Renting a car in Costa Rica

Before driving off with a rental car, be sure that you inspect the exterior and point out to the rental-company representative every tiny scratch, dent, tear, or any other damage. It's a common practice with many Costa Rican car-rental companies to claim that you owe payment for minor dings and dents that the company finds when you return the car. Also, if you get into an accident, be sure that the rental company doesn't try to bill you for a higher amount than the deductible on your rental contract.

It's sometimes cheaper to reserve a car in your home country rather than book when you arrive in Costa Rica. If you know you'll be renting a car, it's always wise to reserve it well in advance for the high season because the rental fleet still can't match demand.

Among the agencies operating in Costa Rica are:

Alamo (tel. 800/462-5266 in the U.S. or 272-7733; www.alamocostarica.com)
Avis (tel. 800/230-4898 in the U.S. or 293-2222 in Costa Rica; www.avis.com)
Budget (tel. 800/527-0700 in the U.S. or 441-4444; www.budget.co.cr)
Hertz (tel. 800/654-3131 in the U.S. or 441-0097; www.hertz.com)
National (tel. 800/227-7368 in the U.S. or 440-0085; www.natcar.com)
Payless (tel. 800/582-7432 in the U.S. or 443-5286; www.paylesscr.com)
Thrifty (tel. 800/847-4389 or 442-8585; www.thrifty.com)

Car-Rental Tips - Although it's preferable to use the coverage provided by your home auto-insurance policy or credit card, check carefully to see if the coverage really holds in Costa Rica. Many policies exclude four-wheel-drive vehicles and off-road driving - much of Costa Rica can, in fact, be considered off-road.

It's possible at some car-rental agencies to waive the insurance charges, but you will have to pay all damages before leaving the country if you're in an accident. If you do take the insurance, you can expect a deductible of between $750 and $1,500.

At some agencies, you can buy additional insurance to lower the deductible. To rent a car in Costa Rica, you must be at least 21 years old and have a valid driver's license and a major credit card in your name. You can also rent cars in Quepos, Jacó, Liberia, Playa Conchal, Tamarindo, La Fortuna, and Limón.

Inconvenients of renting a car

Renting a car in Costa Rica is no idle proposition. The roads are riddled with potholes, most rural intersections are unmarked, and, for some reason, sitting behind the wheel of a car seems to turn peaceful Ticos into homicidal maniacs. But unless you want to see the country from the window of a bus (inconvenient) or pay exorbitant amounts for private transfers (expensive), renting a car is still your best option for independent exploring. Four-wheel-drives are particularly useful in the rainy season (May to mid-Nov) and for navigating the bumpy, poorly paved roads year-round.

Be forewarned, however: Although rental cars no longer bear special license plates, they are still readily identifiable to thieves and are frequently targeted. (Nothing is ever safe in a car in Costa Rica, although parking in guarded parking lots helps.) Transit police also seem to target tourists. Never pay money directly to a police officer who stops you for any traffic violation.

These caveats aren't meant to scare you off from driving in Costa Rica. Thousands of tourists rent cars here every year, and the large majority of them encounter no problems. Just keep your wits about you.

Source: Frommer's Travel Guide to Costa Rica