Guide to Car Rental Companies in Costa Rica 2015

Guide to Car Rental Companies in Costa Rica

Rate Comparisons for 2015

Car rental in Costa Rica is an opportunity to explore the remote beaches and quiet corners of this breathtakingly beautiful country. Travel without the restrictions set by public transport timetables and with freedom over group tours. For the unprepared traveler; however, car rental costs and services can be a rude shock and a blow to that vacation budget.

Renting a vehicle for your vacation will probably be the most expensive part of your budget, so understanding the terms and managing expectations is very important. The information below is not meant to be an exhaustive manual, but it should set you on the path towards an informed decision for your car rental needs in Costa Rica.

Why is car rental so expensive?

Visitors from outside of Costa Rica are often surprised by the cost of car rental. While hotel rooms, restaurant bills and tours are lower than the prices paid at home, it may appear strange that car rental should be more costly.

There are two simple reasons for this high cost:

    1. All vehicles in Costa Rica are imported and a tax is imposed. Due to this heavy taxation, the cost of purchasing a vehicle is higher than it would be in other industrialized countries. There are some car rental operators who rent older vehicles in order to reduce their costs.
  1. The cost of mandatory insurance (see below).

Factors that Affect Car Rental Costs

Mandatory Insurance

Third-party insurance, which may be known as TPI, PDW (Partial Damage Waiver), SLI (Supplementary Liability Insurance) and other acronyms, is a legal requirement. Car rental operators must charge the customer for this coverage which may or may not be clear in the quotation received by the customer.

The insurance itself is not the issue. After all, many other countries require car renters to pay a mandatory insurance; including: New Zealand, Italy and Mexico, as well as a number of the U.S. states, like California. The issue that causes contention in Costa Rica is that this cost is not always displayed clearly on the car rental operator’s website or in a quote. Customers then discover the additional cost of their rental upon arrival.

The cost of mandatory insurance varies from company to company and will depend on the car category that is being rented as well. The cost for a small sedan may be as little as $12 per day, whereas a premium 4×4 vehicle could be as much as $25 for insurance per day. This is in addition to the rental cost.

Credit cards in North America usually offer car insurance as an additional perk to the credit card holder and so North Americans in particular, are unused to having to pay for insurance on top of rental costs. However, no credit card will cover this insurance requirement.

Do ask if the given quote includes third-party insurance and check the prices on the car rental operator’s website.

Collision Damage Waiver

This is not insurance, but a waiver. The basic level will come with a deductible that varies, but could be as much as $1,500. For a higher daily rate, a zero deductible CDW may be purchased to relieve the renter of any financial responsibility in case of damage to, or theft thereof, the vehicle.

Many renters will obtain their CDW through their credit card. However, it is worth noting that the responsibility for making any insurance claim is on the customer and not with the car rental operator. Some renters may choose to purchase additional in-house coverage to avoid having this responsibility.

There will be car rental agencies which hard sell their own coverage plans through guaranteeing peace of mind, but ultimately, this is the renter’s decision. It is worth remembering that car rental company employees, like in other parts of the world, will sometimes earn commission for insurance sales.

If the customer’s credit card does not provide CDW, the customer will be required to purchase this in-house coverage.

Car rental operators require written proof that the customer’s credit card provides CDW. Ask the car rental operator for the exact details of what they require and in what form. Some may accept a forwarded email from the credit card company, but others may ask for a printed copy to be presented at the time of rental.

Deposit

The deposit amount required will depend on whether the customer chooses to use the car rental operator’s in-house CDW or takes this coverage through a credit card. Expect to pay a much higher deposit if the in-house CDW is declined. The deposit may also depend on car model rented. This amount, which will be held on the renter’s credit card until the end of the rental period, can be from $750 up to as much as $3,500. The deposit should take no more than five days to be refunded to the credit card on the vehicle’s return. Some car rental agencies will accept debit cards for deposit hold, but the return time for this amount can take weeks.

Do ensure that the deposit is calculated in the vacation budget as an unexpected hold of a few thousand dollars on a credit card could otherwise severely cut into vacation spending.

Airport Taxes

Customers that rent from a car rental operator’s counter within an airport building are obliged to pay the airport tax.

Those car rental operators with a counter at San Jose’s Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) are: Alamo/National, Budget, Dollar, Economy and Hertz. These companies will add an additional 12% tax to the rental cost.

Those car rental operators with a counter at Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport (LIR) are: Avis, Budget and Economy. These companies will add an additional 3% tax to the rental cost.

To avoid this tax, take an airport shuttle with the car rental operator to an office located outside of the airport grounds.

Surcharges and Other Taxes

There are a number of other obligatory fees that car rental operators may add into the rental cost, display on-screen or show in the quote, or leave undisclosed until the customer’s arrival. These potentially hidden costs may seem small when viewed individually, but these are typically daily rates, so they will add up fast!

These may include:

License Plate Fee: Less than $2 daily, but differs from company to company.

Environmental Tax: Less than $1 daily.

Sales Tax: All sales transactions in Costa Rica are subjected to a 12% government-imposed sales tax.

Car Washing Fee: Bring back an exceptionally dirty car and the cleaning fee may be added onto the final payment. One car rental operator charges $20 for this additional service.

Fuel Charges: If the fuel tank is not filled to the same level as it was at the start of the rental period, then the car rental company will charge (usually to the nearest eighth of a tank). This charge is dictated by the car rental operator and it is not subject to the governmentally set fuel price that would be found at any gas station.

Where Should I Reserve the Vehicle?

A common confusion for travelers booking a rental car is the discrepancy between international websites for car rental operators and the Costa Rican website for the same brand. Frequently the international websites are unaware of, or fail to disclose, insurances, taxes and surcharges that will be charged at the counter. This may be due to the fact that many recognized car rental operator brands in Costa Rica are not a foreign branch of the branded car rental operator, but instead are a franchise operation. This factor is also worth considering in terms of expectations concerning customer service and other finer details. The Costa Rican franchise office may have their own style of operating, apart from the same policies and guidelines that the customer may have experienced in other parts of the world.

Understandably then, an online reservation is best made through the local website and not the international site, wherever possible. A number of companies do not have a local website. In this case, do check the details with a local staff member via the telephone and ask for written confirmation of the quote. Experience with live chat on the international websites suggests that whereas staff is trained on terms and conditions governing the main office (usually U.S.A.); they understand little of the policies that must be adhered to in Costa Rica.

Car Rental Comparisons

In May/June of 2013, I compared the pricing and services of a number of car rental operators in Costa Rica and published the findings. To my surprise, the article is still being plagiarized regularly across the Internet which suggests that it is still useful and so an update was required. The prices for this comparison were obtained in December 2014 and January 2015.

The ICT (Costa Rican Institute of Tourism) states that there are thirty registered car rental operators with eight others pending approval. However, there are many more agencies that rent cars to visitors. The car rental operators selected are those which are most frequently used by travelers:

Adobe

Alamo

Avis

Budget

Dollar

Economy

Fox

Hertz

National

Payless

Service

Thrifty

Toyota

USave

Vamos

Wild Rider

Exclusion of Companies from Final Comparison

Budget, Economy, Payless, and Toyota were contacted, but these four companies did not provide accurate online rates. Economy and Budget’s websites have one price, regardless of the dates entered and customers need to reserve a vehicle in order for them to honor the price shown. Toyota’s website was unfortunately only working up until March. Beyond that, the pricing displayed $0 for the remainder of the year. Payless has this disclaimer on their website: “Taxes and surcharges are not within our control and may change without notice.”

Sending individual inquiries for each time period resulted in inconsistent results: Budget offered the same price for all three investigated time periods when receiving an email request, which is highly unlikely; Economy responded with different quotes for the same dates from different members of staff; and Toyota’s emailed quotes for time periods past March’s prices indicated online did not correspond to the March rates quoted (perhaps the emailed quotes contained taxes that were not shown online). Payless can provide quotes via email and telephone, but were not consistent with pricing for different seasons.

Avis is only excluded from the price comparison, as they do not have an intermediate SUV category in their fleet.

Comparison Information

Car rental rate, all taxes and surcharges, and third-party insurance costs are (supposedly) calculated and ranked accordingly below based on the week’s rental of a BeGo or similar intermediate 4×4 from a San Jose/Alajuela location (not from the airport).

Rates are calculated on a weekly basis and divided by seven to provide a daily cost which is more easily comparable. As not all pricing is completely transparent, the prices are as accurate as possible based on the information provided from the car rental operators’ websites, phone calls, and/or emails. Airport taxes are not included in these figures.

Shoulder Season (Quote for July 13 through 20)

1. USave $43.37

2. Service $54.92

3. Fox $55.64

4. Hertz $58.17

5. Adobe $60.13

6. Alamo $60.99

7. Wild Rider $62.86

8. Dollar $63.35

9. Vamos $64.15

10. National $67.04

11. Thrifty $74.39

Low Season (Quote for May 13 through 20)

1. National $37.04

2. USave $43.37

3. Dollar $46.49

4. Adobe $52.57

5. Vamos $53.15

6. Service $53.49

7. Hertz $54.59

8. Fox $55.64

9. Wild Rider $55.71

10. Alamo $60.99

11. Thrifty $74.39

High Season (Quote for March 13 through 20)

1. Dollar $55.92

2. USave $56.22

3. Hertz $56.37

4. Fox $59.36

5. Thrifty $64.69

6. Service $66.63

7. Vamos $67.14

8. Alamo $69.56

9. Wild Rider $70.00

10. Adobe $70.63

11. National $73.90

Summary of Comparison

Interestingly, there is not one clear expensive or cheap company from those compared. The variation in ranking between seasons is marked and customers should consider their vacation dates when choosing the car rental operator. For example, Thrifty appears as the most costly for both low and shoulder season, but are only in fourth position in the rankings for High Season.

It is also significant that pricing is not consistent with ranking with car rental operators in other car categories. For example, Vamos’ pricing is the cheapest for a premium vehicle in the shoulder season; although they are not first in any rankings for the intermediate category and Adobe which appears competitive are the most expensive for this time period and car category.

Information on Car Rental Operators

Adobe Rent-A-Car is a local car rental operator that has eleven offices across the country. The website is simple and easy to use with no apparent hidden costs. The mandatory insurance cost is displayed as part of the online quote. The company receives mixed reviews online, but more positive than negative comments are made. Emails receive a reply within 24 hours, but may not fully answer the questions asked.

Toll-Free Phone Number: 1-855-861-1250

Child Seat: $3/day

Booster: $1/day

Additional Driver: $3/day

GPS System: $9/day

Alamo works in partnership with National and has thirteen offices across the country. As with many big names, Alamo Costa Rica is a franchise and not a branch of Alamo itself. Third-party insurance and basic CDW are included in the online quotation, although the CDW may be refused upon presentation of proof of coverage through the customer’s credit card. This makes the pricing seem high on first glance, especially when, unlike other car rental operators, Alamo includes airport taxes in their online quotation and so their pricing is honest, but appears much higher than other companies as a result. Pricing is different on the international website of the company, although the terms and conditions do state the fees that will be paid on arrival. This pricing discrepancy is the lead cause of negative reviews for this company. Emails are responded to within 24 hours.

Toll-Free Phone Number: 1-855-533-1196

Child Seat: $3/day

Additional Driver: $6/day

GPS System: $12/day

Avis’ website obliges one to select a car protection option, but it fails to display a final quotation total or price for the coverage selected online until an emailed quote is sent. Coverage costs may be obtained by clicking on the option ‘Protections Explained’ at the bottom of the screen.

No Toll-Free Phone Number

Child Seat: $5/day

Additional Driver: $5/day

GPS System: $9.99/day

Budget has a website that is easy to use, but the pricing given is as the same for all seasons, suggesting that it is not correct. Email responses were normally fast, but some were left unanswered. Emailed quotes showed the same pricing for all seasons as the website did. Mandatory insurance is not included on the online quote, but the small print states that this is payable at the counter. Budget receives mixed online reviews.

No Toll-Free Phone Number, but Live Chat is offered

Child Seat: $5/day

Additional Driver: $5/day

GPS System: $14.99/day

Dollar appears to have very competitive rates, but airport taxes will be applied if the vehicle is being collected from the airport’s counters. One may find this in their terms and conditions, but not in their online quotes. Car washing charge is enforced for very dirty vehicles. There are four offices in Liberia and San Jose. Email response is within 24 hours. Dollar receives mixed reviews from online travel forums.

Toll-Free Phone Number: 1-877-767-8651

Child Seat: $5/day

Additional Driver: $5/day

GPS System: $9/day

Economy has twelve offices around the country. They have no Costa Rican website. Scroll down on their page to find and click on insurance costs. Airport taxes are not included in the quote. Emails receive either a quick response or no response at all. Economy has the worst online reputation of any big name car rental operator in Costa Rica.

Toll-Free Phone Number: 1-877-326-7368

Child Seat: $10/day

Additional Driver: $10/day

GPS System: $15/day

Fox works in partnership with USave. Offices are located at both international airports. Emails receive a response within 24 hours. Online reviews are generally poor.

Toll-Free Phone Number: 1-800-225-4369

Child Seat: $5/day

Additional Driver: $10/day (unless spouse)

GPS System: $9.99/day

Hertz has six offices in the country. Reservations may be made through a Costa Rican website. Initial online quote does not include sales taxes, but it does include the CDW — although CDW may be waived with proof of credit card coverage. Emails receive a response within 24 hours. Mediocre reviews on travel forums.

No Toll-Free Phone Number

Child Seat: $5/day

Additional Driver: $13/day

GPS System: $12/day

National works in partnership with Alamo and has thirty offices in operation across the country. The company has a Central American website, as well as the international site, which clearly shows the breakdown of pricing. CDW is included in the online quote, but it may be unchecked to get a quote with just the mandatory insurance. Note that the airport tax is included in the online quote as well. Instant responses to questions are available through Live Chat on their website. Reviews are mixed, but there are more positive than negative.

Free Phone Call Option Via Website

Child Seat: $6/day

Booster: $6/day

Additional Driver: $5/day

GPS System: $12/day

Payless is part of the international car rental company and has no Costa Rican website. Online quotes do not include third-party insurance, although the information on this may be found by reading the policies for the San Jose location. Emails receive a response in less than 24 hours, but tend to refer back to the website, rather than new information. Reviews are more negative than positive.

Toll-Free Phone Number: 1-800-PAYLESS

Child Seat: $5/day

Booster: $5/day

Additional Driver: $10/day

GPS System: $9.95/day

Service is a local company with five offices in the country. On an otherwise clear website, click on ‘Reserve Now’ and not ‘Get a Quote’ for an online price check. Rember is the staff member mentioned in reviews on travel forum for his helpful customer service and the company generally gets good reviews. Emails are answered within 24 hours and normally provide requested information.

U.S. Phone Number: 1-305-897-3718

Child Seat: $3.50/day

Additional Driver: $3/day

GPS System: $7.50/day

Thrifty does not have a local website, thus information is through the international website. Coverage options or information regarding third-party insurance is not provided on the reservation webpage until one clicks ‘Protection Information’. Emails receive a response within 24 hours, but may not answer location-specific questions. Reviews are frequently negative due to pricing complaints.

Toll-Free Phone Number: 1-800-344-1705

Child Seat: $5/day

Booster: $5/day

Additional Driver: $12/day

GPS System: $11.99/day

Toyota is a big name; however, even though their website appears professional at first glance, it simply does not work, or at least it was not functioning in order to obtain quotations later than March 2015. Their online quotes do not include sales taxes. Emails receive fast responses, but quotes for different seasons appeared to be contradictory. However, Toyota has a good reputation on travel forums. Eight offices are located across the country.

Free Phone Call Option Via Website

Child Seat: $5/day

Cooler: $1.50/day

Additional Driver: $3/day

GPS System: $10/day

USave works in partnership with Fox and has three office locations. Insurance options are shown for the online quote, but it must be selected and ‘recalculate’ pressed, before it is included in the pricing. Emails receive a response within 24 hours. The company receive overall poor reviews, although there are some positive comments made on travel forums.

Toll-Free Phone Number: 1-800-467-3659

Child Seat: $5/day

Additional Driver: $10/day

GPS System: $9.95/day

Vamos is a local company that is a popular choice for Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet experts because of their customer service and pricing. The website is easy to use with itemized charges clearly displayed. The Live Chat option enables instant personalized quotes and answers from English-speaking staff. The company has three offices.

Toll-Free Phone Number: 1-800-950-8426

Child Seat: free

Booster: free

Additional Driver: free

GPS System: $8/day

Wild Rider is a small, local company located only in San Jose. The website is simple with third-party insurance included in the pricing. At the start of this research, the pricing was not up to date, but this has since been remedied. This car rental operator stands out by having only positive reviews and so is highly recommended by travel forum users. Owner, Thorsten, replies within the hour to inquiries during office hours.

U.S. Phone Number: 1-917-477-7712

Child Seat: $5/day

GPS System: $8/day

Overall Summary

Clarity

Adobe, Alamo, National, Service, Vamos, and Wild Rider provide clear and complete rates on their websites. The other car rental operators were less transparent with surcharges or taxes, such as airport taxes or sales taxes. Pricing on additional extras were not always easy to find, and Avis, Thrifty and Toyota had to be contacted for these details.

Communication

Levels of communication have improved since the first comparison, although it would seem wise to request a local number and confirm answers with the Costa Rica office of the international car rental operators, as international chat operators or those replying to emails, do not always seem 100% confident about local policies and may even give incorrect information.

Be prepared to exchange a number of emails in order to get full answers to questions with a number of companies: Budget and Economy were particularly prone to this — requesting a lot of information in order to give a quotation. It is not unreasonable that members of staff working in a second language may miss aspects of an email, so present questions in clear and simple language.

Live Chat on both the Budget and Vamos websites mean information can be provided instantly and is still documented, unlike a phone call.

Pricing

The comparison above shows that the pricing between companies depends heavily on the season and car category being considered, rather than a clear cut choice between more or less expensive rental rates.

Customers need to consider the pricing of other items, such as additional drivers or GPS system, and families will want to compare car seat rental pricing. Wild Rider offers the first additional driver for free, Vamos do not charge for any extras, except the GPS, and in general, the international firms have higher charges for these extras than the local companies.

So Who Do I Rent From?

It is clear that the local car rental operators are still trumping the big names in their transparency and customer service when comparing their websites and online reviews. The difference from the previous rate comparison from a couple of years ago is that the pricing has become more difficult to equate.

Adobe, Alamo, and National seem to rate well as international car rental operators. It is worth noting that National is the most expensive in high season for the intermediate category, yet the cheapest in low season. Adobe and Alamo are middle-ranked for pricing.

Wild Rider is exceptional in having zero bad reviews, but is only based in San Jose and has a much smaller fleet of vehicles. Of the other local firms, Service and Vamos come out well and Vamos’ free additional extras will appeal to budget-minded travelers and families with young children. Service also offers these extras at low daily rates.

Last but Certainly not Least…

If you have made it all the way through this article, then you are prepared to begin your research into your vacation car rental, armed with facts and ready to recognize those prices that are just too good to be true! Have a wonderful (and affordable) vacation in beautiful Costa Rica!

Now you know it all, what are you waiting for? Get booking your rental vehicle for an unforgettable vacation that you’ll remember for all the right reasons.