Costa Rica is an extraordinary travel destination. Not only is this Central American nation rich in natural beauty, incredible seafood, and countless opportunities for adventure tourism, but Costa Rica is also comparatively close to the United States, at least for a destination that feels so exotic. If you plan to visit Costa Rica, flights to this beach lover’s paradise are plentiful and depending on where you live in the U.S., your flight will likely be somewhere between 5 and 8 hours. Not too bad for one of the world’s most eco-diverse nations.
Costa Rica’s motto is “pura vida” which, loosely translated, means, the pure life. Costa Ricans live up to this motto with a nation that is unique for its fierce conservationism. Because Costa Rica has taken great efforts to protect its natural habitats, pristine coastlines and incredibly diverse ecosystem, visitors can enjoy close encounters with all kinds of cool animals. In fact, there are monkeys everywhere, and if you’re not keeping an eye on them, they will rifle through your bag and steal your cell phone.
Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Now provided your wallet isn’t stolen by a monkey (seriously, it does happen), Costa Rica is actually an amazingly affordable destination for American travelers. The U.S. dollar goes pretty far in Central America, especially if you know a few savvy traveling tips. With that in mind, we’ve got all kinds of advice on how to save money as you plan your Costa Rica vacation.
10 Ways to Save Money During Your Stay in Costa Rica
Costa Rica has a well-deserved reputation as an amazing vacation destination at a comparatively affordable price. The low cost of lodging, food and excursions draws honeymooners, families, adventure seekers, and ecotourists alike. Statista says that last year alone saw more than 2.3 million visitors. Costa Rica vacation packages are especially popular for travelers seeking a mix of luxury and adventure.
While it’s cool that Costa Rica is drawing so many tourists, there is a tradeoff. The secret is out. Costa Rica is no longer a hidden gem but an extremely popular destination. Some of the costs have risen to reflect this growing popularity. These days, a Costa Rica vacation package will cost you far more than it did just a decade ago.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy an amazing Costa Rican vacation on a budget. It just means you have to try a little harder. With that in mind, we have a whole bunch of helpful tips so you can get the best bang for your buck on your Costa Rican vacation.
1. Travel During the Off-Season
When it comes to saving money on vacation, this is a bit of a recurrent theme. Of course, not every destination has an off-season, but for those that do, the difference in your cost of travel, lodging, and experiences will be substantial. Costa Rica, as it happens, is a destination with an off season. Like many tropical locations, Costa Rica cycles through dry and rainy seasons.
Naturally, the dry season is the busiest time of year in Costa Rica’s hospitality industry. Tourists flock there between December and April to enjoy the warmth and sunshine. January to March is peak dry season. But of course, visitors pay top dollar for this experience. You are unlikely to find your best Costa Rica deals during this stretch of months.
By contrast, the rainy season stretches from about May to November. While temperatures remain warm, Costa Rica sees an enormous amount of rainfall during this time. Some visitors may view this as a deterrent. However, airlines, hotels, and tour operators all tend to offer lower prices during the off-peak months. You may also be more likely to find discounts and Costa Rica package deals aimed at attracting off-season visitors.
According to a travel blog called MyTanFeet, “The months of May, September and October are generally the least crowded with the cheapest prices. Car rentals are much cheaper, many hotels slash prices and restaurants and tour companies throw promos.”
If you’re willing to brave the rainier conditions, think about planning your trip during Costa Rica’s off-season. And we should note, Costa Rica is beautiful all year round. The rainy season produces lush rainforests, lively surf conditions, and more than the occasional rainbow. If you’re willing to brave a few storms–some of them potentially epic and cool to watch from the safety of your hotel balcony–save yourself a ton of money by visiting in the off-season.
2. Be Flexible
One of the best ways to save money on any vacation is to let the fates decide your actual travel time. If you’re not too hung up on exactly when you travel, you can save a whole bunch of money. No matter what season you plan to travel, it always costs more to book on the weekends. This is true of flights and hotel accommodations.
And some dates are simply more popular than others. Any holiday weekend is likely to cost you more than a few weekdays in the middle of a month. The best strategy is to hop on a bunch to travel sites like Expedia, Priceline, and Booking.com. Most travel sites offer flexibility options. If you indicate that you are flexible about your travel dates, the site will provide you with some of the best options for travel based on affordability.
And because many of these services allow online booking of both flights and hotels, some will present you with package options, merging affordable off-peak lodging and flights for maximum savings. If you’ve got some wiggle room in your travel plans, you could save a bunch.
3. Shop Carefully When Considering All Inclusive Resorts
There are plenty of all-inclusive options in Costa Rica–packages that include flights, accommodation, meals, and activities. The best all inclusive resorts will usually offer you a full spectrum of adventure, indulgence, and amenities for a single price. On the surface, this sounds like a great deal. And many of these resorts are popular with tourists from around the world including themed destinations like Hotel RIU Palace, Secrets Papagayo, and the Planet Hollywood Costa Rica.
If you’re planning to do a little bit of everything in Costa Rica-including hitting up all the top tourist hot spots all inclusive may be the way to go, especially for travelers accustomed to luxury vacations. And frankly, if you’re picturing an Autograph collection resort with beach volleyball and an outdoor pool with a swim up bar, you probably should be shopping this way.
If, on the other hand, you are on a budget vacation, all inclusive resorts may not be the best option for you.
There are a few reasons for this, and some of them are unique to Costa Rica. First and foremost, says Costa Rica Top 10, booking an all inclusive may not actually save you money relative to staying in a standard hotel. The travel blog argues that “The math simply does not add up. The average 4 star all inclusive resort will run you $360 – 400 per couple, per night in the high season. The average 4 star boutique hotel or resort will cost you around $180 per couple, per night including breakfast.”
Ultimately, because the cost of meals and drinks is actually pretty modest in many parts of Costa Rica, you are likely to do a little better paying for some things piecemeal. Not only that, but Costa Rica is noted for its relative safety and the welcoming local population. This means Costa Rica is not the type of destination where you are advised to largely stay within the safe confines of your resort. You will be exploring and hopefully enjoying some amazing food at roadside stands, fish markets, and surf bars.
Once again, if you’re planning to see and do everything, an all inclusive may just be the right move for you. But if you’re looking for ways to save money, you may do a lot better by picking, choosing, and paying as you go. In other words, if you are budget conscious, don’t waste the money and experience by locking yourself into an all-inclusive set of offerings.
4. Stay in Unique Accommodations.
Ok. So if all inclusive resorts aren’t the way to go, where should you stay? Fortunately, thanks to its thriving tourism industry, Costa Rica does offer countless tiers of lodging. And according to Enter Costa Rica, you can save a pretty good sum of money for every half-star you’re willing to go down when filtering your hotel search.
The travel blog notes that “the average upper 4 star hotel costs around $180 a night. Cutting your hotel budget by 10% would roughly equate to a ½ star level decrease in quality, which is still in the mid to upper 3 star range, but would result in a savings of around $126 for the average vacation (based on 7 nights). Of course, cutting by 20% would double these values and so on it goes.”
From mid-range hotels and eco-lodges to travel hostels and even camping areas, you have plenty of extremely cheap lodging options. And of course, thanks to the proliferation of vacation rentals through sites like VRBO and Airbnb, you can choose from a wide range of guesthouses and apartment units. While the typical vacation rental will run you a few more dollars, there may be some added financial benefits to this approach.
Specifically, you may want to look for accommodations with a working kitchen. This is because you can also save a ton of money by procuring your own food supply…
5. Grocery Shopping
Indeed, another great reason to avoid an all-inclusive is because you can save a ton of money by taking care of your own grocery shopping at least some of the time. Naturally, this tip is a lot more attainable if your accommodations include some basic living amenities like a kitchenette.
In fact, it’s worth investing in such accommodations because of how much you can actually save by cooking a few of your own meals. As on any vacation, dining out for every meal can get expensive quickly. Offset the cost by hitting the grocery store as soon as you arrive. Get the supplies together to make some quick and easy meals. And make sure you stock up on a few of the popular local delicacies.
You’ll find that you can purchase freshly fished shrimp, perfectly ripe plantains, and succulent chorizo at any grocery store. Consider researching some recipes before you arrive so that you know how to prepare your very own gallo pinto (a traditional Costa Rican breakfast) each morning. That way, you won’t feel like your missing out on all the great local cuisine, and you’ll be enjoying traditional Costa Rican foods at a fraction of the cost.
Also bear in mind that your Costa Rican experience will be filled with adventure. If you’re doing it right, you’ll be on the go most of the time. Stock up on gallon water and non-perishable snacks. Fill and pack a refillable water bottle everywhere you go and keep nuts, trail mix, dried fruits, jerky, granola, and other energy-boosting snacks on hand for your excursions.
Fill up on these basic supplies before you get to the hiking trails and zip lining adventures instead of spending a few bucks at every roadside gas station and food stand.
6. Find Free Activities
Costa Rica is full of them! Of course, Costa Rica is famous for its adventure tourism. Most visitors will include some of these experiences in their itinerary, from zip-lining and mountain horseback riding to kayaking and whitewater rafting. Obviously, these adventures are well-worth the investment if you like experiences that combine adrenaline with stunning natural beauty.
But the great news is that there are also plenty of ways to get this perfect combination without spending a dime. Costa Rica is blessed with incredible mountaintop vistas, dense jungles teeming with exotic wildlife, and pristine beaches with crystal waters.
And as the travel blog Two Weeks In Costa Rica notes, there are more than enough free activities in Costa Rica to fill an entire trip. The blog advises visitors to “Get a sense of the culture by walking around a Tico town, browse the local feria (farmers market), or visit one of the 50+ national parks and reserves.”
Again, you will most definitely want to spend money on a few carefully-curated experiences. A guided jungle tour of Manuel Antonio is a great way to spot amazing wildlife like sloths, howler monkeys, and the elusive toucan. And you may feel safer if you explore Arenal Volcano with a trained professional.
On the other hand, there are more than enough safe and accessible hiking trails, friendly local villages, free beaches, and bustling marketplaces to keep you busy on a budget.
7. Build a Well-Researched Itinerary
Working within a budget is not just about where you go but how well you plan it. You’ll get your best discounts when you book activities in advance. Especially in the off-season, many reputable tour operators will offer discounts and promo codes to online shoppers.
You can also score some pretty sweet per-person deals if you’re traveling in numbers. So make sure you look for group discounts when booking in advance.
With that said, it’s also extremely important that you make these reservations strategically. Sequence your experiences with the geography and layout of Costa Rica in mind. It can make a huge difference in both the time and money spent on travel.
Enter Costa Rica advises that travelers be conscientious of the travel time required for certain experiences. Costa Rica’s landscape is highly varied, from gorgeous beaches along its famed Pacific coast to tropical jungles situated high in the mountains and everything in between. But the bottom line is that some of Costa Rica’s most popular and desirable destinations are also among its remotest. the travel time between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean, for instance, can be significant, which means the cost can add up.
According to Enter Costa Rica, while you could take day trips to amazing locations like still active Arenal Volcano and the nearby hot springs, the Rio Celeste Waterfall, or the Monteverde Cloud Forest, each of these is likely to run you more than 5 hours of driving–up and down some pretty dicey dirt roads in some cases–and will consequently cost you a few hundred bucks a head.
Indeed, the Arenal Volcano National Park is a stunning destination unlike any other place in the world. Then again, you can enjoy real, close-up experiences with Costa Rica’s incredible wildlife with a stroll through Manuel Antonio National Park. Neither will cost you very much, but they are separated by a six hour drive.
“The bottom line,” says Enter Costa Rica, “is each of these attractions is 3+ hours in each direction from the nearest beach resorts. Due to this, most travelers elect to split time with an inland destination for adventure, jungle, volcano, hot springs, wildlife, etc. before unwinding at the beach for a few days.”
The best move is to start by making a list of the destinations you’d like to hit during your trip including the above mentioned and other highlights like Santa Rosa National Park, the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, La Fortuna, Coco Beach, and Tamarindo Beach. Then pull up your Google Maps app and build your itinerary by drawing a logical route across the country, matching together attractions based on their proximity to one another. Ultimately, you’ll have to eliminate a few options, but rest assured, you will have a fuller experience with less driving and more action.
8. Opt for Local Transportation
Part of building that well-researched itinerary will include transportation both between lodging accommodations and on various day trips and excursions. How you travel will be a major factor both in shaping your experience and your cost.
Public transportation in Costa Rica, such as buses or shared shuttles, is generally cheaper than a rental car or a private taxi. Research the local transportation options and plan your itinerary accordingly to save money on transportation costs.
If you’re heading deep into the jungle for a unique excursion, you’ll probably need to book a seat on a private tour or party bus, or one of the numerous private driving services that specifically handle these types of rides. And on more treacherous roads such as those leading into the cloud forests, you may prefer the steady hand of an experienced mountain driver.
On the other hand, any traveling you plan to do from one town to the next, from one region to the next, or from one attraction to another, can be done through Costa Rica’s reliable public transportation system. According to Two Weeks in Costa Rica, “The bus is by far the cheapest way to get around and connects just about every destination in the country. Plus, lots of locals ride the bus so it’s a great cultural experience.”
As we’ve noted throughout, Costa is generally safe and friendly to travelers. Of course, you always want to be savvy and aware of your surroundings anywhere. For instance, most international travelers will arrive through the Juan santamaria international airport located in the capital city of San Jose. Like most cities, San Jose has its mix of gentrified areas and some grittier urban neighborhoods. Travelers are generally advised to find their fun elsewhere.
That said, the buses in San Jose and throughout Costa Rica are a safe and affordable way to get around the country. Consider this before building your trip around private drivers, tour buses, and rental cars.
9. Be a Savvy Shopper
As we’ve said, people are friendly and welcoming in Costa Rica. But many locals also make a living on tourism dollars. So it’s up to you to navigate the local marketplaces, the souvenir stands, and even some of the impromptu tour experiences you book.
There are a few steps you can take to improve your chances of getting a good deal when shopping, or at least reduce your vulnerability to the “tourist tax.” To be clear, the “tourist tax” is not an actual tax, but the higher price you might pay for an item or service simply because you don’t know any better.
Anyway, here are a few ways to avoid falling victim. For starters, it helps to use the local currency. While dollars are widely accepted in Costa Rica, the Costa Rican colón is the preferred local currency. Vendors may upcharge you for using credit cards or U.S. dollars, and your credit card may tack on its own additional fees for making international charges. And in fact, depending on how deeply you explore, you may find that local vendors in some small villages or mountain outposts only accept the colón.
Having colón on hand can also help improve your bargaining power with local vendors. Now this is very important–haggling for prices is a normal part of the tourist-vendor relationship in Costa Rica. Always bargain at local markets, especially when you’re surrounded by numerous stands selling variations on the exact same stuff.
This is a common phenomenon in areas saturated with tourism-bred businesses. There is a greater supply of t-shirts, jewelry, and knickknacks than demand in some places, especially during the off-peak seasons. This means you have some negotiating power. Bundle a few items and try to work the price down a bit. Of course, you should always be polite. Never insult a store-owner or their business. But do your best to get a fair price on an item that you could otherwise get elsewhere.
And while you’re at it, you’ll absolutely improve your negotiating power if you learn just a few basic Spanish phrases. Knowing how to talk dollars and cents in Spanish may help you land a better deal when shopping. It’s also helpful when you want to order a drink, ask where the bathroom is, get directions somewhere.
But on an even deeper level, this is a great way to get to know the locals a bit better. If you make efforts to learn how to speak the language respectfully, you may receive friendly advice, local insights, and great travel tips in exchange.
10. Be a Savvy Traveler
Any time you’re traveling internationally, you’ll want to take a few preemptive steps to avoid added expenses. As noted above, your credit card may charge fees for international transactions. Reach out to your credit card provider before you leave and find out what to expect. Indeed, it’s always a good idea to let your credit card company know you’ll be traveling overseas. In some instances, purchases from a strange location may trigger automatic security flags. To avoid the annoyance of responding to a security ping during your vacation, speak to a customer service rep in advance.
If you find out that your credit card penalizes you for international usage, now might be a great time to consider card offers specifically designed to incentivize international spending. There are tons of credit cards that are complimentary for international travel.
And as long as you’re reaching out to providers in advance, contact your wireless provider to make sure your cell phone plan includes international roaming. Find out if there are steps you need to take to avoid roaming charges. You may need to purchase a local SIM card or even rent a local loaner phone upon your arrival. Figuring this out before you arrive will save money and reduce hassle.
You can also trim costs if you know how to fly light. You will typically find the lowest airfare through bargain airlines like Frontier and Spirit Airlines. These no-frill carriers provide low ticket costs, but usually snag travelers over various hidden fees. In particular, bargain carriers love charging for additional luggage, both checked bags and carry ons. You can save money both ways by packing lightly. Ideally, limiting yourself to a single bag that qualifies as a “personal item” will be your best bet.
You may have to do some laundry during your trip, but that will cost you a lot less than a checked bag. Be sure to review your airline’s bag policies including weight and dimension before packing.
If you’d rather not deal with that whole hassle, it’s a good idea to enroll in a travel reward program. Most are offered directly through carriers, and in addition to allowing you to accumulate points or frequent flyer miles on flights, meals, lodging, and purchases, some travel rewards programs can provide perks like free bags, preferred seating, and TSA security pre-approval.
Remember, saving money doesn’t mean compromising on the quality of your experience. By implementing these tips, you can make your trip to Costa Rica more affordable without missing out on the country’s natural beauty and cultural richness. If you do it right, a trip to Costa Rica can capture all the natural beauty that you might get in a place like Hawaii or Fiji at a mere fraction of the price.