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Costa Rica international airports

A Guide to the Costa Rica International Airports: What’s the Difference Between SJO and LIR Airports?

With two Costa Rica international airports to fly into, things can get confusing for travelers. Especially as one of the airports changed its name in 2021. Here’s a guide to the international airports in Costa Rica so you know the best one to fly into. 

I was once a travel agent. My duties included working with clients to help them design a perfect vacation itinerary to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama, and then selling the said itinerary to them.

I wasn’t particularly good at the selling part – I’m not that assertive a salesperson. But I was, even if I admit it myself, pretty good at putting an itinerary together. I know this region well and have a real love for it, so helping others to know it too, based on their preferences, came naturally to me.

But there were times I made mistakes. Mostly with the airports. My mistakes were – especially in the early days – mixing up my Costa Rica airports or allowing the client to mix up the airports.

Even if it wasn’t my fault if the client bought tickets to/from the wrong airport, it kind of was, because I didn’t explain it properly to them.

Costa Rica has two international airports, you see.

Daniel Oduber in Liberia, Guanacaste and Juan Santamaria in Alajuela, near the capital city of San Jose. Common errors included the client buying tickets to the other airport their itinerary showed, or worse.

The worse ones included buying tickets to/from San Jose, California (airport code SJC) instead of San Jose, Costa Rica (SJO). The worst mistakes included buying tickets to the country of Liberia in Africa rather than the city of Liberia in Costa Rica. It’s happened.

This is why the airport in Liberia changed its name last year, from “Liberia Airport” to “Guanacaste Airport”. we’re seeing news today that the airport in Liberia will no longer be known as “Liberia Airport”. Its official name, of course, is Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport, but almost nobody ever calls it that. It was called Liberia and now it’s Guanacaste.

The decision last year to change “Liberia” to “Guanacaste” makes sense.

The name makes this airport more representative of the province of Guanacaste which it serves, rather than being associated with just one city. Gustavo Segura, the minister of tourism at the time of the name change, said the move allowed Costa Rica “to strengthen the position of [Guanacaste] as a tourist destination.

The idea was (is) to define an entire region.

And it also helps to stop that one-in-a-thousand chance of a passenger buying a ticket to Costa Rica and ending up in West Africa. Like I say, it’s happened.

So, with that said, let’s look at both of the Costa Rica international airports in what we hope will be a handy guide. We’re only looking at international airports here, not the myriad of airstrips that sprinkle the country.

The idea is to give you the info you need to make it easy to decide which airport you need if you’re traveling down here.

As mentioned, Costa Rica has two international airports, San Jose (actually in Alajuela, outside San Jose) and Guanacaste, outside the city of Liberia.

The official names and airport codes are Juan Santamaria (SJO) for San Jose (also called COCO by old aviation industry hands) and Daniel Oduber Quiros (LIR) for Guanacaste.

SJO is the older, more established airport, the main airport, so-to-speak. In 2019 (pre-pandemic), SJO handled some 5.5 million passengers traveling to/from North America, Europe, and Latin America.

LIR is newer, smaller, and handles flights to/from North America plus some from Europe, especially charters during the high season. All Latin American traffic passes comes in and out of SJO. The pre-pandemic passenger numbers coming in and out of LIR were 600,000 people.

If you’re visiting the Central Valley, the Caribbean side, the Central and Southern Pacific, or Southern Nicoya Peninsula, your best bet is to travel in and out of SJO.

Those of you spending most of your time in Guanacaste or the Northern Nicoya Peninsula (which is Guanacaste), you’re better off using LIR Airport… now called Guanacaste.

Travelers to the Arenal Volcano area and/or Monteverde can use either SJO or LIR, the difference is negligible.

Both airports handle domestic flights, the little puddle-jumpers you see flying to and from the beaches and tourist spots. Getting off an international flight and onto a domestic one is easy at both airports.

If you are doing this, though, give yourself time. That especially goes if you’re getting off a domestic flight and onto an international flight. Sometimes, especially during rainy season, domestic flights get cancelled or run late.

No decent travel planner worth his/her salt would recommend cutting it fine between a domestic puddle-jumper and an international flight in Costa Rica.

Flights in and out of SJO are generally less expensive due to volume than flights in/out of LIR. This isn’t always true, you can always find deals, but for the most part you’ll pay less for a ticket to SJO than to LIR.

If your LIR ticket seems super-expensive, check you’re looking at the Costa Rican airport and not the African one. (Pro tip: The international airport in Monrovia, Liberia is Roberts International and its airport code is ROB. Outside of the whole “Liberia” thing, there’s a massive difference.)

Of the two airports, I prefer Liberia… I mean Guanacaste. LIR. It’s smaller and more chilled. SJO has improved immensely over the years, compared to what it used to be like, but LIR is nicer.

I can’t be the only one who thinks this, as LIR has won various Airports Council International awards over the past few years for its customer service and general ambiance. It was also, this week, voted the best airport in the LatAm/Caribbean serving under two million passengers a year.

SJO won the same award for airports in the region serving from five to fifteen million passengers per year, so congrats to both. It says a lot about the vast improvement in Costa Rica’s airports in recent years that both Costa Rica international airports are recognized in this way.

We hope this clears up a few of the differences between Costa Rica’s international airports for you. Whichever airport you’re using, you’re sure to have a wonderful time, and if you use them both, let us know which one is your favorite.

James Dyde is the editor of centralamerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.