A vacation overseas is the dream for any traveler. With just a week off work, traveling to a foreign land and immersing yourself in a new culture is the epitome of relaxation and rejuvenation. Unfortunately, an overseas vacation always seems out of reach for the average adventurer. Costa Rica is well known for its luxury resorts and top-of-the-line tour services, but what few people realize is that this Central American country can be toured and fully enjoyed on a limited budget. Costa Rica is a tropical country filled with white sand beaches, volcanoes, rainforests, and exotic animals. It’s no mystery why thousands of tourists visit every year to experience Costa Rican life. This is an experience that absolutely can’t be missed, and with beautiful national parks, historical cities, and a colorful culture, there’s something for everyone.
Luxury resorts offer the finest services and utmost comfort, but for a true glimpse of Costa Rican life, it’s best to stay away from the 100% guided luxury services. This gives backpackers and budget travelers the advantage. Costa Rica is a short flight from the United States, and you can have the vacation of your dreams for the same cost as a domestic, in-country vacation. If you’re going to travel Costa Rica on a budget, it’s best to be prepared for your trip to avoid unforeseen expenses.
Costa Rica has two international airports, and a flight from the United States to Costa Rica is typically no more expensive than a domestic flight. Plan on spending around $600 for a round-trip ticket, but if your vacation days are flexible and you search ahead of time, you can get downward of $400 with a pinch of luck. Fortunately, both airports are close to city centers and you can easily walk to a bus stop. Once in Costa Rica, take advantage of the well-developed bus system to the fullest. The public transportation system is reliable and safe, and if you plan your trip right, you can go almost anywhere in the country by bus. Get a hold of a bus schedule at the nearest terminal and tweak your itinerary to follow the routes. This will obviously be a less efficient way of traveling than renting a car, but you’ll save hundreds of dollars and will have some experiences of your own using local transport. Nobody has ever complained about spending some unplanned hours on a tropical beach or walking the streets of a historical, colonial city, and we’re sure this will not be a big issue for the adventurous soul.
Buses will be the cheapest form of transportation, but Costa Rica is also highly populated with inexpensive taxi services. Taxis can be used for short trips within a city or when in a rush. This won’t break the bank either.
Tourism is a major industry in Costa Rica, so you won’t be hard pressed to find a hostel in any city or town. Go for the dormitories, you can easily get a bed and a lock box for 10 dollars a night. Don’t stress out too much about the quality of the rooms, you won’t spend a lot of time inside anyway. What you should look for is a hostel with a nice open-aired garden and public area. Your dorm will only be for sleeping, but you will want to make use of the hostel’s open and tropical environment. This is where you will talk to fellow travelers, escape the heat of day, and spend some low-budget nights drinking beers in the hammocks. Depending on where in Costa Rica you go, the hostel may be commonly visited by tropical birds, monkeys, and may even offer a rare sloth sighting. The hostel is part of your experience, so go for cheap rooms but high-quality atmospheres.
For the more adventurous travelers, couch surfing is an option in Costa Rica. Visit some online pages and see if this is the right option for you. Spending time with a local family or foreign residents will offer an inside glimpse of life in this happy culture and could be the highlight of your trip.
Costa Rican food is incredible, and the same traditional meals that are sold in fancy restaurants can be found hand-made at street-side grills and cafeteria-style joints, known as “sodas.” This small country may be well-developed and modernizing, but the food is traditional and based on local ingredients. The best way to experience a culture is through your stomach, and eating delicious Costa Rican cuisine will be inexpensive. Aim for sodas during the day and “fritangas,” or street-side grills, for dinner. Look into a hostel that comes with a complimentary breakfast or communal kitchen, but if it’s too pricey, you will be able to find some incredible deals in the local market. Costa Rica is home to tropical fruits and healthy superfoods, so you won’t cheat your diet by eating as the locals do.
For the sensitive stomach, street-side grills may cause a concern. Your trip is short, so you don’t want to spend even a couple of days feeling poorly. Musmanni is a local fast food chain comparable to Subway, and you can get a sandwich and a drink for around $2. This isn’t the best way to experience the local cuisine, but will make a quick lunch convenient and inexpensive.
There are tons of free activities in Costa Rica, but don’t be too stingy on this budget item. You came to Costa Rica for the experiences, and your daily activities are where you’ll find them. Spend the mornings taking walks on the beach, seeing historic churches, and visiting the market place. Then plan a big outing for every afternoon. This does not need to be expensive. Find national parks with self-guided trails. Hiking with your friends or new acquaintances met at your hostel will be the best way to spend an afternoon, and you don’t need to pay a guide $80 to do so. Many parks will require a guide for security reasons, but try to find some where you can hike after a small entrance fee. The fees will not be costly, and they go directly toward maintaining the park and surrounding communities, so it’s well worth the price. If you find a trail that sparks your interest but requires a guide, plan it into your budget. You don’t want to miss out on a jungle experience or exotic animal watching trip.
You will spend serious money on a deep-sea fishing excursion or a luxury trip, but there are plenty of incredible tours that offer once-in-a-lifetime experiences for the fraction of the price. Go zip-lining instead of paragliding, and join a walking tour of a historic city instead of a driving one. You most likely will put in more work, but for a better payoff. Talk to fellow travelers at your hostel or morning coffee joint to get tips on inexpensive, local activities.
-Learn simple phrases. English is widely spoken in the tourist parts and cities of Costa Rica, but learning simple Spanish phrases will help you avoid unexpected costs. Make sure you can ask for directions, ask for prices, and understand a bus route.
-Travel light. You may find you want to move around a bit during your vacation, and may even have 3 different hostels booked. This will be much easier if you can travel via public transport. Try to fit all your luggage in one large backpack or duffel bag for easy navigating. Almost every hostel offers laundry services or can guide you to a nearby laundry mat.
-Go during low season. If you are able to plan your trip during the tourism low season, you’ll save a huge amount on lodging, tours, and transportation. If you go between May and November, you can expect to save 5-10% off your total trip. If you go during Christmas or Easter week, your trip might even cost you up to 50% more.
-Carry your own water bottle and snacks. There’s nothing to kill a budget like paying for bottled water. The water is clean and potable in Costa Rica, so most travelers fill their water bottles at every hostel or restaurant and never pay a dime. If you have a sensitive stomach, however, you may be wary of changing water qualities. Bring your bottle anyway and pay the small fee hostels and tour agencies charge for a filtered refill. Bringing along peanuts or granola bars as a snack will also keep you down to 3 meals a day.
-Drink beer. If you are out at a bar to enjoy the nightlife or even for a mid-afternoon happy hour, stick with beer or rum. This is what the locals drink and can be very inexpensive. If you want to make cocktails, this is your opportunity to buy local liquors and mixers and enjoy a cocktail party at your hostel’s garden. This will save you a significant amount of money from your food and drink budget line.
-Be aware of banking fees. Call your bank before your trip to alert them of your upcoming travels. This way your card stays activated. Also ask them about their policies for ATMs. The ATM fee is a fee per use, so it may be in your best interest to take out the maximum amount and ration it out carefully.
-Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Costa Ricans are well known for being open and friendly, and it will be easy to find someone with basic English. Locals can help you navigate the bus system, find inexpensive food joints, and give you tips for your afternoon activities. This is a good opportunity to practice your Spanish and make some friends!