Renting a car in Costa Rica ended up being a great decision. I give Trish the credit for wanting to do it, since I was down with taking public buses. I relented after finding out that renting a private van & driver would cost $300 for 3 days. While we would miss his knowledge and experience, we ended up learning a lot by taking charge and driving ourselves around.
We had 2 basic requirements – 4 wheel drive (just in case) and a cell phone rental (a great option if you don’t plan your itinerary all in advance). For both weeks we rented a Daihatsu Terios – a compact 4wd SUV with slightly more pickup than an ox-cart. It was manual transmission, which was fine since we both drive stick and it cost a little less. For those of you who prefer automatic, both rental companies had automatics available, but I imagine they get booked a lot faster.
We rented the first week from Vamos Rent-a-Car, located 4 miles from San Jose International Airport. Mike, who seems to be the owner, spoke excellent English and was very courteous and professional every time we spoke. The Terios was $325/wk (green season rate) and included insurance. Also included was a celphone for emergency use, which can be upgraded to unlimited usage for $25/wk. This was an excellent deal. The required deposit for renting is $750, which is supposed to be charged upon rental and then refunded after the car is returned. In our case, we never got charged the deposit, and I’m not sure if that is usual or not. If it is the norm, then it’s a great deal for people on a budget. When the car was returned, they gave back the unused credit card form for the deposit.
Vamos’ service was very good. We were about 1 mile from the airport, and the car was delivered a couple of hours late (due to cleaning/maintenance since it had just been returned) while pickup was on time after a quick confirmation call. The celphone died and Mike dropped one off the next day – with the wrong charger. Luckily, we were staying some place where we had access to a phone, but this was a bit of an inconvenience. We got the right charger 2 days later, just 1 day before the car was to be returned. Mistakes happen, so I wasn’t interested in making a stink about getting some money back for the celphone rental. I’m not certain that we would have used the phone too much more regardless.
We would have stayed with Vamos for the 2nd week, except they were booked. Mike was nice enough to say he would find us a car and not to worry about calling around for a car. I initially called asking about extending the rental 4 days before the car was due, and when I hadn’t heard an answer beyond ‘I’m working on it’ for 3 days, I went ahead and called Mapache. Mike finally let me know that the car was available for the next week, but I had already made the Mapache reservation.
Mapache Rent a Car seemed to me a larger company from the start. They hadn’t heard of Vamos, and I imagine that they would be aware of their major competitors. They also mentioned having a fleet of 400 cars and offices in every major municipality. They also spoke excellent English (or were quick to find someone who did) and were courteous and professional. Their rates for the Terios were a little higher – $275.40/wk, plus $18/day insurance for a total of $401.40. The big loss was in their celphone rental – the celphone itself was free but they charge for minutes used. This didn’t seem too bad until I found out that it was truly medievel – $1.60/minute! For both incoming and outgoing calls. Needless to say, the celphone did not get used and was kept aside for emergencies only. (FYI: to match Vamos’ $25 fee we had to use 15 minutes) The other major difference is a deposit of $950 – for the car only. After delivery, they immediately charged the credit card over $1400 for car rental, cel usage, and deposits for both car and cel. It would have been nice to know about the celphone deposit.
Service-wise they were very good. The guy who dropped the car off, Giovanny, was very friendly and did a good job of explaining everything (except maybe the celphone deposit – or perhaps he did and I don’t remember). He was also nice enough to ask how our trip had been and perked up when I mentioned Grecia and Sarchi. He had grown up in Sarchi and lived in Grecia, then asked if I was interested in buying property because he knew of a nice 6 month old, 2br 2 garage house in Grecia for $25k. He wrote down his name and home phone number in case we would like someone to enlighten us about Grecia when we return. He wasn’t very pushy and I got the feeling that he was trying to be genuinely helpful.
In the end, the final cost of renting from Vamos for one week was $376, while Mapache, even after returning one day early,
came to $476 (I have no idea what that extra $75 is, but I’m not interested in debating long distance) $376 (11/29: the extraneous charges were removed). The next time we are in Costa Rica and need a car, I’ll definitely book ahead with Vamos and keep Mapache in mind as a reliable back-up.