View Full Version : The Costa Rica Rental Car "Scam"

10-30-2015, 07:06 AM
Very few of the tourists that I know or have met in Costa Rica rent a car and drive while they are in Costa Rica. That's a Good thing. It's no secret that I strongly discourage tourists, especially tourists who are in Costa Rica for the first time, from renting a car and/or driving while in Costa Rica. I only drive here now because I live here now and it's a necessity for me. I still don't enjoy doing it, and I wouldn't drive here if I didn't have to.

There are many reasons why I tell everyone Not to rent a car and drive, but today I'm going to talk about the primary reason... The Costa Rica Rental Car "Scam."

The rental car companies can get you 3 or 4 different ways, and they will definitely try. I put the word "Scam" in quotes, because there is really nothing illegal and all of the charges on your rental car bill are legit... well... Most of the time they're legit. The "Scam" is playing upon your knowledge of the law... or, rather, your Lack of knowledge of the law... and a few carefully hidden details.

All of the rental car companies sucker you in with the low rental rate at first. The rates start out low, but they end up getting even lower for longer term rentals. I'll use a real-life example... Alamo's cheapest rental car rate is $8.00 per day for short-term rentals, and gets as low as $2.86 for rentals of 10 days or more, during Low Season. That's based upon a $19.99 weekly rate for the tiniest car that Alamo rents, and all prices are quoted in dollars. Of course, prices are higher for larger vehicles, and also higher during the High Season, but are still quite reasonable. You can rent a Toyota Rav4 from Alamo for $265 per week during the peak of High Season... substantially cheaper than in the USA.

But let's get back to that first car... the cheapest one that Alamo rents in Costa Rica. $2.86 per day for a two-week rental? That's a total of $39.98 for a two-week rental? That makes you wonder why anyone would buy a car in San José. Even on the cheapest car made, an $80 per month "car payment" with no money down is a true Bargain. Of course, there are taxes involved. In Costa Rica, this means three different taxes/fees:

1) A 13% Airport Fee, based upon the total rental price. Costa Rica figures out a way to charge a 13% tax or fee on just about everything, so this is no surprise. However, you can avoid this fee by renting a car from one of Alamo's other, non-airport, locations. Unfortunately, you can only get the $19.99 per week rental rate at the airport location. The airport location is actually the cheapest place to rent this car. For our two-week rental, the airport fee is $5.20.

2) A $0.40 per day environmental fee. That's a fee of $5.60 for our two-week rental.

3) A license plate fee of $1.50 per day. This refers to the "Marchamo", which must be paid annually on almost every vehicle that is legally registered in Costa Rica. It's a combination of taxes, government fees, and very basic liability insurance. $1.50 per day works out to about $550 per year for this car. That's very fair, considering that the car probably doesn't rent every single day. The Marchamo on my Rav4 is over $800 per year. So... the total license plate fee for our two-week rental is $21.00.

The total amount of the three fees is $31.80. When we add that to our total rental rate of $39.98, that's a total price of $71.78 for our two-week rental. That's still a bargain, and still equivalent to a car payment of about $145 per month, with the cost of the Marchamo built in.

Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? But here come the gotchas...

1) Even though it's mandatory, the rental car companies don't add in the cost of Primary Liability Insurance (PLI). This coverage is provided by the government-controlled agency INS. The actual amount paid by the rental car companies to INS is only about 15% - 20% of the amount that you are charged, so the bulk of this charge is profit for the car rental company. Your cost for this insurance is $11.95 per day for our little car. For our two-week rental, the total cost of PLI is about $167. The PLI is more than double the cost of the rental rate plus all taxes and fees. It doesn't matter what kind of rental car coverage your credit card has, the PLI is Mandatory and cannot be waived.

2) The rental car company is permitted by law to require Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) coverage. You may decline to purchase this coverage from the rental car company if your credit offers CDW. If this coverage is called anything other than "CDW" in your credit card agreement, then you can expect the rental car company to require you to purchase their own CDW. In order to substitute your credit card's CDW for the rental car company's CDW, you will need your original cardmember agreement stating the details of your card's CDW coverage, or other official documentation guaranteeing CDW coverage by your credit card. Chances are that you will need that agreement to be in Spanish. If your card is issued by a major bank or company, you should be able to obtain your cardmember agreement from them in Spanish. The rental car company's CDW for our two-week rental would cost you a total of about $181 ($12.95 per day). In addition, the 13% airport fee is also charged on CDW purchased from the rental car company, and adds another $23.57 to the total rental price. You can expect the rental car company to look very hard for any way to force you into buying their own CDW, since it's practically pure profit for them. They can be very sneaky about CDW, insisting that it is mandatory and that you must purchase it from them... which is halfway correct.

So... our $71.78 two-week rental has just become a $443.95 two-week rental. For a basic rental rate of $39.98, we are paying over $400 in taxes, fees, insurance, and CDW that we don't really need. If you can convince the rental car company to let you pass on purchasing their CDW, the total price would be $239.08... still over $200 in taxes, fees, and insurance. Of course... it's true that this would be a bargain in most of the USA, most of the time.

One big caveat regarding the PLI and CDW sold by the rental car company... the deductibles for both are Huge. Therefore, you still want to use a credit card for your rental... a credit card that has full rental car coverage and will pay those deductibles for a foreign rental car, if necessary. This will be your "get out of jail free card" if you are involved in an automobile accident or if the rental car is damaged. Costa Rican immigration authorities Will Not allow you to leave the country until payment for all damages has been made or is guaranteed. You should contact your credit card company as soon as possible after an automobile accident or any damage to your rental car occurs. The sooner you can get your credit card company and the car rental company talking to each other, the better off you will be. Hopefully, your vacation won't be ruined and you won't miss your flight back home.

Jaco Hank
10-30-2015, 07:49 AM
i simply accept the fact I am going to take it in the ass and fork over $46 a day to Dollar for their "Risk Eliminator" and drive like a local. $1000 deposit and I will spend almost a grand for 10 days (Prado or similiar)(with everything included) so I pay basically 100 dollars a day and just budget that in my trip. I am not a big drinker so a few less drinks one less chica boom! I'm covered. My last trip in September I did not rent a car for the first time and it was wonderful. Used Puravida transport for my airport runs SJO-Jaco transfers and some day trips. I did miss just being able to go get in my car and go look at real estate and simply run errands. Everything had to be planned out which kind of kills the laid back vibe I shoot for when in country. Buying my tickets today or tomorrow for January and will be renting again (so High season rates !)

10-30-2015, 07:56 AM
A few more notes on rental cars...

I stated in my previous post...

a credit card that has full rental car coverage and will pay those deductibles for a foreign rental car, if necessary

This is actually true, but not entirely true. I stated it kind of poorly. Theoretically, when you purchase insurance or CDW from a rental car company, your credit card company won't provide any backup coverage that would pay any deductibles for you. However, the larger, more reputable credit card issuers have rental car insurance and CDW coverage that responds well to the idiosyncrasies of foreign car rentals, including rentals in Costa Rica. It is best to speak with an appropriate representative with your credit card issuer about this issue before you rent a car in Costa Rica. In most cases, the representative will know more about the situation than you do, and will explain everything to you before you can even ask your questions. What you basically want to ask is this...

"I know that the rental car company in Costa Rica is going to force me to purchase mandatory liability insurance, and they are probably going to require me to purchase their CDW in order to rent the car. I want to make sure that my credit card coverage will still protect me, and pay any deductibles of the rental car company's insurance and CDW." You want those questions answered, or an acceptable alternative solution, before you sign the rental car agreement.


Here are a few more tips on driving and rental cars...

All automobile accidents in Costa Rica start out kind of like a so-called "No-Fault" accident. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that it starts out like an "Everyone Is At Fault" accident. As soon as an accident occurs, you're responsible (along with everyone else involved) until someone who is authorized to do so says you're Not responsible. That can take months... even years, in some cases. As far as insurance and responsibility goes, everyone who is involved wants to know that you guarantee payment if and when you are determined to be responsible for property damage or injury. Usually, when you rent a car in Costa Rica, the rental car company will "freeze" about $2000 on your credit card immediately after you sign the rental agreement. That freeze will remain there until you turn the car back in, and there have been no accidents, incidents, or damage to the car. If you've had an accident, or there is any dispute with the rental car company about damage, that "freeze" will remain on your card, possibly for a very long time, until the issue is finally settled. That's your "guarantee" of responsibility, which allows you to be permitted to leave Costa Rica, provided there are no criminal charges pending against you. If you have a halfway-decent credit card issuer, this should be non-issue for you.

Most insurance is considered void and won't pay for anything if you were breaking a law or the rental agreement at the time of the accident or incident. You are usually OK, and still covered by your insurance, if it was just an accidental breaking of a traffic law (such as "I didn't see that stop sign"). However, if you're driving drunk or driving at 150 kph, don't expect anyone to believe that it was accidental. One thing that has gotten a few tourists in trouble is illegal passing. Costa Rican law enforcement, judges, and rental car companies aren't likely to believe that illegal passing is accidental. What that means to you is that suddenly, you're not going to be allowed to leave the country. You can't "guarantee" your responsibility, because your credit card insurance or the rental car company's insurance might not cover your liability. In cases like this, sometimes the only way to get out of Costa Rica is to post a large cash deposit as a kind of "bond."

Up until about 4 or 5 years ago, I was travelling all over the world quite frequently. Even though I rarely rented cars or drove in foreign countries (for me, at the time, that meant anywhere outside the USA), I carried an "Umbrella" insurance policy that was valid worldwide. This type of policy (if it's a good one) doesn't just cover automobile accidents, it covers any personal liability. This is one time where you really want an outstanding policy issued by an outstanding company. I don't recommend it for everyone, but if you have substantial assets or net worth (I didn't) or travel extensively (I did) it's worth serious consideration. When you travel that frequently, internationally, it pays to have a "get out of jail free" card. Basically, I had a policy (I always traveled with a copy of it and all of the relevant telephone numbers) that said, "No matter what Mr. Speedy1 has done or is accused of doing, we'll pay up to $1 Million if it's a legitimate claim." Once people see that, you're usually good to go. $1 Million is actually a pretty small policy. Most of you guys would probably need more than that. It's just too easy to accidentally get in trouble or have someone else get you into trouble, when you're constantly in and out of different countries. An umbrella policy is solid peace of mind.

10-30-2015, 08:19 AM
i simply accept the fact I am going to take it in the ass and fork over $46 a day to Dollar for their "Risk Eliminator" and drive like a local. $1000 deposit and I will spend almost a grand for 10 days (Prado or similiar)(with everything included) so I pay basically 100 dollars a day and just budget that in my trip. I am not a big drinker so a few less drinks one less chica boom! I'm covered. My last trip in September I did not rent a car for the first time and it was wonderful. Used Puravida transport for my airport runs SJO-Jaco transfers and some day trips. I did miss just being able to go get in my car and go look at real estate and simply run errands. Everything had to be planned out which kind of kills the laid back vibe I shoot for when in country. Buying my tickets today or tomorrow for January and will be renting again (so High season rates !)

Well... You've done this before so you know the drill. Some people actually do need a rental car why they're here. The situation that I see is that a lot of people who don't need a car rent one anyway. They're paying for something that they don't need, and taking on a huge risk, especially if it's their first time in Costa Rica. I'm not worried about guys like you. Hell... I'm sure that you know more about rental cars in Costa Rica than I do. :) That's true... I've never rented a car here.

My main concern (expressed in my initial post) is for the people who don't understand the seriousness of the risks involved in renting a car, and who don't understand how the rental car companies work. Tons of travelers get hit every year with charges for Insurance and CDW that they weren't expecting, and/or they thought their credit card would provide.

I had one guy email me about one month ago, who said, "Man... I found this incredibly cheap rate on this rental car, so I booked it online. I couldn't book the rental car until I selected this 'Mandatory' insurance, which costs 4 times as much as the car rental. But when I show up in Costa Rica and show them my credit card, they'll understand, and take the insurance charge off my bill."

I wrote him back, immediately: "Dude... Let me 'splain somethin' to ya!"

I gave him my usual dissertation about how I don't recommend car rentals, and all of the pitfalls involved, yada yada yada...

He wrote me back with a whole new understanding of what he was getting into.

Eventually, he made the decision to rent a car, anyway. Which is perfectly fine. If you need a car, then you need it. But at least now, he's not going to get blindsided with a bunch of rules and regulations that he never even dreamed of.

This is just a tiny aspect of a much broader situation that I see all the time with international travelers, especially those who are still relatively new to international travel. We all grew up with all of these laws, rules, habits, doctrines... dogma... etc.

We tend to make assumptions based upon what we think is "right", "moral", "legal", "correct", and whatever else you want to call it.

Guys come down here, and the next thing you know, they're livid... shouting at a rental car company's poor 19-year-old desk clerk. Well, she didn't write the law, nor does she get to set policy for the rental car company.

But this guy just "Knows" that his credit card company will cover his rental. He just "Knows" that he doesn't have to buy the rental car company's insurance. He just "Knows" that he can't be detained indefinitely in Costa Rica because another car pulled out in front of him. What he doesn't "Know" is that U.S. law, and many of the rules that he's used to, simply don't apply in Costa Rica.

10-30-2015, 09:00 AM
Regarding insurance and credit cards... I neglected to mention something...

Most credit cards (issued in the USA) don't offer liability insurance for two reasons...

1) Liability insurance involves a lot of risk for an insurer, especially when the coverage is valid internationally.

2) If you're a driver in the USA, then your insurance policy already covers you for liability, although possibly not outside of the USA (and Canada). However, it's easy to purchase liability insurance for foreign car rentals as an addition to your current policy, depending on your automobile insurance company and the countries that you'll be traveling to. If you're renting cars in foreign countries, you need to make sure you're covered for international liability.

Another way to get liability insurance is get a credit card issued in another country. It might still be a Visa or American Express card, but foreign credit card issuers sometimes offer liability coverage. That's what I've always had, which is why I forgot about this issue earlier.

Although there is an annual fee for American Express cards (the core product -- Charge cards), and they're not accepted as widely as Visa cards, I loved my American Express Platinum card for travel. I don't carry it any longer, because I don't really travel internationally very often, these days, and because of the $450 annual fee. If you travel a lot, and use the features that the card offers, you'll receive much more than $450 in benefits every year. The original Platinum AmEx card is more flexible and has a bit more "punch" than the airline and hotel branded "Platinum" AmEx cards.

Back to the rental car subject...

This card was awesome for renting cars, when I had it. Eventually, I signed up for the Premium Car Rental Protection from AmEx. There's not really a "fee" for this service. You just sign up for it. Once you have it, every time that you rent a car with it, a one time charge of about $25 (I think that's the amount... it might be more, now) covered a rental of up to a month. Whether you rented for 2 days or 30 days, the charge was $25, flat. It covers everything under the sun (except liability insurance, which I already had), and is in addition to any other coverage that the card already offers.

The best thing about the Platinum card and the Premium Car Rental Protection was that there was never any worry or hassle. I think I called AmEx a total of 3 times about a car rental, during the entire time that I had the card, and on each of those 3 occasions, the only thing that the AmEx rep said was, "We'll take care of it." No questions, no "we'll get back to you", no "fill out the online form"... just "We'll take care of it." I love that kind of stuff.

Jaco Hank
10-30-2015, 09:54 AM
Hey i want to be clear I was simply throwing out what I do, I agree with everything you wrote, Having used a private driver and rented a car, the least stressful way to get around is to hire it out. Just booked my ticket for the return in January and will be making the loop from Jaco to Arenal to Poas to SJO to Irazu to Domincal (via 2) Quepos and back to Jaco. It would get a little prohibitive to hire a driver for each leg and I really enjoy just taking a few side roads and seeing whats around the turn (except in the lower Nicoya!!) Smaller group this time so I may downsize to the RAV-4 , Grand Vitera etc. I do pay the extortion racket fees and make the charge on my AMEX PLAT so everything else is covered just in case and I do my walk around with my video camera when doing the check out, the guy at the counter just shakes his head but every little scratch is documented before I drive off the lot to avoid issues on its return.

I showed my driver my GPS selected route from Jaco to Arenal that I made last January and he laughed so hard because the road it took me on was terrible (from 27 to Atenas and then on to Palmares..) and while the km distance was shorter it took way longer. wont make that mistake again and also learned the hard way that the tollway from San Jose to the coast is one way on Sunday afternoons. That led to a very exciting drive along the old Jaco road at night. Oh well I survived most of my early mistakes including taking my rental in the Gulch on a pension run (secured parking only!) so i feel comfortable in most situations except stop and go traffic around San Jose.

10-30-2015, 10:44 AM
Hey i want to be clear I was simply throwing out what I do,

Absolutely. I was just making sure that I wasn't unclear about what I had said.

Having used a private driver and rented a car, the least stressful way to get around is to hire it out

Oh yeah. I hate driving, especially in Costa Rica, and especially in San José. I'm still trying to bribe my girlfriend to get her driver's license, but she won't do it. I think she's the smart one in this relationship.

Smaller group this time so I may downsize to the RAV-4

If you've read some of my other posts about driving, then you know I love my Rav4. It's really just about the most perfect car, in my opinion, for Costa Rica, if you're carrying no more than 4 people and a few bags. I routinely get 30+ mpg, which is nice with Costa Rica gas prices. I've owned Toyotas before, and this one is just as bulletproof as my previous Toyotas, so far. For steep, twisty, mountain roads, it definitely behaves better with just 2 people and bags, but it will do it with 4 people. Definitely get the automatic transmission and All-Wheel-Drive (AWD). The computer's AWD logic could use some tweaking... I've had to push the 4WD button about 3 times. Theoretically, you should Never have to push the button. If I can ever find someone around here with the knowledge, that I can trust, I'm going to get him to play with the computer a bit.

AMEX PLAT so everything else is covered just in case and I do my walk around with my video camera when doing the check out, the guy at the counter just shakes his head but every little scratch is documented before I drive off the lot to avoid issues on its return.

I miss my AmEx card, but it would just be for show in my current situation. I don't blame you for documenting vehicle damage... it's the safe thing and the right thing to do. However... if the wheels are falling off, a door is missing, and the roof is caved in... that's Damage in Costa Rica... everything else is just normal "wear and tear."

I have always bought new cars in the past, and I have always enjoyed nice cars. I owned a couple of BMWs in the USA that I custom-ordered brand-new (a 335i and a 135i). However, Costa Rica changed that practice. My Rav4 was bought used 1.5 years old, about 20K kilometers. Cloth interior (no leather), very few options. I have added a few specific "options" myself... my only real luxury purchase was a nice stereo system with a backup camera. I wouldn't even consider the backup camera a luxury... it comes in very handy while driving and parking in Costa Rica. There is just no reason to buy a new car or a fancy car in Costa Rica. If it still looks fancy and new after 6 months, then you wasted your money anyway, because you're definitely not using it. Costa Rica doesn't destroy cars, but it certainly does put its mark on them.

I showed my driver my GPS selected route from Jaco to Arenal that I made last January and he laughed so hard because the road it took me on was terrible

GPS is a Huge benefit in Costa Rica, from a certain point of view. It's like mountain-climbing with the most experienced guide in the Himalayas, but you know he's going to bonk you on the head and steal your wallet if you don't keep a close eye on him. I wouldn't buy or rent car just because it had a GPS receiver installed, but I also wouldn't turn a car down if it did have GPS. It's just another resource. I keep 5 GPS apps on my smartphone, 4 of which have offline maps. I bought a nice mount for it, and it talks through the stereo via bluetooth. GPS receivers/software makes plenty of mistakes in Costa Rica, all the time, but it's a lot more accurate than just "eyeballing" it.

As for choosing routes, in addition to the "fastest", "shortest", "include toll roads", etc. options, I wish there were an option that said, "Would any Tico in his right mind ever drive this route?" Now, I definitely vet my GPS-generated routes with someone whom I trust or the locals who work at the hotel where I'm currently staying.

i feel comfortable in most situations except stop and go traffic around San Jose.

I don't drive downtown and I probably never will. If I were driving in from Jaco to go downtown, I'd park in Sabana and get a taxi.

10-30-2015, 01:24 PM
More on Rental Cars and Driving...

1) Hopefully you're not planning to drive in and around San José. By that I mean in the city, inside of the Circunvalación. However, if you do, my latest information says that rental cars are not subject to the weekday license plate restrictions. However, policies on stuff like this do change on an unpredictable basis in Costa Rica. Check with your rental car company when you pick up the car to see what the "law" is this week. If you do happen to get stopped for a plate restriction and just say, "I'm a tourist, this is a rental car, and the rental company said that the plate restriction didn't apply to me"... they'll most likely just give you a warning, or they'll say, "That's right. I forgot about that."

2) Keep your original Passport (not a copy) with you when you drive. If anything at all happens while you're driving, you're going to need your real Passport. I've never even been asked for my driver's license. Not one single Costa Rican cop has ever looked at my driver's license. Even now that I'm a resident, I always show my Passport instead of my driver's license or cedula. The cops are expecting to see a Passport, because they assume that all Gringos are tourists (and that would be a correct assumption, most of the time). At a regular "Green Cone" traffic stop, all a Gringo tourist gets is a 1-second glance at his Passport. So... I use my Passport because it keeps things simple and quick. In 99% of all situations involving the police, it just makes things go more quickly and smoothly if they think you're a tourist.

3) Driving on the beach is illegal. Just because other people (including Ticos) are driving on the beach, that doesn't make it legal. If you get stuck in the sand and the rental car company finds out about it, they're going to be pissed off.

4) Rental car companies get daily reports from the government, informing them of any traffic tickets that you have received. Well, they're supposed to, anyway... it doesn't always work. Quite a few folks have waited to see if the rental car company would call them on it, and occasionally, a person does slip through the cracks. Because the necessary time has not yet elapsed, the person usually exits Costa Rica without incident. Usually, the rental car company will charge the customer's credit card at a later time, because eventually, the rental car company will get the bill for the ticket. The reason for this is that all traffic tickets in Costa Rica are attached to the Car, not the Driver. As the driver who committed the violation, you're responsible for paying the fine, but if you don't, the government takes it out on the car. So... the rental car company ends up paying the fine for you. If they don't, the cops will remove the plates from the car or impound it. Then, the rental car company will charge the customer's credit card -- they keep that information on file, just in case this situation occurs. However, it takes a long time for this to happen, and by then, the customer has, sometimes, canceled that credit card. Sometime after that, the person decides to visit Costa Rica again.

Well... when everything comes together perfectly, and all of this happens as I described it, you end up being this guy...

True Story, from April or May, 2013...

A man in this very situation decides to visit Costa Rica again. He knew that he had failed to pay a ticket from his previous visit, which was about a year ago, but no one ever said anything to him about it, and he hasn't even thought about in over 6 months. He has completely forgotten about it. Upon arrival, the Immigration Officer scans his Passport, looks at her computer screen, and frowns. She turns to the guy and says, "Excuse me, sir, it will be just a few moments." He thinks that maybe her computer has frozen or crashed, but in reality a message has appeared on the screen. A supervisor, who was automatically summoned, appears a few moments later.

3 minutes later, he's sitting in the supervisor's office (or some office) with two other armed officers present. About 10 minutes after that, the OIJ shows up, handcuffs the guy, and takes him away. All of this? For just an unpaid traffic ticket? No accident, damage, or injury was involved, it was just a speeding ticket or something like that... I can't remember exactly. If he had just paid the ticket, or if he hadn't canceled the credit card before the rental car company tried to charge it, none of this would have happened. I have no idea whether or not the rental card company tried to contact him, or what the results of that contact were (if it occurred). He told me that no one ever contacted him about the ticket... that could be the truth or a lie.

Here's the problem... before he failed to pay the ticket, didn't tell the rental car company about the ticket, left Costa Rica without paying the ticket, and canceled the credit card... he was guilty of nothing. However... After all of that happened... He became guilty (allegedly) of fraud, international fraud, fleeing from justice, and a handful of other actual crimes... in the eyes of Costa Rica. He offered to pay the fine, and even a penalty, up front, but it was too late. The paperwork had already been created. Nobody could accept payment or take a bribe at that point... even if they wanted to. He told them, "I just forgot about it. I'll pay the fine." They answered, "That's for the judge to decide" (there are no juries in Costa Rica). Also, Now... the guy is a flight risk. So he gets stuck in Preventiva for about 2 months, when his case finally comes up.

Each case is different, of course. The latest word from the government is that a person will be denied entry into Costa Rica until the fine is paid. It's unclear exactly what that means. Will the person be refused entry and deported, or will he be held in custody until he pays? Will he then be deported After he pays? Nobody knows.

5) Don't drive across a bridge just because it's there. Don't drive across a river just because the guy in front of you did it. If you try to cross a river and you don't make it, you have to buy the vehicle. CDW or LDW won't cover it. Bandits like to scope out river crossing points, waiting for tourists to stop and get out of the car to check the water depth before crossing. http://travel.ticotimes.net/2015/09/santa-teresa-women-sexually-assaulted-at-river-crossing/

6) You can legally drive through a red traffic light between 10:00 pm and 5:00 am. However, common sense is required. Drivers are expected to treat the red light as a Yield (Ceda) sign or as a "Rolling Stop." In other words, make sure you can safely cross the intersection... don't just blast through the intersection without slowing down. This law is not designed for downtown intersections that are still busy at midnight on Friday/Saturday night. The law is designed for areas that are practically "asleep" in the early morning hours, where some drivers have been assaulted while stopped for a traffic light.

7) It's legal to drive while drinking alcohol, although this is not something that you want to advertise or allow a police officer to see. My personal rule is "No Alcohol in the front seats." If you want to drink in my car, you need to get in the back seat. If the cops see a beer bottle in the front of a car, they'll pull the car over. I don't want to deal with that. However, despite the rumor to the contrary, I have no personal rule prohibiting topless or naked females in the front seat of my car. I'd like to squelch that vicious rumor right here and now! :)

Back on topic... Yes, it's technically legal to drink while driving. It's legal for the sole reason that there is no law prohibiting drinking while driving. However, the legal BAC for driving under the influence of alcohol is a BAC of 0.05 or higher. For that, you'll get a ticket with a hefty traffic fine and allowed to continue driving. However, a BAC of 0.075 or higher is the "Go To Jail" number, and penalties are harsh.

8) The most common cause of rental car damage is parking. Cars get sideswiped and broken into (usually through the driver's or front passenger's door window) all the time in Costa Rica. Parking at night in an area that is not secure is asking for a break-in. Don't leave anything valuable in the car, and always roll up the windows and lock the doors when the car is parked.

9) If you are involved in any kind of traffic accident, you cannot move your vehicle until authorized to do so. If the car is still moving after the accident, Stop Immediately. If anyone is injured, call 911 (or have someone call) first. If no one is hurt, call your rental car company first. They'll get the police moving and talk you through all of the other stuff that you need to do. Caring for and securing anyone who is injured is the first priority. Get the emergency triangles (usually in the trunk) set up behind the car as soon as you can, and put on the emergency vest. Get everyone who can be safely moved away from the road and the accident site. After that, it's OK to remove your bags or personal belongings from the car, unless they are involved in the accident (for example: if your backpack has somebody's blood on it, don't touch it).

10) Many bridges are one-way. There is usually, but not always, a Yield (Ceda) sign at one end of the bridge, almost always for the cars heading Downhill. If you are in a line of cars that is not too long, it is better to keep the line moving rather than stop the flow of traffic so that the car at the Yield sign can proceed.

11) The basic rule of mountain driving is that the car going uphill has the right-of-way. The car facing downhill must back up, if necessary. Backing downhill is much more dangerous, and a car moving uphill would prefer not to stop, as it can be extremely difficult to begin moving uphill again from a dead stop.

12) Use your Horn! In Costa Rica, it is appropriate to use your car horn... oddly enough, for the exact purpose for which it is installed on the car... Signaling and Warning. When approaching children or animals near the side of the road, or a bicyclist facing in the same direction, honk your horn. Two short beeps is the norm. When you are about to pass someone, honk, so that he knows you're passing. It is considered polite to use your horn in this manner, and people appreciate it. On tight mountain roads, it's a good idea to honk as you approach a blind curve, to warn potential opposite-direction traffic.

13) There are no "advance warning" signs in Costa Rica, such as "Traffic Light Ahead" or "Lane Ends Ahead." When you round a blind corner, there might just be a busy intersection and a traffic light right there. When you see a Yield (Ceda) sign, that means "This lane ends, Right Here."

14) You don't need an International Driver's License in Costa Rica. In fact, there is no such thing as an International Driver's License. Your valid U.S. (or other country's) Driver's License, along with your Passport (and Entry Stamp), are your temporary Costa Rica driver's license, when they are all carried together. Some cops will accept a Passport copy (they Are supposed to accept a copy), and some won't. Keep the real thing with you when you're driving. In fact, the cops often only want to see your Passport. I've never been asked to show my driver's license. I'm not sure if a Costa Rican cop would even know what an International Driving Permit is, so there's no purpose in bringing that with you to Costa Rica. At any rate, an International Driving Permit (IDP) is not permission to drive, either. It's just a translation of your existing driver's license. However, an IDP is often accepted as identification, so you could carry it for that purpose. Always remember, an IDP is not a valid driver's license. You must carry your real driver's license with you, even if you have an IDP, to legally drive.

15) Driving in excess of 150 kph (93 mph) is a "Go To Jail" offense.

16) Driving without your driver's license, which in your case is your U.S. driver's license plus your Passport, gives the police the authority to confiscate the vehicle that you are driving. Practically speaking, the cops aren't going to be that harsh with a tourist. They know that you've got a driver's license somewhere, otherwise the rental company wouldn't have rented the car to you.

17) You are responsible for and can be ticketed for failure to comply with missing signs and road markings. This is mostly common-sense stuff, that, practically speaking, won't get you in trouble. You should know when it is safe and legal to pass someone, even if the solid yellow line has been worn off the road surface. You should know to stop at the terminating road in a "T" intersection, even if the Stop Sign is missing. The one that might get you is an unmarked one-way street. Just look to see which way the parked cars are facing.

18) Motorcycles ignore all traffic laws, weave through traffic, speed, and create their own lanes.

19) Rental cars are easily identifiable and are often singled out as targets by thieves and robbers.

20) The driver and All passengers must wear seat belts. Children must be in an appropriate car seat.

21) Unless you purchase roadside assistance, the rental car company is not obligated to assist you, although they usually will. True Story: A colleague of mine rented a car and drove to Dominical. The car's battery died in Dominical. He called the rental car company... they told him that he would have to go find a battery himself, and have it installed. The rental company told him to have the shop call them with the final price, and that they would reimburse him when he returned to San José. You might think that he should have pressed the issue, but it's likely that he would have experienced a long delay, waiting for the rental company to fix the problem. Don't think that you can just walk away from the rental car and not pay... it doesn't work that way here. Your leverage in this situation is to hang up and call your credit card issuer... the company that issued the card with which you rented the car. They'll get the company moving, much better than you or I can. If I had been there at the time or had known what was going on, that's exactly what I would have advised the poor guy to do.

This is definitely a "worst case" scenario. Most people would never experience that kind of piss-poor treatment. But this situation does highlight the leverage of credit card usage, whether it's with a rental car company, a hotel, or whatever. Once you've notified your credit card issuer, just sit back and watch the show...

Someone will be there to fix your car within a couple of hours. All it takes is a call from Chase or Bank of America to light a fire underneath them and threaten to pull them off of the Visa credit card network if they don't get down there and fix your car immediately.

10-30-2015, 03:12 PM
I realize that my bias against people renting cars shows. Once again, it's not that I don't think anyone should rent a car, it's just that most people rent a car because they think "Of course we're going to need a car. Everything that applies in the USA applies in Costa Rica, because they're the exact same country with the exact same geography, infrastructure, culture, and laws." I'm being facetious, of course. People don't actually think that, but their subconscious does. I've seen it many times. Doesn't really make sense when they're traveling to a foreign country on purpose, does it?

It's like some kind of Vacation Mantra... "Airfare, Hotel, Rental Car... Airfare, Hotel, Rental Car... oooooommmmmmm..." So they get a rental car without really thinking about it. It's that same kind of mindless obedience to their "training" from growing up in the USA that shocks the shit out of them when they find out that their $40 car rental is really a $445 car rental. And they didn't even get "upsold." They just weren't prepared, and got blindsided by over $400 in extra charges for the Same under-powered, tiny, shitty car that they originally reserved.

Here's a sample trip: It's a young couple on a two-week vacation, traveling on the cheap, and now they dip into their "discretionary" vacation funds to the tune of $400. That's probably more than half of what they budgeted for "fun" on this vacation. They don't even consider the alternatives at this point, and blindly continue with the rental anyway. They're arriving into SJO, then traveling to Arenal for the first week, then to Manuel Antonio for the second week, then back to SJO to return to the USA.

Well this little shitbox car is costing them $445 plus about $25 in gasoline, for a total of $470. It's a very fuel-efficient car, although I can't imagine what it's like in the mountains. Two adults is probably about all it can handle.

In this case, if this young couple could afford the $470 for the rental car, I could have booked them a $510 trip including ground transfers and domestic airfare, Flying from SJO to Arenal to Manuel Antonio, then back to SJO. A gorgeous trip... They'll see the whole country from the air, and instead of spending over 10 hours in transit in that POS car, they'll spend less than 3 hours traveling, including the ground transfers. All private transfers would be about the same, at about $475 - $500.

Or, if they really couldn't afford that rental car, a couple of private transfers and a bus ride from Manuel Antonio to SJO would cost about $375. Using shared transport (Interbus, Grey Line, etc.) in lieu of the private transfers would cost about $225. Or you could just go all bus and pay about $50 - $75.

It all just depends on how much you can afford, what you want to see, what you want to spend your time doing, and how much driving you want to do.

The important thing is just to go in with your eyes open, know what you're getting, and know what your options are.

10-30-2015, 04:33 PM
Cops in Costa Rica...

Yeah... I know I'm "wordy" today. This entire day has been spent waiting for people to contact me, and they're not contacting me. But... they're my clients... so I have to wait with a smile on my face, listen to old Eddie Murphy comedy routines on YouTube, and make posts on message boards. While drinking beer at a bar. What the hell am I complaining about?

So... Cops...

Cops in Costa Rica are easy. I'm getting tired of reading blogs and emails about how surly Tico cops are, and how much they hate Gringos. My philosophy is that Tico cops only Seem that way because we Made them that way. By "we", I mean me, you and the millions of Gringo tourists and expats that have preceded us. We have trained Tico cops to think of us all as rude, rich, snooty Gringos who look down on them as lesser creatures in a lesser place, on OUR planet. It shows in the way that we talk, the way that we walk, and the way that we look at them. I'm not necessarily talking about myself, as a specific individual, or you, as a specific individual, but when they see me and you, they lump us in with all of those other Gringos, 99% of whom have treated them with less than a satisfactory amount of respect and kindness. As people raised in the USA, we were taught how wonderful we are, and how great the USA is. It's Pride, right? Well, to most of the rest of the world, it looks like arrogance. Would it really hurt just to show a little respect... a little humility? I try, although I don't always succeed.

Consider the case of a typical Tico cop. He probably makes about $600 or $700 per month, working as a Transito or as an officer in the Fuerza Publica. Every day is the same thing. Write traffic tickets, Bob... Patrol downtown, Luis... He knows that tourism brings a lot of money into the Costa Rican economy. He knows that tourism, to some extent, makes his job possible, or makes it possible for him to make a little more money. Do you think his mission in life is to torture Gringo tourists? NO. His mission in life is to finish his shift without any hassles, go home and fuck his wife, have a nice dinner and watch the game on TV, and hopefully save enough money to buy his kid the new GI Joe with the Kung-Fu Grip for Christmas. He's a Transito (Traffic Cop), working a traffic stop on Highway #27 from San José to Puerto Caldera. It's been a pretty good day so far... everything running smoothly. He checks the license of the Tico whose car is in front of him, and everything is in order, so he waves the guy through. Then the next car pulls up to the stop...

It's a Gringo tourist, who just flew in with his family. He's rented the biggest, gas-guzzling SUV he could find, for $1000 per week, to ferry himself, his wife, their two 8-year-old kids, about 12 large pieces of baggage down to some $500-per-night resort on the Pacific Coast, where they'll sequester themselves from the rest of Costa Rica for 2 weeks. As the tourist pulls up, he holds his driver's license out the window. The Transito says, "Oh, that's OK, sir. I just need to see your Passport." The guy answers, "My Passport? I thought this was a traffic stop?"

Transito: It is a traffic stop, sir. I just need to see your Passport.

[the tourist lets out a loud sigh and starts looking for his Passport]

Kid in the Back Seat: Daddy! How much longer? It's too hot!

Tourist: Just a couple of minutes. I had to roll down the window so I could give this policeman my Driver's License, but now he wants my Passport instead.

[he hands the Transito his Passport]

Tourist: Traffic backed up for 3 miles. Why do you guys have to block this road. You finally build a decent road down to Jacó, and now you totally bring it to a complete stop.

Transito: I'm just doing my job, sir. My boss tells us where to set up the traffic stops, and today it's here.

... I could go on, but you get the point...

The next Gringo this cop talks to, he's going to bite his head off. Believe me, I've been that guy... thinking to myself, "What did I DO?!" I didn't do anything. Some Ugly American in front of me pissed the Transito off, and after stewing about it for 15 or 20 minutes, now the cop is taking it out on me. I actually feel sorry for the poor guy, and I just meekly take whatever he's dishing out today. Maybe it will make him feel better. Within a minute or so, the cop usually lightens up a bit. I play the poor tourist who doesn't know why a cop is riding him so hard at a random traffic stop. When the cop gives me back my Passport, he gives me a little half-smile and says, "Everything is fine, sir. Have a safe trip, and have a good time at the beach. Pura Vida." I smile and answer "Pura Vida."

If, on the other hand, the cop just has that typical "surly" cop attitude, it's probably just because he's in a decent mood, but he has a general wariness about Gringos, and it has been a long day. I've got both my Passport and my Driver's License sitting on the center console. I pull up to the cop, smiling, and say, "Beautiful Day." He'll usually answer, "Ummm... yes, sir. Beautiful Day. May I see your Passport, please?" I hand him my Passport and say, "Now why do they have you guys standing out here in the middle of the highway on such a beautiful day?" He answers with a sigh, "Just doing my job, sir." I say, "I know. You guys are doing a good thing out here." He barely even glances at my Passport, hands it back to me, and says, "You go on, now. Get to the beach before it starts raining", smiles, and waves me on.

Of course I don't believe everything that I say to him, exactly the way that I say it. That's not the point. My point is not to be "That Guy", the Ugly American.


When you get stopped for a traffic violation...

Yes. There are speed traps in Costa Rica, and yes, some cops are out to get Gringos. Getting pulled over for 3 kph (less than 2 mph) over the speed limit is not unheard of. Get that smile ready, and get ready to be the "Un-Ugly American."

First of all, the fines for traffic violations in Costa Rica are Insane. You can get a ticket for almost a $700 fine for speeding. An improper U-turn will also cost you almost $700, and an improper child seat or lack of a child seat will cost you about $460. now imaging paying a fine like that if you make $700 per month at your job, like the Traffic Cop does. Everybody living in Costa Rica knows that the fines are beyond punitive... they're just ridiculous. If you pay the fine, your kids don't eat for a week or two, and your water gets turned off. For that reason, there aren't too many traffic tickets handed out, except to Ugly Americans and anyone else who can't show a little respect and common sense, by keeping his mouth shut.

Most traffic tickets that don't involve an accident are handled as either a warning or as a bribe. Let's call those "Options A and B." Let me make one thing very clear, right up front... I am not, in any way, endorsing bribery. I'm just telling you how the real world works, Tico style. That's how a lot of traffic violations get handled, plain and simple. To avoid "Option C" -- actually getting the ticket and having to pay that ridiculous fine -- be polite, be respectful, and be apologetic, even if you did nothing wrong. That's your only way out, and even then, for a Gringo, it's only about a 50-50 chance. I will say no more on this subject.

10-31-2015, 03:44 AM
An old friend of mine, who used to work with the U.S. State Department as a low-level clerk, saw my posts in this thread and reminded me of this little excerpt from the Country-Specific Information (CSI) published by the U.S. State Dept. on Costa Rica...

"Visitors who plan to drive in Costa Rica should be aware that the Costa Rican government may prevent any driver involved in a vehicular accident from departing Costa Rica until all injury claims have been settled. This is true regardless of whether or not the driver is at fault or covered by insurance. The courts often delay imposing a settlement until all injured parties have fully recovered and the definitive costs are known. Travelers may be prevented from leaving the county for months, or even years, until a local judicial resolution is reached."

This is absolutely true, and I'm glad that he reminded me about it.

I read a lot of blogs, many of them published by expats right here in Costa Rica, that downplay the risks of renting a car here in Costa Rica, and instead spout lines like, "Renting a car and driving in Costa Rica is the best way to see this country." When I see such a post by one of these individuals that I know, I'll usually email them or call them and say, "Man... I don't want to make you angry, but it's a little irresponsible to post stuff like that on your blog or travel site, without mentioning the potential risks." They'll usually respond, "Oh... Speedy1... You're just paranoid. I've rented cars lots of times in Costa Rica, and I've never had a problem." My response to that is, "Well... Nobody has a a problem with driving a rental car in Costa Rica... until They Do." This reminded me of a couple of cases that I'm familiar with...

If you're driving down the road, and a little kid suddenly just pops out of a bush, chasing a ball... there's nothing you can do. You hit the kid and she ends up in a coma in the hospital. Or... a taxi pulls out in front of you, and there's nothing you can do. A passenger in the taxi ends up losing an arm or a leg. Trust me... You are not leaving Costa Rica anytime soon. You're not a criminal in this case, but you're not leaving Costa Rica. It's a tough situation, especially if there are no independent witnesses, which there usually aren't.