Tandem Travel Tips: Costa Rica Rental Car & Phone Advice

WHY COSTA RICA?

How it began

Doesn’t Costa Rica sound like a wonderful place to spend the holidays? To be completely honest, we ended up here by accident and kind of frantically. We initially booked flights to San Juan, Puerto Rico to enjoy 9 days in one place. This was my version of strong-arming Steve into a slow travel vacation. Fast forward to a week later I was in pieces begging my grandparents to flee Florida before Hurricane Irma, where the eye was slated to land right over their home. And then Maria happened and Puerto Rico is still putting themselves back together 9 months later, mind you with minimal aid and acknowledgment from the US government. But I can’t even begin to start on that one.

An aside- a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine cited 4,645 deaths as a result of Hurricane Maria. What was on paper until then? 64. You can read the whole study here. And you can still help Puerto Rico rebuild by volunteering or donating here.
But, back to Costa Rica. We went back and forth for weeks between rebooking and volunteering, and we decided that ultimately we needed a chance to decompress and get our heads above water. I needed a mental health holiday. So we researched, researched, researched, called Delta, and rerouted our flight to San Jose, Costa Rica.

A beautiful market stall in San Jose filled with spices and herbs.

Why Costa Rica? Because we were American Express Delta Skymiles Members and there was an equal exchange (60,000 miles) for the trip we had initially booked and a new one to Costa Rica. So why not? Free flights to Costa Rica were, in my book, a pretty good trade in for signing up for a new credit card and spending a little money we would have spent anyway. However retrospectively, we could have gotten such a better deal under different conditions, timing, value for miles, destination, etc, but no regrets. We loved Costa Rica.

Indianapolis to Costa Rica

So fast forward to December 2017 and we’re running off to San Jose with 3 AirBNBs and a hostel booked. I’ll be honest with you, after the extensive planning that I did for Nepal, Costa Rica felt like a combination of a breeze and an utter shot in the dark. I like certainty and there was little to no certainty with this one. Thankfully we have some baller friends with who are logistically helpful and full of recommendations. First shout out goes to Ms. Terri, who let us park our car at her hotel for a week. Bloomington is an hour from the Indy airport. So we left home at 3:45 AM, made it to Indy to park the car and hopped in a cozy little shuttle over to the airport.
Commence my airport anxiety. I won’t even begin to get into this here, but it’s a thing. Part of it is being a worrier and perfectionist, and part of is traveling with a laid back risk taker. I Digress.
We quickly checked our bags and took off into the airport where we popped a 750 mL bottle of Cascade Apricot Sour. Yes, it was delicious. Yes, it was 5:15 AM. And yes, I was panicking that we’d get scolded or kicked out. And yes, it was a horrible idea. Have you ever slammed a bottle of sour? Hopefully not. It’s a horrible idea. Sours are to be savored and appreciated. Imagine a pint of kombucha or vinegar being the first thing you subject your stomach to that day. It is not how you want to start off a morning, let alone one where you’re going to be dealing with security, a plane, and a lot of strangers. Oooof.
We ended up in ATL for the layover. Shoutout #2 to HOTLANTA. This is because I know that people from Atlanta hate that term and the thought of having to step foot into that airport again makes me want to slam 4 consecutive bottles of sour so everyone else around me feels my pain. I hate the Atlanta airport, so Hotlanta it is. Salty much?
So 45 minutes in the airport for a layover to catch a secondary international flight with checked baggage? The struggle was real. But we made it from gate A1 to gate E1 with minutes to spare before the gate was supposed to close and just in time to wait on the plane for another 30 minutes for some other privileged monsters who had delayed flights and were allowed to saunter through the airport while we waited. Remind me why I travel again?

A sneak peek in to our time in La Fortuna.

Believe it or not that flight was pretty cute with the happy little ones seated behind me. It relaxed me just enough to not expect the ensuing chaos that was the San Jose airport.

Arriving in San Jose

Hopping off of the plane always feels good, but it’s a little better when you’re in the tropics. Given my inability to relax in airports I research each one extensively before landing. Are visas necessary? What does customs entail? How do we get out of there? What about our phones, any internet? Ahhh. Our to-do list before leaving SJC included get our bags, check out the duty-free shop, get a Costa Rican SIM card, and find an Uber.
You do not need a visa when visiting Costa Rica with an American passport. Your passport has to be valid for one day, and you must have a return ticket to leave Costa Rica. Customs was simple and there was nothing exciting in the duty-free shop. So grab our bags and start looking for a phone stand, right? Right. But what did we do? Grabbed our bags and got shuffled through the x-ray machine and out into the taxi chaos. Where was the phone stand? Before the x-ray machine. Ugh.
Talk about facepalm. So we maneuver ourselves with our broken Spanish through the exit terminal, through the hundreds of cab drivers, and up to the departures terminal in the hopes of finding an alternative phone stand. Guess what? That’s not a thing. So we cross our fingers and start looking for that WiFi. Please oh please oh please. It made me watch like 5 minutes of YouTube videos, but we were in.
Let’s find an Uber and make it outside to the arrival terminal without losing Wifi. We struggled through it, made it downstairs to the other terminal, and were immediately accosted by hoards of taxi drivers. I turned to Steve and said, “Hey, don’t mention Uber. It’s super taboo here and potentially illegal. Got it?” Thirty seconds later a taxi driver asks why we’re looking at our phones and if we’re waiting on an Uber. Steve says yes. Hahaha.
So now we have an aggro taxi driver consulting other taxi drivers tattling on us and trying to stir the pot. Way to go, babe. The Uber pulls up shortly thereafter, I literally throw my bag in the trunk, hop in the car, and try and leave as quickly as possible, all while the glaring taxi driver is still poo-pooing. Why this route? A taxi was $25, an Uber was under $10. There were plenty of other tourists for the taxi drivers to snag.

Securing that Rental Car

We chose to rent a vehicle while in Costa Rica because we wanted the flexibility to travel between destinations on our own time. Let me be the one to tell you that renting a car in CR could have its own book. There are so many legalities, tiers of insurance, money traps, and hidden fees, I can’t even begin to explain. We scored a killer deal on our rental through rentalcars.com and secured a Daihatsu Bego for $11/day. This is pretty unheard of and especially rare for high season. Here are a few things to note regarding car rentals in Costa Rica:
  • Get a 4×4 and know how to drive a stick shift. While the infrastructure is pretty good both to and from tourist destinations, if you have any intention of wandering off the main drag, you’ll be going over small streams and rocky roads.
  • They will put a $1,000-$2,000 hold on your credit card for a deposit.
  • There are three main tiers of insurance that you need to be aware of:
  • Standard Liability Insurance (legally required via the government)
  • Collision Damage Waiver (often required by the rental agency, but can be covered through your “Additional Card Benefits” with a VISA or an American Express credit card.)
  • Zero-Liability
  • Do not drive through water or on the beach. This will invalidate most insurance policies.
  • Some credit card CDW policies will not cover rentals in Latin American countries.
  • Some credit card CDW policies will not cover specialty vehicles, including vans, exotic cars, and pick-up trucks for transport.
  • Print your paperwork before arrival.
So in planning for this trip, renting a car is the thing that I truly wanted to be well versed in. Honestly, it’s a nightmare full of so many hoops, but if you’re willing to put the work in ahead of time, it’s totally doable. Like I said, we booked our rental car online and got a phenomenal deal. The next step for us was to look into insurance. We both have the Capital One Venture cards so we called VISA, had a pleasant chat with their representative, and each got papers and documentation stating that VISA would cover our CDW policy.

Our one picture with the Daihatsu Bego.

Note that some rental companies will not accept credit card CDW insurance coverage, but most will. And those that do will require that you have the proper documentation. And I promise you that they will look at you like a sucker when you get to the counter claiming that you have the coverage because less than 25% of people show up with the physical papers.
Next, we looked at the fine print of our rental. This is where we discovered that we hadn’t in fact booked with our VISA, we had booked with our American Express Delta SkyMiles card. Ugh. No there was no way to process a different card since we had booked through a third party. And no, there was no way to cancel the reservation and rebook and retain the same deal. Lucky for us, American Express provides similar CDW coverage, so while we had to go through the process again, we were still able to secure the proper documentation to show that our second-tier insurance was covered.
Additional fine print told us we were booked through Green Motion, a European car rental company that has partnered with Toyota, and that our SLI insurance was covered through our $11/day rental rate. This seemed too good to be true, so we emailed their customer service team for clarification and documentation. A week later we had all of the paperwork showing that the entirety of our rental was, in fact, $11/day.
So we showed up downtown San Jose with our kind, helpful Uber driver and rolled right into the rental office. As we talked through the rental agreement you could see the attendants face slowly sour as we explained that we had documentation that covered the SLI, and the CDW was covered by our card, and no we didn’t need bells and whistles. If the end he sold us on two things, partially because we wanted simplicity upon the return, and partially because we wanted to create good karma for our return inspection. I was under the impression that we would socially benefit from buying into something. So we purchased a $0 deductible policy for $40 ensuring no deductible regardless of the collision, and we purchased a pre-paid tank of gas for our retun, totaling $102 with taxes.
We were returning to San Jose on 12/26 during Tope Nacional, a giant celebration of the rider where all of the roads shut down for parades and horse processions, and our agent convinced us that we’d have limited access to petrol at the local gas stations. We know now that we did have access to gasoline, but oh well. So we signed the paperwork, did the inspection, and left our car on the lot while took off into town for food and a phone card.

Where in the world is that phone service?

About half a mile down the road we found a tiny phone stand selling SIM cards run by a kind mother/son duo. The top carriers in Costa Rica are Kolbi, Movistar, and Claro. Each has better service in different parts of the country, so I would look into the service before choosing a plan. We decided on Kolbi and paid $22 for a plan that gave us a few gigs of data for the month and a $10 credit for minutes. The gent was kind enough to help us redirect the service on Steve’s phone so that we could access data, make phone calls, and utilize the plan. We walked away happy and in search of food. We’d passed a number of mainstream chains along the way, and really just wanted something local and coffee. Where did we end up? A food court.
We ordered a casados to share, a traditional variety lunch dish with a protein, plantains, rice, beans, and some sort of salad. Mmm. Our goal was to find a soda, a local mom and pop food stop for a more authentic experience but ended up at the closest thing we could find that would keep me from eating my fingers.

A sneak peek in to our next destination, Concepcion de San Isidro.

After a little more wandering we decided it was time to hop in the car and try and make it to our Airbnb. Wouldn’t you know that it wouldn’t be until after we got back to the car that we would realize that the data on our phone doesn’t actually work? Since this girl has never used the unlocked features on a phone to try and switch to an international network, I had no idea what I was doing. So back to the phone stand. After a bit more troubleshooting we were able to get the data to work and finally download Waze, the only navigation application that really covers Costa Rica. Google Maps didn’t really cut it. And the icing on the cake was having a bird poop on me on the way back to the car.
After leaving downtown we ended up navigating through the dark streets of NE San Jose thankful for Waze and headlights. It was nice to begin to get a feel for what San Jose is all about. I was also thankful that we made the rental car reservation under Steve’s name because driving a manual up 30-60 degree inclines is not in my wheelhouse.

Lessons learned just getting to Costa Rica?

  • Don’t drink sour beer at 5 AM before boarding a plane.
  • Try to avoid any layover in Atlanta.
  • Buy a SIM card in SJU before leaving the terminal.
  • Don’t talk about Uber in Costa Rica.
  • Get coffee at the airport, because no one wants to wait for caffeine.
  • Come prepared with basic Spanish phrases if you don’t speak the language fluently.
  • Have all of your rental car paperwork taken care of ahead of time.
  • Download your navigation apps and map downloaded ahead of time.
  • Don’t walk under trees with hundreds of birds waiting to take flight.
  • Learn to drive a stick shift.
Happy Planning!
Brittany
Next: Concepcion de San Isidro, Heredia

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