Costa Rica has two international airports. Juan Santamaría (SJO), just outside San José, receives the majority of flights, while Daniel Oduber (LIR), near the northern city of Liberia, handles some flights from the US and Canada, plus the odd seasonal flight from the UK. Although there are a few direct flights from Europe, the vast majority of routes pass through the US, meaning that passengers have to comply with US entry requirements, even if merely transiting the country.
Airfares always depend on the season, with the highest being around July, August and December to mid-January; you’ll get the best prices during the wet summer (May–Nov). Note, too, that although prices are steepest during the Christmas period (mid-Dec until the first week in Jan) when flying from the US, in Europe this can be the cheapest time to travel. Also, flying at weekends is usually more expensive; price ranges quoted below assume midweek travel.
Note that if you leave Costa Rica by air, you’ll need to pay a $26 departure tax at the airport (payable in dollars or colones, in cash or by credit card), which is not included in the price of your air ticket.
From the US and Canada
Daily direct flights depart for San José from numerous cities in the US, including Miami (3hr), Dallas, Houston and Denver (3–4hr), New York (5hr) and Los Angeles (6hr). LACSA (the Costa Rican carrier that operates as a subsidiary of TACA) usually offers the cheapest fares from Miami and Dallas (starting at $300 in high season), while Continental’s flights from Houston start at around $525; American Airlines and Continental both fly from many US cities to Dallas, Miami or Houston to connect with flights to Costa Rica. Frontier Airlines flies from Denver for around $540, while JetBlue and Spirit Airlines both run services from Florida (Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, respectively, around $330). The best fares from New York are on Continental and TACA via San Salvador (from $400); Continental also offers the cheapest fare from Chicago ($355), via New York. From LA, the best deals are on TACA (via San Salvador); flights start at $540.
There are no non-stop flights to San José from Canada. The cheapest fare from Toronto is on TACA’s thrice-weekly service (Can$780; 6hr 45min), while American Airlines’ daily flight costs the same but involves a plane change in New York or Miami. From Montréal, American Airlines is the best bet, with daily flights, also requiring a plane change in Miami (Can$785; 8hr 45min). The quickest and cheapest flight from Vancouver is on American, with a change of planes in Dallas (Can$885; 10hr). Good deals are occasionally offered by the charter operator Air Transat, which flies weekly from Toronto to San José in high season.
From the UK and Ireland
The only direct flight from the UK to Costa Rica is Thomson’s weekly service from Gatwick to Liberia (Nov to mid-April), which is both the quickest (12hr) and cheapest (£450) way of getting there. Otherwise, Continental has flights from the UK via Newark and Houston, while American Airlines flies via JFK, Dallas or Miami, and United via New York or Houston: of the three, Continental generally has the lowest fares (from £545 in high season) and offers an excellent service, with swift connections. Iberia’s flights via Madrid are one of the quicker routings, and avoid the US, but start at around £650. Indirect flights can still take as little as thirteen hours, including changes.
There are no direct flights from Ireland to Costa Rica. Your best option is to fly via the US or Madrid, where you can connect with flights to San José. Delta has the widest range of flights from Dublin (and several from Shannon) to New York and Atlanta, from where you can get an onward flight to San José, though you’ll probably have to change planes at least once more. Continental are the cheapest, with flights via New York starting at around €650.
From Australia, New Zealand and South Africa
There are no direct flights from Australia, New Zealand or South Africa to Costa Rica – the quickest and easiest option is to fly via the US. Note that it’s best to book several weeks ahead.
From Australia, the cheapest fares to San José from Sydney are via Los Angeles and Mexico City with Delta–Aeromexico (from Aus$1950 in high season). American Airlines’ fares to San José via LA are higher (Aus$2500). Fares from all eastern Australian cities are generally the same; fares from Perth and Darwin are about Aus$200 more.
From New Zealand, the best through-tickets to San José depart Auckland and travel via LA and Dallas on American Airlines (around NZ$3200 in high season); expect to pay an extra NZ$150 for flights from Christchurch and Wellington.
From South Africa, the least convoluted route to San José is with Delta from Johannesburg via Atlanta (ZAR12,800); you can fly from Cape Town to Jo’burg and then on to Atlanta and San José for ZAR15,700.
Overland to Costa Rica
Costa Rica’s international bus company, Ticabus (t 2221-0006, w www.ticabus.com), runs a good overland bus service between Mexico (Tapachula), Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica and south onto Panamá. The service is very popular, and you’ll need to reserve your tickets up to a month in advance in the high season (up to three months in Dec).
Ticabus leaves Tapachula daily for San José at 7am, arriving in Guatemala City at noon and departing at 1pm; from here, it’s a two-and-a-half-day trip, entailing nights (at your own expense) in San Salvador and Managua. A one-way fare is $84 ($73 from Guatemala City). From Tegucigalpa in Honduras, Ticabus leaves for San José ($40) daily at 9.15am, arriving (after an overnight stop in Managua, again at your own expense) at 4pm the following day. From Managua in Nicaragua, Ticabus departs daily for San José at 6am, 7am & noon (8–10hr; $23); alternatively, you can get a Nicaraguan SIRCA bus (daily 6am) or a more deluxe service run by Transnica (daily 5am, 7am & 1pm; 8hr). From Panamá City, a Ticabus leaves daily at 11pm, getting to San José at 2pm ($35).
The main northern border crossing with Nicaragua is at Peñas Blancas on the Interamericana. Further east, another crossing at Los Chiles involves a boat trip (and usually an overnight stop to catch it in the morning) to/from San Carlos on the shores of Lago Nicaragua, although a bridge is allegedly in the pipeline. The main route south to and from Panamá is again along the Interamericana, at Paso Canoas. On the Caribbean coast, Sixaola is a smaller crossing, across one of the most decrepit bridges in the world, while in the southern highlands, two little-used routes link San Vito with the border towns of Río Sereno and Cañas Gordas.
Adventure Associates Australia t 02/8916 3000, w adventureassociates.com. Escorted small-group tours from San José, including a seven-day boat and hiking tour through the rainforests of Parque Nacional Corcovado and Isla del Caño (Aus$2450). They also arrange independent trekking, mountain biking, white-water rafting, canal trips and sports-fishing, plus city stopovers and cruises in and around Costa Rica.
Adventures Abroad US t 1-800/665-3998, w www.adventures-abroad.com. Adventure specialists, with one- to four-week trips throughout Costa Rica and other Central American countries.
Backroads US t 1-800/462-2848, w www.backroads.com. Cycling, hiking and multi-sport tours designed for the young at heart, with the emphasis on going at your own pace. Accommodation ranges from deluxe campsites to luxury hotels. Also family-friendly options and singles trips.
Contours Australia t 03/9328 8488, w www.contourstravel.com.au. Specialists in Latin America, with a decent range of trips across Costa Rica – their two-week Discover Costa Rica tour takes in Parque Nacional Tortuguero, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Volcán Arenal and Monteverde (Aus$1480).
Costa Rican Adventures US t 1-800/551-7887, w www.costaricanadventures.com. Small-group and private trips, on “EcoVacations” or in “EcoClassrooms” with a company dedicated to creating a healthier and more sustainable Costa Rica through eco-centred travel.
Costa Rica Undiscovered US t 202/518-6193, w www.costaricaundiscovered.com. A fully independent tour operator specializing in Costa Rican sustainable tourism, and following the code of ethics outlined by The Institute for Central American Studies’ Department of Responsible Travel.
Exodus UK t 0845/287 7421, w www.exodus.co.uk. Experienced adventure-tour operators offering a range of Central American itineraries, with a sixteen-day Discover Costa Rica tour including visits to Parque Nacional Tortuguero, Reserva Santa Elena and Parque Nacional Piedras Blancas (£2360).
GAP Adventures US & Canada t 1-888/800-4100, UK t 0844/272 0000, Ireland t 207/243 9878, Australia t 1300/79 66 18, NZ t 0800/33 33 07; w www.gapadventures.com. Two-week trekking and public-transport trips along the coast, visiting Costa Rican rain- and cloudforests and national parks.
Geographic Expeditions US t 1-800/777-8183, w www.geoex.com. Luxury adventure travel and cultural tours, including rainforest and river trips, plus customized itineraries (from $3995).
Global Exchange US t 415/255-7296, w www.globalexchange.org. Human rights organization offering “Reality Tours” to meet local activists and participate in educational workshops. They run two trips a year to Costa Rica (one to the Caribbean coast, one to the northern Pacific) concentrating on eco-tourism and sustainability.
Journey Latin America UK t 020/8747 8315, w www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk. Specialist in flights, packages and adventurous, tailor-made trips to Latin America, including a dozen or so tours of Costa Rica, from eight-day introductions to four-week language courses.
Journeys International US t 1-800/255-8735, w www.journeys.travel. Prestigious, award-winning operator focusing on eco-tourism and small-group trips, including to national parks in Costa Rica.
Kumuka Expeditions US t 1-800/517-0867, Canada t 1-888/358-6852, UK t 0800/068 885, Ireland t 1800/946 843, Australia t 1300/667 277, NZ t 0800/44 04 99, South Africa t 0800/991 503; w www.kumuka.com. Independent tour operator specializing in overland expeditions, as well as local and private transport tours.
Maxwell’s Travel Ireland t 01/679 5700. Very experienced Latin American specialist, and the Irish agent for many tour operators.
Nature Expeditions International US t 1-800/869-0639, w www.naturexp.com. Small-group expeditions led by specialists in anthropology, biology and natural history; Costa Rican trips offer optional lectures on the environment, eco-tourism and local cultures.
Peregrine UK t 0845/004 0673, w www.peregrineadventures.com. Experienced small-group adventure specialists offering a number of good-value tours, from nine to fourteen days (from £925).
Road Scholar US t 1-800/454-5768, w www.roadscholar.org. Extensive network of educational and activity programmes, including photography trips, birdwatching tours and two-week educational trips studying environment and history. Participants must be over 55 (companions may be younger).
Sunvil Holidays UK t 020/8758 4747, w www.sunvil.co.uk. Flexible fly-drive itineraries and tailor-made tours, specializing in luxury and wildlife-watching trips, with accommodation in a number of areas including Caño Negro and the Osa Peninsula.
USIT Northern Ireland t 028/90 327111, Ireland t 01/602 1904; w www.usitnow.com. Specialists in student, youth and independent travel – flights, study tours, TEFL, visas and more.
Wildlife Worldwide UK t 0845/130 6982, w www.wildlifeworldwide.com. Tailor-made trips for wildlife and wilderness enthusiasts, visiting more off-the-beaten-track places such as Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo and Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Gandoca-Manzanillo.