Friday, December 4, 2009

Tips when Traveling to Arenal Costa Rica

In late November 2009, my husband and I travelled to Arenal/La Fortuna, Costa Rica. Being first time visitors to Costa Rica, I have some tips and hints to pass along. These tips will be especially helpful if you are frugal travellers like we are.

Airport: We flew out of Washington-Dulles International (IAD). This was our first trip out of IAD and it worked out really well. According to my boss who flys out of IAD often, the prices are generally cheaper than PHL or BWI and we found this to be true. We paid $230 per person round trip from IAD to San Jose, Costa Rica. We met a fellow traveller in Costa Rica that had paid $600+ to fly out of Newark, NJ to San Jose.

Airline: We flew Copa Airlines which is a Panamanian airline we booked through Priceline. Again, we paid $230 per person round trip.
  • Food/Beverages: In addition to the awesome price, this airline offered great service too. We received free meals on all our segments (we even got a lunch on our 1 hour 15 minute hop from Panama to Costa Rica.). Beverages, including alcoholic ones, were also free.
  • Baggage: We were allowed two FREE 50 lb. bags per passenger. According to the Copa Airlines website, you are not allowed a personal item...only a carry-on (22 lbs which they did weigh), I made sure there was space in my carry-on to fit my purse but this never became an issue...I was allowed to bring on both my purse and carry-on. Our baggage made it to Costa Rica and back undamaged. We were a little worried about our baggage arriving at the same time we did because our layovers in Panama were so short...40-50 problems there.
  • Frequent Flyer Miles: At the check-in counter going to Costa Rica, I was told Copa Airlines is a Star Alliance partner and they took my US Airways frequent flyer number. On the way home, the lady at the counter told me they only partner with Continental Airlines and would not take my US Airways number...not sure which is true...I guess I'll find out when I get my November statement from US Airways.
Rental Car: In San Jose we rented a car from Thrifty. We got a small 4WD SUV called a Daihatsu Bego. It was manual shift which was fine with us but be sure what you are getting if you don't drive manual...many of their lower priced vehicles are manual shift. 4WD is preferable if there is even a remote chance you'll be travelling dirt roads. The cost of the SUV was $138 for the week. We booked directly from the Thrifty website. READ THE FINE PRINT!!
  • Insurance: The fine print on your reservation will explain the insurance and other requirements in Costa Rica. Unless you bring a document from your credit card and/or insurance company saying you have liability coverage in Costa Rica through them, you will need to buy liability insurance there...that's their law. We checked with our insurance carrier at home and our insurance did not follow us to Costa Rica...only US states and territories of the US plus Canada. The liability insurance is $19.99 per day if you are agreeable to a $3000 hold/deposit on your credit card. If you prefer a $1250 hold/deposit (so you have more money available to spend on your credit card), the daily insurance cost increases to $21.99. This is only liability insurance (i.e. if you damage someone else's property). Collision insurance (i.e. if you damage the rental car) is optional. Thrifty will sell you liability and collision for $34.99 per day. We enrolled in a program for collision insurance through our American Express credit card and got coverage for the full rental period (i.e. 8 days) for a flat $24.95. We waited in line about 1.5 hours to get our rental as the Thrifty clerks had to explain the insurance situation to person after person.
  • Extra Drivers: Spouses are allowed as a second driver at no cost...don't let them charge you the extra $5.00 per day if you are married.
  • Current Scam: Make sure you have a good spare tire, jack, etc. There is currently a scam going on in Costa Rica where villains will puncture your tire as you pull out of the rental lot. They follow you in their car until your tire goes flat. When you pull over to check it out, they stop and offer assistance. When you pull your luggage out of the trunk to get to the spare/tire iron, they steal your can't follow have a flat!!! So, again, make sure you have what you need to change your own flat before you start out.
  • Existing Damage: Also, take the time to check the car VERY closely for damage...after travelling all day and waiting in line I know it is the last thing you want to do but do it!!! I read before we left that the rental companies in Costa Rica are quick to blame damage on you if it isn't noted on the damage form you sign when initially taking the car. This will be particularly critical if you didn't take collision'll be paying for the damage out of your pocket!!
  • Airport Tax: We were told by another traveller while waiting in line that it is cheaper to rent from Thrifty because they are not in the airport terminal. Many rental car companies are in the airport but they must charge you 12% extra for that benefit. Walk past the other rental counters and wait right outside the door at the curb for the Thrifty shuttle.
  • GPS: There is currently (until the end of 2009) a coupon for $8 per day for a GPS. You can't take a corporate discount on the website and use this coupon. Even if you call the reservation number, they won't let you use both. But, if you present the coupon at the counter when picking up your car, they will give you this additional discount. The GPS was absolutely wonderful!!! It warned you when a speed bump was coming up in the road as well as one lane bridges (there are a ton of them). It was very accurate and a lifesaver for two directionally challenged individuals like my husband and I.

Driving in Costa Rica: I was warned by a colleague not to attempt to drive in Costa Rica. Everything I could find on the Internet seemed to support this position...the roads are terrible...there are potholes everywhere...Costa Rican drivers are crazy...there are no street signs...etc. We decided to chance it. We were visiting Arenal in the interior of Costa Rica and it would have cost $400 to get a shuttle for 2 round trip to our destination...the car was less than that even with the insurance and it gave us the flexibility to explore on our own. Don't listen to them...there is no reason not to drive in Costa Rica. They drive on the right side like the US and they really don't drive crazy. Now...granted...we didn't try driving in San Jose which is where we understand it is the worst, but outside of San Jose driving was no problem. GET A GPS (see GPS comments in the Thrifty section above)!!

The Westin Reston Heights: Since our flight left at 5:30AM, my boss suggested we stay over night at The Weston Reston Heights. We got a great rate directly from the hotel's website...$79 for a Friday night. I think that rate is atypical, however. The hotel was very nice as expected from a four-star Westin.
  • Internet: We were surprised it cost $12 per day for Internet. We ended up going to a Panera Bread nearby for dinner and free Internet.
  • Towels/Shower: The Westin only gave us two towels for two people and to top it off they were a little rough. We really liked the dual shower head. Since we got up at 2:30AM to get ready for our flight, we were able to conserve time by showering together and each of us taking our own shower head...sorry if that was too personal :-)
  • Parking/Shuttle: The best part is the PARKING IS FREE (airport parking would have been $10 per day in the economy lot which for us would have been $80...the exact cost of the room). They have a multi-level parking park wherever you want...and hop the 24 hour FREE airport shuttle. The airport shuttle runs during peak times on the hour and half-hour. At off peak times, you need to ask the front desk to call the shuttle. And, from the airport on your return, you need to call the front desk to send the shuttle...again, this is only if you are arriving/departing at odd hours...which we were. It would be nice if there was an 800 number for the front desk. My cell phone died while in Costa Rica and I did not take the charger. The airport had pay only cost 50 cents...but, still a toll free number would have been nicer. Ironically, when we got back at 12:30AM on a Sunday morning, the hotel phones were down...not the best way to end the trip.
  • Taxi: Since the phones were down, we had to take a taxi which cost $19 from the airport to the Westin.
Volcano Watching: What is not said by the hotels touting volcano views is that seeing the volcano is not a guarantee. One local told us the volcano is only visible about 25% of the time. Your chances of seeing red lava are about 5% or less...not only does the volcano need to be needs to be night time...AND the volcano needs to be active...good luck with that!!! Since the only reason we came to Costa Rica was to see red lava, I probably don't need to tell you we were disappointed. But, I must say, we were at least blessed with seeing the volcano in its entirety (not just the base) for half a day one morning. We did feel lucky we at least got to see it.

Arenal Observatory Lodge: The lodge is beautiful with an absolute focus on environmental preservation and volcano watching (if you are lucky enough to be there when the volcano is visible--see above "volcano watching" section). We had Smithsonian room with floor to ceiling windows facing the volcano.
  • Beds: The one king bed and other double bed are facing the windows for perfect nighttime viewing. The beds are very firm but were surprising husband and I had some of the best nights sleep we've had in a long time in those beds!!
  • Floor: Bring your slippers...the entire room is tiled...and cold!
  • Patio: There is a covered patio on the other side of the floor-to-ceiling windows perfect for viewing. The patio is equipped with 3 chairs and a small table.
  • Not Provided: The room does not have a hairdryer, phone, TV, or Internet.
  • Road to the Hotel: In reading the TripAdvisor reviews before booking this room, many people complained about the dirt road to the hotel. I was expecting something awful with all that was no big deal...especially with the 4WD Bego SUV we rented.
  • Safe: The room does have a safe (no charge) which is large enough to fit a regular sized laptop computer.
  • Bathroom: Shampoo and bath gel (no conditioner) are provided via a dispenser is the huge shower stall (I think this was a handicap accessible room).
  • Maid Service: If you want maid service, be sure to be out of your room between 8:30-9:30AM. If they come while you are in the room, they won't come back. Since it was very rainy during our stay, we got up and went to breakfast then came back to bed...resulting in no room service 3 of the 4 days we stayed. There are no "do not disturb" signs provided.
  • Hiking: The property is very large...720 acres if I remember correctly. They have a variety of hiking trails. The waterfall trail is not too vigorous overall (getting up and down to the falls is a little tricky). This trail also has a hanging bridge (Dante's bridge I think it was called). There is a very challenging trail...Cerro is a straight up hike...about 4-5 hours round trip...we went about 1/2-3/4 of the way and turned around when we hit the cloud line. The day we were out there wasn't much wildlife to see white faced monkey...tons of butterflies...a few 8 ft snake.
  • Breakfast: The daily FREE breakfast was great. It was pretty much the same each day but there was enough variety that you could switch it up on your own. The buffet consisted of scrambled eggs, pancakes, fried bananas, rice/beans, cold cereal, toast, fresh fruit, juice, coffee/tea, etc. Breakfast was served 7-8:30AM...I think. Get there early...they don't refill the buffet close to the, the pancakes get hard.
Tabacon Resort: You are greeted at the check-in desk with a fabulous fruit drink and warm cloth to wipe your face. We stayed in a garden view superior room which was nice...but, nothing special. We booked the room through Travelocity which was cheaper than going through the hotel's own website ($185 per night).

  • Spa: We got a special promotion rate which included 2 $75 certificates for spa treatments. I got a pedicure and my husband got a 1/2 hour back massage. Both treatments were fully covered by the certificates. During the treatments we got a glass of champagne and a small plate of fruit. The spa was wonderful and there were many, many treatments to choose from...all at what I felt were reasonable prices.
  • Water: There is a water cooler to fill up your water bottle around the corner at the front desk. This is also a good place to get hot water for tea. Your tea will have a coffee taste if you use the coffee pot in the room to make your hot water.
  • Internet: The Internet is very won't be able to upload or download videos...we tried to send a webcam video go. Plus, it costs $5 per hour or $10 for the day. We got Internet for one day hooking up to a cable in the room. They have wireless Internet in the lobby but the charges still apply. They also have computers in the lobby you can use...but, you guessed it...the charges apply.
  • Extras: The room did come with some nice extras like a robe, slippers (which you can take home with you), blow dryer, and complimentary welcome fruit platter. There is also a safe in the room you can use for free.
  • Refrigerator: There is a refrigerator in the room but it is filled with sodas, beer, snacks, etc. all of which are outrageously expensive.
  • Checking Out: When checking out, they will ask you if you are sure everything is out of your room. Then, they will send in a maid to check and give the OK. I assume she is checking you didn't damage anything, steal the robes, take snacks/sodas, etc. Take note that there will be a $3 per day "Community Develop. Fund" charge on your bill. This is not a tax and you don't need to pay it...just ask them to remove it from your bill.
Tabacon Hot Springs: As a guest at the Tabacon Resort, your admission to the hot springs is included. Had it not been included it would have cost $45 per person for the day. There are evening only rates but I don't know what they are.

  • Buffet: We had the International Buffet for lunch at the restaurant at the hot springs. It cost $30 per person (tip included). The buffet included fried fish, pork chops, chicken, fresh fruit, variety of cheeses, fried bananas, soup, pasta, various desserts, etc. We found it to be a good value. Since the tip is included, the waiters will try to run up your bill. Since water was our only beverage, our server brought us a huge bottle of spring water....everyone at the tables around us got water from a pitcher for never occurred to us to specify we wanted that water.
  • Avoiding the Crowds: Be sure to go to the hot springs during the day and at night...the experience is very different. We went on a Wednesday night and the springs were not crowded at all...we had one of the pools to ourselves for quite a while. It seems as if buses come from 5-7PM so avoid those times if you can. Friday in general also seemed a little busier than Wednesday and Thursday.
  • Water Shoes: If you have water shoes, bring them. The bottoms of quite a few of the pools are pretty rough on bare feet and people don't stay long is these spots because of it. We were among the vast majority that did not have water shoes but if we had some we could have had some primo spots absolutely to ourselves.
  • Private Lounge Chairs: Directly outside the women's locker room, there is a stone wall. Look over the wall and you will see some lounge chairs. One set of chairs has an umbrella. This set of chairs is a good place to camp out if you are staying for the day. They are generally available because it is not intuitive how to get to them. The umbrella keeps you and your stuff dry during the frequent down pours. You are close to the bathrooms and water cooler (where you get/return your towels). It is private because it is hard to get to. And, you can read even after dark because of the lights from the spa.
  • Bringing in Food/Drink: They don't check your bags so you can bring in drinks/food if you want although not a lot of people do (including us). We saw one person get a can of beer out of their bag. But, the best idea we saw was to bring one of the tall plastic sip cups with the long built-in capped straw. You could put whatever you wanted in it and you could take it along into the water.

Day Light: Since Costa Rica is near the equator, almost all year long the sun rises at 5:30AM and sets at 5:30PM.

Money: US Dollars were accepted everywhere. We did not change any money into Costa Rican Colones...although we did get some back as change. In November 2009, the exchange rate was $1 to 592 Colones. When paying in US Dollars, however, each store will use a different exchange other words, you'll lose a little on the won't get the 592:1 deal. For us, it was worth not having to find a place to exchange. If you do want to exchange, we were told the banks (and not the airport) were the best place to go.

Groceries: La Fortuna has 3 grocery stores. We shopped at two of them--Christian 4 and SuperMega I think were the names. We found them with our GPS. Even though neither of the hotels we stayed in had refrigerators, we got peanut butter, jelly, bread, breakfast bars, cereal, fruit, pretzels, chips, bottled water, wine, etc....saved a lot of money that way.

Souvenirs: We went to quite a few gift shops in La Fortuna and found the Tabacon Resort to have the nicest selection. Waiting for our flight home we discovered the airport had the same items as Tabacon Resort (with slightly higher prices) plus a whole lot more. I'd suggest getting your souvenirs at the airport on your way out of the country.

EcoZoo: The Arenal Observatory Lodge was selling tickets to the EcoZoo. We decided to go and enjoyed it very was a nice thing to do on a rainy day. We got to hold a frog, tarantula, and snake. Don't get too excited for the butterfly isn't that great. Admission was $12 per person.

Language: We bought a Spanish/English dictionary before we left. We used it a couple of was helpful in figuring out what some of the signs said. But, for the most part, everyone spoke at least a little English. We had not problems in this department.

Departure Tax: Be sure you have $26 per person for Costa Rica's departure tax. It is collected at the airport when you are leaving and they take US Dollars. You can pay on your credit card but it will be considered a cash advance transaction which will incur all the related fees from your credit card company...better to pay cash.

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