While there has been the promise of a “southern” airport for more than a decade, your only choice is Juan Santamaria Airport in Alajuela, a city near San Jose. The airport code is SJO. Your airline choices are American, United, Frontier, Taca, Alaska, Southwest, Jet Blue, Delta, and a few others. We generally fly American via Dallas or Miami. From the West Coast, it takes about seven hours in the air, regardless of which route you take. From the East Coast, it can take five hours in the air via Ft. Lauderdale or Miami. Gateway cities, depending on the airline, include Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Dulles, Ft. Lauderdale, and Miami.
Many flights depart from the US around 5:00pm and arrive around 8:30pm in Costa Rica. Incidentally, Costa Rica is in the Central time zone and does not change for daylight savings time, so it is permanently UTC-6 hours. While it’s possible to drive to Dominical after renting a car at night, we don’t recommend it because the roads are not well marked in many cases, and it can be difficult to find your way. (Relatively new Highway 27 and the improvements to Highway 34 have mitigated this warning somewhat, but perhaps wait until you're second trip to drive at night from the airport.) We recommend, instead, that you stay near the airport overnight and get an early start the next day. Alternatively, you can take an early flight from Miami or Dallas, and arrive in Costa Rica before noon. Or take the redeye option from Los Angeles that arrives at 6:00am or so in SJO.
Alaska Airlines now serves San Jose (and Liberia) with a single flight per day out of LA. Interestingly, this takes off around 9:00am, and lands mid-afternoon, then returns an hour later. Prices were about $400 r/t in the "green season".
If staying near the airport, consider the Marriott (extremely nice, about $200 per room per night) or the Studio Hotel in Santa Ana (about $100, and a tremendous deal).
Renting a Car
All major agencies are represented in the area surrounding the airport. We’ve had good luck with Toyota Rent-a-Car, which is very close to the airport and offers competitive rates on Rav4s and Prados (like a Land Cruiser in the US). We don’t recommend the compact SUVs (Diahatsu Bego) due to poor crashworthiness, terrible performance, small cramped cabins, and the noise.
Ask to be picked up when you make your reservation. As you exit the airport, you’ll be enveloped in a sea of Ticos who offer taxis, other transportation, and all sorts of help. While a little intimidating, we’ve found them to be extremely helpful in contacting the rental car agency or just solving problems. 500-1000 colones (one to two dollars) is a good value for their services. Our experience is that they are there to serve your needs, not rip you off.
This may be your first experience with helpful Ticos. I hate to admit it, but I was prepared for the hustle and hassle of con men (and women) when I first stepped out of the airport in Costa Rica in 1992. I worried that the taxi driver would take us the long way, that the hotel would be a rip-off, and that I would get charged an extortionary exchange rate. In over 20 trips to Costa Rica, we've never been cheated by Costa Ricans and we feel uncomfortable that we ever thought otherwise. Sure, we've made bad business decisions, and have been too trusting with various characters, but at the "common man" level, we've never been cheated. We love the camaraderie and the basic goodness of Ticos.
Many return flights depart between 7:00am and 11:00am. While the 9:00am flight seems like it would be too early, you can leave Dominical around 4:00am, drive three hours up the coast and get to the rental car agencies around 7:00am, and still have time to spare at the airport. The sunrise is beautiful as you drive up the coast, and there is little traffic. You’ll encounter some rush hour traffic as you get close to San Jose. We still think it’s the best option, and we’ve never missed a flight. Plus, you avoid the cost of an airport hotel (and stay in paradise one more night.)
You can get gas before returning your car right off the highway leading to the airport. As you drive north, you’ll pass the Firestone factory on the left. Take the next exit and turn left as you get to the surface streets. There will be a gas station immediately on your left. It’s equally easy to get back on the highway.
The airport tax is around $28.00, and must be paid in American dollars. Pay the airport tax before getting in line at the airline counters. American Airlines now (2016) includes the airport tax in their ticket price, which is a big convenience. Other airlines may have followed suit; the lines at the "tax counter" were dramatically shorter than in previous years.