Adventures in car rentals: Costa Rica edition

Our Costa Rica car rental was the low point of the trip. It was also an important reminder that if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. I won’t identify the rental company we used because I do not want to give them any publicity, even of the negative kind. To be clear, I believe much of my negative experience was due to my being a tourist and foreigner in Costa Rica. I made some mistakes and was unfamiliar with the language and local customs. Use this article to learn from my poor choices. But our experience should not be a reason to avoid renting a car in Costa Rica. I  would do that again, if a little differently.

As I usually do, I read about insurance and renting cars in Costa Rica before we decided to do it. There are some countries where it simply is not a good idea, or where other issues can arise while driving around in a foreign country. All of my research indicated that renting a car in Costa Rica was a good idea and is relatively safe. Even after our imperfect experience, I would still agree with this conclusion–renting a car in Costa Rica is an excellent way to get around the country.

I found a deal for a rental that cost fully one third of every other option I found. The rental car company was one that also operates in the US, which gave me some comfort. It had an off airport location, which I typically do not prefer. But the price was so good, I couldn’t pass it up. After reserving the rental, my research revealed that Costa Rica has quirky insurance rules and that it is often difficult to get them to accept credit card insurance coverages. This was part of our experience and I’m still not certain whether I was scammed in the end. Some people recommend getting a letter from your credit card company to bring with you. I did not do this as it seemed like overkill but perhaps it would have made the process simpler.

After clearing customs, we set off in the airport to look for the rental car shuttle for our company. In Liberia, if you do not use one of the in-airport rental companies, you’ll pick up your transportation to the rental site in the middle of all of the timeshare and resort pick up madness. It can be chaotic and difficult to find your company’s sign. After a short search, we found our person who verified our name on his list and moved us to another agent. This person told us that our car would be brought to us. Yay! The car that pulled up was a significant upgrade from what I’d reserved, but I thought we just got lucky. I signed some paperwork without checking it (mistake no. 2 for those counting). The price looked high but I assumed it was in Costa Rican colones and not dollars. By this time, two more groups had arrived for the same company. Turns out this car was for another group, and the price was well over 10x what I planned to pay because they had reserved it for an entire month. While we were sorting all of this out, one of the groups who had arrived after us was climbing into a car to head to the rental office. Then it was decided that we needed to go to the rental office to collect our car and would have to wait for this car to drop off that group and return for us. By this time we had landed what felt like hours prior, but was probably more like 45 minutes. In any event, we were very eager to get into the air conditioning of our hotel room and change out of travel clothing.

Eventually the car returned for us and we went to the rental office. This rental office is one of the furthest from the airport, which contributed to our longer wait. If you are considering an offsite rental, Hertz, National, Enterprise, Avis and Alamo are all very close to the airport. Then, the insurance upsell (scam?) began. Ultimately, we were able to skip all but the liability only coverage which the agent told me was absolutely required by law that doubled our estimated rental cost and still took a $2,500 refundable deposit on my credit card. I remain unconvinced whether this coverage is actually required and that other rental car companies simply build it into the price of their rentals or whether we were straight scammed. At that point, spending an extra $200 to get out of there and on with our vacation seemed worth it.

We inspected our car, which was thoroughly unimpressive. I would have been fine with that for the original estimated price. But for what we actually paid, we could have got something in better condition. The keyless entry worked sporadically and the car was a little beat up and worn, but she ran just fine.

The last thing we did was make arrangements for an early return because our morning flight would depart before the office usually opens. I was promised that a person would meet us at the gates. I became skeptical when the agent offered alternate instructions to remote drop the vehicle in a lot at the airport if no one was at the office at the appointed time. 

Finally, all of the logistics sorted, we headed off to the Hilton Garden Inn near the airport to start our vacation! For the next several days, our small Suzuki SUV got us around town and over to the Gulf of Papagayo. Our travels used up almost a full tank of gas, so we had the experience of filling up in Costa Rica. It is full service and we never had to exit the vehicle. As a side note, our state does not have full service gas stations and I grew up with self service. It felt like such a luxurious treat to let a professional handle the fill up.

When it was time to head home, we went to the rental office as planned. We waited as long as we could, over 15 minutes and tried honking the horn, all with no response from inside the gates. I was annoyed at the wasted time. We ultimately returned the car to the dirt lot specified in the airport with the keys inside. The whole thing felt very sketchy and I was worried the vehicle would be stolen and we’d be charged thousands of dollars for its replacement. That didn’t happen, but an email or text saying that the vehicle was successfully collected would have been a nice reassurance. Our refundable deposits were indeed eventually refunded as well.

If I make it back to Costa Rica, I’ll choose one of my trusted car rental providers, with whom I have status. I will avoid the low priced outliers and I will read the rental paperwork more carefully before swiping my card! The money savings turned out not to be a savings at all and was definitely not worth the hassle. But all things considered, it turned out to be a fairly painless way to learn those lessons.

Tell me about your car rental experiences in countries foreign to you! What are the strategies you use to mitigate scams and feel more comfortable? What is your most adventurous car rental? 

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