Travelers Checks, Credit & Debit Cards, Cash, Traveling to Costa Rica

Travelers Checks

Travelers Checks used to be the best way to take money, but not that good in Costa Rica because they are hard to cash and some charge huge fees.

One of the questions we get asked all the time,  what is the best form of money to take, travelers checks, credit or debit cards, or cash when traveling to Costa Rica?

Travelers checks are probably the worse, because in Costa Rica, many establishments don't take them anymore and when you do find one that will, some places have been known to charge a outrageous fee. Banks are still the best place to cash them, but it can be very frustrating. Costa Rica banks are not  fast service; lines can be out the door. Once you do get to the teller it can get worse. In otherwords, you can be interrogated, if you are the person that can cash them – so make sure your signatures match and bring other forms of ID beside your passport, like a driver’s license and even a copy of your plane ticket that has your name on it.

NEVER, give a person your Social Security number. If they ask, politely say, “ I can’t remember it” and excuse yourself and leave.

Credit and Debit Cards are still the preferred method of pay. Credit Cards are required for deposits on hotels, some recreation tours, large purchases and renting cars.

But be prepared for problems. On a recent trip to Puerto Jimenez, a friend was buying six shirts to take back to his kids and he had to go back twice. The first time the credit card machine has some glitch (this is very common) and it would not take his card, so it prompted a return trip. The second time, (due to the establishments requirements on preventing employee thief)  it took him almost 30 minutes to complete the transaction, which normally takes 30 seconds in the US. Each items of purchase was hand entered on a separate sheet, and then hand recorded on a ledger and then each item was entered on the  transaction receipt, then processed. By the time he was done, a nice line had formed with very impatience customers.

Using cards for purchases or for cash advances can be costly. Whether it is a credit or debit card, they can be haven for fees. Your bank might charge you a $40 fee for using a ATM each time – Foreign Transaction Fees (FTF), NON Network Fees (NNF) at another country and bank processing fees –  so make sure you ask them BEFORE you arrive in Costa Rica. Expect between 6-18% in fees.

Always use caution when using your debit card because the money comes right out of your account and you have no protection like you have with a credit card where you can dispute the charge, if necessary.

ATMs are now everywhere, and are the safest and fastest way to get money, but there is caution.  ATM’s in most tourist areas offers you colons or dollars as well and NEVER use the one at San Jose Airport, it is a rip off.

Skimming Device

Watch out for Skimming Devices at ATMs

The growing pitfall for debit and credit cards is thieves have entered the high-tech world – the risk of your card been skimmed while making a transaction is reality now. Theft from world-wide ATM skimming is approaching $1 billion annually and Costa Rica has had it share.

  • Stay close to the ATM, so plug your PIN code at the same time as you type, and cover the movement with your other hand or other object.
  • Verify that there is nothing suspect in the ATM; shake the card slot, if you can see that there is something stuck in both the card slot as in the keyboard not in use. Do not try to remove any suspicious object.
  • Take care and if a stranger offers help, even if your card is stuck, do not let that distract you.

Carrying cash in Costa Rica is the best as long as you take precaution, like not carrying a large amount and flashing it in some open market like the San Jose Mercado Central. Many carry their cash in money belts and women have been known to make inside pockets in their shorts or shirts. It is recommended to bring what you need, and to exchange your cash into colons at either the hotel or bank. There are money exchange places in most major airports, but they are a rip off.

At the Dallas airport, the Money Exchanged in the American Airlines terminal charged almost 20%.  Taking 100 dollar bills seems like a good idea, be warned, due to counterfeiting, and colons on hand,  you may have a hard time exchanging.  And forget about exchanging it at some local mom and pop business, like a bed and breakfast or small gift shop.  Twenties are the preferred larger bill to exchange. Smaller bills like, 5s and 10s most  tourism establishments have no problem accepting them.

Please read our articles on General Traveling TipsCredit Card Fraud, and  How Not To Get Robbed.

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  1. Jennifer says:

    Our Inn keeper does not accept credit cards but would like a small  deposit to hold our reservation that coincides to a holiday. This is a place we have found in a guide book and is recommended by a friend.  How do I pay from the US? Western Union? Send a cashier's check?

  2. Spot on. There is an advantage to using $100 dollar bills. They are more compact than the equivalent amount of twenties and can be exchanged for a fair enough rate at the bank (budget a minumum of 30 minutes for that and hope to be surprised). We take most of our cash in $100’s and exchange for colons several times during the week.

    We also verify that the places we stay have personal vaults in the room and always – always – carry the excess valuable items with us. We usually use the colons to pay and a credit card for backup and hotel charges.

    Most of our travel has been to Guanacaste and the Nicoya peninsula coast with some time at Monte Verde/Santa Helena with no problems. If you pay in dollars expect your change to be in colons at a rate that varies however is probably near the bank’s.

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