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Costa Rica on a Shoestring

Costa Rica on a Shoestring

Last Updated on January 16, 2023

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, you can visit Costa Rica on a shoestring – in fact: it can be nearly as inexpensive as its neighbors!Costa Rica on a shoestring
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 Central American backpacking budgets, coming in at just under $27 per person per day (based on two sharing accommodation, always in private rooms, no shared dorms – even though they would’ve made the trip even cheaper!). Read on for a few simple tips on how to travel through Costa Rica on a shoestring budget.

How to travel Costa Rica on a shoestring

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. MyTanFeet has an excellent guide that covers everything you need to know about taking public transportation in Costa Rica.

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 tourist destinations obviously charge much more than in cities like Heredia or Liberia.

Costa Rica on the cheap

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 on a shoestring

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

If you want to visit Costa Rica on a shoestring budget, hostels are the way to go. The hostel scene has come a long way from the dingy twelve-bed dorm rooms, 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.

Costa Rica on a shoestring

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. In Manuel Antonio National Park for example you’ll be guaranteed wildlife sightings if you invest in a nature guide, and you’ll learn a lot about the local flora and fauna. Recruit a few fellow travelers so that you can split costs – the more people share a guide, the cheaper it gets (and again: hostels are a great place to connect with other travelers).


Have you visited Costa Rica on a shoestring? Feel free to add your money-saving tips for Costa Rica in the comments below!

Agness of a TukTuk

Wednesday 15th of February 2017

I totally agree with all of these, it's very well known how the travel costs for Costa Rica increased and that discouraged a lot of travelers. Great job sharing these tips, this will definitely help a lot of travelers feeling a bit reluctant to go due to the costs. It's still possible to stay on budget, my best bet is to stick with locals!


Thursday 16th of February 2017

Thanks, Agness! I'm going back to Costa Rica next month to see how prices have changed since my last visit :)

Shannon Kircher

Tuesday 8th of March 2016

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!


Thursday 10th of March 2016

Thanks, Shannon! I actually miss Costa Rican asados - I started making my own version of them at home :)


Thursday 28th of January 2016

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


Thursday 28th of January 2016

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.


Saturday 3rd of October 2015

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?


Sunday 4th of October 2015

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.


Wednesday 19th of August 2015

Great tips, I just finished traveling through Costa Rica with my girlfriend for a month. Our budget was very simillar to yours (about $20 per day), we didn't drink and cooked ourselves instead of eating in sodas to saves the extra couple of dollars. Our trip, tips and budget: Good job guys


Friday 21st of August 2015

Thanks for sharing your budget & tips, Campbell!