Updated, December 2017.
Let me begin with the fact that I have been spending almost $5000 a year for the last twelve years renting vehicles every time I am in Costa Rica to look after the two houses I own in Nosara. I have tried all of the rental car companies. They have played every scam on me you can imagine. I have not always won, but I have always learned and here it is.
To start with, Never forget rule number one in life; Never play another man’s game, and that is exactly what you are doing when you rent a vehicle in Costa, Rica. You are no longer in North America or Europe. Leave just about everything you have come to expect/enjoy from renting a vehicle, back home. With that said we are going on a journey that in the end will save you anywhere from $100 to $500 a week in rental expenses.
Pick Your Poison wisely. If you can’t beat them at their own game, in their own country, join them. After about five years, I settled into a corporate agreement with National Car Rental in San Jose, Costa Rica for a number of reasons. First and foremost is that I got to deal direct with the franchise owner and totally get around the USA main office. With my contract rate, you and I start off by saving almost 20%. This is just a start and there are more ways explained below to add greatly to this savings.Why National? They were the best one out of a very motley group. More importantly they have offices all over CR and especially at the two major airports as well as in Nosara, where I spend much of my time while in CR. National can change out a vehicle for any reason in about an hour in Nosara because their office in Nosara stocks replacement vehicles just for that reason . No other rental company has an office, much less stocks vehicles in Nosara but National.
1. Book as far in advance as humanly possible, especially in the high season, December-March. The daily/weekly rate varies greatly. Just as airline tickets cost much more the closer you get to your departure date, vehicles for rent in CR do as well.
2. BOOK A RENTAL VEHICLE LOCALLY: Always use the local National Costa, Rica website,
3. How to navigate through the local National Rental Car Website:
A. RESERVE ONLINE NOW! web page is the opening page and from the start big mistakes can be made that could end up costing you.
B. Select Pick Up Location: If arriving in San Jose you will have a choice. The obvious choice for people arriving via the international airport is National’s airport location but beware there is a 20% airport tax added to the rental fee. This is not the case if the vehicle is picked up at an off airport location. Compare the difference in locations. (Remember that in CR Alamo and National are one in the same) If you are like most people and arrive SJO and have to overnight, you might just find that there is another National location closer to where you are staying. National has five other locations in San Jose besides the airport. (The SJO airport location is the only location open 24 hours) Best of all you can return your vehicle at the National airport location with no additional airport fee when you depart. It is not advisable to arrive in San Jose after dark, rent a vehicle and then take off and find a hotel.
For those of you arriving into CR via the Liberia international airport there is also an airport facilities surcharge/Tax like there is in SJO. (For those arriving Liberia in the late afternoon or later you might want to consider staying across from the airport at the Hilton Garden Inn. They have an airport shuttle and National will come a pick you up.) Be carful and bare down on when you want to return your vehicle. If your flight leaves in the morning then returning it the night before make loads of since. The National airport location is good about having their shuttle take you back to your hotel but be sure and inquire about this when you pick it up.
C. DO YOU HAVE A PROMOTIONAL CODE? OK if you have read this far you deserve another 10% off the already discounted corporate rate. Simply type in “Memphis” in the promotional field.
D. EMERALD Club? As of 2017, National now participates in the Emerald Club program. Join it! Because you arrive in a van with others it will put you ahead of the pack. IT’S FREE,
The next page of the website is where you will choose what vehicle you want. REMEMBER THAT MOST VEHICLES COME IN MANUAL AND AUTOMATIC TRANSMISSIONS. If you are driving to Nosara or some other out of the way location you will need a SUV. When renting a SUV it is best to rent the biggest set of tires you can afford as they offer the smoothest ride. Most others will be happy with a normal sedan, but always check and make sure that there is a paved road the whole way. Otherwise, go the SUV route especially in the rainy/Green season.
The third page is where the vultures come to roost. In the section where it says, Additional Charges, beware. This small portion of the website can literally double the cost of renting a vehicle. The big snake here is called “LDW-Loss Of Damage Waiver”. By using a major US/Canadian/European credit you will more than likely be covered for collision insurance just by simply charging the rental fee on the card itself. (Be sure and contact your credit card company to confirm this if you are unsure.) The problem here is that the LDW is already checked and you are unable to un-check the LDW. No so fast. Go down below and check the SLC-Supplemental Liability Coverage. Only after doing so can you now un-click the dreaded LDW. SLC is basically liability insurance, it is mandatory and they were going to make you buy it anyway but it is the LDW that they were trying to rope you in on. This alone will without a doubt save you close to $200 a week!
Other Issues to stay away from; GPS: is an expensive gadget that is rarely needed. Once outside of San Jose the few roads are easy to follow. Additional drivers: This is something MANY people sign up for and it goes right into there pocket. Also never request a surfboard rack for a SUV, almost all of the time they already have one, but request one and $$$$$$$$$
Credit Cards and rental cars: Visa and others have changed greatly what they will and will not cover over the years. Visa Chase Sapphire and American Express Platinum will issue you PRIMARY coverage meaning that if you use your card to pay for the FULL amount of the rental they will be the primary coverage. While other cards will do the same they will cover you as secondary, behind your local US policy. With most US policies, coverage outside the US is not offered, so it becomes a moot point. That said you will want to find out if SUVs are covered as well as “unimproved Roads (dirt roads)”. Some, but not all Visa cards have in the past not covered “Unimproved roads”. While you are on the phone with the issuer of your card find out if “Loss of Use” is covered. This is where the rental company sticks you for the loss of the rental vehicle income due to an accident. I would highly recommend Chase Sapphire Visa, as it covers everything, is primary, has no foreign transaction fee for any usage, awards great travel awards and has only a modest annual fee.