I Skipped the Line at Customs — Here's How VIP Travelers Do It All the Time

After my plane landed in Costa Rica, an attendant whisked me away to a private customs room where I could eat snacks, drank a Coke, and relax on a couch while my passport was reviewed. 

The private plane for Hacienda AltaGracia, Auberge Resorts Collection
Photo: Courtesy of Auberge Resorts Collection

A few months ago, I traveled to one of the most beautiful destinations in the world: the verdant, romantic Costa Rican cloud forest, in the foothills of the Talamanca Mountains. To get to Hacienda AltaGracia, Auberge Resorts Collection, I flew to Juan Santamaria International Airport from New York City, a not-nothing five-hours in a commercial airline. Once I stepped off that first flight, the idea of getting on another plane to fly 45 minutes south exhausted me, but that exhaustion soon turned to bewilderment: before I could even get close to the winding, crowded line at customs, a friendly employee whisked me back outside to the and drove me to a private customs area with refreshments and a large couch.

Private customs and immigration is something I'd never heard of, let alone experienced, even as someone who has traveled professionally for years. While I spend a lot of my time fantasizing about line-skipping, this particular experience far surpassed anything I could have dreamt up: I handed my things and passport to the airport employee, helped myself to Coke and some potato chips, plugged in my phone, and scrolled TikTok while my documents were checked. By the time I was whisked to the private mini plane that flew me directly to Hacienda AltaGracia, I'd forgotten about the five hour flight, and had slipped fully into vacation mode.

I asked the resort's general manager Mark Wright how a property even goes about setting up such a service for guests, which allowed me to arrive at my casita invigorated rather than travel weary.

"The General Aviation Terminal (GAT) welcomes all private jet passengers into San José, Costa Rica," said Wright. "Outside of private jets, guests of AltaGracia are the only travelers to receive this service. Any hacienda guest arriving into San José and booking a transfer directly to the hacienda through the resort receives this service."

Wright said that the property arranged this access during its pre-opening period, so guests can experience smooth arrivals. "This service ensures our guests are escorted from their plane and fast-tracked through security and immigration, starting the stay on a positive and stress-free note." The space was a comfortable 15,260-square-feet, yet I was the only guest in the lounge for the 15 minutes I was there.

GAT at SJO is the country's first and only private terminal for "general aviation," a category that includes private jets but also any civilian, non-commercial flight. (I've seen it described like this: "If scheduled airlines are the nation's air transport arteries, general aviation is its equally important capillary system. Charter and air taxi flights carry passengers to and from smaller cities, thousands of which have no airline service.")

If you, like me, do not have a private jet, the best bet at experiencing this seamless, private customs and immigration is booking travel to super-luxury properties like Hacienda AltaGracia, where the transfer from commercial flight to tiny, private flight grants you access.

Hacienda AltaGracia
Auberge Resorts Collection

The resort is currently running an offer where seats on these small flights are included for stays over five nights; otherwise, round-trip private flights start at $2,400 per plane, which holds two passengers. If that's out of your budget, in November, Hacienda AltaGracia plans to launch a charter flight, which will be a shared plane, that costs $375 per passenger per way.

I don't know when I'll get to experience this luxury service again, but I'll certainly be thinking of it next time I'm stuck at customs, craving potato chips.

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