How to plan a trip to Costa Rica

Ties Lagraauw

written by
Ties Lagraauw

updated 17.06.2024

While some travellers might argue that planning a trip is more fun than the trip itself, I wouldn’t go that far. However, I do believe planning is both fun and essential. As a content manager for Rough Guides, I’m no stranger to organizing travel, but on my recent trip to Costa Rica, I wanted to see the things that most tourists don't. Good preparation is half the journey, so let's dive into the pura vida spirit! Here’s how I meticulously planned my Costa Rica adventure—and how you can do it too.

First, I decided what I wanted to get out of the trip

I can confidently say this is one of the best tips for planning a trip to Costa Rica. It's essential to start with a clear vision of what you want from your travel experience.

I wanted a combination of adrenaline-pumping activities and serene moments in nature, and decided to skip cities. To be honest, most travellers don't visit Costa Rica for the cities. If you are keen to explore colonial cities, opt for Nicaragua instead (I loved it!). 

Anyway, I envisioned walking through Manuel Antonio National Park, gazing at the Arenal Volcano, surfing at pristine beaches and some relaxing in the best hot springs.

This clarity helped shape my entire itinerary and ensured my trip was aligned with my interests and desires.

Take some time to think about what excites you most about your destination. Make a list of must-see places and activities. Knowing your goals will make the planning process smoother and more enjoyable. 

My tip: Always start your travel planning with a clear vision of what you want to experience.

Next, I asked: when is the best time to go?

The weather can make or break your trip. You can travel to the most remote beaches in the world with the whitest sand you've ever seen. But if it's raining cats and dogs, it's just not as good. So always check the best time to visit your destination.

The best time to visit Costa Rica is during the dry season, which runs from December through April. There is plenty of sunshine during this period, making it ideal for exploring beaches, rainforests, and volcanoes. 

However, this is also the peak tourist season, so I had to book accommodation and activities well in advance to get the best deals. If you want to save money and don't mind a little rain, the green season from May to November is also a great option. 

I visited Monteverde Cloud Forest, and as the name suggests, it's a bit cloudy. But also beautiful!

I decided how long I wanted to travel

I would have preferred to stay in Costa Rica for a few months, but unfortunately, I didn't have that time. In addition, experience shows that no matter how much time you plan, it is almost always too short.

You'll definitely want to spend three or four weeks in Costa Rica, if possible. Shorter than that is also doable, but then you will have to cross off places from your to-do list. Fortunately, travelling around Costa Rica is easy. Pricey, but efficient. 

By the way, the best way to travel around Costa Rica is a rental car

I ended up travelling in Costa Rica for about four weeks and was able to see most of the things I wanted to see. It allowed me to enjoy a balanced itinerary without feeling rushed.

My tip: Give yourself enough time to truly experience the destination. A well-paced trip is more enjoyable.

I booked some activities in advance

Although I enjoy the freedom of not booking in advance, I've also learned that securing spots for popular activities ahead of time can make a huge difference. Both in hassle at the moment as in price. 

For example, a boat tour in Tortuguero National Park sells out quickly in high season.

I don’t want to miss out or waste time waiting in long lines. By booking activities in advance, I ensure I have a spot and can plan the rest of my trip around these highlights.

Booking in advance also gives me peace of mind and allows me to spread out my activities to avoid cramming too much into a single day. 

My tip: Booking ahead guarantees your spot for popular activities. Especially handy during high season (December - April).

The best time to visit Cost Rica, beach in Cape Uvita

Make sure to visit Cape Uvita © Shutterstock

I went online

By that, I don't mean taking selfies at the Arenal volcano to post on Instagram. I'm referring to a local SIM card or an eSim. "In the past" I always travelled offline. Peaceful, but not always convenient. Nowadays, I always buy a local SIM card. Most phones (not mine, unfortunately) are even suitable for an eSim.

The advantage is that it makes planning your trip a lot easier. I use it to find routes or book tickets via 12Go or Bookaway. But also for checking out the best bars or restaurants.

It doesn't mean I'm online all day, on the contrary, but it does make travelling easier.

My tip: if you don't want to be online, download the map of the city you are visiting. Makes navigation a lot easier. This can be done with Maps.me or simply in Google Maps.

I only took my favourites

By this, I not only mean my wife and children, but also clothing. I'm always amazed at what people take with them when they travel. Bags full of "just in case" items, which just aren't useful. 

I get it, you want to look nice in the photo. But believe me, carrying a 20kg bag or suitcase on the bus or taxi is no fun. Certainly not in 30 degrees.

Choose light clothing and pack only what is necessary. Nobody cares if you wear the same pants for two days. And even if they do, you never see those people again. Unless it's your own partner.

Arenal volcano in Costa Rica © Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock

Arenal volcano in Costa Rica ©Shutterstock

How I budgeted my trip

My least favourite part of planning a trip, especially after the trip. But very important. After COVID, ticket prices, but also hotels, activities and food, have become a lot more expensive.

That is why it's extra important to know what you can spend while travelling and where. And no matter how well you budget, you often end up spending more than you plan. There's nothing wrong with that, since travelling (at least for me) is also a bit about letting go.

In any case, what you should consider is that Costa Rica is not very cheap. Expect to pay at least US$150 per day including accommodation, food and transport. If you have a rental car, it will be a little more expensive.

Of course, this depends on how you travel, with whom (travelling with kids, for example) and what activities you plan to do.

I sometimes meet travellers who stay in their hotels because they want to save money. Whatever floats your boat, of course, but you don't travel to Costa Rica each year, right? My advice is to get out there and make the most of it.

I enjoyed reading about the culture

That may sound a bit boring, but I think it is important. I am surprised, and not always positively, by travellers who seem to have no idea where they have ended up. That's how they behave, anyway.

Fortunately, the cultural differences in Central America are not very great. I read about Pura Vida before my trip. And you should too! 

“Pura Vida” - the art of slowing down, is more than just a phrase. It’s a way of life that emphasizes simplicity, happiness, and living in harmony with nature. It's what the locals do, and it’s best to go with it. This sometimes means that you'll have to wait longer than you hoped, or that buses don't always go on time. Just take it as it is!

My tip: Take time each day to enjoy a moment of tranquillity. Just sit down, listen to the birds or people chatting. Enjoy!

Costa Rica Tulemar beach © Shutterstock

Beautiful Tulemar beach© Shutterstock

I booked transport from the airport to the hotel

After a 20-hour journey, you don't feel like looking for a taxi stand and endlessly negotiating a price only to end up paying too much. Of the times I paid too much for a taxi, I could have bought a ticket to Costa Rica.

Make it easy on yourself and book transport from the airport to your accommodation in advance. There are plenty of options, such as WelcomePickups. Here you can book a taxi online and the driver will wait for you with a sign at arrivals.

Of course, you can also just use the Grab app.

My credit card was the first thing I packed

Okay, that's not entirely true. Earplugs went first. 

But a credit card is a lifesaver when travelling. Foreign debit cards are often not accepted. With a credit card, you may pay a fee to withdraw money, but you know for sure that it works.

In fact, we always have 2 with us. Just in case someone, I won't mention names, leaves my credit card in an ATM in Thailand.

espadilla beach and Coastline near the Manuel Antonio national park, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

Espadilla beach near  Manuel Antonio national park © Shutterstock

Mistakes I've made when travelling (and how to avoid it)

I think it's safe to say I'm an experienced traveller, but wow.. I've made some horrible planning mistakes! From overloading my itinerary to seriously misjudging the weather conditions. And from spending 28 hours in a bus instead of 8 (don't travel during Easter in the Philippines) to not having enough cash with me.

I've made a list of most common planning mistakes, so you can hopefully avoid spending 28 hours in a never-ending traffic jam!

Planning travel times

On my trip to the Philippines, I travelled from Manila to Banaue in the north. A trip that should take around 8 to 10 hours. What I didn't realize was, that I travelled on a Friday right before Easter. Apparently, all locals had a long weekend and travelled back home.

The bus ride took 28 hours! You'll be amazed at how many card games you can learn in 28 hours, but it messed up a lot of travel plans. Ever since that trip, I check holidays, travel times and bus routes. I’m never spending 28 hours on a bus again!

Overloading your itinerary

I always like to see and experience as much as possible, but unfortunately that is not possible. You cannot experience an entire country in just a few weeks. As much as you would like that. 

The biggest mistake many travellers make is planning their itinerary from day to day.

The result: an itinerary that is planned minute by minute, with a maximum of two overnight stays in one place. Result: a beautiful trip, but very rushed and not very relaxed. And the great thing about travelling is freedom, right?

Ignoring the weather

I climbed Acatenango in Guatemala (and you should too!) and I heard many stories about the changeable weather. Although I was reasonably well-prepared for what I was doing, the weather at the top was terrible!

It was windy, it was raining, and I couldn't even see (or hear) the guide, who was walking two metres in front of me. There I was in my sweatpants and a second hand wind jacket. I could have turned around and enjoyed the view at base camp, but it's not every day you're at the top of Acatenango!

Tip: If you plan to go hiking, especially volcanoes, don't go for a lot of clothes, but for the right clothes!

Not carrying enough cash

Back to the Philippines again! I travelled to El Nido somewhere around 2010, when there was only one ATM in the area. I should've done my research, because when there's only one ATM, chances are, it's either empty or broken. And it turned out to be.

I ended up without cash, and back then (and still) the Philippines was a cash-only destination. With the help of a local, I was able to use my credit card to get cash at a gas station for a fee that still haunts me. Unfortunately, there was little else I could do. 

If I only knew what I know now!

Ties Lagraauw

written by
Ties Lagraauw

updated 17.06.2024

Ties is a true world explorer - whether it be for work or leisure! As Content Manager at RoughGuides, and the owner of Dutch travel platform Reis-Expert.nl, Ties is constantly on the move, always looking for new destinations to discover.

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