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 sense if you are planning to spend your vacation only in the North Pacific.
Rarely does an international flight get into 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 or near the city, and leave for your domestic destination via air or land the next morning.
Heavy rains in the afternoon and evening 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 the San José office about three days before your return flight to reconfirm; others, such as TACA, explicitly say it's not necessary. It's always a good idea to call the local office or check online the day before you are scheduled to return home 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 with your specific contact information. Then call your airline to find out if they can track it and how long you have to wait—generally bags are located within two days. Continue on your trip as you can; bags can be sent to you just about anywhere in the country. Don't expect too much from local agents; try to get updates from the airline directly.
If your bag has been searched and contents are missing or damaged, file a claim with the TSA 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.
When you fly out of Costa Rica, you'll have to pay a $28 airport departure tax in colones or dollars or with a Visa credit card. (Paying the tax via credit card means the transaction will be processed as a cash advance and incur additional fees.) You can pay the tax on arrival or departure at the Bancrédito counter in the airport—the counter line may look long but it moves quickly—or at any Bancrédito branch in Costa Rica during your trip. Be warned: Lines at banks are long, making this a time-consuming option. A few North Pacific hotels will collect the tax for you if you are flying out of Liberia.
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), or 30 minutes by car, northwest of downtown San José, just outside the city of Alajuela. The SANSA terminal for domestic flights is here. The country's other international airport is Aeropuerto Internacional Daniel Oduber Quirós (LIR), a small airport near Liberia, in the North Pacific. The tiny Tobias Bolaños airport (SYQ), in the western San José suburb of Pavas, serves domestic airline Nature Air, domestic charter companies, and a handful of private planes.
Other places where planes land in Costa Rica aren't exactly airports. They're more like a carport with a landing strip, at which an airline representative arrives just minutes before a plane is due to land or take off.
Most North American flights arrive in the evening and depart early in the morning, which are the busiest times. Prepare yourself for long waits at immigration and customs, and for check-in and security checkpoints at both airports. Enhanced security measures took effect in 2010. Liquids and gels (over 3 ounces) and powders are not permitted through security checkpoints or the gates. Carry-on bags are searched again at the gates for flights to the United States. Get to the airport three hours before your flight—Juan Santamaría is a full-service airport with many arrivals and departures each day, so if you miss your flight or have some other unexpected mishap, you're better off here. Fares are usually lower to San José than to Liberia.
Aeropuerto Internacional Daniel Oduber Quiros (50101. 2668-1010 in Costa Rica.)
Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaria (20109. 2437-2400; 2437-2626 in Costa Rica for departure and arrival info. www.aeris.cr.)
Aeropuerto Internacional Tobías Bolaños (Pavas, 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 representative of your tour company with a sign that bears your name. If you need a taxi, a uniformed agent will ask you as you exit the arrivals area and will pick up a voucher at a counter just to the left, then escort you to one of the orange Taxis Unidos cabs (no other taxis are allowed in the arrivals area). Rates are metered to the various parts of town; most areas of San José are $22 to $30.
From the United States to San José: American flies from Miami and Dallas and, from November to April, from New York (JFK); Continental flies from Houston and Newark; Delta flies from Atlanta; US Airways flies from Charlotte; Spirit Air flies from Fort Lauderdale; JetBlue flies from Orlando; Frontier flies from Denver; Central American airline TACA flies from Miami, New York, and Los Angeles. Mexico's AeroMéxico provides connections from several U.S. gateways via its hub in Mexico City; Panama's Copa does the same through its hub in Panama City. From New York, flights to San José are 5½ hours nonstop or 7 to 8 hours via Miami. From Los Angeles, flights are about 5½ hours nonstop or 8½ hours via Houston; from Houston, 3½ hours nonstop; from Miami, 3 hours; from Charlotte, 4 hours. In general, nonstop flights aren't that much more expensive. Median ticket prices from hubs such as New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle hover between $500 and $600, although the range can vary widely up or down.
Six commercial airlines fly to Liberia: American, from Dallas and Miami; Delta, from Atlanta; Continental, from Houston; JetBlue from Orlando; US Airways from Charlotte, North Carolina; and Frontier from Denver, February through August.
TACA connects San José with other Central American countries. Nature Air flies between Bocas del Toro, Panama, and San José, and between Managua and San José.
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 (by phone or online), although you can buy them at the San José or Liberia airports or 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. Most Nature Air and SANSA flights leave from the San José area. You can buy SANSA and Nature Air 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 fare paid. On some flights extra luggage is allowed but is charged about $1 to $3 per pound and will go standby. Heavy packers can leave their surplus for free in a locked area at Nature Air's terminal. SANSA does not store extra baggage.
Charter flights within Costa Rica are not as expensive as you might think, and can be an especially good deal if you are traveling in a group. If a group this size charters a small plane, 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 will be extremely tight, if possible at all, and you'll be at the mercy of temperamental weather and delays.
American Airlines (800/433-7300; 2248-2010 in Costa Rica. www.aa.com.)
Continental Airlines (800/231-0856 for international reservations; 0800/044-0005 in Costa Rica. www.continental.com.)
Delta Airlines (800/241-4141 for international reservations; 0800/056-2002 in Costa Rica. www.delta.com.)
Frontier Airlines (800/432-1359 for international reservations; 2440-4307 in Costa Rica. www.frontierairlines.com.)
JetBlue (800/538-2583 for international reservations; 2441-6851 in Costa Rica. www.jetblue.com.)
Spirit Airlines (800/772-7117; 2441-6552 in Costa Rica. www.spiritair.com.)
TACA (800/400-8222 for international reservations; 2299-8222 in Costa Rica. www.taca.com.)
United Airlines (800/538-2929 for international reservations; 0800/044-0005 In Costa Rica. www.united.com.)
US Airways (800/428-4322 for international reservations; 0800/011-0793 in Costa Rica. www.usairways.com.)
AeroMexico (2231-6834 in Costa Rica; 800/237-6639 in North America. www.aeromexico.com.)
Air Canada Rouge (0800/052-1988 in Costa Rica; 888/247-2262 in North America. www.aircanada.com.)
Copa (2223-2672 in Costa Rica; 800/359-2672 in North America.)
Domestic and Charter Airlines
Aerobell Air Charter (888/359-1359 in North America; 2290-0000 in Costa Rica. www.aerobell.com.)
AeroMexico (800/237-6639 or 2231-6834. www.aeromexico.com.)
Copa (800/359-2672; 2223-2672 in Costa Rica. www.copaair.com.)
Nature Air (800/235-9272 in North America; 2299-6000 in Costa Rica. www.natureair.com.)
SANSA (2290-4100 in Costa Rica; 877/767-2672 in North America. www.flysansa.com.)
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