Allow us to let you in on a little secret. Costa Rica is not cheap. OK, maybe it’s a not a secret, but it certainly isn’t a widely known truth. Costa Rica’s steep prices was one of the first things I noticed on our trip there in 2014. And I’m not alone. Visitors expectations of low prices for goods and services in Costa Rica are often shattered the second they step foot into a grocery store, look up accommodation rates, or try to order a meal at a restaurant.
Despite the fact that Costa Rica ranks just 65th in the 2013 GDP rankings, its prices are often comparable to those of developed nations like the US, Canada and parts of Europe. So what’s driving Costa Rica’s high cost of living? Some say, the exchange rate is to blame, others attribute it to supply and demand. Costa Rica is a popular travel destination for North Americans that are happy to pay a premium for some time in paradise. And the locals are happy to charge it.
But don’t let us discourage you. You don’t need to spend a fortune to visit Costa Rica. With a few tips and useful advice, you can visit Costa Rica on a decent budget.
Accommodation options vary greatly in Costa Rica. Here, you’ll find anything from cheap and cheerful hotels charging $10-15 per night to glamorous 5-star resorts charging well over a few hundred dollars per room.
On average you’ll be looking at spending $60-80/night for a hotel room in touristy areas. If there are two of you, that’s only $30-40 per person. If you are traveling in a bigger group and are willing to share a room with more than 1 person, it can often be cheaper to get 1 room with 2 double beds to share between 4 people. You’ll get the same experience as staying in the hostel but with added privacy and amenities of the hotel.
Expect to pay more if you are visiting in High Season (December-January), especially between Christmas and NYE and be prepared to commit to a 3-5 day stay over NYE.
Tip #1: Consider traveling to Costa Rica during the shoulder season (October-November and March-April).
You’ll save on accommodation and avoid the crowds at parks and along the beaches. There might be a rain or two as you get closer to the rainy season (July-October), but it won’t ruin your trip.
Tip #2: Stay in an Airbnb!
There are tons of houses available on Airbnb that are especially suited for those traveling with a family or a bigger group.
Tip #3: Stay for longer.
Hotels and B&Bs are often willing to give you a better rate or give you a discount if you commit to staying for a few weeks.
Tip #4: Go without hot water and AC.
Just like in many other developing countries, hot water is a hot commodity in Costa Rica (pun intended). And AC is even hotter. You’ll always be charged extra for these “luxuries”. So if you want to save, go without. After all, who needs to shower in hot water on a hot day anyway? And if it’s not a hot day, well then you wont be needing that AC either.
The easiest way to get around Costa Rica is by car. Renting a car for the duration of your stay in Costa Rica will give you the flexibility to explore the country with ease. Most roads in Costa Rica are paved and are fairly easy to drive on. However, Costa Rica is still a developing country so you will come across unpaved roads, lack of signs, as well as people, cows, horses, lizards, etc in the middle of the road.
If you choose to rent a car, pre-book it well in advance, especially if you plan on traveling during the high season. One week car rental during high season will cost anywhere between $400-$600 per week, depending on the type of car and insurance package you select. It’s a great deal if you are traveling with 2-3 others, but an expensive investment if there are just two of you.
Tip #1: Travel in the shoulder season.
Can rental outside of high season is significantly cheaper, often as cheap as $15-20 per day plus insurance.
Tip #2: Use local transportation.
Local buses are comfortable, air-conditioned and much cheaper than tourist buses or hiring a car. A ticket from San Jose to Tamarindo, for example, will only cost $10 for a 4-hour journey. Not a bad deal! Busses run all across the country, but unfortunately, cannot be booked in advance.
Tip #3: Use a premium credit card
If you own or were thinking of applying for a platinum credit card, check the included benefits, as many premium cards offer complimentary overseas insurance that would help you save lots of car insurance in Costa Rica.
Costs of food and drinks in Costa Rica will probably be the biggest surprise of all. It’s hard to grasp how someone on a $2/day salary (average salary in Costa Rica) could possibly afford to spend $10/meal at a restaurant in Costa Rica. But that’s exactly what you will find in most touristy spots in Costa Rica. Food is good and there are lots of great dishes to try, but even something as simple as a local “Casado”, a basic dish consisting of rice, beans, a few veggies, and a small piece of meat will cost on average $4-5. Anything more elaborate will set you back by $8-10 per dish. Beer is reasonably cheap at $2-3/can, and cocktails are, of course, more at $4-6.
Tip #1: Eat where the locals eat.
It is absolutely true that locals can not afford to eat in most restaurants suitable for tourists. So instead, they dine in small local spots called “Sodas”, which are similar to our fast food restaurants. Soda menus aren’t elaborate but they will always have a great Gallo Pinto and Casado on offer for under $3.
Tip #2: Drink Local
Imperial will also be cheaper than Heineken and other imported beer brands. Rum will always be cheaper than vodka and if you want the cheapest way to have a good time try Cacique. This local version of sugarcane liquor is definitely not the best tasting drink on earth, but its cheap as chips and will certainly do the job.
Tip #3: BYOB
Beers at a local grocery store will be half the price or even cheaper than the local bar. Liquor is VERY cheap when purchased at duty-free upon arrival. Enjoy an alcohol-free meal then enjoy cheap drinks on the beach, at home or in the common room of the hostel you are staying in.
The number of activities you do in Costa Rica can really break the bank. The thing about activities in Costa Rica is that all of them are either designed for the tourists or charge a tourist price, leaving you with very few options to save.
Here is an example of what you should expect to pay for certain activities in Costa Rica.
Ziplining: $30-$60 for 2-3 hour activity
Horse Back Riding: $50 for a few hours and goes up from there
Surfboard hire: $10/day (some hostels will offer these for free)
Fishing: $100 per person for full day sport fishing trip
Coffee Plantation Tour: $30 for 2-3 hour tour
Bird Watching Tour: 4 hours for USD $38
Monteverde Cloud Forest: $20 entrance fee plus $20 for guided tour
Night Cloud Forest Tour: $20
Arenal Volcano National Park entrance fee: $15/person
Arenal Hot Springs: $60/per day
Barbilla National Park entrance fee: $5/person.
Barra Honda National Park entrance fee: $12/person
Tip #1: Enjoy the beach!
It’s free, it’s beautiful and it’s one of the best attractions in Costa Rica. Grab a ball, a frisbee, buy some beers from the supermarket, and stick them in a bucket of ice and combine them with the above-mentioned beach games for a day of fun in the sun that doesn’t break the bank.
Tip #2: Go off the beaten path.
Yes, Monteverde Cloud Forest is probably the most renowned park in Costa Rica and it is great, but there are also 25 other national parks and many more protected areas that you could visit instead. Many of them will charge a fraction of the price you’d pay to get into Monteverde.
Tip #3: Take advantage of the free nightly light show.
This is another Costa Rican specialty that costs absolutely nothing. Grab a few beers from the supermarket, head to the nearest beach and enjoy some of the most incredible sunsets you have seen in your life.
Bottom Line: Sample Budget
If you are traveling as a couple or with another friend, choose to stay in mid range hotels, eat out 2 times a day, get around by car and take part in lots of activities. Your daily budget for Costa Rica may look like this:
Comfortable Travel Style:
Hotel: – $30
or like this:
Budget Travel Style:
So the decision is your. If money is holding you back from traveling to Costa Rica, then I follow some of my money saving tips, try to stick to more of a local way of experiencing Costa Rica and a week-long Costa Rican adventure could end up costing you less than a weekend of partying in North America. (plus flights)