If you are visiting several regions of the country, flying into San José, in the center of Costa Rica, is your best option. Flying into Liberia, in northwest Costa Rica, makes more sense if you are planning to spend your vacation entirely in the North Pacific. Fares are usually lower to San José than to Liberia. San José also has many more flights each day, making it easier if you miss a flight or have some other unexpected mishap.
Rarely does an international flight arrive in San José early enough to make a domestic connection, particularly in the rainy season, as the weather is typically unsuitable for flying in the afternoon. So you'll likely end up spending your first night in San José, leaving for your domestic destination the next morning.
It’s rare, but afternoon and evening storms during the May-to-November rainy season occasionally cause flights coming into San José to be rerouted to Panama City, where you may be forced to spend the night. October, with its frequent evening fog, tends to be the worst month for reroutes. In the rainy season, try to book a flight with the earliest arrival time available.
Once you're in Costa Rica, some airlines recommend that you call them about three days before your return flight to reconfirm. Others explicitly say it's not necessary. It's always a good idea to check the day before you are scheduled to depart to make sure your flight time hasn't changed.
If you arrive in Costa Rica and your baggage doesn't, the first thing you should do is go to the baggage claims counter and file an official report. Then contact your airline to let them know where you will be staying. Bags are usually located within two days and can be sent to you just about anywhere in the country. Don't expect too much from local agents; try to get updates directly from your airline.
If your bag has been searched and contents are missing or damaged, file a claim with the Transportation Security Administration's Consumer Response Center as soon as possible. If your bags arrive damaged or fail to arrive at all, file a written report with the airline before leaving the airport.
Costa Rica levies a $29 airport departure tax, payable in dollars or the equivalent in colones. At this writing, it is slowly moving to a system of bundling the tax into ticket prices. You'll need to check with your airline. If not already included, you pay the tax at the airport upon departure. Paying with a MasterCard or Visa credit card means the transaction will be processed as a cash advance and incur additional fees. A few hotels will collect the tax for you as well.
Airline Security Issues
Transportation Security Administration. www.tsa.gov.
Costa Rica has two international airports. Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría (SJO) is the country's main airport, about 17 km (10 miles), northwest of downtown San José, just outside the city of Alajuela. The drive takes about 30 minutes. Domestic airlines SANSA and Nature Air—most of its routes—operate from here, SANSA in its own terminal and Nature Air inside the main building. The country's other international airport is Aeropuerto Internacional Daniel Oduber Quirós (LIR), a small airport near the city of Liberia in the North Pacific. It's about 13 km (8 miles) west of the city.
The small Aeropuerto Tobías Bolaños, in the Pavas district on San José's west side, serves a couple of Nature Air routes and several charter flights.
Other places where planes land in Costa Rica aren't exactly airports. They're more like carports with landing strips, and airline representatives arrive a few minutes before a plane is due to land or take off.
Most international flights arrive in the evening and depart early in the morning. Prepare yourself for long waits at immigration and customs. When you're departing the country, prepare for security checkpoints at both airports. Liquids and gels of more than 3 ounces are not permitted. Carry-on bags are searched again at the gates for flights to the United States. Get to the airport three hours before your flight.
Aeropuerto Internacional Daniel Oduber Quirós. Liberia, Guanacaste, 50101. 2668–1010.
Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría. Alajuela, Alajuela, 20109. 2437–2400; 2437–2626; www.fly2sanjose.com.
Aeropuerto Tobías Bolaños. Pavas, San José, San José, 10109. 2232–2820.
At Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría, you exit the terminal into a fume-filled parking area flanked by hordes of taxis and tour vans. If you're with a tour, you need only look for a tour company representative with a sign that bears your name. If you need a taxi, a uniformed agent will escort you to one of the orange Taxi Aeropuerto cabs (no other taxis are allowed in the arrivals area). The metered fare to most areas of San José is $25 to $35.
Transportation at Aeropuerto Internacional Daniel Oduber Quirós is also a mix of taxis and tour vans. The big Pacific-coast resorts provide transportation, but always check with your lodging for recommendations on the best way to arrive.
From North America to San José: American flies from Miami, Dallas and Charlotte and, from November to April, from New York (JFK) and Phoenix; United flies from Houston (IAH), Newark, Chicago O'Hare, and Washington Dulles (IAD) and, from December to April, from Denver; Delta flies from Atlanta and Los Angeles and, from December to April, from Minneapolis and New York (JFK); Alaska flies from Los Angeles; Spirit flies from Fort Lauderdale and Houston (IAH); JetBlue flies from Orlando and Fort Lauderdale; Southwest flies from Baltimore and Houston Hobby (HOU); Air Canada Rouge, the leisure division of Air Canada, flies from Toronto; WestJet flies from Toronto from December to April; Avianca offers connections from several U.S. airports through its hubs in San Salvador, El Salvador, or Bogotá, Colombia. Mexico’s AeroMéxico does the same via its hub in Mexico City, and Panama’s Copa also offers connections through its hub in Panama City.
From New York or Los Angeles, nonstop flights to San José are 5½ hours. San José is 2½ hours from Miami, 3½ hours from Houston, and 4 hours from Charlotte and Dallas. In general, nonstop flights aren't that much more expensive. Ticket prices from hubs such as New York, Los Angeles, and Miami hover between $500 and $600, although the range varies widely.
From North America to Liberia: American flies from Dallas, Charlotte, and Miami; Delta flies from Atlanta, and, from December through April, from Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and New York (JFK); United flies from Houston, and, from December through April, from Chicago, Houston (IAH), and Newark; JetBlue flies from New York (JFK) and, from December through April, from Boston; Alaska flies from Los Angeles; Southwest flies from Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Houston Hobby (HOU); Air Canada Rouge flies from Toronto; Air Canada flies from Montreal (December to April); and WestJet flies from Toronto, and, from December through April, from Calgary. Avianca and Copa connect their U.S. gateways to Liberia via their hubs in San Salvador and Panama City, respectively.
Avianca and Copa connect San José with other Central American cities. Nature Air flies from Managua, Nicaragua, and from Bocas del Toro, Panama.
Given Costa Rica's often-difficult driving conditions, domestic flights are a desirable and practical option. The informality of domestic air service—“airports" other than Liberia and San José usually consist of only an airstrip with no central building at which to buy tickets—means you might want to purchase your domestic airplane tickets in advance. You can also buy them at travel agencies once you're in the country. We recommend grabbing a seat as soon as you know your itinerary.
There are two major domestic commercial airlines, SANSA and Nature Air, and most of their flights leave from the San José area. You can buy tickets online, over the phone, and at most travel agencies in Costa Rica. The tiny, domestic passenger planes in Costa Rica require that you pack light. A luggage weight limit of 30 pounds is imposed by SANSA; Nature Air allows 15–40 pounds, depending on the fare. Extra luggage is sometimes allowed, but costs $1 to $3 per pound and will go standby. Neither airline can store extra baggage, but hotels and lodges may be able to store your luggage—ask ahead and bring a smaller bag for your domestic travels. Neither SANSA nor Nature Air has interline ticketing or baggage transfer with the international airlines serving Costa Rica.
Charter flights within Costa Rica are not as expensive as you might think, and can be a good deal if you are traveling in a group. The price per person will be only slightly more than taking a regularly scheduled domestic flight, and you can set your own departure time. The country has dozens of airstrips that are accessible only by charter planes. Charter planes are most often booked through tour operators, travel agents, or remote lodges. Most charter planes are smaller than domestic commercial planes.
Don't book a domestic flight for the day you arrive in or leave Costa Rica; connections are extremely tight, and you'll be at the mercy of the weather.
AeroMéxico. 800/237–6639; 2331–6834; www.aeromexico.com.
Air Canada/Air Canada Rouge. 888/247–2262; 0800/052–1988; www.aircanada.com.
Alaska Airlines. 800/252-7522.
American Airlines. 800/433–7300; 2248–9010; www.aa.com.
Avianca. 800/284–2622; 2299–8222; www.avianca.com.
Copa. 800/359–2672; 2223–2672; www.copaair.com.
Delta Airlines. 800/241–4141; 0800/056–2002; www.delta.com.
JetBlue. 800/538–2583; 0800/012–1666; www.jetblue.com.
Southwest. 800/435–9792; www.southwest.com.
Spirit Airlines. 801/401–2222; 4000–1887; www.spiritair.com.
United Airlines. 800/864–8331; 0800/044–0005; www.united.com.
WestJet. 888/937–8538; 800/5381–5696; www.westjet.com.
Domestic and Charter Airlines
Aerobell Air Charter. Pavas, San José, San José. 888/359–1359; 2291–7979; www.aerobell.com.
Nature Air. 800/235–9272; 2299–6000; www.natureair.com.
SANSA. 2290–4100; 877/767–2672; www.flysansa.com.