Guide to Car Rental Companies in Costa Rica

“My time’s limited… how do I choose?”

Car rental is a hot topic for vacationers headed to Costa Rica. Recent research conducted by the Costa Rican Institute of Tourism (ICT) indicates that, after accommodations, renting a car is the largest expense, averaging $702 for an eleven-day vacation.

The Internet is buzzing with negative reviews discussing overcharging, poor customer service and mechanical breakdowns. You might have even written one yourself!

A typical midsize (3 – 4 adults) 4X4 rental runs between $58 and $65 daily with third party insurance and rates can vary as much as 20 percent among car rental companies, so reading a quick review will be time well spent once you calculate the savings.

So the question is; which rental company offers the best balance of fair price, capable customer service and reliable vehicles? I’ve researched it all for you, so keep reading!

Disclosure: This research was conducted in May – July 2013. The following companies were selected because they are the most widely used in Costa Rica. Some are local companies; others are international franchises of recognized brand names. Comparisons include: customer service, pricing and the reservation process. The companies are listed alphabetically and not based on personal or online preferences.
Consider this information before renting:

Insurance

One of the biggest causes for complaints is from the stack of unforeseen charges presented to the renter once standing at the rental company’s counter. Vacationers are typically tired after a long flight and then are confronted by costs that were not anticipated, explained or budgeted.

Topping the list of grievances is the non-disclosure of fees associated with the mandatory third-party insurance at the time the reservation is made.

According to Costa Rican law, every driver is required to carry liability coverage to insure against injuries to third parties. Car rental companies generally refrain from disclosing the cost of this policy in the quoted rental rate to appear more competitive. Mandatory third-party insurance can sometimes be as much as double the vehicle’s rental cost. The only guarantee against insurance confusion is to inquire if your estimate includes the third party insurance and insist on a written quotation.

Cost of Mandatory Insurance (also called Third Party or SLI)

Expect to pay between $12 and $15 daily for this insurance, depending on the make and model of the rented vehicle and the rental car agency. This is a legal condition of your rental agreement and is generally not covered by credit cards and cannot be waived. It’s a fact of renting a car in Costa Rica.

Collision Damage Waiver (CDW)

As the name suggests, this isn’t insurance, but a waiver, which relieves the renter from any liability for damage to the rental car after the deductible is paid (usually from $750 to $1,500). Some agencies require renters to purchase their CDW policy; thereby negating any credit card program. For an additional fee, many agencies do offer a zero liability option where the renter will be freed from paying for any damage to the car. Some companies may put pressure upon renters to purchase the zero liability coverage; however, it is entirely optional, unless it is in the fine print of their rental agreement.

Credit card insurance programs may cover the CDW for a rental vehicle. Check with your chosen rental car company to find which proof of insurance is needed and then request that from your credit card company prior to arriving. If you use your credit card’s CDW policy, expect to pay a higher deposit on the vehicle; around $1,500 to $2000 is common. The higher deposit ensures that the credit card holder has enough financial reserves to cover damages if needed. It is important to consider that if using CDW coverage provided by a credit card (in lieu of the rent a car operator), all damages will be billed to the renter’s credit card. The credit card company will then reimburse the card holder for damages.

More Insurance

Tires and windshields are rarely included in insurance policies, although additional policies may be taken out for covering these frequently damaged items. Neither the interior nor the underneath of the vehicle may be covered. Always read the fine print.

Standard Procedure

Your credit card will be charged, or a ‘hold’ placed, for the rental vehicle during the time of the rental agreement; i.e. from picking up the rental until you return it. Debit cards are generally not acceptable.

Additional Charges

Most companies have surcharges for additional drivers, car seats/boosters, cell phones, coolers, GPS and/or roof racks. The costs vary from company to company, but since these extras are billed at a daily rate, it is worth checking the total cost — additional options can add up very quickly! A GPS is around $8 to $10 per day; however, some operators may offer discounted units. Expect to pay around $5 daily for a child seat and a few dollars a day for all the other ‘niceties’. Vamos is notable for offering most of these options and, during some promotions, even the GPS rental complimentarily. Alamo, Budget, Hertz and National charge the most for such additional options; whereas the other companies listed, charge more reasonable prices.

Surcharges

Most companies add small incremental costs, such as license plate and environmental fees, into the total tally. Be wary of operators who insert these additional charges into the small print of the rental contract. Vehicles rented direct at the airport incur airport taxes, which are a whopping 12% of your rental cost!

The rental vehicle should be returned with the same amount of fuel, unless otherwise indicated. If not, companies may charge above gas station rates for missing fuel.

Vehicles

There is a debate over the vehicles supplied by rental companies: Older cars allow the driver to blend in more than a shiny, new car. Having an older model may have the indirect benefit of being less scrutinized by car rental agencies for recent nicks and scratches, unlike a newer vehicle. However, a newer vehicle may be more roadworthy. This debate carries on into the different vehicle makes and models. Generally, Costa Rican firms are able to rent their vehicles for a lower rate because their cars are typically three to five years old (versus two to three). Online reviews would suggest that the local firms have no more complaints concerning vehicle quality than transnational franchises; research on forums, such as TripAdvisor.com, seems to indicate that customers frequently appreciate driving a less-than-new vehicle through the wilds of Costa Rica. The reasons are plenty, from road conditions to the notion of less-then-new vehicles blending in better — a newer vehicle may draw more unwanted attention.

The choices of rental cars in Costa Rica are mostly limited to makes and models that maintain a competitive resale value, are a common brand in the country, and are inexpensive to maintain. As such a rent-a-car operator’s fleet tend not to be as diverse as the United States. Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi and Hyundai constitute the mainstay brands of most rental fleets.