Visitors who are in a Costa Rica rental car, viewing the roads trailing behind a few cars on the freeway on a mountain filled with trees and greenery on a cloudy day

Renting a Car in Costa Rica as a Tourist (2024)

Renting a car in Costa Rica is the best way to experience all that this beautiful country offers, from popular to off-the-beaten-track locations. 

I loved the freedom a rental car gave me to explore on my own timeline.

But before embarking on your road trip adventure, it’s essential to understand the ins and outs of car rentals in Costa Rica.

Let’s get right into how to rent a car in Costa Rica, rental car requirements, and how to save money on your rental.

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freeway in San Jose, Costa Rica on a cloudy day with a center divider and street lights in the middle. On one side, there's a black SUV driving away from the photo towards the mountains, with houses and buildings on the side. There is also a billboard that says in Spanish:

¿cansado de pagar no internet que no funciona?

Contrate el internet de boomerang hoy mismo

The other side has cars driving towards the photo with trees on their side.

Is it Safe to Rent a Car in Costa Rica?

Yes, it’s safe to rent a car in Costa Rica. 

While the roads may have their quirks, renting a car offers freedom and flexibility to explore this beautiful country at your own pace.

As you would back home, remember not to leave valuables in the car. Keep things hidden in the trunk if you need to leave things inside the vehicle. 

And it’s best to avoid driving at night whenever possible as the potholes are hidden in the dark.

close up photo of a car dashboard, driving on a bridge in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica, on the way to Quepos on a cloudy day. There are some trees and telephone lines at a further distance, and water under the bridge. On the car's window, there is a phone attached to a phone stand to help navigate with directions while renting a car in Costa Rica

Should I Rent a Car in Costa Rica?

Renting a car in Costa Rica is a great idea. Even though Costa Rica may look small on a map, it takes quite a bit of time to travel between destinations.

Renting a car gives you the flexibility of forming your own schedule and designing your custom Costa Rica itinerary, which I love. 

You don’t have to stick to tour schedules or only go where public transportation goes. 

You can stay at more unique accommodations and have cooler adventures. 

While there is nothing wrong with taking public transit, they just don’t always go where you want or work around your timeline.

This is especially true when you have such a short time frame to see and do as much as you can in a beautiful country like Costa Rica.

Why Not To Rent a Car in Costa Rica

If you aren’t comfortable driving in an unfamiliar country, or are on a super tight budget, renting a car is probably not the best idea. 

Choose to take public transportation and tours to help you get around safely and still explore many areas of Costa Rica. 

If not renting a car, allow for a longer vacation or visit fewer destinations during your trip as transit time will take longer. Unless you plan to hire private shuttles.

2 silver rental cars in Costa Rica parked on a dirt road, with trees and telephone lines right behind, covering the sunny sky.

How to Rent a Car in Costa Rica

Start your journey by selecting a reputable car rental company. 

You’ll find major international companies in Costa Rica including Enterprise, Alamo, Hertz, Sixt, Thrifty, Economy Car Rental and Budget. And local providers like Poas and Vamos. Both are viable options and each offers unique advantages. 

Compare prices, rental terms, and customer feedback to make an informed decision, as some locations are better than others.

Some third-party sites, like Expedia, won’t always show the rental cost with the insurance, fees, deposit, and taxes, so the rental prices can surprise you. Make sure you know all costs before you rent and if you book on Expedia that you check what’s included. 

But third-party sites like DiscoverCars show all fees upfront, so you know you’ll be covered. I ended up renting with Enterprise. 

Road in Costa Rica, with a house, large tree, and sign on the right that says:

Paque Nacional
Manual Antonio

With the arrow going up, signaling that whoever is driving or renting a car in Costa Rica is on the way to Manual Antonio National Park. There are some trees and telephone lines at a further distance.
Road from Manuel Antonio to Manuel Antonio National Park

How Much to Rent a Car in Costa Rica?

Costa Rica car rentals are expensive but are comparable to the cost of private shuttles and domestic flights. 

Private shuttles from San Jose to La Fortuna start at $220 USD one-way. Domestic flights from San Jose to Liberia range from $80-250 USD each way. 

When you take that in mind, renting a car in Costa Rica for 10 days will cost you approx $800 USD for a compact SUV

This means, that if you are visiting more than 2 destinations in Costa Rica, it tends to be cheaper to rent a vehicle than take private shuttles. It’s more expensive than Panama but makes sense when you visit all over the country on your trip.

I visited San Jose, Jaco, Tamarindo, and Monteverde and drove to Nicaragua and back. Shuttles would’ve cost me a fortune and buses would’ve taken much longer. 

Prices vary based on if you have your own insurance, time of year, type of vehicle, and which rental company you choose. 

Requirements for Renting a Car in Costa Rica

  • Age 25+ otherwise there may be an extra fee depending on the rental company 
  • A valid driver’s license from your home country – no photocopy or expired licenses
  • Your passport with a valid Costa Rica stamp
  • A credit card to hold a deposit ranging from $500 up to $5,000 depending on the rental company you choose
  • The credit card holder present at the time of vehicle pickup

Note on Renting a Car in Costa Rica under 25:

Car rental companies in Costa Rica need a minimum age between 21-25 depending on the company policies. 

For example, Adobe Rent-a-Car has a 23-year age minimum while Enterprise allows drivers 21-24 for an additional fee. 

If you are over 25, you will be good to rent a car from any car rental company in Costa Rica. There is no age maximum.

Photo of a white Hyundai (with the top and rearview mirror cut off), parked at a car rental area in Costa Rica. The front plate says on top in blue:

Costa Rica (with the Costa Rica flag)

And on the bottom it says:

Central America

Rental Car Insurance in Costa Rica

Rental car insurance is required by Costa Rican law

Mandatory rental insurance in Costa Rica is called Liability Insurance, also known as:

  • Liability Protection (LP)
  • Supplemental Liability Insurance (SPI)
  • Additional Liability Insurance (ALI)
  • Third-party Liability (TPL)
  • Third-party Insurance (TPI)

Things aren’t clear as some rental car companies in Costa Rica don’t include mandatory insurance in the rental price and others do. 

It covers damage to third parties (other vehicles or property) damaged by your rental vehicle. The cost is an extra $10-30 USD per day depending on the rental company. 

Insurance costs can quickly add up if you are renting a car in Costa Rica for a week or more. This is why some people say they get tricked with hidden fees once they arrive in Costa Rica.

Collision Damage Waiver Insurance

The other form of rental insurance is Collision Damage Waiver (CDW). Which covers damages to your rental vehicle and in the case of theft. 

CDW insurance is usually covered by travel credit card or travel insurance

Always check with your credit card to see if you have insurance for rental cars in other countries. If you do, make sure you follow the restrictions.

For example, since my trip to Costa Rica, I’ve acquired a BMO credit card with insurance that covers rental insurance.  For my credit card insurance to be valid, I must reject CDW. 

This saves money on your rental if you have any kind of coverage through your credit card.

Road in Costa Rica on the way to Tamarindo, with lush trees on both sides of the road on a beautiful sunny day with some clouds
Road to Tamarindo, Costa Rica

Additional Fees for Car Rentals

In addition to the rental prices and insurance, here are some additional fees that could come up: 

  • Tolls – there are several highway tolls along some highways outside San Jose 
  • Extra cleaning fees – if the vehicle is returned too dirty from mud, sand, stains, and garbage 
  • Smoking fees – if you smoke or vape inside a rental vehicle
  • Drop off at a different location – if you pick up the car from one location and drop it off at another rental location, this is an additional fee (one I had to use when driving from Costa Rica to Nicaragua and back)
  • Adds on like wifi, GPS, car seats, roof racks, etc

Costa Rica Car Rental Tips

How to Save Money on Your Car Rental

  • Pick up your car outside the airport to avoid paying airport taxes on top of regular taxes. I picked up mine just outside of San Jose Airport
  • Rent outside of the high season which is from December to April and on holidays like Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter
  • Book your rental car at least 3-4 months ahead of your trip, especially during the busy season
  • October is the cheapest month to rent a car in Costa Rica. The next best are May and September
  • Check if you need a 4×4, and if not, rent a car or 2WD SUV instead to save money
  • Rent a manual vehicle if you are confident driving manual as they are slightly cheaper than automatic rental vehicles
  • Renting for a longer period brings a lower daily rental cost

Is a 4×4 Needed in Costa Rica?

If a 4×4 is needed in Costa Rica depends on where you plan to drive

While not always a necessity, a 4×4 vehicle is a must if you plan on exploring rural or unpaved roads.

Costa Rica’s diverse terrain includes mountainous regions and remote areas where a 4×4 can provide added stability and accessibility.  I’m talking about you, Monteverde! 

Hands down, rent a 4×4 if you plan to drive to and spend time in Monteverde. My front bumper came off in a regular car. 

Avoid driving on mountainous roads in a vehicle that isn’t a 4×4. You don’t want to make my mistake.

Road to Manual Antonio National Park in Costa Rica on a cloudy day. Both sides of the road are filled with trees and telephone lines. At a distance, you can see someone riding a motorcycle. Even further, there are mountains.
Highway to Manuel Antonio

General Costa Rica Car Rental Advice

Always inspect your rental car when you first pick it up. It may be tempting to jump into the car and go, but please don’t miss this. 

You need to take photos and note any damage with the rental company so they won’t try to make you responsible for damage you didn’t cause. This has happened to me when renting a car in Scotland, try not to let this happen to you.

Other Rental Car Advice

  • Familiarize yourself with local driving rules and road signs
  • Use navigation apps with offline capabilities like offline Google Maps
  • Keep local emergency numbers and your rental agency’s contact information handy
  • Plan your routes, including pit stops for meals and sightseeing
Road at night from someone with a rental car in Costa Rica, where there is a small light on the right side of the road and the car's headlights are on. The sky is blue with a bit of clouds.

My Experience Renting a Car in Costa Rica

It was the last day in Costa Rica after driving all over both Costa Rica and Nicaragua. We had driven over 1000 km over the past week, walked across the international border twice, and were on our way to San Jose from Monteverde after enjoying some ziplining to finish our trip and fly home.

Driving along the winding dirt roads that lead down the mountains in the dark of night, avoiding pothole after pothole, it was not looking good.

The front of the car went down into the pothole, and then it felt like, in slow motion, the car came back up and smashed down again.

The front bumper of the car had fallen off! Completely detached from the vehicle. 

Front bumper of a silver Toyota fallen off of the car, with a broken Costa Rica plate

We folded it to fit within the backseat, and we continued with our drive.

I was still in disbelief that a pothole could cause that type of damage, especially at such a slow and cautious speed!

We continued to the nearest gas station where we could contact the police to report the incident and headed back to San Jose to return the rental car. 

When we returned the car, we had to pay over $1000 CAD in damage out of pocket because I had declined the CDW and my credit card at the time didn’t cover it (so I switched credit cards).

Even though my car rental did not end well, I recommend renting a car in Costa Rica to explore. I would rent a car again on my next visit. 

The time that we had the vehicle was great, if it wasn’t for the bumper coming off, it would’ve been a perfect trip. But life happens and that’s why we need the insurance

Costa Rica Rent a Car FAQs

Can You Drive in Costa Rica with a US License? 

Yes, you can drive in Costa Rica with a US license. You do not need an International Driver’s License unless your driver’s license isn’t written in Latin (English, French, Spanish, etc), then you need one. 

What Documents Do You Need to Rent a Car in Costa Rica?

The documents you need to rent a car in Costa Rica include your driver’s license, passport, and credit card

Do You Need to Rent a Car in Costa Rica?

You don’t need to rent a car in Costa Rica, but it sure helps to save time and explore places you can’t get to without public transit. A 4-hour drive turns into a 6-hour bus ride with the bus stopping every 1/2 mile along the route. You can save money if you have the time to spend sitting on the bus.

Is it Easy to Travel in Costa Rica Without a Car?

Yes and no, that it’s easy to travel in Costa Rica without a car. While you can get around without a car, it will take longer and you will need to switch buses depending on where you are trying to go.

What Side of the Road Does Costa Rica Drive On?

They drive on the right side of the road in Costa Rica. This is great if you are from Canada and the US where we are also used to driving on the right side of the road. 

Final Thoughts on Costa Rica Car Rentals 

Renting a car in Costa Rica as a tourist is not just safe but highly recommended for an unforgettable adventure

With the right set of wheels, you’re ready to explore every corner of this tropical paradise at your own pace. 

Embrace the freedom of the open road, and let the journey be as rewarding as the destination itself. 

Just please make sure you are covered with rental car insurance, whether you buy it at the car company, use credit card coverage or have travel insurance.

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