Tica Bus has daily runs between Costa Rica and Panama or Nicaragua; Transnica has daily service between Costa Rica and Granada and Managua. We recommend choosing Tica Bus if at all possible, but Transnica is acceptable in a pinch. Both companies have comfortable, air-conditioned coaches with videos and onboard toilets, and help with border procedures.
All Costa Rican towns are connected by regular bus service. Bus service in Costa Rica is reliable, comprehensive, and inexpensive. Buses between major cities are modern and sometimes air-conditioned, but once you get into the rural areas, you may get a converted school bus without air-conditioning. The kind of bus you get is the luck of the draw (no upgrades here). Bus travel in Costa Rica is formal, meaning no pigs or chickens inside and no people or luggage on the roof. On longer routes, buses stop midway at modest restaurants. Near the ends of their runs many nonexpress buses turn into large taxis, dropping passengers off one by one at their destinations; to save time, take a directo (express) bus, which still might make a few stops. Be prepared for bus-company employees and bus drivers to speak Spanish only.
The main inconvenience of long-distance buses, aside from being much slower than flying, is that you usually have to return to San José to travel between outlying regions. For example, a bus from San José to the Osa Peninsula is nine hours or more, whereas the flight is one hour. Shorter distances reduce the difference—the bus to Quepos is 3½ hours and the flight 30 minutes—and in those cases the huge price difference might be worth the extra hours of travel. There is no main bus station in San José; buses leave from a variety of departure points, depending on the region they serve.
Don't put your belongings in the overhead bin unless you have to, and if you do, keep your eye on them. If anyone—even someone who looks like a bus employee—offers to put your luggage on the bus or in the luggage compartment underneath for you, politely decline. If you must put your luggage underneath the bus, get off quickly when you arrive to retrieve it.
Most bus companies don't have printed bus schedules to give out, although departure times may be printed on a sign at the bus company's office and ticket window. Bus-line phones are usually busy or go unanswered. The schedules and prices we list are accurate at this writing, but change frequently. For the most reliable schedule information, go to the bus station a day before your departure. The ICT tourist office provides a PDF bus schedule version on its website, but this should be used as only a rough guide, as it is updated infrequently. Hotel employees can usually give you the information you need.
Buses usually depart and arrive on time; they may even leave a few minutes before the scheduled departure time if full.
Tickets are sold at bus stations and on the buses themselves; reservations aren't accepted, and you must pay in person with cash. If you pay on the bus, be sure to have loose change and small bills handy; avoid paying with a 10,000-colón bill. Buses to popular beach and mountain destinations often sell out on weekends and the days before and after a holiday. It's also difficult to get tickets back to San José on Sunday afternoon. Some companies won't sell you a round-trip ticket from the departure point; especially during the peak season, make sure the first thing you do on arrival in your destination is to buy a return ticket. Sometimes tickets include seat numbers, which are usually printed on the tops of the chairs. Smoking is not permitted on buses.
Two private bus companies, Gray Line and Interbus, travel to the most popular tourist destinations in modern, air-conditioned vans. Interbus vans usually seat 10 to 20 people, and coaches can also be reserved for large groups; Gray Line vans seat 14 to 20 people. Be sure to double-check information that is listed on the website—published prices may not be accurate and routes are not always running. This service costs about $30 to $89 one-way, but can take hours off your trip. Gray Line has a weekly pass ($149) good for unlimited travel for one week; reservations need to be made 24 hours in advance. Interbus offers three- to seven-trip Flexipasses; prices range from $125 to $275 and the passes are good for one month. Hotel-to-hotel service is offered as long as your lodging is on the route; if you're heading off the beaten track, it's a hotel-to-nearest-hotel service. Costa Rica Shuttle offers similar minvan point-to-point transfers, but for your party only. Rates range from $100 to $250 for a group up to five people.
Tica Bus (Avda. 3 and C. 26, 200 m north and 100 m west of Torre Mercedes, Paseo Colón, San José, 10103. 2221-0006. www.ticabus.com.)
Transnica (C. 22, Avdas. 3-5, San José, 10103. 2223-4242. www.transnica.com.)
Costa Rica Shuttle (2289-4292; 800/849-9403 in North America. www.costaricashuttle.com.)
Gray Line (2220-2126; 800/719-3905 in North America. www.graylinecostarica.com.)
Interbus (2283-5573. www.interbusonline.com.)
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