Costa Rica: The Details

Well, let’s wrap up these Costa Rica posts, shall we?

I love reliving the trip, but all good things must come to an end!  Besides, the faster I get these posts out, the more I can focus on the next trip – a weekend trip to Austin, Texas in June!

Costa Rica was short and sweet.  It was a bit too short for our liking, but definitely worth it.  When I first booked the flights, I knew the trip was going to be to short to do everything we wanted to do, but that definitely wasn’t going to stop us from going!  Between work, family, friends, and all those other things on my list, it can be hard to find the time to travel.  Now that my girlfriend is a full time high school teacher, and the kiddo is getting older and more involved with school too, I’m trying to take advantage of school vacations.

Unfortunately, everyone else is too, so the price difference between flying home on Wednesday rather than even one day later on Thursday was huge.  We opted to save the Rapid Rewards points for a rainy day, and take the earlier flight home on Wednesday.


I know you got the gist of the trip from the previous posts, so let’s just put it all down here for the full picture.  The only thing that really got mixed up was Day 2.  The Poas Volcano decided to erupt a few days before our arrival, so we couldn’t hike Poas as we had planned.  Instead, we opted to drive west through Sarchi along the way to the La Fortuna.


Flight path – Boston to Baltimore to San Jose, Costa Rica!

Day 1:  Fly out of Boston at 5AM, stop in Baltimore for an hour, and then continue on to SJO.  Land in Costa Rica at 1PM, pick up the car and head to the Hotel Santa Maria Inn.  We spent that night in San Jose, wandering around the city.

Day 2:  Wake up and have a slow morning.  Enjoy a fresh homemade breakfast at the Santa Maria, and then hit the road to La Fortuna by way of Sarchi.  Spend an hour or so enjoying the small town vibe, and then continue on.  Arrive in La Fortuna around 5PM, go for a swim at El Salto, and then explore the town.

Day 3:  Wake up early and hike Volcan Arenal.  After exploring the Parque Nacional, grab some lunch back in town.  Afternoon swim at the La Fortuna Waterfall, and then the long drive around Lago Arenal to Santa Elena.  Check in at Pension, and then night hike in the cloud forests at 6PM.

Day 4:  One more early morning to hike Selvatura, with the afternoon free to explore the Monteverde area.  Fill up that afternoon with ice cream, food, shopping, and soaking in our last taste of the Pura Vida.

Day 5:  Wake up, breakfast, and hit the road for the airport.  Drop off the rental car, and the flight to Boston (via Baltimore again) leaves at 1PM.  Arrive in Boston 11PM, and back to real life the next day!

(One of these days, travelling will be my “real life.”  I’m determined.)

Driving Route

Rough map of the driving route we took throughout Costa Rica.  Starting in the Alajuela area (red marker), we drove northwest to La Fortuna.  After a night there, we drove around Lago Arenal and south to Santa Elena.  Two nights in Santa Elena and then on to the airport!


Packing List

Just for reference, in case anybody’s curious, or planning your own trip!

  • Clothing
    • 1 raincoat
    • 2 pairs shorts
    • 1 pair swim trunks
    • socks/boxers (light wool socks for hiking, and lighter socks)
    • 2 T shirts (1 regular, 1 moisture wicking)
    • 1 tank tops
    • 1 collared button down shirt
    • 1 light hoodie
    • 1 fleece
    • hiking boots
    • flip flops
    • sunglasses
    • belt
    • hat
  • Electronics
    • 2 cell phones + USB cord (1 work, 1 personal)
    • 1 universal plug adapter (with built in USB ports)
  • Miscellaneous
    • snacks and gum
    • 1 small combination lock
    • toiletries
    • bug spray
    • guidebooks (Lonely Planet Costa Rica and Les Beletsky’s Traveller’s Wildlife Guide:  Costa Rica)
    • mini Spanish dictionariesMiscellaneous
  • Bags
    • REI 40L Pack (with 3 litre bladder)
    • REI 18L Flash Pack (my day pack)
    • Eagle Creek Packing Cubes (1 full, 1 half, 1 quarter, and 1 long tube shaped)
    • carry-on sized suitcase

I usually bring the suitcase if we have a rental car, or have a solid home base.  I wouldn’t be caught dead with a suitcase in the middle of a backpacking trip, but it definitely has its uses.  Plus, it’s easy to check on the way home with anything I couldn’t bring carry-on!  I also would have brought the Kindle, but it wasn’t working!  I’ll have to get a new one when I find a good deal.

The fleece was useful for the cool, rainy drives.  Used it for the airplane too, but otherwise stayed in the pack all trip.  I had my rain jacket on for hiking and a couple of showers during the trip.  Other than that, it was shorts, t shirt, and flip flops for the towns, hiking boots for the trails!


We definitely spent a little more than I anticipated on this trip.  I think it was a combination of a few things:

  1. Speed.  Fast travel = expensive travel, there’s no way around it.  The best example is flights.  Whether you’re staying somewhere for 1 night, 1 week, or 1 month, you’re still going to need the same flights.  One trip there, and another home.  Fast travel also lends itself to expensive trips because of the activities, since I want to try and squeeze as much into the trip as possible.  That means we had fun every day, but didn’t really have time to just relax.  Relaxing saves money!
  2. Food.  Fast travel = expensive travel?  No, no, that can’t be right…  We must have been hungry!  I think this is indirectly related to the short trip length too.  For example, while in Peru, we did eat at a few nicer restaurants, but it was balanced out by the street food and cheap eats other days.  In Costa Rica, we opted for a few nicer spots, and with only a few days in the country, those meals skewed the average higher than our typical food spending.
  3. Location.  Looking over its Central American neighbors, Costa Rica is expensive.  The infrastructure is better in most places, and the country has done a great job of positioning itself as a tourist center, especially for ecotourism and adventure tourism.  As a result, Costa Rica is going to be more expensive than Nicaragua to the north or Panama to the south, just the way it is.

Now, let’s crunch the numbers.  All in, here’s what we spent out of pocket for the trip:

  • Accommodations:  $202.62  This one’s easy – 3 transactions.  $94.92 for one night at the Hotel Santa Maria Inn outside of Alajuela, $43.70 for one night at an AirBnB in La Fortuna, and $64 for two nights at Pension in Santa Elena.  It would have been a whole lot cheaper to have kept my original Holiday Inn (booked on points, so…free) near the airport.  Instead, I spent a bit extra to keep my Copa Airlines ConnectMiles from expiring.
  • Activities:  $235.36  Before heading out on this trip, we kind of assumed the budget for activities would be high, since there was a lot we wanted to do.  Selvatura and the night hike were booked ahead of time, at $80 and $72.50 for the three of us.  The rest of the cost was equal parts entrance to the La Fortuna waterfall, the Parque Nacional Arenal, and some hot springs off of Ruta 702.
  • Food:  $273.04  We got a little fancy with our food options, blowing our normal food budget out of the water!  The biggest item was definitely dinner at the Tree House in Santa Elena, ringing up to $77.41.  That’s more than I spend in a normal month on eating out!  After that, a few meals rang up between $20-$30 at various sodas.  It was more than I expected for the style of restaurant, but definitely not outrageous.
  • Miscellaneous:  $44.97  A few odds and ends and a $40 SIM card for GPS use while we were roadtrippin’.  It was 4 gigs, and certainly overkill.  Even with all the driving we did, I’d doubt that I used more than 1 gb of data.  Don’t buy it at the airport, find one once you get to your first destination.
  • Souvenirs:  $102.54  We always bring home a few keepsakes whenever we travel.  The $100 represents some local carvings, a couple tchotchkes for the relatives, and some chocolate for a close friend.
  • Transportation:  $279.56  Our largest expenses for transportation were largely offset by travel hacking.  That still left the remainder on the car rental ($55.98), the taxes and fees on our Southwest flights ($160.78), and gas (~$54).  There were a number of tolls driving from Santa Elena to the airport on the last day, but those didn’t even add up to $4.
  • TOTAL:  $1,138.09
Spending by Category

Broken down, the numbers line up with what I expected – higher portions spent on transportation, food, and accommodations. 

Costa Rica cost us $75.87 per person per day.  Compare that to Mexico at $75.20/person/day, and it doesn’t look too bad!  I think the main differences were outlined above.  Additionally, Mexico had an element of luxury in Cancun.  As a result, my personal feeling is that Costa Rica (comparatively) was more expensive.  Numbers don’t lie though, and I still think we did a decent job budgeting for the trip!

Travel hacking really came through for us on this trip too.  We cut the total cost in half, from $2,462.27 down to $1,138.09.  It certainly does take some effort, but travel hacking is absolutely the best hobby I’ve picked up throughout my life.  50% off travel?  I’ll take it!  Here’s what we used to fund the trip:

Spending with Points

Rapid Rewards for the win!

Spending without Points

You can see I was working on the minimum spend for a new Merrill+ card…

Our Southwest Rapid Rewards and Companion Pass accounted for about 40% of the total trip cost (including travel hacking), or almost $1,000!  We used my girlfriend’s Chase Sapphire Reserve to pay for the rental car, and the Reserve’s travel credit kicked in, knocking off $250, or 10% of the trip in the process.  Since we didn’t have another use for that travel credit this year, I think it was a great redemption!

I saved about $80 by timing the flight purchases too.  It’s not a ton of cash, but the method is easy to apply, so let me explain.  A number of credit cards come with travel credits, like the Sapphire Reserve credit mentioned above.  American Express’s line up of Platinum cards have a slightly more restrictive credit.  First, it’s only $200 per year, not $300 like the Reserve.  Second, it’s only good for airline incidentals (think bag fees, taxes, that sort of thing), and only on your selected airline.  When I activated my Platinum card, I opted for Southwest, knowing that we’d be flying Southwest quite a bit with that Companion Pass.

So here’s what I did:  First, I booked my son’s flights and my own as soon as we decided to go to Costa Rica, that was late December.  Normally, I book the Companion Pass ticket for my girlfriend right away, just to make sure I don’t forget.  This time, I waited.  See, I had already used my Platinum travel credit for 2016, but of course not for 2017.  The next week, I bought my girlfriend’s ticket.  The Companion Pass covered the flights, and the Platinum travel credit covered approximately $81 in taxes and fees tacked onto the ticket.  I think that’s about the closest to a really free flight I’ll get!

All in, Costa Rica was a success!  We really enjoyed spending time in the beautiful country, and I’ll definitely have to go back one of these days.  While in La Fortuna, we met some folks that had driven down all the way from Nevada.  Now that’s a trip!

Some day, I’ll drive.  But for now, I was just happy to spend the time exploring with my family.  We have a few trips coming up this summer, and I’m looking forward to the next adventure!



  1. Hey this sounds like a great trip! We enjoyed seeing how you have planned it out!

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