Good money management during your travels is key to a safe and affordable vacation in Costa Rica
Experienced travelers plan how to pay vacation expenses before they arrive in Costa Rica and decide which purchases are credit/debit card and which are cash. Most businesses and tour operators in Costa Rica accept U.S. dollars, but the roadside vendor or neighborhood “soda” probably won’t.
Here are our recommendations for getting the best value for your money while traveling in Costa Rica.
Order colones from your bank and arrive in CR with a good supply of colones in your wallet—enough for two or three days of taxis, food, incidentals. U.S. banks tend to have reasonable exchange rates and fees. Airport money exchanges charge fees and the rates can be higher; though this is available in case you need it.
When you order your colones, also ask about the fees and rates for international debit card transactions, whether from an ATM or as a direct purchases. In most cases, banks charge a US$5 fee for withdrawal, and exchange fees. Be sure to ask how they determine the exchange rate: do they take a daily average or is it determined at the time of your transaction. Ask which institution they use to determine the rate; the bank’s official rate may be a point or two more than the market rate.
Costa Rica’s ATMs aren’t 24/7; they close at 10 p.m. Don’t make daily ATM (ATH in Costa Rica) withdrawals; you’ll just rack up more fees. Instead, take out the maximum amount allowed to minimize bank fees. Try to find ATMs on your bank’s network, e.g. Cirrus and PLUS, non-network ATMs will charge you for the privilege of using their network. Avoid the in-store ATMs and other insecure locations. Pay attention and use normal caution and security.
If you plan to use dollars, avoid denominations higher than $20. The bill should be new or nearly new. Merchants are wary of worn, or torn, bills and larger denominations. Be ready to pay in colones in case your U.S. currency is refused. Any change you receive from a purchase will probably be in colones. Only carry enough money for your daily needs, keep the rest in a secure location at your hotel. As with traveling anywhere in the world, be cautious and aware of your surroundings; avoid handling large amounts of cash in public, and get only what you need out of your wallet.
Contact your credit card issuer; ask the same questions you asked the bank. Some card issuers offer no-fee foreign transaction services. Do tell the card issuer where you’re going; they’ll note your record and you’ll avoid problems related to anti-fraud measures. Use credit cards for your major expenses such as accommodation, tours, rental car, etc. Depending on the restaurant and the bill, credit cards are a good choice. Generally, U.S. issued cards have stable rates and fees, but they can vary widely. Costa Rican vendors may also set their own exchange rates and fees, ask before you make a purchase if you have concerns.
Debit cards on standard interbank networks, such as PLUS and Cirrus, are good almost anywhere in Costa Rica. Remote rural locations may be problematic and that’s why you should have some cash available. Traveler’s checks are obsolete, expensive and difficult to use; even in the U.S, merchants view them with suspicion.
Overall, mix up your use of cards and cash while traveling Costa Rica, just as you would at home. Let where you spend and what you buy dictate how you pay.