Guide to Car Rental Companies in Costa Rica

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“My time’s limited… how do i choose? ”

Car rental is a hot topic for vacationers headed to Costa Rica. Recent research conducted by the Costa Rican Institute of Tourism (ICT) indicates that, after accommodations, renting a car is the largest expense, averaging $702 for an eleven-day vacation.

The Internet is buzzing with negative reviews discussing overcharging, poor customer service and mechanical breakdowns. You might have even written one yourself!

A typical midsize (3 – 4 adults) 4×4 rental runs between $58 and $65 daily with third party insurance and rates can vary as much as 20 percent among car rental companies, so reading a quick review will be time well spent once you calculate the savings.

So the question is; which rental company offers the best balance of fair price, capable customer service and reliable vehicles? I’ve researched it all for you, so keep reading!

Disclosure: This research was conducted in May – July 2013. The following companies were selected because they are the most widely used in Costa Rica. Some are local companies; others are international franchises of recognized brand names. Comparisons include: customer service, pricing and the reservation process. The companies are listed alphabetically and not based on personal or online preferences.
Consider this information before renting:

Insurance

One of the biggest causes for complaints is from the stack of unforeseen charges presented to the renter once standing at the rental company’s counter. Vacationers are typically tired after a long flight and then are confronted by costs that were not anticipated, explained or budgeted.

Topping the list of grievances is the non-disclosure of fees associated with the mandatory third-party insurance at the time the reservation is made.

According to Costa Rican law, every driver is required to carry liability coverage to insure against injuries to third parties. Car rental companies generally refrain from disclosing the cost of this policy in the quoted rental rate to appear more competitive. Mandatory third-party insurance can sometimes be as much as double the vehicle’s rental cost. The only guarantee against insurance confusion is to inquire if your estimate includes the third party insurance and insist on a written quotation.

Cost of Mandatory Insurance (also called Third Party or SLI)

Expect to pay between $12 and $15 daily for this insurance, depending on the make and model of the rented vehicle and the rental car agency. This is a legal condition of your rental agreement and is generally not covered by credit cards and cannot be waived. It’s a fact of renting a car in Costa Rica.

Collision Damage Waiver (CDW)

As the name suggests, this isn’t insurance, but a waiver, which relieves the renter from any liability for damage to the rental car after the deductible is paid (usually from $750 to $1, 500). Some agencies require renters to purchase their CDW policy; thereby negating any credit card program. For an additional fee, many agencies do offer a zero liability option where the renter will be freed from paying for any damage to the car. Some companies may put pressure upon renters to purchase the zero liability coverage; however, it is entirely optional, unless it is in the fine print of their rental agreement.

Credit card insurance programs may cover the CDW for a rental vehicle. Check with your chosen rental car company to find which proof of insurance is needed and then request that from your credit card company prior to arriving. If you use your credit card’s CDW policy, expect to pay a higher deposit on the vehicle; around $1, 500 to $2000 is common. The higher deposit ensures that the credit card holder has enough financial reserves to cover damages if needed. It is important to consider that if using CDW coverage provided by a credit card (in lieu of the rent a car operator), all damages will be billed to the renter’s credit card. The credit card company will then reimburse the card holder for damages.

More Insurance

Tires and windshields are rarely included in insurance policies, although additional policies may be taken out for covering these frequently damaged items. Neither the interior nor the underneath of the vehicle may be covered. Always read the fine print.

Standard Procedure

Your credit card will be charged, or a ‘hold’ placed, for the rental vehicle during the time of the rental agreement; i. e. from picking up the rental until you return it. Debit cards are generally not acceptable.

Additional Charges

Most companies have surcharges for additional drivers, car seats/boosters, cell phones, coolers, GPS and/or roof racks. The costs vary from company to company, but since these extras are billed at a daily rate, it is worth checking the total cost — additional options can add up very quickly! A GPS is around $8 to $10 per day; however, some operators may offer discounted units. Expect to pay around $5 daily for a child seat and a few dollars a day for all the other ‘niceties’. Vamos is notable for offering most of these options and, during some promotions, even the GPS rental complimentarily. Alamo, Budget, Hertz and National charge the most for such additional options; whereas the other companies listed, charge more reasonable prices.

Surcharges

Most companies add small incremental costs, such as license plate and environmental fees, into the total tally. Be wary of operators who insert these additional charges into the small print of the rental contract. Vehicles rented direct at the airport incur airport taxes, which are a whopping 12% of your rental cost!

The rental vehicle should be returned with the same amount of fuel, unless otherwise indicated. If not, companies may charge above gas station rates for missing fuel.

Vehicles

There is a debate over the vehicles supplied by rental companies: Older cars allow the driver to blend in more than a shiny, new car. Having an older model may have the indirect benefit of being less scrutinized by car rental agencies for recent nicks and scratches, unlike a newer vehicle. However, a newer vehicle may be more roadworthy. This debate carries on into the different vehicle makes and models. Generally, Costa Rican firms are able to rent their vehicles for a lower rate because their cars are typically three to five years old (versus two to three). Online reviews would suggest that the local firms have no more complaints concerning vehicle quality than transnational franchises; research on forums, such as TripAdvisor.com, seems to indicate that customers frequently appreciate driving a less-than-new vehicle through the wilds of Costa Rica. The reasons are plenty, from road conditions to the notion of less-then-new vehicles blending in better — a newer vehicle may draw more unwanted attention.

The choices of rental cars in Costa Rica are mostly limited to makes and models that maintain a competitive resale value, are a common brand in the country, and are inexpensive to maintain. As such a rent-a-car operator’s fleet tend not to be as diverse as the united states. Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi and Hyundai constitute the mainstay brands of most rental fleets.

Sometimes, drivers are charged for supposed ‘damages’ to the vehicle upon return. Once receiving the vehicle, renters should meticulously check for pre-existing flaws and compare it with the vehicle inspection document used by the rental car representative. Some renters suggest photographing or videoing the vehicle from all angles, to avoid any disagreement between pre-existing and recently damaged items.

Pricing

Car rentals in Costa Rica are pricier compared to other countries. Duties on vehicles are high (as much as 50% of their value! )#), parts are costlier and unforgiving road conditions contribute to higher wear and tear, generating higher maintenance costs.

The rule is you get what you pay for — there are other options than those rental companies listed here, but they are not listed for a good reason. They simply fail to offer basic customer service and/or a suitable vehicle condition required for a (nearly) trouble-free vacation.

When comparing rental car charges, it is best to go directly to the Costa Rican website of the rental car company, rather than trying to use their international format or an intermediary (Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, Kayak, et al. )#). For the same vehicles and reservation dates, the rates offered by the respective international vs. Costa Rican websites for Alamo, Budget, Hertz and Thrifty differed substantially.

To avoid confusion, print out all correspondence with the car rental company with whom you have reserved a vehicle and bring this to the rental office with the quote given at the time of reservation.

The following top ten chart ranks the companies from highest priced to lowest and it includes the mandatory insurance charge. In the cases of Alamo and Hertz, the figure contains their CDW fee as it is one of their rental requirements. This price comparison is based on a week’s rental of a Daihatsu Bego, where available (Dollar offers the Suzuki Vitara) from September 14th – 21st, then again in December to view both Green and High Season rates. The list quickly demonstrates that the price variation depends greatly on the company — for basically the same service. These prices were obtained in June/July 2013.

Rental Car Companies Ranked According to Price

September

10. Alamo $650. 96
9. Hertz $514. 27
8. Adobe $449
7. Budget $455
6. National $428. 01
5. Thrifty $421. 05
4. Service $374. 43
3. Vamos $370. 30
2. Dollar $364
1. Wild Rider $350

December

10. Alamo $650. 96
9. National $597. 51
8. Hertz $566. 52
7. Budget $555
6. Dollar $532
5. Thrifty $506. 58
4. Service $494. 43
3. Vamos $461. 30
2. Adobe $459
1. Wild Rider $395

Alamo ranks number ten for both seasons, making it the most expensive company. Budget, Hertz and National also rate low on the scale for economical rental options.

Company Summaries

Adobe

Website is clear and easy to use, but pricing and even the vehicles listed are not the same as those given by an office representative over the phone. Mandatory insurance costs are not shown with the list of vehicles and rental charges, but they are clearly displayed on the following page as a customer moves towards booking a reservation. Mixed customer reviews online. Email response is less than 24 hours, but may not provide all requested information.

Toll-free U. S. A and Canada phone number. No Live Chat.
10 offices nationwide
Mandatory insurance: $19 daily
Additional charges: GPS $9/day, child seat $5/day

Alamo

Website is clear and easy to use, but prices differ against quotes received over the phone. Mandatory insurance costs are not given with the list of vehicles and rental charges, but they are clearly displayed on the following page as the customer moves towards making a reservation. Mixed customer reviews online. Email response is less than 24 hours.

No toll-free U. S. A and Canada phone number or Live chat
14 offices nationwide
Mandatory insurance: $11. 95 daily, but must also take their CDW at $12. 95 daily
Additional charges: GPS $12/day, child seat $6/day

Budget

Website is basic, but easy to use. Prices online differ to the quotations given by a representative over the phone and depending on whether the international or Costa Rican website is used. Mandatory insurance costs are given along with the list of vehicles; however, the other charges are not listed. Mixed customer reviews online. Email response is more than 24 hours.

No toll-free U. S. A and Canada phone number. No Live Chat on Costa Rican website.
10 offices nationwide
Mandatory insurance: included in the listed price
Additional charges: GPS $10. 95/day, child seat $12/day (the most expensive of the top ten)

Dollar

Website is clear and easy to use. Prices quoted differ if calling from the U. S. or in Costa Rica. Mandatory insurance costs are not given with the list of vehicles and rental charges, but they are clearly displayed on the following page as a customer moves towards a making a reservation. Mixed reviews online, but generally receives positive feedback. Email inquiries answered within 24 hours.

Toll-free U. S. A and Canada phone number. No Live Chat.
3 offices nationwide
Mandatory insurance: $16 daily
Additional charges: GPS $9/day, child seat $5/day

Hertz

Website is clear and easy to use. Mandatory insurance costs are not given besides the list of vehicles and rental charges, but they are clearly displayed on the following page as the customer moves towards a booking a reservation. Mixed customer reviews online. Email response less than 24 hours.

Toll-free U. S. A and Canada phone number and Live Chat (although it seems to be permanently offline)
7 offices nationwide
Mandatory insurance: $17. 43 daily, but their CDW is also a requirement
Additional charges: GPS $12/day, child seat $2/day

National

Website is clear and easy to use. Mandatory insurance costs are not given along with the list of vehicles and rental charges, but they are clearly displayed on the following page as a customer moves towards making a reservation. Mixed customer reviews online, but more positive than negative. Email response less than 24 hours.

Toll-free U. S. A and Canada phone number. Live Chat.
22 offices nationwide
Mandatory insurance: $25 daily (the most expensive of the top ten)
Additional charges: GPS $12/day, child seat $6/day

Service

Website is clear and user friendly with just a slight confusion in that an online quote is obtained by clicking on ‘Reserve Now’ and not the ‘Get a Quote’ option. The response to a phone inquiry was to use the website. Mandatory insurance costs are given along with the list of vehicles and rental charges for the low season charges and on the second page of the other quotation page. Remember is a highly recommended sales representative who is mentioned in many online reviews for the high level of his customer service. Generally online reviews are positive for Service. Email response is less than 24 hours, although all information requested may not be received.

U. S. A phone number, but not toll-free. No Live Chat.
5 offices nationwide
Mandatory insurance: $15 daily
Additional charges: GPS $5. 99/day, child seat $2. 99/day

Thrifty

Costa Rican version of the website is impossible to use and you are asked to register for a user name and password. Mandatory insurance costs are not given along with the list of vehicles and rental charges. A customer has to click on “Protection Options” on the U. S. website and select the mandatory insurance by clicking on it — implying that it is optional and not a required cost. Thrifty tend to receive mixed reviews online. Email response is more than 24 hours.

Toll-free U. S. A and Canada phone number. No Live Chat.
4 offices nationwide
Mandatory insurance: $19. 99 daily
Additional charges: GPS $10/day, child seat $5/day

Vamos

Website is clear and easy to use. Mandatory insurance costs are not given along side the list of vehicles and rental charges, but are clearly displayed on the following page as the customer moves towards booking a reservation. Anibal, a representative, is frequently mentioned in online reviews for his high level of customer service skills. General Manager, George Schwarzenbach is known on Trip Advisor for his upfront and honest responses to customers’ posts.

In recent years, Vamos has received very positive reviews online. Email response is less than 24 hours. Live Chat has instant response time to inquiries.

Toll-free U. S. A and Canada phone number. Live Chat.
3 offices nationwide
Mandatory insurance: $11. 95 daily
Additional charges: GPS $8/day, child seat free

Wild Rider

Website is clear and easy to use. Mandatory insurance costs are given next to the list of vehicles. Wild Rider is the only car rental firm in Costa Rica with no visible bad reviews online. Owner, Thorsten, is often praised for his efficiency and customer service, despite the very limited resources the company has at hand. Emails receive very prompt and detailed responses in less than 12 hours.

No toll-free phone number or Live Chat
1 office — no Liberia airport office
Mandatory insurance: included
Additional charges: GPS $8/day, child seat $5/day

Comparison Review

Customer service

Vamos and Wild Rider respond quickly and efficiently to email or live chat inquiries. Adobe, Alamo, Dollar, Hertz, National, and Service respond to email inquiries in less than 24 hours, but Adobe and Service did not provide all the information requested (possibly a language barrier). Budget offers a free phone service, but it appears to be always busy. Hertz’s live chat appears to be constantly offline. During the past year, customers who posted to online review sites expressed a particular satisfaction with the customer service offered by Service, Vamos and Wild Rider.

Clarity

Adobe, Alamo and Budget have different rental prices posted on their websites than those quoted over the phone. Telephone prices were lower than that quoted on the website in the cases of Adobe and Alamo, but yet higher in the case of Budget. Adobe also offers different vehicle models over the phone as compared to their website. International car rental firms with both a Costa Rican and international website appear to have pricing differences between the two sites.

Budget and Wild Rider include the mandatory insurance in their rental prices, but Budget states that ‘other charges’ which will be presented at the counter in the small print on their website. Rental prices for car seating had to be verified on the phone as they are not listed on the Budget website.

All other companies with the exception of Thrifty (a U. S. website), clearly show the mandatory insurance cost with the quotation given. Thrifty’s Costa Rican website is simply unusable.

Pricing

Service, Vamos and Wild Rider consistently offer the best rates for both Green and High seasons, although Dollar has one of the lowest Green season rates available, while Adobe has a cheaper High season rate. Vamos offer the best “all inclusive” rates, given that most options are offered for free.

Adobe, Dollar, Service, Thrifty and Wild Rider remain competitive with their pricing of items such as child seats. Alamo, Hertz and National are the most expensive companies to rent from and their additional option costs are also more expensive.

“So, what’s your rental recommendation? ”

Overall, the Costa Rican companies seem to trump the multi-nationals with better pricing, service and clarity.
Service offers a generally high-level of customer service and fairly competitive pricing at both international airports.
Vamos can offer efficient booking and continued high-level of customer service with competitive pricing, as well as free additional options at both SJO and LIR airports.
Wild Rider is very highly rated for a rental with clear and economical pricing and excellent customer service, but they are only in San Jose.

“Now you’re ready to book your rental car after seeing how the competition compares. Good luck and happy travels! ”

Costa Rica provides the traveler with outstanding natural beauty, miles of beaches and a safe environment to relax in, but car rental is a minefield with mandatory insurance, franchising and downright skulduggery in pricing and non-disclosure of costs. Read, research and find the information that will ensure your vacation car rental is a breeze!