As a person that's been in the travel biz for over 25 years (as a Destination Specialist [NOT in Costa Rica], a Tour Operator, travel agent and a travel writer), I've been semi-surprised/VERY disappointed at how FEW people look at the BIG picture when it comes to travel arrangements (until they come home and look at their credit card bill at how much they spent!!!) as well as MOST people have NO clue on what all goes into expenses, etc. with having and maintaining a biz hence where pricing comes from.
Unfortunately I've ALSO found that MOST people don't understand the difference/advantages/points of the BIG PICTURE of hiring a LEGAL guide/driver vs. a pirata/ILLEGAL one let alone driving oneself throughout most of Costa Rica.
First there are the EXPENSES TO THE LEGAL GUIDE/DRIVER/BIZ OWNER:
First there's the BIG expense in buying a SPECIAL/LEGAL Tourism Van (my driver said his van was around $30,000 [this seems REALLY cheap to me for a new 15 passenger van what it is so perhaps that's a communications misunderstanding] to say nothing of how long it takes from when it arrives to when you can finally get it on the streets with all the legal channels you have to go through when you're not making money [I know one driver it took 3 months!!]) which MUST be certified by the MOPT/Transporte Publico who provides them a special permit for transportation of tourists or students or for special trips not otherwise permitted.
Then there’s Insurance - a special MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE insurance to cover them for transporting paying customers. That’s approximately $230-$300 a MONTH for a legal average tourist van (there's NO WAY I would even THINK of hiring a tour guide to drive me that didn't have that - NOT in Costa Rica!! I've known of toooooo many people that have had accidents or worse - KILLED fools running out in the streets [I've known of 2 gringos that has happened to and NEITHER was the gringo's fault but they went through MESSY legal hassles]).
If your driver doesn't have insurance - what will happen to you if they have an accident?
These LEGAL vans MUST show some sort of contract with a MAJOR hotel or tour company - a sort of consortium. These can EASILY cost $25,000-$30,000 plus $100++/month per vehicle they have in their fleet.
Of course they also get to pay their own and their employees Secudro and INS, etc.
Gas (I believe in Costa Rica it's around $4-$5 a GALLON for gas). Driving around in traffic and the hills of Costa Rica eat up LOTS more gas than your open freeway back at home. Round trip from San Jose to Manuel Antonio eats up around $60.
If they have a website (what every PROFESSIONAL tour operator should have) they have the cost to create and maintain it, an answering machine and a phone line (and if you're REALLY professional wanting clients in Canada or the States - an 800# which is NOT cheap in Costa Rica). $$$$
Then they have uniforms (or at least they should if they're TRULY professional in my book!!), other supplies like binoculars, ice chests and things that to me a GOOD driver/guide SHOULD have if they're into GOOD Customer Service.
If you want someone to speak English - they tend to get paid more as they've invested more into their growth (hense your ease) and they of course can/SHOULD command more money as it costs the driver time/money to learn it to assist his clients properly. MOST tourists I've encountered in my exploring around Costa Rica are requiring someone to speak GOOD English to help make their vacation more enjoyable/EASY!!
If YOU choose to have them drive you just one way, they still have the time it takes them to drive back that MUST be incorporated into the price since they can't pick up another fare.
To say nothing about how strenuous driving is in MUCH of Costa Rica (ESPECIALLY for the driver who 101% of the time MUST be ULTRA alert watching for ALL the potholes that spring out of no where [even on the Pan-American Highway at times] let alone for the consumer!!). After this past trip from San Jose to Arenal (along the "back road" - not the PanAm) and then from Arenal to Tamarindo - though I've done this trip 3 times now in the past 2 years with family and friends - THIS trip I got such a new sense of RESPECT for ANYONE that drives professionally!!!
Of course with the overall BAD roads around the country - a driver also gets to pay for ALL their repairs and they are frequent here!! They go through LOTS more shock absorbers, tires, etc. Most are stick shift hence would also go through more
I know there have been NUMEROUS times I've hired a driver for 3-10 day trips that they were with us for WELL more than 8 hours in a day.
Plus other legal fees/dues.
As a CONSUMER - these are CRUCIAL points to consider for me:
#1 - If you hire an ILLEGAL driver/pirata/pirate/guide and the police stop you to check their papers/documentation (NOT that uncommon - ESPECIALLY these days with the war going on with legal/red taxi drivers stopping traffic dead in the street for HOURS in downtown San Jose on more and more of a regular basis!!)!!) and that pirata/ILLEGAL driver can't produce the proper papers, things they CAN and DO DO are write a nice ticket to the pirata, take the car plates which make it illegal for the driver to drive and/or impound the vehicle and you're caca out of luck on the streets with ALL your bags!!! Sure hope this doesn't happen to you in MUCH of San Jose (I've been in taxi's/vans NUMEROUS times where they stopped and checked).
#2!!!! The EASE!!!!
I hired a driver last month to do a family trip and I tell ya - driving around Costa Rica can be VERY strenuous - even to the consumer!! After a LONG/BUMPY/pothole infested/curvy drive from Arenal to Tamarindo - though I was quite "fiscally challenged" at the time - I decided to spend the $100 to fly back from Tamarindo to San Jose rather than that the $35 5+ hour bus!! I've decided that MOST of the time when I'm traveling around Costa Rica from now on I will probably fly!! For me it's worth the extra $$ to have the sanity/ease on my bod!!
A tour guide/driver can assist you in planning your itinerary and they know the ins and outs of Costa Rica. They should know the good tours and hopefully the more unique/better ones instead of the standard touristy ones.
Most LEGAL Tourism Vans are more spacious for you (trust me, with all the driving around, you WILL want to spread/sprawl out! There's less space of course if you have lots of luggage though luggage can go on the top). That's a BIG difference between renting one of the small CRAMPED 4x4's (those cheaper deal ones are VERY cramped and often can't fit much - especially if you have luggage. We originally saw the one we had reserved on our first trip and with just 3 gals and luggage, we would have been VERY cramped. NOT how I want to spend my vacation!! You???) or regular car I've seen that can only fit 4 people though not enough space for luggage for 4 people (especially for gals like me that bring the kitchen sink!!).
On the line of renting cars in Costa Rica - FYI - MOST I've seen are stick shift (how DO they drive those here with all the hills and potholes!!! That alone is a strenious time grabber!!) and automatics are few and far between and usually LOTS more $$$. They do NOT have power steering AND most pirata taxi's I've been in don't have good shocks (MEGA "ouch" for those of us more "well endowed" gals!!).
What are you going to do if your luggage is stolen or something? Can your pirata help you to file a police report, etc.? Are they going to go to the police if they're illegal to say they had you in their car and someone broke into that car - NOT!!!
Most drivers I know often have some clue if bridges/roads are down/being worked on - potentially causing HOURS and HOURS of delays and frustration (trust me, this IS an issue here BIG TIME)!!
NOT ALL piratas have "clean records"/are honest/good people (MANY that are piratas have some sort of "record" where they couldn't become a legal driver for a REASON!! These could include drivers into drugs, drunks, etc. (of course there are MANY GOOD/honest piratas also).
I ONLY use Frank Chicas' ENJOYING COSTA RICA TOURS for myself and my guests as they're some of THE MOST HELPFUL people I've EVER MET!!!! That's GREAT Costumer Service!!! I treat others WELL and I EXPECTED to be treated the same or BETTER!! I EXPECT a LOT - especially if I'm paying for it!!
Since the government doesn't monitor them - what are you going to do if you have a less than scrupulous driver/guide? If your things get stolen, etc.? Do you think the cops are going to have any sympathy for you let alone help you??
Of course if you're going from say, San Jose to Jaco, driving can be a breeze.
Because of the roads around Costa Rica as well as all the activities most people do here - you SERIOUSLY might want to take out Trip Cancellation/Interruption/Medical Insurance - just in case!!! I've had to use mine twice so far!! (I personally use http://AccessAmerica.com [WAYYYY COOL!! I hadn't been on their site in awhiles and I JUST noticed they now give Hurricane coverage PLUS an Expanded plan/coverage for Business-related covered reasons for TC and I insurance!!!!])
So, if a driver charging $100-$150/day or $15/hour for shorter trips (and I can tell you - I've seen MANY people email a guide/driver saying they want to hire him for X amount of days and then tie the driver up even up to that day with their indecision on what they want to do or using them for less hours than they originally committed to. Meanwhile he's waiting around PROFESSIONAL for this client hence loose $$$ [to say nothing of possibly other clients]). A SMART business person/guide/driver will get a 50% deposit (which means you REALLY want to do research on your driver before sending him $$) so he doesn't get screwed by the inconsiderate customer (trust me - there are PLENTY of those here!!).
After looking at the big picture is your driver REALLY making a lot of money at the end of the day?
When I'm on vacation I go to ENJOY and RELAX!! I don't need extra stress/frustration (as the roads in Costa Rica are [of course depending on where you're visiting]).
Hey - I've been a typical control freak gal ALL my life (I'm still working on that and am getting better but have a LONG way to go) that in the past ESPECIALLY HAD to be in control of the wheel - UNTIL I visited Costa Rica my first trip!! Now that I've discovered how CHEAP a driver/guide is (compared to MOST other destinations OUTSIDE of the U.S. where I've hired them for clients) - $100 or so a day ($15/hour - all depending on the distance/time) is the BEST investment I can see in MY sanity/ease and ENJOYMENT of traveling around Costa Rica!!
(FYI - I've hired Frank Chicas with ENJOYING COSTA RICA TOURS now OVER a dozen times in the past 7 years for bigger trips from 1-ways to Puerto Viejo to NUMEROUS trips around Costa Rica as well as MANY MANY small trips within an hour of my home in the Central Valley. His rates are what other LEGAL companies charge BUT the service I've experienced has always better than the feedback I've received on other people's trips).
We ALL have different desires/needs/experiences - I've just listed points I've encountered/my beliefs and/or feedback I've received from MANY other tourists (you KNOW how I LOVE to ask questions!!)!!
Bottom line is only YOU can determine what type of vacation/situations you're seeking in life!! I chose EASE and FUN for me!!! You??
If you want contact info for Frank Chicas with ENJOYING COSTA RICA TOURS, e- me at LivingLifeInCostaRica@gmail.com or call me at 8-378-6679.