Domestic Flights in Costa Rica

Domestic Flights in Costa Rica

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Everything you need to know about Costa Rica domestic flights and flying around this beautiful little country.

Costa Rica is a small country. The comparison everyone uses is that Costa Rica is around the size of West Virginia in the United States or Denmark in Europe. That’s what you’ll see when you Google “how big is Costa Rica?”. In reality, Costa Rica’s slightly smaller than both West Virginia and Denmark. So the question begs, why should you consider using domestic flights in Costa Rica?

Looking at a map of Costa Rica, you’ll see at a glance that it’s small. From Nicaragua in the north to Panama in the South is around 288 miles (464 km), while the Caribbean to Pacific is only 170 miles (274 km). You look at the map and you figure you could drive around Costa Rica in no time, right?

Wrong.

Although on the map it looks like you could cover the length and breadth of Costa Rica in a morning, once you’re here on the ground, you’ll see it takes far, far longer.

The map doesn’t show you the proper topography of Costa Rica, with its mountains, deep valleys, and rainforests. It doesn’t show you the state of the roads, where true freeways don’t exist outside of the Central Valley and you’re stuck on two-lane highways of dubious condition which wind up and down and over and through some of the most difficult (but beautiful) terrain you can think of.

In short, although Costa Rica is tiny, getting around the place can – and does – take much longer than you’d think from looking at a map. Which is why – to answer the question above – you should consider using domestic flights in Costa Rica.

On this page we’ll tell you what you need to know about flying around Costa Rica. Then you can make an informed decision if it’s something you want to do or not.

Let’s dig into it.

We’ll start with an overview of the domestic flight network in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica has two main international airports, Juan Santamaria (SJO) outside of the capital city of San Jose and Guanacaste (LIR) in Liberia. Your international flight to Costa Rica will arrive at one of these main airports.

But away from SJO and LIR, you’ll also find a bunch of smaller airports scattered throughout the country.

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These little airstrips, often no more than a short runway and a hut, serve Costa Rica’s army of small prop planes – or “puddle jumpers” – that move tourists, locals, and goods around the country in the quickest way possible.

Excluding SJO and LIR, which (San Jose in particular) serve as hubs for Costa Rica’s domestic air network, you’ll find 12 working airstrips around the country. These airstrips are as follows:

Other airstrips also exist in Costa Rica, serving private charters. The ones you see in the list above, though, all serve regional flights from at least one of the four operating airlines in Costa Rica.

There’s also another airport in San Jose called Tobias Bolaños (SYQ).

Located in the city itself, in the western district of Pavas, Tobias Bolaños is another hub for some airlines and charter companies, although the airlines in operation right now both use SJO.

Many of the airstrips around Costa Rica are in more remote areas, where it’s not easy to reach from the Central Valley.

Drake Bay and Puerto Jimenez on the Osa Peninsula, and, to a lesser extent, nearby Golfito are far more practical to fly to from San Jose than to drive.

Ditto Tambor across the Gulf of Nicoya and Tortuguero, inaccessible by road, on the northern Caribbean coast.

Other airstrips like Tamarindo, La Fortuna, and Quepos are pretty easy to get to by land and flying is more of a quick luxury than anything else.

Below, find our Costa Rica domestic flight map showing the airstrips listed above, plus the hub airports of SJO, SYQ, and LIR:

Now let’s take a look at the Costa Rica domestic airlines offering flights to these regional airstrips.

Unless you live in, or you’re a frequent visitor to Costa Rica, you might not have heard of the airlines operating here. We’re not talking United or Delta here. These are small, local airlines, remember.

The two domestic Costa Rica airlines operating at the moment are Costa Rica Green Airways and SANSA. Below, we’ll take a look at each:

Costa Rica Green Airways

Costa Rica Green Airways is a new domestic airline, starting up in 2019. It’s part of the Carmen Air private charter air service and has, if we may say, by far the most user-friendly website of the two domestic airlines operating in Costa Rica.

Currently, Costa Rica Green Airways operates between San Jose’s Juan Santamaria (SJO) airport and Tambor and Quepos. Pre-pandemic, they’d planned to expand services to Tamarindo, Nosara, Liberia, Puerto Jimenez, and Golfito. That’s still on the cards sometime soon.

But in the meantime it’s Tambor and Quepos only. Green Airways offers six daily flights between San Jose and Tambor, and two daily flights between San Jose and Quepos.

Green Airways has four different planes in its fleet. There’s the 9 passenger Daher Kodiak 100 (single propeller), the 7 passenger King Air Turbo F-90 (twin propeller), the 8 passenger Islander BN2A-8 (twin propeller), and the 19 passenger Twin Otter (twin propeller).

SANSA

The biggest and the oldest domestic airline in Costa Rica is SANSA. It was formed in 1978 as a subsidiary of LACSA, the old Costa Rica state airline. LACSA no longer exists, having first been swallowed by Grupo TACA as a general Central American airline. Then, in 2013, Colombian carrier Avianca bought Taca. As such, SANSA, like other domestic airlines in Central America, is now part of the wider Avianca group.

SANSA is the only one of the Costa Rica local airlines to offer at least one flight a day to all the destinations listed above, plus a four-times-per-week flight to the Costa Esmeralda Airstrip in Nicaragua. In terms of its reach, it’s by far the best domestic airline in Costa Rica, although its website is less user-friendly.

There’s only one type of plane in SANSA’s fleet – the 12 passenger Cessna 208B Caravan (single propeller).

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Pre-pandemic, there were other domestic airlines in operation, but as it stands right now, there are two.

Both Costa Rica Green Airways and SANSA also offer private charter flights, as well as some other companies. By their very nature, flying privately won’t be cheap, but is certainly an option if you have a lot of luggage (more on this later) or want to go to a more remote airstrip.

Places like Punta Islita in Guanacaste, Barro Colarado on the Caribbean, and Carate on the Osa Peninsula no longer serve scheduled flights. But if you fly private, you can use these places to your heart’s content.

Now let’s look at the practicalities of domestic flights in Costa Rica.

How much are domestic flights in Costa Rica?

This is always the burning question with anything, right? How much does it cost? Is it worthwhile? The answer depends on you and your preferences.

Obviously, domestic flights are more expensive than the bus, but they’re not necessarily much more expensive than private ground transportation (especially if you’re a small group) and they definitely work out cheaper than renting a car.

Both SANSA and Costa Rica Green Airways offer deals here and there, but you’re really looking at somewhere between $80 and $120 per person depending on date and destination. It varies, like the “big” international airlines vary, but for a ballpark idea, think around $100 per person per flight give or take $20 either way depending on time of year, destination, and so on.

Sometimes, the airlines offer cheaper deals for locals or residents, so note the ballpark prices above are for tourists.

Please also note that both airlines offer varying prices per category of ticket. These are small planes, so there’s no business class seats or anything like that – you all sit together in the cabin behind the pilot. But there are different categories based on how much luggage you can bring with you and cancellation/change flexibility.

SANSA has three ticket categories called “Promo“, “Reg 16“, and “Y16F” (we don’t know why they have these names – “Promo” we understand, but the others, no. We’re not airline insiders.).

Let’s take a look at how these categories work:

The Promo category is the least expensive and least flexible. It’s a non-refundable, non-changeable ticket with a maximum luggage allowance of 30 lbs per passenger plus 10 lbs carry-on. Extra luggage will be charged at $2.00 per pound and is subject to space available.

The Reg 16 category is exactly the same as Promo but allows you to pay $1.50 per extra pound of luggage rather than $2.00.

Passengers going for the most expensive Y16F category get 40 lbs of luggage plus your 10 lbs carry-on. If you have extra luggage, they’ll charge you $1 per extra pound, although it’s subject to available space. This category also allows you refunds on cancellations, plus you can change your flight at no extra cost.

Costa Rica Green Airways has four categories (Super Saver, New Start, Standard, Premium) all based on your luggage allowance (from 30 lbs to 50 lbs per person plus 10 lbs carry-on).

So it all depends, in the end, on flexibility and luggage as to how much your flight will cost. But at the end of the day, you’re looking somewhere at the ballpark figures quoted above. Is the time saved by flying worth the extra money or not? Only you know the answer to that.

If you’re a larger group – say, four people or more – it will generally be less expensive to use a private transfer service.

The next thing to look at is how to book domestic flights in Costa Rica.

This is easy! You book domestic flights in Costa Rica the same as you book any flights anywhere – by going online to their websites and proceeding from there. Once you’re on SANSA’s or Costa Rica Green Airways’ site, you pick your departure and arrival airports, and follow through, opting for whatever category mentioned above you want.

Then you pay and receive your confirmation. There’s no difficulty or difference here, and both sites have English versions you can use if you don’t speak Spanish.

Alternatively, if you’re working with us, speak to your travel consultant about domestic flights in Costa Rica, and he/she will give you the pros/cons and add it to your itinerary if you wish.

Which leads us to… the pros and cons of Costa Rica domestic flights.

Like everything in life, traveling around the skies of Costa Rica in a puddle jumper has its pros and cons. Here we’ll take a look flying vs driving and outline the key differences, both positive and negative.

The main pro is speed. We talked about this earlier, about how the roads and the topography of Costa Rica doesn’t make for speedy land transfers. What looks on the map like a quick hour or two’s drive will, for the most part, take a lot longer.

Put it this way, it takes around four hours to drive from San Jose to Tamarindo. The flight takes 40-50 minutes. When you factor in the 30-55 minute (depending on airline) check in time at the airport, you still come out way ahead if you fly.

For other destinations like the Osa Peninsula, it’s even more of a no-brainer. Driving from San Jose takes at least 8 hours, opposed to a less-than-an-hour flight.

Speed is definitely a major pro.

Another pro is that flying is fun!

These small planes are as cool as heck, and really give you a sense of adventure, especially when coming to land in some little airstrip in the jungle somewhere. In a small plane, you get a sense of community among your fellow travelers and you feel like you’re in an exotic adventure movie.

Plus, of course, the views are spectacular. Flying domestic in Costa Rica will do your Instagram account no end of favors.

We already spoke about price, but it’s worth touching on again here as a pro. If you’re a single traveler, a couple, or even three people, flying can be less expensive than a private transfer or car rental. Especially if you’re prepared to go super light on the luggage.

If you’re one or two people booking, say, domestic flights from San Jose to Quepos, Costa Rica, it will cost you less than arranging private transportation. Plus, as we say, get you there faster. Any more than three people, and the price advantage begins to fade.

What about the cons?

The first con is price. We’ve touched on this a lot, so won’t go into much more detail, but flying domestic can get pricey for families and larger groups. Again, this is all subjective.

The biggest drawback to domestic flights is the luggage issue. Sure, we all want to travel light. And we always urge our clients to do exactly that. But the bottom line is, many people don’t – can’t – travel light.

And that is not conducive to flying in small planes.

The biggest plane flying domestically around Costa Rica seats a maximum of 19 people.

These are not airliners. They’re small planes with no luggage racks, no overhead bins. There’s nothing like that. Your carry-on sits on your lap or under the seat on the floor, while your checked luggage goes into a space at the back.

This is why the general rule of thumb is 30 lbs of luggage per person. They weigh this meticulously and if you’re over, they’ll charge. But if your plane is full, and everyone has the full amount of luggage, they won’t accept your extras. So you’re better off sticking to the limit. Can you do that?

If you can’t, you might be better off traveling by land instead, where your extra hair dryer and five pairs of jeans will cause zero issues.

The final con worth noting is the weather. These little planes can be cancelled or delayed at a moment’s notice if the weather is bad.

While flying is undeniably faster than driving, it doesn’t hold true if your flight back to San Jose is cancelled due to bad weather and you need to wait around a day for the next one. This can happen, especially in the green season, and it’s a reason why we never recommend departing Costa Rica on an international flight on the same day as a domestic flight.

Again, these are small planes. They can get tossed around up there, and bad weather gets them cancelled or delayed.

And talking of being tossed around up there, that’s no fun either. These planes can get bumpy. If you’re fine with that, no worries. But if you’re not, it’s something to be aware of.

The best thing to do to avoid a bumpy flight is to travel as early in the morning as possible. Flying before 8:00 AM means a far smoother ride, before the sun really heats up, the winds start blowing, and the rains arrive.

This is why you’ll see a lot of early morning flights in the airline schedules. Use these ones if you can.

So are these planes safe then?

We’ll close out this guide to domestic flights in Costa Rica with the most important topic of all – safety.

After talking about weather cancellations and bumpy flights, it’s easy to think these planes might be dangerous. If you’re a nervous flyer anyway, that might be your default position and you’re better off on the ground. We understand.

But everyone else should know these planes are safe. They’re no more or less dangerous than light aircraft in the United States, as far as regulations go.

In 2017, Nature Air had two incidents within the space of three months, which ultimately put the airline out of business and created uncertainty about the safety of domestic flights in Costa Rica. Before that, SANSA had three incidents between 1990 and 2001. While tragic and unfortunate, five incidents in total over many tens of thousands of flights since 1990 (and prior) puts the topic in some perspective.

Like aviation everywhere, you’re far more likely to die in a car crash on the way to the airport than in the air itself.

That said, if you are nervous about flying, these planes can be scary. We can’t sugarcoat that. They’re small, unpressurized planes and they can, as we said, be bumpy. If you are a nervous flier by nature, you’re probably better off traveling by land.

But let’s not end on a low note.

Domestic flights in Costa Rica are an easy, affordable, and fun method of transport. They get you around the country faster, meaning more time on the beach or doing something adventurous!