Navigating the Airport
Last Updated: Apr 26, 2012
Arriving at the SJO Airport
Costa Rica's Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) receives most of the country's tourist traffic. Though it is referred to as the "San Jose airport," it is actually located in Alajuela, just a few miles northwest of the country's capital.
Despite its importance as the country's largest airport, the international airport is relatively small. Much like airports found in small cities across the United States, arrivals and departures from Juan Santamaria are simple and straightforward. Before you land in Costa Rica, a flight attendant will hand you Immigration and Customs forms to fill out.
Once you land, follow signs to "Migracion" or Immigration. Airport renovations have expanded Immigration, helping reduce wait times. If you arrive during an incoming flight lull, you can be in and out of the airport, bags in hand, in less than 25 minutes. During busier times, the entire process may take an hour or longer.
At Immigration, get in the visitors line. Immigration officials are generally pleasant, and many speak some English. The Immigration official will check your form, swipe your passport through a machine, stamp your passport, and send you on your way. Americans, Canadians and citizens of most European countries are permitted a 90-day stay as tourists.
After Immigration, head to baggage claim. Defying all Costa Rican tradition, baggage arrives quickly, so if you waited at Immigration for more than 20 minutes, your luggage will likely beat you to baggage claim. During peak traffic times, two flights may share a carousel. If you've checked overweight or large luggage like a surfboard or bicycle, look for the overweight baggage belt on the back wall. Free baggage carts are available, so grab one if you have lots of luggage.
In the baggage claim area, you'll see currency exchange, duty-free shopping, and a tourist information center. The information office is manned by a knowledgeable representative, and has brochures for hotels and activities throughout the country. If you can avoid it, do not change money at the airport's Global Exchange counters. Change your money at a local bank, where exchange rates are more favorable. Airport taxis will accept payments in dollars.
Next, follow the exit toward Customs. You will need to place all items – checked luggage and carry-ons – onto the x-ray belt. After the official waves you on, proceed through the doors and out of the airport.
If you've rented a car, you should see your rental agency just beyond Customs. A taxi reservation window will be on your left as you exit the airport. There are two types of airport taxis: metered orange cars and a taxi co-op. On average, co-op taxis, which are unmarked but completely legal, cost 20-40% less than the official orange airport taxis. If you want to hire a city taxi (generally for San Jose, Alajuela, and Heredia only), walk out to the main road and hail a red taxi. The airport bus stops here as well, and can take you into downtown San Jose.
If your hotel or tour has sent someone to pick you up, you'll find the representative just outside the airport's glass windows.
Departing from the Airport
Flying out of Juan Santamaria is quite easy – short lines and fast service usually have you from check-in to your gate in less than 45 minutes. However, backups do happen, so try to arrive at least two hours before an international flight.
As you enter the airport, you must first pay Costa Rica's departure tax. The exit tax is $28 per person and may be paid with cash (in colones or dollars) or a Visa card. There is one departure tax counter, located against the wall opposite the airline check-in counters.
After you've paid the departure tax, you'll be given a receipt and a form to fill out. Complete the form immediately, and keep both it and your receipt handy. Airline officials will make sure that you've paid the exit tax before you check in for your flight.
As you wait for takeoff, you'll find plenty to see and do. The airport has a small food court, VIP lounge, in addition to free wireless Internet and plenty of duty-free shopping and souvenirs. Have a safe flight!