Juan Santamaría International Aairport, 17 km outside San José, is where almost all international flights to Costa Rica arrive. The airport in Liberia, 217 km northwest of San José on the Carretera Interamericana (Ineramerican Highway), is the backup international airport. It is little used except during the high season, when it receives a few direct charter flights from Miami and Canada for travelers wanting to go to the Peninsula de Nicoya without stopping in San José.
Usually, going through immigration, baggage pickup, and customs at the main airport is fairly straightforward and takes about 30 minutes to an hour, occasionally longer if several international flights land at almost the same time.
Most airlines serving Costa Rica fly from the USA. these include American Ailines, Continental, Delta, and United, all based in the USA; Lacsa, the international Costa Rican carrier (part of TACA Central American airline group, which includes Aviateca of Guatemala, Taca of El Salvador, Taca International of Honduras, and Nica of Nicaragua); and Mexicana.
From Europe, most airlines connect with flights from Miami: those airlines that do fly to Costa Rica may stop in the Caribbean instead. Carriers from Europe change every year. recently Martinair (a KLM subsidiary) from the Netherlands and Iberia from Spain offered service to Costa Rica.
The ordinary tourist or full economy-class fare is not the most economical way to go. It is convenient however, because it enables you to fly on the next plane out and your ticket is valid for 12 months. If you want to economize further, there are several options.
Youth and Student Fares
Students with international student ID cards and anyone under 26 years of age can get discounts with most airlines. Although youth and student airfares can be arranged through most travel agents and airlines, it is a good idea to go through agents that specialize in student travel. Note that student airfares are not only cheap but often include free stopovers, don't require advance purchase, and may be valid for up to a year - a great deal if you are a student.
Whatever your age, if you purchase your ticket in advance it costs approximately 30% or 40% less than the full economy fare. These are often called APEX, excursion, or promotional fares, depending on the country you fly from and the rules and fare structures that apply there.
Often the following restrictions apply: You must purchase your ticket at least 21 days (sometimes more or fewer days) in advance; you must stay a minimum period (about 14 days on average); and you must return within 180 days (sometimes fewer). Individual airlines have different requirements and these can change from time to time. Most of these tickets do not allow stopovers, and there are extra charges if you change your itinerary or dates of travel. These tickets may sell-out well in advance, so try to book early.
You can also use the Internet to hunt for low fares. Most airlines have their own websites with online ticket sales, often discounted for online customers. The airlines may sell seats by auction, offer last-minute specials, or simply cut prices to reflect the reduced cost of electronic selling. to purchase a ticket via the Web, you'll need to use a credit card - this is straightforward and secure, as card details are encrypted. Commercial reservation networks offer airline ticketing as well as information and bookings for hotels car rental, and other services.
Another cheap way to go is through consolidators (also called 'bucket shops' though this term is less in vogue these days) that are allowed to sell discounted tickets to help airlines fill their flights. these tickets are often the cheapest of all, particularly in low season, but they may sell out fast and you may be limited to only a few available dates.
While youth and student fares, economy fares, and discounted tickets are available direct from the airlines or from a travel agency (there is no extra charge for any of these tickets if you buy them from an agent rather than direct from the airline), consolidated discount ticktes are available only from the discount ticket agencies themselves. Most of them are good, reputable, bonded companies, but once in a while a fly-by-night operator comes along, taking your money for a super cheap flight and giving you an invalid or unusable ticket. Carefully check what you are buying before handling over your money.
Discount ticket agencies often advertise in Sunday newspapers and travel-oriented magazines; there is much competition and a variety of fares and schedules are available. Fares to Latin America are traditionally quite expensive, but discount ticket agencies have recently been able to offer increasingly economical fares.
If you are flexible with travel dates and can get by with minimal luggage, you can fly to Costa Rica as a courier. (this is most practical from the USA) . Couriers are hired by companies that need to have packages delivered to Costa Rica. The company will give the courier exceptionally cheap tickets in return for the use of his or her checked-baggage allowance. the traveller can bring carry-on luggage only. These are legitimate operations - all baggage you are to deliver is completely legal. And it is amazing how much you can fit in your carry-on luggage. Remember you can buy things like T-shirts, a towel, and soap after you arrive at your destination, so travelling with just carry-on luggage is certainly feasable. Most Courrier flights to San José originate in San José, Miami, Los Angeles and New York. for up to date information contact the International Association of Air Travel Couriers: 352-475-1584.
Roundtrip fares are always much cheaper than two one-way tickets. They are also cheaper than 'open jaw' tickets, which enable you to fly into one city (say San José) and leave via another (say Panama City). However a few agencies can offer good fares on open 'open jaw' tickets, which are suitable for someone who wants to do a little overland travel in Central America, so it pays to shop around before making your decision.
If because of a late flight (but not a rescheduled one), you miss a connection or are forced to stay overnight, the carrier is responsible for providing you with help in making the earliest possible connection and paying for a room in a hotel of its choice. The airline should also provide you with meal vouchers. If you are seriously delayed on an international flight, ask for these services.
Travellers are sometimes confused about the meaning of the term 'direct flight'. A direct flight goes from your departure point to San José or Liberia and does not require that you go off your plane. However, unless it is specifically called a non-stop direct flight, the plane can stop in several cities en route to its final destination.
Baggage & Other Restrictions
These vary depending on the airline and the class of service you have chosen. The airline or your travel agent will be able to explain restrictions to you. At minimum, you will be allowed two pieces of luggage totaling 20kg, plus a carry-on bag that fits under the seat in front of you. On some airlines or on business and 1st-class, you will be allowed more.
Restrictions on cheaper tickets usually mean you cannot get a refund, and if you change your dates of travel you must pay an additional charge.
Travellers with Special Needs
Most airlines can accommodate travellers with special needs, but only if such services are requested some days in advance. On flights with meals, a variety of special cuisines can be ordered in advance at no extra charge.
Airlines can easily accommodate travellers requiring physical assistance. Wheelchairs designed to fit in aircraft aisles, plus an employee to push the chair if necessary are available with advance notice. Passengers can check their own wheelchairs as luggage. Blind passengers can request that an employee take them through the check-in procedure and all the way to their seats. Again, if you have special needs, ask - airlines usually work to oblige.
A departure tax is payable at the international airport by all foreign passengers departing on international flights (ticos pay more). Payment can be in cash US Dollars or Colones.
Text by Lonely Planet.
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