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Costa Rica is the gem in Central America’s tourism crown: lush, green jungles, wild animals, breathtaking beaches and a well-developed infrastructure make a trip to Costa Rica as easy as it can be adventurous, suitable for many different types of visitors. The level of development, however, has also raised prices on goods and services, hotel rates and transportation to a level that most budget travelers (falsely) believe to be out of their range. It is certainly easy to plow through some serious cash here, but with a bit of planning ahead, Costa Rica can be nearly as inexpensive as its neighbors.

Puerto Viejo palm tree beach Costa Rica
Many travelers we met along the way spoke with disdain about Costa Rica being over-priced and too expensive – those who were the most outspoken on the topic had opted to skip the country altogether. Since I had lived here for a year back in the day, there was no question that we would travel through. What we intended to be a two week trip was extended to three. In that time, our Costa Rica travel budget ended up to be less than both our Guatemala and Nicaragua budgets, coming in at just under $27 per person per day (based on two sharing accommodation). Read on for a few simple tips on how to travel through Costa Rica on a shoestring budget.

Take the bus

Taking private shuttles or taxis to get around can easily eat through your budget, but this can be easily avoided by taking the bus. The bus system in Costa Rica is organized, and the buses are safe, comfortable and nearly at a North American standard. The chicken buses (old American school buses) seen throughout the rest of Central America are few and far between here. The buses run between all the major towns and on schedule, and while a private shuttle can easily cost from $40 to $75, a local bus charges less than $10 for the same route.

Eat at a Soda

Found everywhere throughout Costa Rica, a ‘soda’ is a typical Costa Rican restaurant which serves up ‘comida tipica’ or a menu of typical Costa Rican fare, mainly in various forms of casados: a huge plate of rice, beans, red and white cabbage salad, pasta and meat, or extra vegetables for vegetarians. While a restaurant in a tourist spot often charges between $10 and $15 per person per meal, the price of a ‘casado’ varies between $2 and $7, depending on the casado you choose and the place you are at – sodas in a tourist destinations obviously charge much more than in cities like Heredia or Liberia.

A soda in Costa Rica

Drink Tap water

Unlike the rest of Central America, drinking the tap water in Costa Rica is perfectly safe. If you have been traveling throughout the region, you might think only a crazy person would fill up bottles with tap water, but the water in nearly every Costa Rican town is drinkable (ask at your hotel/hostel if you’re unsure). With bottled water costing between $1 and $3 a bottle, refilling your own bottles will save you a hefty sum of pocket change.

Buy beer in the shop, not the bar

At $2.50 – $3.50 a bottle in most bars, beer in Costa Rica can quickly eat through your daily budget. Of course in a country with so many relaxing beaches, sometimes a beer is a must. Plan ahead and grab yourself a few cold cans at a local shop for half the price and enjoy your beers on the beach just a few meters past the beach bar itself.

Costa Rica Imperial beer

Book a trip for the Off-season

Costa Rica is a popular tourist destination for North Americans and Europeans alike, and prices shoot up during Holidays, Christmas and between January and March. Planning a trip to Costa Rica during the low season, May to November, can save you as much as 50 per cent on hotels and flights. The low season is also partially the rainy season, but with the exception of a few rainy weeks, downpours usually only last a couple of hours in the morning and the sun shines for the rest of the day.

Opt for a hostel

The hostel scene has come a long way from the dingy twelve-bed dorm room, and not only are hostels cleaner, brighter and more affordable than ever, most also offer private double rooms for a fraction of what a hotel costs. We stayed in countless small hostels, run by people who care about their guests and take pride in offering a cozy, clean place to stay. Some hostels even offer a swimming pool, a bar, a lounge, books, board games, and free breakfast. You are also more likely to meet other travelers at the bar or in the common areas, whereas most hotels have a much more anonymous feeling to them. A private room in a hostel costs between $20 and $30 per couple, whereas a hotel room runs from $50 upwards.

Hostel Breakfast at Costa Linda Manuel Antonio

Budget Travel Tip: With such a well-developed tourism industry, National Park tours and adventure activities in Costa Rica are usually very much worth the money, so make sure to budget in $15 – $75 per tour during your time in the country. Putting these budget tips into practice should save you plenty of money to take at least a few top quality tours.

Feel free to add your money-saving tips for Costa Rica in the comments below!

Tags : costa ricaOn a shoestring

42 Comments

  1. Awesome tips, Jess! i’ve been peripherally aware of Costa Rica for years, but this information makes me want to hop on a plane tomorrow (and, hey, it’s low season)!

    1. Ha! You’re right it is low season now! It’s a great country and so easy to travel through Costa Rica, we’d suggest you go hop on that plane 🙂

    1. It can be pricey, especially if you don’t do some research first and stay vigilant while you are there. It’s easy to pay $15 per person per meal, but often if you just walk up the street to a soda, you’ll get great food for $4. Let us know if you need any tips if you do decide to go!

    1. It really can, Kelsey. People get so caught up sometimes in being ‘tourists’ that they forget that a good chunk of the population get by on very little, so there are ways to keep the costs down. As we said, we spent less here than in Nicaragua and Guatemala, just by being careful like this. Thanks for stopping by!!!

        1. Exactly, the only time you have to spend more is because you see more ‘sights’ in a shorter period, short-term accommodation is more expensive than paying long-term rent (unless you couchsurf or housesit), and sometimes, you make mistakes/get lost/don’t know the cheapest option, but why do people forget that locals don’t spend loads so you don’t have to either!!

  2. Love this article — thanks!

    Question for you:

    If we’re looking for a place with the nicest beaches (beautiful, calm, not too cold, unpolluted, etc.), and the most charming, relaxing and affordable beach towns, what would be your favorite places to recommend in Central America or Mexico (if you’ve been)?

    We were thinking of going to Sayulita, Mexico, but the Sayulita beach is a bit rough and cold. And the sand cuts your feet!

    Now you’ve got me thinking that perhaps Costa Rica or Nicaragua would be even better …

    Cheers,
    Laila

    1. Hi Laila, there are so many options……. where to start 😉 Costa Rica and Nicaragua definitely have some amazing beaches that you’d enjoy – I will send you an email with some suggestions.

  3. I forgot to add:

    We’re hoping for a beach that’s got a mellow vibe, no big hotels or chain restaurants or high buildings, etc. We liked Yelapa and Sayulita (both in Mexico), but the water/beach itself was a little rough/cold in both places. Playa del Carmen beach (in Mexico) was also a little rough and cold for me. Your description of one of beaches on Isla Mujeres sounded lovely (ankle deep and shallow, etc.). Is there a steep drop off at any point, or can you submerge yourself easily?

  4. Hi, this website is really helpful. Thank you for puttin git up. I have a quick question. Is it possible to book local bus tickets in advance and if so how far in advance should I book them? I’m planning on going to Costa Rica in November and I’m trying to figure out if this is something I need to worry about. I don’t want to get stranded somewhere.

    Thanks in advance for your help.

    1. Hello, thanks a lot! I don’t think you need to worry about pre-booking your bus tickets, I don’t even think it is possible to do that online, except for the Pan-Central American routes like Ticabus. We usually went to the bus station a day before our planned departure and bought our tickets, and that was enough. And at times we just showed up for the bus and we also always got a seat. Enjoy Costa Rica!

  5. Try San Juan del sur and all the beaches in Nicaragua. That particular beach has been discovered but Nicaragua is definitely less touristy than Costa Rica. If you are doing
    Costa Rica skip the very American and touristy North Pacific
    and listen to what the girls say, head South for Nosara and especially Samara, where Ticos go.
    I especially recommend taking a ten dollar local bus from San Jose going to Cahuita. You should especially visit with a guide,
    The Gandocco Manzanillo park near the Panama border.
    The hike there was definitely the highlight of my whole trip.
    I sawcayman,morphobutterflies,gators,spiders,sloths,tanagers,
    And so many other wonders like the coral islands off the coast.

  6. Hi! I’m traveling to costa rica and panama for a total of 38 day this coming monday, the 14th. I am travling alone,and have the latest lonley planet guide book. I am starting to get very nervous because most places reviewed are beyond expensive. Usually they mention loads of budget places. Any thoughts??

    1. Hi Misty, did you have a look at the places we reviewed in Central America? Most of them were pretty reasonable, even though Costa Rica is a little bit more expensive… but you can still find good deals. Try to look on Hostelbookers.com for some special offers (they also have guesthouses on there, not only hostels). Some of the cheapest places we found were Costa Linda Backpackers in Manuel Antonio and Cabinas El Pueblo in Monteverde, but there are plenty of other cheap places in Monteverde and on the Carribean coast. We found it more difficult in Arenal and on the Pacific beaches to find cheap accommodation.

  7. Hi Dani and Jess,

    This is a great blog with excellent information. Kudos to you both!

    So, me and my gal are going to Costa Rica right after Thanksgiving in the States, which basically puts us there the first week of December. We’re trying to avoid the price hikes in CR later in the month and also avoid some of the rain.

    I have seen some reasonable accommodations on AirBnB and think I may go that route for places to stay in San Jose Monteverde and the Pacific Coast.

    Here’s my question, you mention buses. Are these pretty safe? What are the alternatives for getting around the country for 8 or 9 days? Also, my GF speaks fluent Spanish, if that helps. I keep wondering if we should rent a car. Not sure what to do.

    Another question, she wants to take beginner surfing lessons. I have read that Dominical is the place to go for that. Do you agree or have other suggestions? Thanks a bunch, ladies, and keep on doing what you do.

    1. Hi Ramona, great to hear you’re heading to Costa Rica! It’s a great time of year to visit, and like you say, just before the high season prices start 🙂 The buses are all very safe and relatively comfy. WE know that sometimes there are pickpockets on the inner city buses, so we were usually very careful and had all our valuables not within reach for anyone. It’s a good question about buses vs. rental cars – we did both, and loved the freedom the car gave us (there wasn’t even a decent bus connection from Samara to Arenal, so we basically had to rent a car!) but it was pretty pricey compared to the buses. If $$$ is not an issue, I’d probably prefer renting a car. You might find a good deal through one of the car hire websites (BookingBuddy.com or the likes) right at the airport. Your girlfriend speaking Spanish will definitely help! Dominical is known to be a good surfer’s spot, but also Nosara and Santa Teresa. Most of the places along the Pacific are good surf spots though – depending on where you go, you might want to hit up a couple of them? Feel free to get in touch again any time before your trip if we can help with anything else! Enjoy Costa Rica 🙂

  8. Hi there, I will be traveling to Costa Rica solo. I actually am doing workaway for a hostel in Samara. SO I should be staying in Samara for a month for free and just working a few hours. Anyhow I was wondering would you recommend snorkeling on that side or waiting till I make it to the Caribbean coast? Also are there must do’s in Samara? And what’s the easiest way to get from Samara to Arenal via bus? I noticed you mentioned there’s no direct bus. I’m also planning all my zip lining and long hiking in Arenal sense I’ve heard so much. But would you recommend opting out for a another area. I’m on a budget so I’ll be doing those type of things once. Thanks love your site!

  9. Hi Dani & Jess,

    This was super helpful! My boyfriend and I are going for a wedding right after the New Year (the expensive season apparently) and we’re also really bad last minute planners.

    Does anyone have any suggestions for the area around Quepos? From my research so far, it seems like a bit of a tourist trap :-/ We’re going to rent a car but a lot of the great National Parks & big sites like volcanoes I wanted to see are 4+ driving away. Is there anything to do around where we’re staying or should we suck it up and make the drives? We’ll be in Quepos for a week.

    Thanks so much!

    1. Thanks so much, Hannah! Quepos is a bit of a tourist trap, yes. I wouldn’t recommend visiting the National Parks on daily drives – they’re just too far away. If you’re planning to see some more of Costa Rica I’d recommend driving up the coast, maybe stop at another beach in Guanacaste (Samara or Montezuma), then drive north to Monteverde to see the cloud forest and then to Arenal from there before heading back to the airport from there. We negotiated free airport drop-off with our car rental company the last time we were in CR, but we were there just before high-season, so we were in a better position to negotiate.

  10. I have been considering a trip here for a while now and reading this has made my mind up! I will be flying from the UK so the biggest expense for me is the actual flight, but my budget for 2 weeks would be around $750-1000, which looks like would actually go quite far. I like to budget backpack, stay in hostels, camping and love street side food. I’m considering going in June before the rainy season kicks in, but also off season, so it’s good to see that it is cheaper around that time too. Thanks for the advice!

    1. Hi Caroline, your budget for two weeks sounds good to me – definitely doable! You should be able to do it for $750 but it’s nice to have a little cushion. Enjoy Costa Rica and let me know if I can help out with anything else 🙂

  11. Me and my girlfriend are going June 20th they the 28th 2015. Any help on hostels or bargain hotels are appreciated. I believe we are going to be flying into San Jose

    1. Have you checked our Costa Rica Hotel section? There, we feature our favorites in Monteverde, Manuel Antonio, Samara and a couple of other places. I usually use Booking.com to see which hotels are inexpensive but well rated (ideally above 8) and have a sale .. you might be lucky with sales since you’re not traveling in high season. Private rooms at hostels will probably be the cheapest option 🙂 Enjoy Costa Rica, Isaac!

  12. Hi Danny!
    Love your informative blog. I’m flying in to San Jose and am trying to hit rio celestial, I know it’s a long way to it, would it be cheaper to rent a car or what other options would you recommend? Thanks in advance!

    1. Hi Ruby, I am sorry that I can’t help but I’ve never been to Rio Celestial. I know that some areas of Costa Rica are not very well connected by bus and it makes sense to rent a car, but if you can find a bus that goes there from San Jose it’ll definitely be cheaper than a car rental (car rental prices are en par with US prices, while the buses cater to locals)

  13. Hi, I’m planning to go to Costa Rica for five nights max in November. I’m traveling solo. I asked an online travel planner for a budget and was charged USD1200, including airport transfers to Liberia airport but not including meals. Is this too much?

    1. Too much, Eva!! You can definitely travel for less. Pick up a Lonely Planet or another guidebook for Costa Rica and it’ll have all the information you need – how to get from A to B, recommended hotels, etc. Seriously Eva you can do it for much less than $1200. I recommend going into an actual bookstore and look through the travel guides before buying one. That way you’ll get a good feel for them.

  14. This is a great blog. Thank you for the tips.
    My husband and I are planning a trip sometime n june this year.

    I was keen on visiting the eastern side- Limon area. What is your take on that? and which towns/ areas would you recommend?

    We are not people who do a lot of water activities, but we love the ocean and nature

    1. Thanks so much! I think you’ll love Cahuita (there’s also a lovely National Park right by the ocean there) and the tiny village of Manzanillo, which is very close to the Panamanian border. Limon itself is about an hour north of Cahuita and is a rather ugly port town. In between Cahuita and Manzanillo you have Puerto Viejo, the most touristy town on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. There are buses from San Jose straight to Puerto Viejo. I think they stop in Cahuita along the way, we got off the bus there. Puerto Viejo might be a bit too touristy for you but there are plenty of places where you can rent bicycles for long bike rides along the coast, and there is a jaguar rescue center nearby with lots of wildlife. I think you might also want to check out the Sloth Sanctuary north of Cahuita.

  15. There are so many great options there for all budgets! We stayed in a gorgeous hotel while we were there but we met people staying in hostels in Jaco that provided awesome access on a budget. Eating at local spots is a great tip – so much good, fresh local food to be had without breaking the bank!
    Shannon Kircher recently posted..Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast

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