There is so much to love about Costa Rica, and I am glad to be here with my family. The people here are friendly and will be charmed by your children. Still, it is not all easy, especially for families. Here are some travel tips for families that will help you have realistic expectations and make plans for a great time in Costa Rica.
Packing Tips for Families
You know the basics–clothes, underwear, swimsuits, toothbrushes, deodorant. Here are some details you might not think to plan for:
- Clothes – Kids get dirty so you should bring lightweight clothes that can easily be hand washed and hung to dry. This will be much easier than finding a laundromat.
- Keen sandals – Not a necessity, but if you have them they are all you need.
- Umbrellas or light rain coats – Wet, whiny kids can put a damper on your vacation.
- Car seats – Bring them! Car seat laws are as strict here as in the U.S. (taxis are excused), and the roads can get kind of crazy. I recommend this travel vest and booster.
- Digital cameras for yourself and your kids.
- Hats, swim shirts, and sunscreen – The sun’s rays penetrate the atmosphere more easily here than in areas further from the equator increasing sun exposure. This means you will burn more in a shorter period of time unless you take extra precautions.
- Hand sanitizer and wet wipes for cleaning hands while you are out.
- Books and toys – These provide entertainment during downtime, and you can teach your children a valuable life lesson by bringing a few things to give to Tico children before returning home.
- Electronic games and movies – Sometimes they are just what you need. These headphones for children fit small heads and limit volume so no eardrums are blasted.
Safety Tips for Families
- Establish habits of washing hands before eating if your kids do not already do this.
- Practice not sucking thumbs or biting nails for several weeks before traveling. (Our three-year-old sucks his thumb when he is tired or upset, but he always asks first “Is it alright if I suck my thumb?” He knows he has to wash his hands thoroughly with soap before it is safe.)
- Practice shaking shoes out before putting them on feet, otherwise some little toes might get pinched by a crab or something worse.
- Bring medicine and/or essential oils for first aid. You cannot always find what you need when you need it and there is no telling if your child will break into a terrible fever in the middle of your first night on vacation. (That is exactly what happened to us on our first big adventure here.)
- Pack lightly enough that you can always hold hands with your kids while you are out. No driver will intentionally run into your child, but the cultural expectations here are different and pedestrians are expected to watch out for themselves and get out of the way of traffic.
- Pay attention to where you are going wherever you walk, otherwise you may end up twisting an ankle, stepping on dog poop, falling into a gigantic curbside hole, or walking into wet cement.
- Carefully examine all play equipment in a park before letting your children play on it. It may be broken or have sharp edges or pointy parts.
- Keep valuables secure at all times. Violent crime is very uncommon here, but if you leave your things accessible there is a good chance they will disappear. Keep an eye on your kids’ things and remind them to stow their goods when they are done with them to avoid tears.
- Buy bottled water. Sometimes it is safe to drink tap water here, but do not risk ruining your vacation.
Getting Around as a Family
Families have all the usual options for transportation in Costa Rica. The roads here are not great and traffic gets heavy, so keep that in mind when making plans.
- Rent a car or SUV – It is easy to rent a vehicle from the airport and might be worth the expense if you are planning on covering a lot of distance, although the driving style here intimidates a lot of foreigners. It can be difficult to find your way around even with GPS because there are no addresses. Instead, you get detailed directions based on well-known landmarks that may or may not be visible. For example, our home address is a certain number of meters in a certain direction from a certain somewhat well-known restaurant. We do not drive here.
- Buses – The buses here are a reliable way to get around and go just about everywhere. We usually pay between 260 colones (52 cents) and 400 colones (80 cents) per person getting between nearby cities. The bus from San Jose to Manzanillo (the southern-most town along the Caribbean coast) cost about 5,000 colones (ten dollars). Occasionally we have ridden in school buses, but for the most part the buses here were made for public transportation and are well-maintained.
- Taxis – Taxis here are usually easy to find or can be called by a hotel or restaurant. We have met drivers who spoke some English but most do not. Taxis can cost ten times as much as bus fare for individuals, but they are more affordable for families. (In Costa Rica you pay taxi fares based on time and distance, not number of people.) Still, they can get expensive over long distances. Seat belts in taxis are common but not a guarantee.
- Tours – Tourism is an important part of the economy here so everywhere you go you will find tour companies, including hotels. If you have specific destinations in mind you may want to schedule a tour ahead of time online.
- Rent quads – Depending on where you stay, you may want to rent quads or mopeds for half a day instead of taking a tour. Kids love riding them and they give you a little more freedom about where to go and when to take breaks.
- Rent bikes – Some places have bikes available and they can be a lot of fun, but most likely they will all be adult-size. Older children might ride big bikes on their own, and smaller children might sit on the handlebar with their feet in a basket (if there is a basket). Most likely the bikes will be rusty but that is all part of the experience. We have seen families of four riding a single bike but never tried it ourselves.
- Ride horses – This is a popular way to do tours and might be just what you need to get little legs across great distances to see beautiful sites.
- Make new friends – Sometimes the best parts of a vacation are unplanned. You might make new friends who want to show you around, and it would probably become your favorite memory. Some of our best friends are the family of a young woman who sat by us on our plane ride here from New Jersey. Within a couple of days we were connected on Facebook and within two weeks we went on a weekend excursion together. We loved it and we love them! Maybe you will be so lucky.
Other Travel Tips for Families
- Prepare some typical foods before your trip so your family will be familiar with them.
- If you are planning on riding in taxis or buses here, ride them at home first.
- Learn the travel policy of your health insurance company, and if they do not cover international travel you can purchase a low-cost travel health insurance policy (we used IMG).
- Purchase rental car insurance if you rent a car. Imported cars and car parts are heavily taxed (100%) and you do not want to pay to replace a cracked windshield or anything else.
- You might want to unlock your mobile phone so you can put a local SIM card in while you are here. Phone services are really affordable and can be purchased in kiosks at the airport and almost any town. We use Claro and pay 60 cents per day (as used) for 3G data.
- Get a debit card if you do not already have one and check the fees for international ATMs. If you plan to travel out of the country often, consider creating an account with First Republic Bank (it is the best). Some big hotels, restaurants, and tour companies accept dollars or credit cards, but many places only accept local cash called colones. The exchange rate here is approximately 500 colones to 1 U.S. dollar. I do not think traveler’s checks are used much here.
- There are many climates within the country and the weather patterns change considerably throughout the year, so once you have settled on a time of year for your trip you will want to find out about the weather specific to that time of year for each location you are considering.
- Hot water and glass windows (or even screens) are not standards here (at least in more economical venues), so check on those amenities specifically before making reservations if they are important to you. You will usually be given soap but not shampoo so either bring it, buy it here, or do without.
- Expect to pay a small fee to use a public restroom and remember to grab the roll of toilet paper offered you in return. Toilet paper goes in a trash can instead of being flushed. For fun, you can post a sign on the bathroom door at home reading “Fee: 100 colones” and place little rolls of toilet paper on the counter along side a collection jar. It would be a good idea to teach your children bathroom rules ahead of time, but I recommend continuing to flush toilet paper as long as you can.
You might also want to check out the article Places to Go and Things to Do in Costa Rica with Kids.