Traveling Costa Rica on a Budget: 6 Tips for Savvy Travelers

surfing in Tamarindo Costa Rica
Tip: Swap the surf lesson for a surfboard rental, and traveling Costa Rica on a budget just got a little easier.

Have you ever heard that Costa Rica is not a “budget destination”? You’ve heard right. But what that usually means is that Costa Rica is a challenge to shoestring budgets because traveling Costa Rica on a budget is possible. And not just possible, but very doable.

Certainly, you’ll have to get a little creative. And you may have to make a few swaps of this for that. And you’ll more frequently choose a free beach day or a $10 pp national park hike over a $150 pp tour day. But you can and will travel, explore, and enjoy the wilds and wiles of Costa Rica on a budget.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

Tip #1: Always Read the [Menu] Fine Print

restaurant service in Tamarindo

In Costa Rica, all restaurant service taxes (13%) and a basic tip (10%) are supposed to be included in the prices listed on the menu. In other words, if a dish is listed at ¢5,000 (about $7.50), then the final price should be ¢5,000 – not ¢5,000 + 13% service + 10% tip.

That said, some restaurants list their prices without the service and tip. So, do your budget a favor and always check the menu (usually at the bottom/footer) for text along the lines of “Los precios incluyen I.V.I.” (Prices include I.V.I., or the service + tip tax) If you see something along the lines of “Los precios no incluyen I.V.I.”, then the 23% additional is not included. Some restaurants will include the 13% service fee but not the 10% tip; in this case, the 10% tip is not optional and will always be added onto your final bill.

Tip #2: Avoid Renting a Car

rent a banana bike in Tamarindo

This one doesn’t apply to everyone – but not for budget reasons! Because, without a doubt, rental cars are a big expense in Costa Rica. (More on that, in a minute.) But first, a stipulation: If you’re an adventurous, independent traveler who loves venturing the road less traveled (literally), even if you’re traveling Costa Rica on a budget, then you will absolutely want a car. And make it a 4WD because you’re going to need it.

But if you’re looking to save some dough, don’t. Here’s why: You may find a great deal online for a rental car. You may also have a credit card that you are absolutely positive will act as your third-party liability car insurance (required by law). And yet, most rental car agencies will be absolutely positive that it does not.

You can fight the good fight – and some people win – but unless you’re one of the lucky ones, you will be asked (subtext: required) to pay an additional $30-$60 per day in insurance – and that’s not even full rental car insurance! Want zero liability and roadside assistance? Tack on an additional $20+ per day. In other words, it adds up.

And now, you’re wondering about rental car alternatives? You can also ask your travel concierge to find you an all-in rental car price to fit your budget OR you can use a combination of airport transportation, private drivers/taxis/Uber, public buses, bike rentals, and walking, depending on where you’re headed. (Get in touch and we’ll be happy to help you figure it all out!)

Tip #3: If You Need More than One Room, Rent a Vacation Home

pool at Sunrise Condos Tamarindo
Believe it! Upgrading to a vacation home can be one of the easiest ways to travel Costa Rica on a budget. (Pictured: The spectacular pool at Sunrise Condominiums)

Unless you’re a true shoestring traveler staying in hostel dorms, then you’re probably working with a modest accommodation budget (say, about $100/night/room).

If that’s the case, then consider staying in a vacation home and not a hotel. Here’s why: In addition to offering more space, greater privacy, and just-for-you amenities, private vacation homes are often less expensive than their hotel counterparts. For example, several of our Tamarindo vacation homes are under $100/night per bedroom – and they offer a lot more than a bedroom.

Bonus: You can also save money prepping meals at home in your vacation home’s fully equipped kitchen. Even if you’re prepping just your morning coffee, breakfast, and a quick lunch sandwich, you’ll save over dining out (even on the cheap) for every meal.

Stay Here: Sunrise #4

Tamarindo | 3 Beds | 2 Baths | Sleeps 10

oceanview from Sunrise 4 Tamarindo penthouse

While we’re on the topic of traveling Costa Rica on a budget, consider Sunrise #4, a luxury, oceanview penthouse across the street from the beach. Not only that, but its location is ideal (especially if you want to ditch the rental car): Situated in Tamarindo – one of the most accessible, amenity-rich beach towns in the county – Sunrise #4 puts you close to everything.

And, did we mention? Starting at well under $100/night per bedroom, Sunrise #4 also offers a spacious terrace and BBQ area, a gorgeous resort pool, and powdery beach, just across the street. You cannot beat the location, the home, or the value!

>> Inquire Here <<

Tip #4: Do NOT Exchange Money at the Airport. Or Anywhere, Really!

beach shells
Many of the best things about the Costa Rican experience are free. Currency exchange isn’t.

One of the biggest rip-offs in Costa Rica? Currency exchange counters. Whether they’re at the airport, the grocery store, or a local souvenir market, chances are very good that you’ll get hosed by the exchange rate.

Instead, always skip the exchange step and let the banks do it for you: Withdraw Costa Rican colones (pronounced co-lo-nays) from any ATM within your network. What ATMs are in your network, you ask? Almost any ATM marked ATH (a toda hora, or all-hours) is equipped to handle international ATM cards; additionally, all ATMs will be marked with network stickers, ex. MasterCard and Cirrus/Plus.

That said, you probably won’t need a lot of cash. Costa Rica’s credit card acceptance network is wide – many taxi drivers can even accept credit cards! – and most payments are contactless. That said, cash is required for tips, small artisan souvenir purchases, oceanfront coconut water (fresh from the coconut), and other minor purchases.

Tip #5: Eat at Sodas

One of the best ways to save money when traveling Costa Rica on a budget is to savor (and fill up on) a dose of Costa Rican culture is at a local soda. (Note: Not a fizzy drink.)

Sodas are Costa Rica’s version of the mom-and-pop or corner diner, serving up hearty, homemade, and traditional fare. The most filling and typical meal: a casado, which “marries” (casado means “married”) many of Costa Rica’s most traditional dishes, including your choice of protein (beef, chicken, pork, or eggs/fried cheese for the vegetarians), rice, beans, salad, and fried plantains, often served with a small fruit juice. For $3-$5 (at local sodas, not tourist traps), you cannot beat this cheap and filling meal!

Stay Here: Casa Limoncillo

Tamarindo | 2 Beds | 2 Baths | Sleeps 10

Casa Limoncillo Tamarindo vacation rental

For luxury on a budget, you cannot beat the lovely and luxe Casa Limoncillo. Located just a 5-minute drive to Tamarindo’s sand and surf, this modern home offers all the amenities. And boy, do well mean ALL of them.

We’ll start by singing the praises of the home’s outdoor rancho, BBQ, and saltwater swimming pool, which offers a gentle retreat and cool respite from the tropical sun. Its neighbor: a fire pit (excellent for star gazing!) and the jungle gym/climbing structure and trampoline of your children’s dreams. And all around: lush gardens, exotic birds, and tropical wildlife. It’s paradise.

>> Inquire Here <<

Tip #6: Travel During the Shoulder or Green Season

Tamarindo vacation outdoor activities sunset sailing
Love a great sunset? Then you’ll be happy to know that the green season’s rains deliver the best sunsets of the year.

Costa Rica’s shoulder season – typically, April/May and November/early December, but it depends on the destination! – is one of our favorite times to travel. Not only will you still have a good chance at great weather (more sunny hours, less rain), but you’ll get a price break on accommodations and, often, certain tours, transportation, and other services that rely on demand.

What’s more – and, granted, this isn’t a budget thing – but shoulder and green season mean fewer tourists, which in turn means more of Costa Rica to yourself. And that, in itself, can feel pretty luxurious. Just imagine having the beach alllll to yourself… Nothing is sweeter!

Traveling Costa Rica on a Budget? Let’s Chat!

Whether you’re venturing off the beaten path or sticking firmly to it, we can help you make the most of your time here – even and especially if you’re traveling Costa Rica on a budget. We’ll make you feel at home, everywhere and anywhere you find yourself adventuring.

We offer everything from cozy two-bedroom condos to well-priced family vacation rentals equipped with swimming pools, fully equipped kithen, and so much more. Search our inventory to find your perfect vacation home!