Costa Rica – All Inclusive vs Self-Planned Trips

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I’m a member of a certain breed of travellers who look forward to organising each and every aspect of their trip fervently. We are the ones who scramble to the nearest bookshop to pick up guide books, print off complicated public transport maps in foreign languages and compile a detailed accommodation itinerary – varying in types, from hostels to five-star hotels.

We scour the internet for excursions and restaurants we want to visit and book ourselves onto tours before we’ve even packed our suitcase to leave the country. Sometimes we’ll miss out a few things on our list, and often times we return home feeling like we haven’t really been on holiday at all. But for us, the research behind a holiday makes it all the more exciting, and staying in one place is not an option.

travel planning

Others are much more laid back about going away. They balk from the thought that booking a holiday could involve anything more than a couple of clicks of a mouse followed by a swift, secure online payment. For them, having to add travel insurance and change their money is already an inconvenience, and stressing out over the small details defeats the purpose of a holiday altogether. Holidays are meant to be relaxing after all. These are the kinds of people who don’t want any surprises while they’re away. They book a package so they know exactly how much they’re paying and can budget appropriately.

all inclusive

Until recently, exotic, less-visited countries like Costa Rica were out of the question for those who exclusively book all inclusive packages, but now with companies offering holidays to the north of the country, they too get to experience the wild character of this Central American wonderland.

I thought I’d examine the pros and cons of both type of holiday in Costa Rica – with a few travelling anecdotes thrown in!

Costa Rica beach

Local Interactions

When you’re travelling, the people you meet can really affect your trip. Often when we go on all inclusive holidays we get a bit stuck in our comfort zones and don’t venture out as often as we would if we had to seek food and entertainment elsewhere. This means there is less mingling with the locals, robbing us of potentially memorable experiences.

One thing that struck me during my time in Costa Rica was the warmth of its people. Their most-used phrase “pura vida”, translated to “pure life”, is characteristic their chilled out, optimistic outlook. Everywhere I travelled, I met approachable, genuine Costa Ricans. If I had gone all inclusive I wouldn’t have had as many interactions with them as I did.

I definitely wouldn’t have bumped into the American dental hygienist I met on the second day of my trip again at the end of it… on the other side of the country! And I certainly wouldn’t have spent half an hour in a friendly Costa Rican man’s front garden with his pet parrot named Lora.

I ended up in Pepe’s garden because my sister and I took a minivan from San Jose to Arenal and our driver got our hotel mixed up with another similarly named one. Unfortunately for us, ours wasn’t on the list of resorts the minivan company offer transfers to, so he dumped us and our luggage about two miles away from it.

So there we were, drifters on the side of the road, when Pepe spotted us and offered us a seat in his front garden. Coincidentally, or not actually, since his was the closest house to the hotel, he worked there. At first he offered to pile us onto his scooter and drive us there himself. We politely turned down the very kind but impractical offer, so he called the hotel for us, and a car arrived about half an hour later to pick us up. If I had opted for an all inclusive holiday I would have saved myself a bit of time and, quite frankly, a lot of stress. I probably would have been transferred straight to my hotel in an air conditioned coach, but I wouldn’t have met Pepe. Kind, well-meaning Pepe and his outspoken, feathered companion.


Although going all inclusive sometimes means less interaction with the residents, an upside to this type of holiday is an obvious one – you never go hungry. When you pay a huge amount for the privilege of being to eat all of your meals in one place, you might as well make the most of it! A lot of hotels offer extensive dining options, mainly buffets. But you’ll always find something you like, especially if the restaurants host themed nights which give you a chance to sample something you may have never tried before.

Costa Rican food

But you can exercise a lot more freedom when you take your trip into your own hands, and you can eat out at interesting places without the thought that you could have just eaten for free back at the hotel hanging over you. We stayed a couple of nights in Manuel Antonio on the pacific coast and we came across this bar that was set inside a crashed plane, and one of my favourite meals was quesadillas in a beach-side restaurant filled with a mix of tourists and residents enjoying the sun. I don’t know if I would have discovered these places if I had had the luxury of eating all of my food at my hotel. But I did have to be careful to avoid blowing all of my cash before the end of my trip.


Another thing you can’t do if you’re on an all inclusive package is travel too far out on day trips. Costa Rica is small, but it takes a while to travel across. So with most of the resorts like Playa Tamarindo, Playa de Matapalo and Papagayo Bay being in the north, you’re more limited to what you can see (unless you want to book a cheap hotel somewhere overnight). As it turns out, the north has a lot to offer, so if you do opt for all inclusive, you’ll find plenty to do.

Cloud forests

Arenal, one of the country’s most active volcanoes is around four hours away from the coast of Guanacaste (which is home to the bulk of the resorts). If you have time, you should try bathing in one of countless hot springs surrounding the volcano. Rincon de la Vieja volcano is another option closer to the resorts. In fact, with nine volcanoes altogether, you’ll spoiled for choice in Costa Rica, and don’t be concerned if you see huge plumes of smoke emerging from any of them. Many of them erupt multiple times every day!

Another day trip worth considering if you’re staying in the north is to Palo Verde National Park. Lying in the Guanacaste region, the park is made up of mangroves, wetlands and acres of forest bursting with life. The swamps here are home to crocodiles, and the trees lining them provide shelter to exotic birds and monkeys whose squawks, grunts and howls can be heard from miles away.

Of course, if you organise a trip yourself you can flit from city to city, experiencing an even wider variety of places. We started our trip in the capital San Jose, where we stayed for two nights, then relied on a minivan service to get around to other places. We organised a day trip to Tortuguero, the famous turtle nesting site, and saw a baby sloth and its mother hanging off a tree branch on the way there. Once we got there we saw a caiman trying to hide behind a single blade of grass and loads of other animals rustling through the trees generally being a bit more resourceful with their hiding places.

Then we headed to Arenal for a few days of relaxation, bathed in mineral springs, visited a frog museum and bought souvenirs from an elderly lady’s mobile home. Next, we moved onto the famous cloud forests where we zip lined and rode horses through the jungle before ending our trip on the pacific coast. I feel like I got a good taste of the country doing it that way, but I was exhausted by the end of the trip. Even so, I enjoyed every second of it.

Arenal, Costa Rica


The idea of just picking up a bag to move onto the next place appeals to many, and the way I experienced Costa Rica was heavily impacted by the freedom that approach allowed me. But no matter how you do it, you’re bound to come across lovely people, a whole lot of wildlife and some utterly breathtaking landscapes. Now that I’ve done the whole travelling around Costa Rica thing, if I go back, it might be nice to get to know one place really well instead of sampling each destination briefly.