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Renting a Car in Costa Rica: Your Comprehensive Guide for 2024

Car Rental in Costa Rica

Car Rental in Costa Rica

Posted: 1/25/24 | January 25th, 2024

I love Costa Rica. It was the first place I visited by myself over 15 years ago and the country that set me on my nomadic journey. From its stunning beaches to its lush jungles, this biodiverse nation is popular with backpackers, honeymooners, and expats alike. And while it’s small, there’s a ton to see and do. You could easily spend a month and still barely scratch the surface. It’s also amazing for road-tripping. As much as a backpacking bus or hitchhiking adventure might initially sound appealing, the reality is that waiting in the hot sun and then bouncing along bumpy roads in an old bus without shocks or air-conditioning is not for the fainthearted. If you want real freedom to explore, you need a rental car. To help you plan your trip, here’s everything you need to know about renting a car in Costa Rica.

Picking the Right Rental Car (and Rental Company)

Before you rent a car, read and compare reviews for car rental companies. While the standard big companies are available here, there are lots of local ones too. Once you have narrowed down the list to a chosen few, ask for quotes for the type of vehicle and travel dates that you require. The quote should include mandatory third-party insurance, taxes, and any other surcharges, like airport tax. Most sites include all this info when getting a quote online. Whether you are reserving online or directly with an agent, double-check the details of your reservation. Crossing time zones may mean that your rental pickup time or even date is different in Costa Rica than your country of departure. You will need to confirm the time, date, and location of your vehicle’s pickup and drop-off, the vehicle category, transmission, and coverage required.

Points to remember when renting a car in Costa Rica:

  • A manual transmission may be cheaper than automatic and more common in Costa Rica but should only be selected if you can drive a stick shift.
  • Returning your car at a destination different from where you picked it up will probably incur an additional charge.
  • Most rental companies will not guarantee a specific make and model within the rental category.
  • Expect to rent for 24-hour periods. Time your pickup and drop-off accordingly.
  • Provide your flight number before you arrive, so the company can track your flight.
  • If you have an early flight, consider dropping off the vehicle the night before and using a hotel shuttle to the airport.
  • Online travel agencies (OTAs) often fail to include all charges, so if you book through one, be sure to check the final price with the car rental company, through which the pricing may be more transparent.
  • Most companies now offer an online check-in process to upload documents such as passports and driver’s licenses to cut time at the counter and get on the road faster.

My go-to rental car company in Costa Rica is Vamos. You can click here to get a quote. (You’ll get 5% off just by using that link).

Arriving at the Airport

Both international airports in Costa Rica have car rental company desks within the building; however, the offices (where you’ll get your car) are off-site. They generally have a shuttle service to take clients to their offices, most of which are located within a 10-minute drive of the airport. Local hustlers might tell you that your company has gone out of business to convince you to go with a different company that will pay them a commission. Look for a sign with your company’s logo and ignore the hustlers. If your flight is delayed or you miss your connection, contact the company with your new estimated arrival time to avoid having the reservation canceled as a no-show.

When you arrive at the rental office, the agent will fill in any outstanding paperwork that has not been done online and conduct a vehicle inspection with you. Although the agent will note existing damage, you should take photos or video of the car for backup purposes. Your vehicle may not have a full fuel tank when you pick it up, but the fuel gauge level should be logged on the inspection form. You will need to return the car with the same fuel level. Although you will not be reimbursed for a level higher than the one registered, you will be charged if it is below the starting level.

Returning the Vehicle

Confirm your drop-off location and time when you pick up the vehicle. If you are caught in traffic or are delayed for any reason, contact the rental company to avoid a penalty. Make sure that your fuel gauge is at the right level, or else head to a gas station before you drop it off. The company’s representative will inspect your vehicle with you and then process the deposit reimbursement.

Documents Needed for Renting a Car in Costa Rica

Here’s everything you need to rent a car in Costa Rica:

  • Driver’s license – You can use your local driver’s license during the rental period as long as it is printed in the Latin alphabet. If your license is in a language that does not use the Latin alphabet (e.g., Mandarin, Arabic), an international driving license is required. Your driver’s license must be valid for the entirety of your stay. It is important to note that although most tourists will be given a 180-day visa when they enter the country, their driver’s licenses are only valid for 90 days, and they will be required to leave Costa Rica and return to legally drive again.
  • Credit card – You need a valid credit card in your name to pay the car rental and to place the deposit.
  • Passport – Your passport should be valid for the duration of your stay. Legally, tourists must carry it with them at all times. The transit police will want to see it and your entry visa if you are pulled over.

A Note on the Minimum and Maximum Driving Age

Each car rental company has policies regarding the age of the drivers it insures. Many do not have a maximum age, but some set a limit of 70-75 years old. The legal age to drive in Costa Rica is 18; however, most companies require that drivers be at least 25. Younger drivers may be able to rent a car for an additional surcharge and insurance costs.

Insurance Coverage

Costa Rica has mandatory third-party insurance for car rentals. It is not possible to obtain this coverage any other way. Check that this cost is included in your rental quote, as it’s often left out, so you may end up paying more than what you initially thought. A collision damage waiver (CDW) covers losses from damage to your rental car. This is legally required when renting a car in Costa Rica. Most companies offer various tiers of insurance, with various deductibles. Many renters select full coverage for peace of mind, as then any damage that occurs during rental is covered.

Some companies offer additional coverage for tires and the windscreen (windshield), as they are not always covered by the CDW. If your credit card provider has a CDW as a perk, you can waive the in-house CDW. Just note that you will need to bring a letter that explicitly states the amount of coverage, that Costa Rica is included in the areas covered, and the last four digits of the driver’s credit card. A copy of the credit card company’s terms and conditions is not usually sufficient.

One important thing to note is that the rental company may hold a deposit for the rental period, which could be up to $5,000 USD if the renter is using their credit card provider’s CDW. The deposit will be released at the end of the rental period. Make sure you have a credit card that can absorb this deposit.

Driving in Costa Rica

Here are a few things to keep in mind while driving in Costa Rica:

  • Speed limits – Signs are in kilometers rather than miles, and speed limits are generally lower than you’d expect, with a 90 km/h (55 mph) limit on major highways. Speed limits change with limited warning between areas, so stay alert to signage.
  • Gas stations – Make sure that you know if your rental vehicle has a dedicated gas type. If you fill up with the wrong type of gas and cause damage, you will be liable. Gas stations are often full-service and will fill your tank for you, checking oil, water, and tire pressure too, as a courtesy.


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