Guest post by Anshel Sag, a frequent flyer who is consistently finding himself at tech conventions all over the world and who has found travel hacks and tricks to get himself free international business class tickets…he writes about his recent trip to Costa Rica and Panama:
I flew to Costa Rica on American Airlines using an AAdvantage mileage ticket for a vacation. When you land there, you will go through a series of long halls and eventually reach immigration, which is separated between Costa Rican and non-Costa Rican citizens. After that, you will enter the baggage claim where you can exchange your dollars for Colones (the local currency ~500 to 1 USD) and then go through customs where they take your customs declaration form (do not even look at it) and let you out. Here’s where it can get a bit hairy, you will walk out and immediately be accosted by cab drivers trying to get you to use their cab service. If you are willing to spend around $30-$35 this is your best opportunity, but make sure the cab driver has a red cab and has a white shirt with the official airport taxi logo on (as seen below). Don’t get a sketchy cab. Also, if you rent a car like I did, you will need to find the car rental counter in the airport before you exit OR find a guy holding a sign for your car rental company. I used AVIS and they just had a guy with a sign waiting for me outside to take me to their van and offsite facility.
Once you get to your car rental facility they will try to get you to pay for all of the insurance in the universe, in my case, they refused to take my credit card which has basic insurance for any vehicles I rent with it. So, I was forced to pay for the insurance and I paid for full coverage because they drive like maniacs in Costa Rica. Also, I highly recommend you make sure that the places you are driving to do not have a dirt road. I actually rented a Nissan Sentra and it was a very good and clean car, however it did not do too well at dirt roads and an SUV would’ve been a better decision (costs extra).
Most gas stations in Costa Rica have attendants, so don’t worry about how to fill them up. Many of them do not have safety features so they will overflow if you overfill. Best to just ask for help if someone is there. Gas is about double the price of what we pay in the US, but that’s to be expected.
If you plan to travel to Panama from Costa Rica, like I did, you will need to make sure that you have a copy (digital or not) of your flight out of Costa Rica, and $7 per person to pay the ‘exit’ fee to leave Costa Rica, payable at the Costa Rican immigration office a hundred meters north of the border. Then, you will pay $1 per person to enter Panama and you may also need to provide proof of $500 or a credit card with a similar limit proving that you are not entering broke. Thankfully, Panama uses USD so you can take out cash from your own bank account and not suffer any conversion pain or worry about the money you’ve taken out not being useful when you get home. There are some cabs that will take you from the border to the rest of Panama or buses, but you cannot take your Costa Rican rental car into Panama (I learned this the hard way). If you do have a rental car, there are places that cost like $10 a day to leave your car in a secure place.
Upon leaving Costa Rica, you will also need to pay a ridiculous $29 fee to exit the country that is somehow not included in your airline fees and they do take credit cards. They justify this fee for repairs and costs of equipment at the airport and it’s the first time I’ve ever had to pay to leave a country, twice.
Star Alliance Lounge
In terms of lounges there are really only three lounges at the airport in San Jose, one for Star Alliance, which is the Copa Lounge and some VIP lounge that is unaffiliated with any airline or anything. However, the Copa Lounge also kind of shares facilities with the Mastercard Black Lounge and if you have an AA Advantage Platinum World Elite Mastercard you can actually use this lounge. It is very quiet, very clean and separated from the rest of the Copa Lounge. Most people have no idea they can use it if they have a Platinum Mastercard, but it’s a great benefit for someone waiting for a flight. You also get a free drink ticket for an alcoholic drink or coffee. Oddly enough, there is no OneWorld lounge, so you may be better off using your Mastercard if you don’t have any Star Alliance status, like me.
They also have a hilariously American food court at the airport if you simply cannot wait to get your fill of America until you get home. Their food court has KFC, Quiznos, Smashburger and Cinnabon, a quality smattering of American junkfood.
Another weird thing about Costa Rica’s airport is that they do a secondary check for flights leaving the country before you board the plane. As a result, boarding for flights usually starts an hour before the flight is to depart, as opposed to 45 or 30 minutes before your flight. This secondary check is an actual check of your carryon bags before you board the plane. Once again, I have traveled a lot but only encountered this once before in Heathrow. However, Heathrow’s is completely random and is mostly for security checks. In Costa Rica, everyone gets checked and I believe it’s for agricultural and wildlife smuggling purposes.
On this trip I also managed to stay an extra two days in Costa Rica as a result of a volcanic eruption nearby which kicked up enough ash to cancel flights for two days. The airport does not have any free Wi-Fi other than a coffee lounge on the checkin side of things, but there is tons of free Wi-Fi once you’ve passed security.