Costa Rica Vacation on a Budget – 7 Tips for Saving Money

You work hard to save money for your Costa Rica vacation—how to make it stretch after you arrive?  Once upon a time, Costa Rica was a popular shoestring budget destination, but not anymore!  Depending on how you roll, a Costa Rica vacation can cost you as much as a vacation anywhere else in the world. 

So let’s say you want to come to Costa Rica but you don’t want to break the bank.  Can you do it?  Of course!  Here are some tips to help you stretch your vacation dollars further than you thought possible. 


Photo by Camilo Ayala

COME IN THE GREEN SEASON

The single most important choice you can make if you want to experience Costa Rica on a budget is to visit in the green season.  When is the green season?  Now!  May through early December is Costa Rica’s green season, and prices for plane tickets, lodging, car rentals, and some tours are lower.  You’ll find the lowest prices in September and October when there is the highest chance of rainy days, but don’t let that dissuade you!  The chances of you having an entirely rainy vacation are so slim that you’d be silly to let that cause you to miss the discounts!

Another clue: avoid holidays.  Although American Thanksgiving, for example, is in the green season, it sees a notable price spike.   If you want to pinch pennies, immediately cross off Christmas, Easter, New Year’s, etc. Watching airline prices will probably give you an idea of what to expect as far as vacation prices in general.

STAY IN A VACATION RENTAL

tamarindo vacation rental
Sunrise #14 is a 3 bedroom 2 baths located in the center of town for $140 a night ($23 a person per night).

Of course!  One way to save lots of money is to book a Tamarindo vacation rental instead of a hotel.  Economy vacation rentals are high quality, more comfortable than hotel rooms, and they have the thing that is going to be your biggest money-saver: a kitchen.

Vacation rentals come in all shapes and sizes.  If you’re traveling alone or with a friend or partner, look for a one-bedroom or a studio rental.  Groups of up to 20 and 30 can book entire villas and mini-resorts.  Obviously, the larger properties cost more, but you’re also splitting them between more wallets, so don’t forget to take that into consideration.  If you’re a family traveling with children of any age, a vacation rental, as opposed to multiple hotel rooms or all being crammed into what is essentially a bedroom while you’re supposed to be relaxing, is the obvious choice.

COOK AT YOUR VACATION RENTAL

You’ve got that kitchen—use it!  Get to the grocery store and stock up.  You don’t have to spend your whole vacation in the kitchen in order to avoid spending a mint in restaurants.  Staples like coffee, milk, fruit, eggs, bread, pasta, vegetables, and even Costa Rica’s national beers are not expensive.

You’ll still choose to eat some of your meals in restaurants, of course, but if you make that the exception instead of the rule, you’ll find that you spend a lot less money than you would have otherwise. 

Photo by Evan Wise

Many vacation rentals have a patio with a grill.  There’s an option for getting out of the kitchen without having to pay restaurant prices.

AVOID FOREIGN CASH WITHDRAWAL AND DEBIT CARD FEES

If you’ve been to Costa Rica in the past, you remember the days of “pay in cash and get a discount.”  That’s still the case, but it’s certainly not as common as before.  With Costa Rica’s new electronic tax reporting system, it’s not as lucrative for businesses to choose to overlook cash income in their reporting, so cash discounts are fewer. 

We’re bringing this up because now you can pay with credit cards almost everywhere in Costa Rica.  MasterCard and Visa are the favorites, and many businesses accept many others.  Your credit card won’t charge you a fee for international use, but your debit card probably will so keep that in mind when you pull out the plastic.

Tamarindo and all other popular tourist destinations have ATMs that will give up to $400 per day (in the 20s) but you will pay per withdrawal.  Save a few dollars on your vacation by bringing cash from home, and using your credit cards whenever you can.

A word to the wise regarding cash:  Your hotel room or Tamarindo vacation rental has a safe.  USE IT.

TAKE BUSES OR SHARE RIDES

Take public buses or share rides.  We know—the problem with public buses is that they take forever to get anywhere and they can be very hot.  Also, they’re not great for traveling with a lot of luggage.  But If you’re traveling light and you have the time to indulge your curiosity, take the bus.  You’ll get where you want to go with money left to spare, and you’ll have had an off-the-tourist-grid cultural experience that will make you way cooler than anyone else you know who has been to Costa Rica. 

Ridesharing can be a great idea, also.  Taxis in Costa Rica are priced to serve tourists who have no other method to get places, so they are not a great way to keep costs down.  Chat with other budget travelers that you meet along the way, and see if anyone else has the same Costa Rica bucket list as you do.  You’ll definitely need cash for taxis and buses, so be prepared.

BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS

This might seem like an odd addition to a list of how to save money but think about it.  Be smart.  If you get your wallet or your passport stolen—or your computer or your favorite pair of shoes—your vacation is going to take a sharp downward turn and you are going to spend money sorting it out. 

Use the safe.  Keep bags, backpacks, and purses on your person at all times.  Do not hang anything on the back of your chair (seriously). Do not put your backpack on the floor beside you without the strap wrapped around your foot.  Do not leave ever anything in a rental car that is going to be out of your sight.  Do not fall asleep on the bus.  Do not walk away from your stuff on the beach. Do not leave your bag at the table when you go to pay the tab or use the restroom.




Are we trying to scare you?  Sort of.  Costa Ricans are honest, friendly, and helpful people. No one is going to run up to you and snatch your stuff out of your hands.  But petty theft is common here, and leaving your belongings unattended is a clear sign to devious minds that you don’t really need or want what is in that bag very much.  Dead serious.  Save money by not having to replace stuff.

EAT AT “SODAS” AND STICK TO LOCAL COSTA RICA FOODS

When you decide it’s time to grab a meal out, or if you decide that cooking on vacation is an oxymoron, there’s still hope for saving money in Costa Rica.  Look for any establishment called a “Soda” and you’ll be on the right track. 

A “soda” has not actually got anything to do with soda!  Back in the days before tourism took Costa Rica by storm, any small restaurant or diner that did not serve alcohol was called a “soda.”  Sodas serve Costa Rican dishes and Costa Rican versions of international dishes (note: if you are Italian, please do not order spaghetti at a soda!), fruit drinks, and of course soda!  Nowadays you may also find beer at some sodas, although you should not expect a full bar.  For a full bar, you’ll need to find, obviously, something called a “bar” or something called a “restaurant.”  In Costa Rica’s traditional past, a “bar” served alcohol and little snacked called “bocas.”  A “restaurant” offered a full menu and also served alcoholic beverages.  A “soda” served food and drinks without alcohol.  And so.  There’s your history lesson as well. 


At sodas, you’ll avoid spending a lot of money on things that, for as normal as they may seem to you, are considered delicacies or specialty foods, here. Cheese, for example, is not cheap in Costa Rica, which makes pizza, not the most economical choice—especially artesian pizza with real mozzarella and prosciutto crudo.   Sushi is expensive.  Paella.  Corona beer.  Heineken.  Wine is imported from North America, South America, or Europe, so you won’t be saving money on that.  At sodas, you can get all kinds of “casados”—traditional Costa Rican plates that are balanced meals based on rice and beans with a protein of your choice and plenty of vegetables.  You can get salads, simple sandwiches, chicken soup and often fried chicken.  Try a whole fried fish with a side of salad and fries at a soda.  It’s the Costa Rican specialty that you’ll want to take a selfie with before you dig in!

With these 7 things in mind, you’re ready to visit Costa Rica as a financially savvy explorer.  Contact us now and let’s get started making your vacation plans!


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