If you are planning a trip to Costa Rica, you might notice that there are two international airports in the popular tourist destination in Central America. Which airport to use for your trip depends on a few factors that we will explore in this article.
The short answer is: Daniel Oduber Quirós airport in Liberia (LIR) is better if you plan on spending your time in the northwest part of the country. This includes:
- Playas del Coco
- Playa Conchal
If you are taking a vacation at one of the increasingly popular all-inclusive resorts along the beach in Guanacaste, then LIR is better, too. Some of these resorts include:
- Riu Guanacaste
- Dreams Las Mareas
- Andaz Costa Rica Resort
- Margaritaville Beach Resort
- Hacienda Pinilla
- Secrets Papagayo
Otherwise, Juan Santamaría Airport (SJO) in Alajuela, near the capital San Jose is the better choice.
To better understand the two options, let’s start with some general information about the two main international airports in Costa Rica:
- Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) located in Costa Rica’s Central Valley in Alajuela near the capital, San José.
- Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (LIR) located in the town of Liberia in the Guanacaste Province.
Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO)
This airport is the largest and oldest airport serving international travelers. It is often referred to as San José International Airport, although it is technically located in the city of Alajuela, northwest of the capital, San Jose.
SJO airport is the second busiest airport in Central America behind Panama’s Tocumen. It serves almost five million passengers every year.
Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (LIR)
This airport is the newer of the two. It serves more than a million passengers every year and is Central America’s sixth busiest airport.
It is located near the city of Liberia near popular tourist areas on the Pacific coast.
Which Airport is Best for My Trip?
There are three primary factors when it comes to choosing which airport to use for your trip. They are:
SJO serves four times more passengers than LIR, and if you notice both airports’ locations on the map, you can understand why. It is located in Costa Rica’s Central Valley, which is located, well, centrally in the country.
Daniel Oduber Quiros airport in Liberia mostly serves travelers that are going to spend time at one of the beautiful resorts along the Pacific coast in the district of Guanacaste.
Traditionally, Costa Rica has been popular with adventure travelers. These visitors take advantage of the many opportunities to engage in active outdoor fun such as surfing, hiking volcanoes and in the jungle, zip-lining, rafting, and bird watching.
More recently, the country has become more popular with leisure travelers. Guanacaste, along the northwest coast, offers beautiful beaches, relatively dry weather, and an increasing number of luxurious all-inclusive resorts.
Before Daniel Oduber Quirós Airport (LIR) became an international airport, leisure travelers had to fly into SJO airport, which is, on the best day, a four-hour overland trip to resorts such as Riu Guanacaste.
The other option was to take a domestic flight. While quicker than overland travel, many of the domestic flights are in turbo-prop, unpressurized, single-pilot airplanes.
Now, if you fly into LIR, it only takes 40 minutes in a shuttle to arrive at our previous example, Riu Guanacaste.
Price & Availability
There are some popular tourist locations that are roughly halfway between the two airports. These include Monteverde and the zone around Lake Arenal, including La Fortuna.
If you plan on spending your time at one of these places, then either of the airports could be a good choice for you. Either way, you are probably going to be driving or riding in a shuttle for almost three hours.
At this point, it is just a matter of deciding which airport would be a better deal for you.
If the price is similar or you aren’t price-sensitive, then SJO, as a busier airport could be a bit more chaotic than LIR, but it also offers more flights and flexibility for your agenda. You are also more likely to experience traffic slowdowns around SJO airport than LIR.
Tips for Flying into and out of SJO
Even though SJO airport can be more chaotic, busier, and experience more traffic upon exiting, my friends and I still prefer it in almost every situation. Since we like to roam about the country, rather than staying in one place, SJO’s central location is better suited.
What is Juan Santamaría Airport Like?
SJO airport is modern and reasonably comfortable. Although it is the second busiest airport in Costa Rica, it is still fairly small in comparison to large hub airports. There are 20 gates that serve 26 airlines with 45 destinations.
Getting Off of the Plane
After exiting the climate control of your airplane, you will probably first notice the warm and moist air and florid smell leaking into the jetbridge. The feel of the warm air on my face is one of my favorite parts of arriving in Costa Rica.
From the jetbridge, you will walk to the large immigration area where passengers are divided between Costa Rican citizens (nacionales) and visitors (visitantes). As a visitor, you will obviously want to join the line labeled visitantes.
The wait in line isn’t usually too long. Once you reach the front of the line, an immigration official will direct you to one of the interview stations where you will have a brief interview with an immigration officer.
He or she will ask you where you are staying and how long you are staying. At this point, you might have to offer some proof of your departure within 90 days, although that has never happened to me.
International Visas (Visas Internacionales)
If you are a citizen of the United States, Canada, Australia, most European countries, South Africa, Israel, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, and a few other countries, then you don’t need a pre-acquired visa to enter Costa Rica. The complete list of countries is on page 11 of this document.
The immigration officer will stamp your passport and write on the stamp the number of days that you are authorized to stay. It is usually 90 days, however, the individual officer can authorize fewer days. This has only happened to me once during a period when the government was cracking down on so-called perpetual tourists.
Baggage Claim (Reclamo de Equipaje)
After your passport is stamped you will walk to your left. You will see a duty-free store and the baggage claim area in front of you.
The Hidden ATM Saves You Money
Just past the duty-free store, on the right, there is a short corridor. Inconspicuously placed in that corridor is an ATM from which you can withdraw colones or US dollars. The machine is not well marked and if you don’t know that it is there it is easy to miss.
I strongly recommend using the ATM instead of the currency exchange window further down in the baggage claim area in order to get local currency. In my experience, the exchange rate that my bank offers, plus the 1% to 3% foreign exchange fee is a better deal than the 10% or more that you lose on an unfavorable exchange rate at the window.
Get A Local SIM Card
If you are staying in Costa Rica for an extended period of time, or you just want to save money on phone calls, text messages, WhatsApp, and mobile data, then you might want to get a local SIM card for your quadband unlocked smartphone.
The easiest and most convenient way to do that is to buy a local SIM card from the Kolbi kiosk in the baggage claim area. As of October 2019:
- The SIM, which is referred to as a chip costs about $1.72 USD.
- Local calls are about 7 cents per minute.
- Sent text messages cost about half-of-a-cent USD.
- Data is approximately 1.5 cents per megabyte.
For the most up-to-date rates check the official Kolbi website.
Once you have collected all of your belongings, then it is time to pass through the customs inspection area. If you are declaring anything, then you will need to fill out a customs form and hand it to the customs agent. If not, don’t worry about it.
You will place all of your luggage on a short conveyor belt which will carry your luggage through an x-ray machine, so customs officials can inspect the contents. It is usually a quick and easy process.
Ground Transportation (Transporte Terrestre)
After you exit customs, you will see ground transportation. There are rental cars, taxis, shuttles, a nearby bus station, and an area where you can wait for an illegal Uber).
Official Airport Taxis (Taxis Aeropuerto)
The first ground transportation option that you will notice is the official airport taxis. A person will ask you if you need a taxi. If this is your choice, then you just answer yes and he or she (it has always been a man in my experience) will give you a small piece of paper and take you to an official airport taxi, operated by Taxi Aeropuerto, a private company that is heavily regulated by the government.
Official airport taxis are conspicuous because they are bright orange.
The taxi driver should start the taximeter, pronounced maria, like the woman’s name, when you get started.
Rates charged by the airport taxis are set by a government body known as ARESEP. As of October 2019, the first kilometer is 955 colones and subsequent kilometers are 815 for sedan and 930 for a microbus taxi.
Immediately past the airport taxi stand, you will see the small rental car counters. If you have reserved a car from one of the rental car operators then they can take care of you.
As of October 2019, the following rental car companies have a counter in the airport:
- Solid NU
- Hertz Firefly
Uber is not completely legal in Costa Rica but it is popular and oft-used in Costa Rica’s Central Valley.
If you choose to flaunt the law and use an Uber then you can walk past the official orange taxis and turn right. There is a restaurant called Malinche. Private pickups are allowed in front of the restaurant. Uber drivers will meet you there.
At least one person in your party should ride in the front passenger seat so it is not obvious that you are riding Uber.
Tips for Departing from Juan Santamaria International Airport
Just a few years ago, everyone departing from SJO was obligated to pay the departure tax of $29 USD. You had to wait in line to pay the fee before waiting in line to check into your flight.
Now, most airlines include the tax in the price of the ticket. If you are unsure if your airline includes this tax, or if you need to wait in this line, ask the airline personnel at the airport.
It is recommended to arrive three hours before your flight’s departure time.
After check-in, you will pass through an exit immigration station, where the officer will confirm that you haven’t overstayed your legally allowed duration (usually 90 days). Then, it is through security.
Once you pass security, you will pass by a few retail stores, including the Britt Coffee Store, a nice gift store called Casa Tica, a Mac Cosmetics store, and an electronics store called Plug In.
The food court area has a Cinnabon, Smashburger, Quizno’s, and teriyaki restaurant. There is a full-service bar, too.
There are two VIP lounges at SJO airport. The better of them is called the VIP Lounge BAC Credomatic, and it located near Gate 17. It is a perk on many premium credit cards, or you can purchase a pass for $28.
Other International Airports in Costa Rica
While there are two other airports in Costa Rica that are labeled international, neither receives commercial carrier international flights.
Tobias Bolaños is located in the Pavas District near downtown San Jose. It primarily serves general aviation. So, if you take a private or charter international flight to Costa Rica, you might arrive there.
Limón airport, on the Caribbean Coast, carries the name “International Airport,” but only hosts domestic flights at this time.
As the Caribbean side of Costa Rica becomes more popular with international tourists, perhaps Limón’s airport will begin serving international routes, but that would require significant upgrades to the airport infrastructure.