Our recent trip to Costa Rica, to a small beach town called Santa Teresa, was absolutely awesome. Would 110% do again, and we honestly might next year. Because we had such a great time, though, I had the idea to write this piece about how to do the trip on a budget. It’s not a cheapskate guide or a completely bare-bones approach, it’s just some musings on how to make the trip a little bit more cost-effective, still doing really fun stuff but not wasting money in the process.
Pick your date right
We did really well with our date choice: Early December is after the rainy season is technically over (though we had just a couple of showers), but it’s right before ‘high season’ in the area, so hotels aren’t charging their highest rates. The town is also not super crowded, and feels a lot less tourist-driven.
Check a bag to bring food and sunscreen
We tried to save cash by only bringing carry-ons, but we should have checked one bag so we could pack sunscreen and some food like almond butter and protein powder. (Plus, we weren’t willing to pay to get our laundry done, so I could have used a couple extra changes of clothing!) Food-wise, we probably would still have gone out to eat, but it would have been nice to have protein powder: if we could have added protein powder to the super cheap smoothies that you could get everywhere, we would have been able to make lunch a lot cheaper. It’s super pricey at the grocery stores there… and to that end, we also would have brought more sunscreen with us! It was crazy expensive there and the options available weren’t great.
We would have tried to find a better timed flight, even if we paid more money for it. That’s because Santa Teresa isn’t easy to get to: from SJO airport, it’s a 6 hour shuttle or bus ride, and there are only 2 that run each day, around 6AM and 2PM. We picked a cheap flight, landed at night, and had to do a night in an airport hotel in order to catch the morning shuttle. That ended up costing us a day at the beach and a costly night in an airport hotel. We did the same on the way back. I would book a super early AM flight there to catch the 2PM bus, and then book my return ticket for late in the day in order to take the 6AM shuttle from Santa Teresa to the airport, making it 2 big travel days instead of 4 mini-ones.
There are only a couple of airlines that don’t include the exit tax in their tickets, and Westjet was one of them. At $29/person, we could have taken the slightly pricier Air Canada flight to get home, and would have actually SAVED money. So make sure that tax is included, or that the flight is still the best priced if you have to pay the extra.
Decide on Shuttle vs Bus
Don’t be fooled by what you can google easily. There is a cheap ($15/one way) bus that goes from the airport to Santa Teresa. I think we would opt for that now that we know about it, though the trip is a little bit lengthier than if you opt for the shuttle service. Tropical Tours is $50/person one way and it is a pretty easy ride, super comfortable. So it just depends on if you prefer comfort to a bit more of a cramped but cheap bus. Next time, we would go bus… But again, that depends on your timing, since the airport is the only pickup, whereas Tropical Tours will get you at your hotel. (PS: The service was good but they did try to convince us to take an earlier shuttle than we had booked because they were underbooked—we said no, and they were OK with it, but we did feel like it was a little pushy.)
Exchange just enough cash—ahead of time
The nice thing about Santa Teresa is that almost everywhere will take USD… But almost none of them will take credit cards. So you do need to bring enough cash to get you through the week. Now, when I say that they take US dollars, that doesn’t mean they do a perfect conversion. You’ll likely spend more if you pay in US all the time, and it’s harder to keep track of since prices are listed in Costa Rican currency. (Most tourist stuff like ATV rentals and surfboard rentals are in USD, though, so pay US for those.) We assumed about $40 USD/day in expenses, which was pretty close to accurate.
Find a hotel with breakfast
Even if it costs more $$$ to book, an included breakfast saves a crapload of money there, especially if you’re a coffee fiend like we are. Hostels in the area are pretty inexpensive, if you’re into that, but we wanted some privacy. The Otro Lado ended up being around $70 per night and it was honestly one of the best places I’ve ever stayed, with a super tasty breakfast, gorgeous pool, fantastic wifi and easy beach access. We loved it and would definitely pay for it again, even if there were cheaper options available.
Book a hotel smart
We use Hotels.com because every 10th night stayed at a hotel gets you one for free… and we use the Chrome add-on Ebates to get an extra 4-10% cash back, so you get an awesome deal by the time you book a bigger trip like this.
Skip massage/spa stuff in town
We screwed up and went for massage and it was honestly pretty disappointing, and not super cheap. It was one of those ‘well, we’re going on vacation, of course I should book a massage’ things on my part and I wish I hadn’t. I was pissed at myself for that one. If you’re dying for a massage, check reviews super carefully.
If you google local restaurants, you will end up seeing Habaneros listed and well reviewed. It’s fine — and it is really gorgeous and beachside — but compared to anywhere else in town, it’s super pricey, resort-y, and not local. They do have a great happy hour — 2 for one margaritas — so I would go and get a drink there and go elsewhere for dinner.
In our 10 days there, we ordered guac and chips maybe 3 times, and all of them were disappointing. Not many chips, tiny amount of guac, super expensive. Sounded like a thing we should do, but it was a big waste of money. Try the yucca fries instead!
When we got there, it was super tempting to book a million excursions and adventures. But embrace free choices like chilling by the pool or walking on the beach. We were happy that we spent the money to rent an ATV for one day ($45) and surfboards for one day ($12/board). We were psyched to do one surf lesson (more on that later), but we didn’t end up going snorkeling, doing another lesson, or any other field trips. We realized that it’s easy in that area to basically schedule yourself so much that you don’t end up feeling relaxed, and you do end up spending way more than you intended.