In June of 2011, B and I went on our first international adventure together. For the inaugural journey, we went with a Costa Rica package deal we had found on Travelzoo. These packages are a great way to go if you want a hybrid vacation where some of your itinerary is put together by the pros, but you are free to explore on your own. Read on to learn the details of our particular package, but also to help you know what is possible if you go with a package deal.
Tip #1: If you haven’t signed up for the Top 20 email on travelzoo.com, go ahead and take care of that right now. Visions of vacations will fill your future Wednesdays.
The Down and Dirty
Travelzoo scours the interwebs for good deals on trips, but you mostly don’t buy anything directly from them. For our Costa Rica package deal, we were farmed out to JetSetVacations.com. From this website, we could select our departure city, the hotels we wanted to stay in on our trip down south, and the type of car we wanted. On our trip, we opted for an eight-day, seven-night vacay that cost a measly $649 each. Of course, that $649 grew when you added in a departure from Idaho and the airport and hotel taxes. Our total each was $1085. Considering this included flights, accommodations and transportation for a week in the tropics, we felt like we had made a solid (maybe not stellar, but still solid) bargain.
Tip #2: Depending on where you are going, it might not be the best deal to add a supplemental flight directly in the package deal. Do a little digging and see what it costs to fly from your hometown to the city listed as the origin on the advertised deal. B and I did this on a tour to Ecuador that flew out of Miami. We came in a few days early on our own and had two vacations for the price of one.
We arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica at 5:00 p.m. local time. We picked up our manual rental car and B braved the city traffic just as it was getting dark. (Sidenote: while driving in the dark for several hours in a foreign country isn’t recommended, we did see a jungle cat in the middle of the road at one point. Totally Rad.)
Tip #3: We debated not ponying up for the G.P.S. at the rental car agency. Thankfully, we decided to go ahead and get it and let me tell you friend, we would NEVER have made it anywhere without that thing. These days you can probably just use your phone for driving directions, but the moral of this story is that the roads in Costa Rica are not clearly named and the signage system was not up to the challenge of getting us around without getting lost. Unless you have an uncanny sense of direction, don’t try to drive around Costa Rica without a G.P.S.
Hotel Mountain Paradise
Our first three nights would be spent at Hotel Mountain Paradise in the Arenal area of north western Costa Rica. We gratefully pulled into the hotel parking lot and a really nice guy loaded us up into a golf cart and drove us to our little bungalow. We couldn’t see much at this point, but when we woke up in the morning we were treated to a glorious view of the Arenal volcano. Most itineraries for Costa Rica include a trip to this area and the place actually lives up to the hype. This place is gorgeous. While in this area, we did a zip-line tour, visited another hotel to ride on its extremely sketchy but thrilling water slides, and hiked to a lovely waterfall. In our off time, we chilled in the pool and soaked up the scent of the beautiful flowers growing everywhere.
Tip #4: Swim up bars are delightful. Think of it, the worst part of swimming is getting out of the water, so a swim up bar is a perfect solution to quenching your thirst without dealing with the unpleasant dripping and clinging sensations. If you aren’t into libations, make sure to learn a few key words in Spanish before you head to Costa Rica. “Sin (seen) alcohol” means hold the booze. The bartenders will serve you mocktails, but be prepared for a side of incredulity.
We spent the next three nights in Guanacaste, the western coast of Costa Rica. This hotel was an all inclusive, adults only resort. It was my first time doing the all inclusive thing. The food here was alright, but I can see how you would want to branch out and leave the all inclusiveness of a resort to get a more authentic experience. Our main activity in this area was for B to scuba dive and for me to snorkel. We saw lots of cool sea creatures. It really would be a crime to come to this part of the world and not get into the ocean.
Tip #5: Leave the all inclusive resorts, at least for a little while. We did this one day and found a local beach to hang out at. I can’t say it was better than our beach at the hotel, but at least we took in a little of the local culture.
Tip#6: Don’t bother collecting a bunch of seashells on the beach. B and I spent an hour or so looking for little shells so I could make a mosaic when I got home. Sadly, Costa Rica TSA confiscated my little bag of shells at the airport. B had packed up a couple and these made it through security just fine.
For our last night in Costa Rica, we stayed in the capital city, as our flight left the next morning. We returned our little car and blessed G.P.S. and set out to kill some time at a mall nearby. When we returned it was well after dark and the hotel staff were appalled we had walked back. I’m not putting this down as a tip because it should be common sense (clearly it wasn’t for us!). Make sure to ask whether the area you are in is safe. Luckily nothing bad happened to us, and I really believe that most of the time nothing bad will happen to you on your travels, but you should still avoid putting yourself in a compromising situation.
Tip #7: Go to a movie in a foreign country. I love going to movies while I’m in other countries. I’ll only do it if it is cheap and I don’t have anything better to do, but it is just fun seeing how people in other countries handle situations that are like what we experience in the U.S. During this movie in San Jose (I think it was Crazy, Stupid Love), a gentleman behind us got a phone call and proceeded to talk for several minutes without leaving the theater. No one else thought anything of it. Ha!
Our Costa Rica Package Deal was a great way to test out a budding travel friendship. The tour provided some structure so we didn’t have to map out the entire trip, but allowed for flexibility so we could stretch our wings a bit and cater the vacation to our interests. Costa Rica is a beautiful country and one that sees enough tourists that it should be a pretty easy travel experience. We had a good experience with JetSetVacations and wouldn’t hesitate to use them again in the future if the price was right.
Tip #8: Travel can make or break a relationship. A short trip (less than a week) will tell you all you need to know about your travel companion. Luckily, B and I passed each other’s tests and have had many adventures since 2011!