What is it Like to Travel to Costa Rica Right Now? (All the details from our spring 2021 trip)


My family and I love Costa Rica. But we hadn’t been in over 4 years. Once the travel ban there was lifted, we booked a trip and just returned after 10 days. Wanting to know what is it like to travel to Costa Rica right now?

Here’s what we learned:

Traveling to Costa Rica in 2021 means purchasing additional travel insurance, filling out government forms for each leg of travel, and receiving a negative Covid test result prior to flying back into the United States. However, all other aspects of Costa Rica travel are very much the same as in years past.

But that’s just a quick snapshot.

In this article, I’ll get into everything. What it was like at the airport in both places. What you can expect to find once you get to Costa Rica, what’s changed, and what hasn’t.

But I’ll also explain all the extra government hoops and red tape we had to jump through both for the flight there and our return flight (which delayed our return by 2 days).

Before diving in, I do want to say our trip was from March 13th, 2021 returning March 22nd, 2021. We are a family of 5. My wife and I, plus our 3 kids, ages 3, 12, and 14.

It’s also important to note we flew into Liberia in Guanacaste and stayed in Guanacaste our whole trip. So what I’m writing about is specific to Guanacaste and other states in Costa Rica could be different.

Let’s get going!

Make sure to check out my Costa Rica Travel Resource List with links to everything you need!

Is Costa Rica open for travel?

Yes. Costa Rica opened its borders for international travelers back on December 1st, 2020, when traveling via airplane. Land borders will reopen on April 5th, 2021.

That’s good news for families like ours who love Costa Rica and spent much of 2020 wishing we could visit.

We flew in via American Airlines out of Dallas. Airfare was pretty normally priced, and as usual, it was a direct flight. I’ll get into more details about airport conditions below.

But no matter where you live in the world, you can now fly into Costa Rica.

There are some new requirements both from the Costa Rican government for entry and some requirements to fly back to the US (where we live).

And I’ll get into all of that below.

What is it like at the airport in the US when flying to Costa Rica?

Expect airports to be crowded and chaotic when trying to check-in, check bags, or talk to ticket counter staff in the international section of the airports when flying to Costa Rica. Allow 3 hours or more to ensure you have enough time to board the plane.

Frankly, the American Airlines international ticket counter area at the DFW Airport was a literal zoo.

On the one hand, we know that like most other airlines, American Airlines laid off 17,500 workers in 2020 due to travel bans, and reduced interest in travel. (source)

BUT, we traveled during spring break 2021, and it’s not like they didn’t know how many tickets they had sold. 

So they really did a fairly poor job of managing that. It just wouldn’t be that hard to hire flexible part-time workers who were willing to work more hours during peak travel weeks. And I’ve hired and managed thousands of people over the years. So yes; I do know what I’m talking about.

The lines to the counters were 50 people deep. 

There were maybe 6 employees I saw for probably 300 travelers. Forget social distancing. It was barely even possible to tell what line was going where.

There were 2 different self-serve kiosk areas.

But what I noticed is that half of them had error messages displayed on them and needed an agent to reset. There was 1 woman working the area, but when I was using a kiosk, and got the dreaded “agent needed” message, she said she wasn’t an agent (bringing up Office Space memories of the line “what would you say you do here?”

She also wasn’t willing to find an agent, so amidst the chaos, I just walked away, leaving yet another malfunctioning kiosk.

So plan early, don’t check bags if you absolutely don’t have to, and plan to be patient.

Do I need to get a Covid test to fly to Costa Rica?

No. A Covid test is not required to fly into Costa Rica. However, the Costa Rican government does require the purchase of additional health insurance to cover any Covid-related medical expenses or if travel plans are forced to change due to Covid.

That insurance cost our family of 5 a little over $350.

The cost is based on the length of your stay, so the longer your stay the more expensive it will be. I found 3 officially-sanctioned insurance companies that the Costa Rican government will accept (not paid endorsements):

Additionally, we also had to fill out a travel form online prior to travel. More on that below.

What insurance do I need to travel to Costa Rica?

Additional tourist insurance is required by the Ministry of Health of Costa Rica. The insurance covers medical expenses in the event coronavirus is contracted, and it also covers lodging expenses in the event a traveler is forced to remain in the country due to coronavirus.

Again, the 3 officially-sanctioned sources to buy the required insurance are (not paid endorsements):

We picked Sagicor because it showed you the cost upfront before filling out all of your info.

Of course, like most insurance, the likelihood of your actually needing it is low. But it’s required, so you have to buy it if you want to go.

You will also have to fill out an online Epidemiological Form which is called a Health Pass form.

However, you can’t fill that out more than 48 hours prior to your flight into Costa Rica. CLICK HERE to access that form.

All people traveling to Costa Rica must fill this out every time they enter the country.

Once you fill out that form, it gives you a QR code that was emailed to me for each of the 5 of us. I then printed that out as both that and the proof of insurance which was required by the airline in order to get on the plane.

Showing the QR code on your phone should also work just fine though.

Do I need to get a Covid test to fly back to the United States?

Yes, all travelers flying into the USA, including US citizens have to take a Covid test within 72 hours of the return flight and show the proof of a negative test result at the airport in order to be allowed to fly.

The biggest issue here is that since the Biden administration just put this into effect in late January 2021, the infrastructure in Costa Rica is a little lacking.

We had trouble both finding a place to do the test and had trouble getting an appointment.

We were in Guanacaste. If you are near San Jose, you won’t have the issues we had. Also, be aware that Costa Rica offers 2 types of tests, both of which are the Q-tip up the nose test.

The 2 tests go by the following names with the following price ranges:

  • Antigen (rapid) – Results within 8 hours (we got ours in 2 hours) – $50-60 per person
  • RT-PCR test – Results within 48-72 hours – $100-150 per person

It’s worth noting that the antigen test isn’t accepted by a lot of countries which is why they offer 2 different ones. Luckily, the US does accept it, so go for that one if returning to the US. It’s both cheaper and much faster.

We did not see any place that did the saliva test.

Ultimately, we should have booked our test appointment the day we landed as most places were booked up for days. We ended up having to extend our trip by 2 days since we were unable to get an appointment.

You also have to fill out a somewhat confusing government form for each traveler before booking your appointment.

The testing place will ask for the application number for each form.

But they don’t email a confirmation and most of us don’t have printers when we travel.

So make sure and screenshot each one so you can pull it up.

This website has all the additional info you need on where to find the nearest testing location.

What is it like at the airport in Costa Rica when flying back to the US?

The Daniel Oduber airport in Liberia, Costa Rica functioned normally with normal, if low wait times, and adequate staffing for the number of fliers.

The only odd thing is that American Airlines has the option to check-in online for your flight. 

But because of the US requirement (passed in January 2021) requiring all travelers traveling to the US to get a Covid test within 72 hours of your flight, you can’t actually check-in online.

Now, the way technology is these days, you’d think they would allow you to simply upload your test results to check-in. Then, an agent could simply verify it before printing the boarding pass.

Or the airlines could simply be able to verify directly with the medical provider who uploaded the test results.

But don’t expect to be able to check-in online.

Be prepared to see an agent at the ticket counter in Costa Rica, show your passports, and proof of Covid test, and fill out 1 additional form for each traveler acknowledging that you either got the test or recently recovered from Covid.

All of that took our family of 5 about 20 minutes. Luckily, there was virtually no line at security, and that procedure was totally normal.

We allowed 2.5 hours before our flight time, including the return of our rental car. But we still got to the gate over an hour early.

So compared to the DFW airport experience, Costa Rica was a breeze.

Are restaurants open in Costa Rica?

Yes. Aside from businesses that permanently closed in 2020, all restaurants, bars, and other facilities appear to be open normally for regular dine-in service. Most restaurants have signs indicating masks are required, but it appeared to be rarely enforced.

So you’ll have no trouble finding places to eat.

It’s also worth noting that all grocery stores (typically called mercados, supers, mini-supers, or super-mercado) were also all open normally.

In fact, compared to what I was used to in the US, Costa Rica was surprisingly (and refreshingly normal).

I would say about 40% of those in the service industry wore masks, but fewer than 25% of patrons wore them. But it’s also worth noting that many, if not most, restaurants and bars in Costa Rica are open air.

By that I mean they are often either completely outdoor or at least have a lot of doors and windows that are wide open. So it’s rare to find a completely indoor restaurant.

Are the beaches in Costa Rica open?

Yes. All beaches in Costa Rica appear to be open normally with no limitations or restrictions. And as typical at many Costa Rica beaches, they are sparsely attended.

In Guanacaste, we visited the following beaches on this trip:

  • Playa Conchal
  • Playa Grande
  • Playa Tamarindo
  • Playa Potrero

All of those except Playa Grande were ones we’ve been to many times. And all of them were totally normal.

None had restrictions, mask requirements, or anything like that. Tamarindo being a surfing spot and tourist town was a little crowded. But generally, it’s always been my experience that Costa Rica beaches are nowhere near as crowded as nice beaches in the US are.

It’s also worth mentioning I’ve been top Costa Rica 5 times, with my first trip being in 2005.

This trip was no different. And in most cases, we rarely saw more than 20 other people on the beaches when we were there.

Should you travel to Costa Rica right now?

The biggest challenges traveling to Costa Rica right now are the government requirements on both ends of the trip. Once in Costa Rica, vacationing there will be very similar to how Costa Rica tourism has been in previous years.

So yes, it’s well worth it.

Just plan on the added expense of about $120 per person for the insurance Costa Rica requires and the Covid tests the US requires upon return.

If you’re flying to Costa Rica from another country, check with your country’s requirements as I am only familiar with my experience flying to and from the United States in March 2021.

We had a great time, and aside from the hassle of finding a place to get our required Covid test for our return to the US, we have no regrets.

What has changed in Costa Rica from our last visit?

Very little in Costa Rica has changed since the world pandemic started in 2020. The biggest changes are that some businesses have gone out of business due to the country limiting outside travel for much of 2020.

But we’ve been to Costa Rica many times, and for the most part, the country was unchanged.

We still encountered all the things we’ve come to love about Costa Rica:

  • Fresh fruit stands along roadsides
  • Friendly people (Ticos) everywhere
  • Feeling safe everywhere we went
  • All restaurants and bars were open normally

And as I’ve noted elsewhere, compared to what we were used to in the States, masks are more of a suggestion in Costa Rica rather than a mandate.

I rarely saw masks worn by anyone other than waiters, and even then that wasn’t consistent. Mask signs were posted in many places but seemed to be ignored much of the time.

I did see a higher than normal number of bars and restaurants that appeared to be closed permanently. That’s presumably from not being able to make it financially due to the lockdowns in 2020.

But honestly, visiting Costa Rica and seeing people having fun, not living in fear, and being friendly with one another was quite refreshing compared to how a lot of the US is currently.

Is Costa Rica more dangerous for tourists right now?

Costa Rica’s crime rate is typically low and usually limited to “petty theft”. Locking car and house doors, leaving valuables hidden, and being aware of surroundings are usually all that’s needed in most places in Costa Rica. San Jose being a larger, more urban city, will have more crime than rural areas.

In terms of Covid, the risk in Costa Rica is also low.

After all in Costa Rica, you will spend a lot of time outdoors and in the sun. Vitamin D (as provided by the sun) has been shown in studies to reduce the risk of contracting coronavirus. (source)

Additionally, the tropical climate of Costa Rica also is not friendly to the coronavirus.

Another study went on to note that “incidence can be reduced with high temperatures”. So while nothing is guaranteed, and you should always exercise caution, the likelihood of contracting Covid on a trip to Costa Rica is likely lower than in your home city.

But let’s examine the actual incident rates in Costa Rica compared to a few other places:

  • Costa Rica’s current rate of infection is 68% lower than their worst month (Sept 2020)
  • Total deaths in Costa Rica from coronavirus since the pandemic started – 2,908
  • The death rate in Costa Rica of total Covid cases – 1.3%
  • Percentage of the population of Costa Rica to be diagnosed with Covid – 4.4%

Now let’s compare Costa Rica’s numbers to the US:

  • Total deaths in the US from coronavirus since the pandemic started – 539,027
  • The death rate in the US of total Covid cases – 1.8%
  • Percentage of the population of the US to be diagnosed with Covid – 9.2%

(source) and (source) and (source)

Final thoughts

Overall, the worst aspects of visiting Costa Rica right now are how both governments (The US and Costa Rica) have the additional red tape and expense you have to deal with.

This will add the additional expense to your trip of approximately $120 per person, and a lot of silly forms to fill out.

It’s not that I don’t take Covid seriously.

But requiring all travelers to the US to get tested within 72 hours means a lot of people could potentially contract it after getting tested.

Meaning the test is a feel-good political move that doesn’t actually accomplish much other than adding hassle and expense to your visit to this beautiful country.

If you can’t tell, I’m very much a freedom over fear kind of person.

And I’m not going to shutter my family away out of fear of catching something that we have an over 90% chance of not getting and a 98% chance of not dying from if we got it.

But I get my point of view isn’t the only one, and it’s OK if you want to live your life differently.

However, if like me, you were hoping to visit and find Costa Rica relatively “normal” and much as it has been in years past, you won’t be disappointed!

Make sure to check out my Costa Rica Travel Resource List with links to everything you need!

 

 

Jeff Campbell

Jeff Campbell is a husband, father, martial artist, budget-master, Disney-addict, musician, and recovering foodie having spent over 2 decades as a leader for Whole Foods Market. Click to learn more about me

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