If you are the adventurous type and will be driving yourself around Costa Rica in a rental car, bring a compass (we have the Brunton) and a GPS. Garmin is state of the art. We have a Lowrance Avionics GPS, big screen and expensive. Jal was taking flying lessons before our cute plane was swamped by Wilma. All we have left is the Lowrance and a brand new wing sitting in storage we’d bought to replace the one damaged in Dennis…
Also arm yourself with maps. The Costa Rica Flyer has a great downtown San Jose map with all the one-way streets marked on it. VERY helpful. If you email them (there is English on the page so I’m assuming they speak English; the email address is at the top right on the page), they might be able to mail or fax one to you, maybe even email a pdf.
We ended up renting a car from a company called "Fast" Car Rentals. We hadn’t made a reservation because we’d heard it was so
easy to do and we’d do better in person. That might be true if you
speak Spanish, but we ended up paying the going rate. At least.
We found Fast via our first taxi driver at the airport. He
asked in his limited English if we were going to rent a car, we said yes, next thing you know,
we are sitting at Fast.
This taxi driver also knew someone selling a car and selling
a house… all the taxi drivers do. Actually, everyone knows someone,
usually a relative, selling a car – a great car – and a house (yes, a
great house). Everyone.
Fast was fine. I have no idea how to find them again, couldn’t find a website and God knows where those receipts are! Our friends rented from Hertz and Budget. They were good also. There is a big local company here, Hola! Rent-A-Car. Never used them, but I emailed them once and they got right back to me. That’s considered exceptional service in Costa Rica, particularly on email.
You want 4 wheel drive if you plan to go anywhere other than the city of San Jose. And you MUST have a car with high clearance to navigate potholes and policía acostados [literally "lying down policeman" or speed bumps]. There are policía acostados everywhere. BIG ones and in the most unexpected places. Maybe there’s a rhyme or reason to them but I haven’t figured it out yet. I’ve been in sedans that have to navigate to the lowest point of the speed bump, then still scrape the bottom of the car!
Before you drive away, inspect the car. I have NEVER heard any Costa Rica horror stories of people being charged outrageous amounts for damages or gas after the fact. Our few experiences have been excellent. But we did have a pretty infuriating Panama car rental gouge and I’ve heard horror stories from other places, to be sure.
So inspect the car. I have a digital camera and take photos of every ding. Yes, I am a huge pain in the ass. My husband and kids stare off into space while I’m doing this. But I’m certain in Panama it saved us a bundle. Once the car rental return inspector saw my photos, he stopped his inspection. So there.
The only other thing you need is nerves of steel. I think I’ve mentioned this… the first month, I spent gasping and squealing and leaning so far towards Jal I was practically horizontal in my seat, trying to steer the car away from the ditch. They take a little getting used to.
It should cost around $50-$60/day for the cheapest model. We were quoted $35/day, then they added $25/day insurance when we got there. The weekly rate we got on our first visit last December was around $300. Don’t forget to check your credit card’s insurance coverage for Costa Rica if you are relying on that.
BRACE YOURSELF: You will have to sign a blank credit card slip as insurance that you will bring the car back (as in "bring it back at all") and that you will bring it back in one piece. This made us very uncomfortable, but we called our landlord, the only person we knew here at the time, and she said that’s how they do it. They give the slip back to you at the end of the week after they’ve checked over the car.
The only mishap was a flat tire right near our rental house. We were looking for the jack when a guy wearing the Spanish equivalent to a "Mike’s Muffler Shop" shirt with his name on it and grease-monkey hands, ran over, chattering away in rapid-fire Spanish. He knew exactly where the jack was (hidden up under the front seat) and he changed our tire for us. He was lovely, super fast, all smiles. We gave him 2000 colones ($4) which we now know is about a day’s pay. Our first friend in Costa Rica!
Later we found out this is often a scam, that you could be robbed by the nice helpful guy changing your tire. You are advised to stand outside the car with him, to prevent him having access to your stuff inside. It never occurred to us that he might be out to rob us in broad daylight with people around, and, indeed, nothing bad happened. I think the flat tire routine is pulled mostly near the airport.
We called the rental company right away and asked for a replacement "real" tire – the spare was obviously not up to any mountain driving. Well, heck, they brought us a new car! Brought it to our house. That impressed me.
Even though they did not have an office at the airport, they met us there at the end of our week to pick up the car, check its condition and hand us back our blank signed cc slip. This all took place in the parking lot. Good thing! We’d have had a helluva time finding the "main office" which was down some odd road in Alajuela.
First, they wanted $50 for the flat tire because we’d driven on the rim not realizing the tire was flat. Jal offered $20 – it was, after all, an old tire. They accepted and we paid them cash.
They also wanted us to pay for a couple of trim pieces that had flown off the car. Now this was a Hyundai, their cheapest rental and surely the cheapest car ever made. It drove like a toy car, rattling and shaking the whole time. And I actually watched one of the trim pieces fly off… we refused to pay for that. It’s not like we went joyriding on a dirt path. We just drove it on Costa Rica roads. Which is often the U.S. equivalent of joyriding on a dirt path. We just happened to be the unlucky driver when the pieces detached. So nada. And they accepted that.
They were always very nice, even during the brief negotiation, and very accommodating. The real question to answer when deciding between renting a car and hiring a driver or using the excellent public transportation system is "How are your nerves?" Seriously.