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Which Airport is better – LIR in Libera or SJO Outside of San José?
Costa Rica has two international airports – Liberia (Daniel Oduber, LIR) and San José (Juan Santamaría, SJO). Both are fairly modern and efficient but are also operating well over their designed capacity. Your itinerary, interests, budget, timing and other factors will determine which is better or whether a combination of both is best.
Location, location and location – Depending on where you’re headed one airport may be far superior to the other. For the Caribbean, Central Pacific and all of southern Costa Rica SJO is your best bet. If you’re headed to the beaches of Guanacaste you’ll want to fly into LIR.
Cost – Airfares used to be higher for LIR but as the number of airlines serving the route has increased prices have dropped and bargains have popped up (we got tickets for $89 each way, non-stop, Denver – LIR, seriously…).
You can probably be on the beach for an extra day when flying in or out of LIR – some beaches are half an hour away. If you’re arriving late or leaving early from SJO you’ll probably have to spend a night in San José because of traffic delays and the dangers of driving at night (especially in the mountains). Most people try to avoid the big, noisy, polluted city.
Domestic flights are only available from San José. There are a couple of internal flights from Liberia, but for the most part if you want to fly elsewhere in Costa Rica you have to do it from San José.
SJO may be closed at any time due to volcanic ash fall – see below
Plan a Sensible Itinerary
Creating an itinerary that loops back around to the airport you arrived at doesn’t always make the most sense. Often times you can save 4-6 hours of ground transportation or driving time by planning a one way route where you arrive at SJO and depart from LIR or vice versa.
Connecting to Local Domestic Flights
If you’re catching a domestic flight then you’ll want your international flight to land at SJO since all domestic flights originate there or from the nearby Tobias Bolaños airport in the suburb of Pavas.
NOTE: Ash from Turrialba volcano has sporadically interfered with airport operations at SJO for more than 2 years.
Most recently the airport was closed January 2nd and 3rd 2017 preventing over 120 flights from taking off or landing during one of the busiest travel weeks of the year. Many of the 3,000+ passengers who were impacted spent at least one night in the terminal and it took almost a week for the backlog to be cleared.
Activity cannot be predicted with certainty but scientist from the volcanology institute believe that intermittent eruptions of Turrialba will continue or increase for several months.
To give you an idea of how frequent the interruptions in service are flights were cancelled at SJO in May 2016 and again at the end of September 2016 due to large ash eruptions. In March through May 2015 ash clouds from eruptions of Turrialba volcano closed Juan Santamaría Airport (SJO) for several hours on a number of days significantly disrupting flight schedules. Activity increased again in February 2016 but the prevailing winds directed the ash plume to the east and northeast away from SJO preventing additional closures.
It’s slightly more likely that eruptions will cause closures from December through April. During the peak travel season prevailing winds tend to be aimed at San José and the dry weather means there’s no rain to knock the ash to the ground.
It’s possible though highly improbable that Liberia airport could be shut down by volcanic activity. The nearest active volcano, Rincón de la Vieja, is much quieter than Turrialba has been and aligned far enough to the north that prevailing winds are less likely to send ash over LIR.