Choosing a reputable rental car company

In all my years packaging Costa Rica, the single greatest challenge has always been rental cars. Companies come and go. Less reputable companies run damage scams. Some overbook. Others do not have replacement vehicles if there is a problem, or offer proper support.  Some just have old beat up cars. 

How new are these vehicles? The roads can be tough on rental cars to begin with, and customers tend to drive them harder than they would a vehicle they actually own. Rental cars have a short shelf life.  This is important.  The better rental car companies tend to buy brand new vehicles, and turn them over before they put too many miles on them.  Turnover like this is expensive. 

The cars are sold at auction, often to other rental car companies.  So a car that one company deemed to old for their customers becomes the newest car on the lot at another company.  This is something to consider if two companies are offering what appears to be the same model and the same year at vastly different prices. 

How many offices does the company have? If you break down in the boonies, is there support close by? What if you break down at night, will someone answer the phone? 

Are you going to have a problem with false damage claims? Other than the company’s own testimonials, what kind of references do they have? It is difficult to challenge a foreign credit card charge. What recourse do you have if there is a problem?  

Will they accept any credit card coverage that your credit card offers?  There is a government mandated liability insurance that you must buy.  But sometimes you can waive the comprehensive coverage if this is offered by your credit card company. 

A good rental car is essential for a positive travel experience. Look at it this way:  A family spends $2000.00 on airfare. Say you spend another $1500.00 on hotels and tours. This means you are paying well over $500.00 a day to be there. When you factor in what you pay for hotels and airfare, paying an extra $100 for a week of is not much in the whole scheme of things. 

It is something to think about when your rental car is broken down in Northern Guanacaste. A large national company will get you a replacement from Liberia in an hour or two.  It might be difficult to get anyone on the phone at a small company that only has a few cars. 

I have seen one of the companies that I deal with bring a replacement car on a flatbed truck up the mountain to Monteverde, AFTER DARK. That’s worth $100.00. Anyone who has driven that road in the daylight will agree! 

This is where postings in the travel forums or an experienced Costa Rica tour operator is important.  You cannot make this decision based on price alone.  A US badged company is also not a guarantee.  Many of these are smaller companies paying a franchise fee.  Educate yourself as much as possible.  This is one case of getting exactly what you pay for.

Driving and Bribing

The whole reason I host this blog is to share the country I love with others.  Most of the time, it is paradise found and one of my favorite places on the planet.  However, it does have a few problems.  While the government has stiffened penalties on corrupt cops, you will still need to be aware of what to expect if you run into one. 

Most importantly, you probably won’t have any problems if you obey the traffic laws.  So of course, that is the best policy. 

We have been stopped three times, when (I have to admit) I was violating the speed limit.  The first time, I feigned a complete lack of Spanish.  But I foolishly let the police officer see the contents of my wallet, and there were quite a few bills inside.  I hadn’t driven in Costa Rice much before this, and I was intimidated enough to give the guy $40.00.  I really regretted it. 

The next time was a little scary.  The road was a little remote.  The cop got me out of the car, away from my wife.  He spoke perfect English, and told me it would take hours to find a judge to pay the fine.  I paid the bribe, only because this guy was so smooth that he scared me.  I was afraid if I refused the bribe, he may suddenly “find” drugs in my car. 

But these two experiences hardened my resolve not to pay again.  So my third run-in actually turns out to be a fun story.  This happened recently when my wife and I were driving down the Pan Am highway, only a couple of hours after we arrived in the country. 

We rode right into a speed trap.  The stop was legitimate. I was speeding. I gave the cop my passport and license. He took them and asked me to walk back to his car with him. I had just stopped at an ATM, and had a huge wad of cash with me. I waited until he stepped away, and gave all my cash to my wife. I retained 10,000 colons (about $18.00) and joined the cop. 

He had a tattered traffic law book, like something issued to a student driver. It was in Spanish, and he had the fine for speeding underlined. He explained to me that he really did not want to give me a ticket that he (falsely) claimed would cost $200. He offered to give me a “warning” if I paid 20,000 colons on the spot. I was pretending not to speak much Spanish, and we chatted a little in “Spanglish” while discussing this. I was determined to talk my way out of this situation. We finally settled on the 10,000 colons that I had pulled out of my pocket, and he took it.   This is less than the fine would have been.

During our conversation, he saw the several CR stamps in my fairly new passport. He asked me what I was doing in Costa Rica. I gave him my business card. I explained that I was there working with ICT (the government tourism bureau) on promotions for Costa Rica. I noticed a look on his face when I mentioned ICT. I told him we were scouting locations. 

My Spanish was improving by the minute. I could see he was a little uncomfortable, as he processed this new information. I looked for an ID on his uniform, and saw that it was reversed and tucked under his vest. He noticed me looking. So I stepped to the side and looked at the number on his car. He definitely noticed this, and stepped with me to block my view. I stepped back to the other side and continued the conversation. I think I was asking about locations. I continued looking at the number on the vehicle. 

The guy suddenly gave me back my passport and license, and the 10,000 colons! He told me that since this was my “first time in Costa Rica”, he was letting me off without a warning. He told me to be careful because there were lots of police on the highway that weekend. Then he told me to go. Now. I quickly obeyed. 

To be fair, this is only the third time that this has happened to me in twenty years of travel in Costa Rica.  I guess that three times in twenty years is not a lot. But I have driven daily in the US for almost forty years and I have never been asked for a bribe by a cop here in all that time. 

I love Costa Rica, and never enjoy speaking negatively about it. But this kind of thing is more common than folks like to admit. 

If this happens to you my advice is to be polite.  It sometimes helps if you don’t speak (or pretend not to know) a lick of Spanish.  Keep any large amounts of cash out of sight.  Unless you are in an accident or driving drunk, the fines are usually pretty small.  You can just pay them to your rental car company.  Don’t pay a huge bribe.  The ticket will have the police officer’s information on it.  You can complain later.