Money & costs
Travel costs are significantly higher here than in most Central American countries, but cheaper than in the USA or Europe. And if you’re arriving from inexpensive Central American nations, such as Nicaragua, get ready to bust that wallet wide open.
Prices in Costa Rica are frequently listed in US dollars, especially at upmarket hotels and restaurants, where you can expect to pay international prices. Most types of tours are charged in US dollars. In fact, US dollars are widely accepted, but the standard unit of currency is still the colón.
Shoestring travelers can survive on US$25 to US$35 a day, covering just the basics of food, lodging and public transportation. The cheapest hotels start at about US$7 to US$15 per person for a bed, four walls and shared bathroom. Better rooms with private bathroom start at roughly US$15 to US$20 per person, depending on the area. It is possible to eat cheaply at the many sodas (lunch counters), where you can fill up on tasty casados, which are set meals, for about US$2 to US$3.
Midrange budgeters can travel comfortably for anywhere from US$50 to US$100 per day. Hotels in this category offer very good value, and double rooms come with comfortable beds, private bathroom, hot water (most of the time) and even breakfast, for US$20 to US$80 per night. Many hotels in this price range also have shared or private kitchenettes, which allows travelers the opportunity to cook – this is a great option for families. A variety of restaurants cater to midrange travelers, offering meals that range from US$5 to US$10.
Top-end visitors can find a good selection of restaurants and hotels in the touristy towns and within some of the major resorts. Luxurious beachside lodges and boutique hotels can cost from US$80 up, and offer truly worldclass meals that begin at around US$15.
Lodging prices are generally higher in the dry season (December to April), and highest during holiday periods (between Christmas and New Year and during Semana Santa). During slower seasons, most hotels are eager for your business, so you can try to negotiate a lower rate. Some of the more popular tourist areas (Monteverde, Jacó, Manuel Antonio and many of the beaches on the Península de Nicoya) are also more expensive than the rest of the country.
It’s increasingly easy to find cajeros automáticos (ATMs) in Costa Rica, even in the smallest towns. The Visa Plus network is the standard, but machines on the Cirrus network, which accepts most foreign ATM cards, can be found in larger cities and tourist towns. In these areas, ATMs also dispense US dollars, which is convenient for payments at top-end hotels and tour agencies. Note that some machines will only accept cards held by their own customers.
Cash & Currency
The Costa Rican currency is the colón (plural colones, ₡), named after Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus). Bills come in 500, 1000, 5000 and 10,000 notes, while coins come in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 25, 50 and 100. Note that older coins are larger and silver, while newer ones are smaller and gold-colored – this is often a source of confusion for travelers fresh off the plane.
Throughout Costa Rica, you can pay for tours, park fees, hotel rooms, midrange to expensive meals and large-ticket items with US dollars. However, local meals, bus fares and small items should generally be paid with colones.
Paying for things in US dollars should be free of hassle, and at times is encouraged since the currency is viewed as being more stable than colones. Newer US dollars (eg big heads) are preferred throughout Costa Rica.
You can expect a transaction fee on all international credit-card purchases. Holders of credit and debit cards can buy colones and sometimes US dollars in some banks, though you can expect to pay a high transaction fee. Cards are widely accepted at some midrange and most top-end hotels, as well as top-end restaurants and some travel agencies. All car rental agencies accept credit cards.
All banks will exchange US dollars, and some will exchange euros and British pounds; other currencies are more difficult. Most banks have excruciatingly long lines, especially at the state-run institutions (Banco Nacional, Banco de Costa Rica, Banco Popular), though they don’t charge commissions on cash exchanges. Private banks (Banex, Banco Interfin, Scotiabank) tend to be faster. Make sure the dollar bills you want to exchange are in good condition or they may be refused.
Travelers will notice a 13.39% sales tax at midrange and top-end hotels and restaurants, while hotels also charge an additional 3% tourist surcharge. Everybody must pay a US$26 airport tax upon leaving the country. It is payable in US dollars or in colones, and credit cards are accepted. Note that some travellers have reported that this fee was charged on their cards as a cash advance, which resulted in a hefty fee.
It is customary to tip the bellhop/porter (US$1 to US$3 per service) and the housekeeper (US$1 to US$2 per day) in top-end hotels, less in budget places. On guided tours, tip the guide US$1 to US$10 per person per day. Tip the tour driver about half of what you tip the guide. Naturally, tips depend upon quality of service. Taxi drivers are not normally tipped, unless some special service is provided. Top-end restaurants may add a 10% service charge onto the bill. If not, you might leave a small tip to show your appreciation, but it is not required.
Most banks and exchange bureaus will cash traveler’s checks at a commission of 1% to 3%. Some hotels will accept them as payment, but check policies carefully as many hotels do not. US dollar traveler’s checks are preferred. It may be difficult or impossible to change checks of other currencies.