave in the window when they need to depart. The second option makes the most sense if you don’t want to drive, have the budget to pay the driver for lodging and meals along with the vehicle, have a larger group to split those costs, and are going on shorter trips (less than two weeks).

Personally, I like driving and have the experience to mostly stay out of trouble. It is not the answer for everyone. When you contact me to help plan your trip, I will be sure to give you all of the options available and what I think is the best one considering all the factors listed above. If you do decide to rent a vehicle you can reference the articles below. Buen viaje!

I wrote this article for helping determine which insurance may be best for you –

I wrote this article to help all of my clients renting a vehicle in Costa Rica –

And did you think I forgot the option to take an overland vehicle or campervan? You can read all about those here. The 5 Best Camper Van Options in Costa Rica –