Perfect white-sand beaches, clear turquoise water and rare wildlife make the Galapagos Islands a bucket list destination for just about every traveler. Take one look at the advertised vacation package prices however and it quickly becomes out of financial reach for many folks. Vacations running well over US$3,000 per week are not uncommon. That means couples and families are staring at a price point that can easily eat through a significant chunk of an annual middle-class income. Luckily, putting together a budget trip that still offers snorkeling, wildlife viewing and all the perks of higher-priced trips is entirely possible.
Getting There And Finding Lodging
You can either experience the Galapagos Islands by land or boat – both are excellent options. The first step for any trip is reaching the actual country and the islands. Flying into Quito or Guayaquil is simple and both are major international airports with budget flights if you shop diligently. Next, catch a connecting flight to Santa Cruz Island and you are in the zone, ready to decide between a hotel or a cruise. The land-based approach is typically the most budget-friendly with hotels and AirBnB style lodging. Several islands are populated and after your flight from Quito or Guayaquil to the island of Santa Cruz, ferries service the three remaining populated islands.
Getting to the Galapagos, surprisingly, is not the challenge. The flights and ferries are all very normal with regular schedules. Many travelers are hesitant to visit because the islands are remote and reaching the location seems daunting when, in fact, it’s a very normal process. Finding lodging in advance is helpful but you really can just show up and figure out lodging, ferries and experiences on the fly.
Land-Based Trips On The Cheap
The Galapagos by land is the simplest means of having an incredible vacation experience on a budget. Work out your dates, schedule the flights and setup lodging. These three basic elements will get you to the destination while keeping a roof over your head. Rather than booking an expensive all-inclusive package, enjoy the freedom of exploring on your own terms and book day tours as desired.
Plenty of hotels exist on the main islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Floreana and Isabela, all of which have ferry services. This opens the door to making last-minute bookings while bouncing between each island. When you find a favorite spot, book a few nights and enjoy knowing that you landed exactly where you want to stay. You will even find a few hostels that are cheap if sharing dorm-style rooms is not an issue. Lastly, the Air BnB market is surprisingly robust with some deals that are simply too good to pass up.
Experiences A La Carte
Pre-purchasing a vacation package does come with some advantages but a DIY land-based adventure puts you in control of both the budget and the desired experiences. Day trips are easy to book out on the spot and you have the ability to pick and choose options based on current weather, your mood and desires. For example, if the weather calls for afternoon rains, book a morning boat trip and spend the afternoon relaxing.
The freedom to make these decisions in realtime is a luxury. Snorkeling is a favorite activity and renting equipment is a piece of cake. Swimming alongside turtles, penguins and exotic fish is something every visitor should consider. Day and half-day boat trips are also easy to secure. Hiking the beaches and islands in search of turtles and areas for viewing the nesting grounds of exotic birds is also a great way to enjoy the land-based trip.
Last Minute Cruise Deals
Cruises are really the ultimate way to explore the Galapagos Islands. Mobility is a serious advantage and boat-based trips can visit more remote and uninhabited islands. The downside is the heavy price associated with booking a cruise in advance. You can shop around for deals and discounts but cruises are high demand and the prices are very stable. There is one way to score a cheap cruise however and it involves taking a chance.
Travel to the Galapagos Islands and do a land-based trip while booking your lodging one day at a time. Flying into the Baltra Airport on Santa Cruz Island places you within easy reach of Puerto Ayora. Grab a hotel or hostel and hit the port in search of open spaces on catamarans and cruises. Working with an agency on the ground is also helpful as they know the schedules and can call ahead. You can find an agency in advance or find one with an office near the port for face to face contact.
This strategy can score you an incredible cruise at a serious discount but it requires some flexibility. These last-minute deals are much easier to access as a solo traveler or couple as wiggling into space as a family is less likely on these popular trips. Also, arriving without a hard exit date means you have time to find an open slot. It does not always happen on the day you arrive and having a few days to wait for new vessels to port really increases the odds of finding the perfect Galapagos cruise deal.
Plan The Perfect Family Cruise In The Galapagos
You can experience the Galapagos Islands by land or sea and both options come with a few advantages. Exploring on a cruise or private vessel like a catamaran, however, is just amazing. Galapagos cruise ships open the door to exploring the uninhabited islands and they have the freedom to move and stop wherever the wildlife and action are best for the particular time of year and day. Some cruises are specific to diving and will accommodate families. Finding a general family trip is also pretty straightforward after working through the options and matching yourself with the best possible vessel.
Match Making 101
Not every boat on the water is right for a family. You really need to assess your needs and narrow down the search based on the number of people, ages, capabilities and personal desires in terms of lodging and vessel type.
Here are a few things to consider before selecting a Galapagos Islands cruise option:
How Many Days?
Trips typically run anywhere from 4 days to several weeks. Some vessels will offer longer bookings although they will reload with other passengers when doing supply runs to local ports. That, of course, can change if you book the entire vessel. On a longer trip, those port stops are very nice anyways for the sake of hitting land and enjoying the island culture. The most common bookings run 5 or 8 days, however.
How Many People?
This one is a very important factor in the equation. Booking 2-6 people is possible on just about any catamaran and ship but booking a larger group is more difficult. There is a hidden advantage however for big family groups. You might have the opportunity to book an entire watercraft and have it exclusively to yourselves. For example, a family reunion with 16 people can enjoy a luxury catamaran without any other passengers. It’s your own private floating hotel and a group rate is possible for the entire booking.
This is quite possibly the most important thing to think about when choosing the best trip. The lodging, vessel size and time period all come into play but the activities are crucial. If one or more people in the family are divers, booking a dive specific crew is critical. If general activities are important, look for offerings of scuba, land-based adventures and boat trips. Some vessels even offer glass-bottom boats for an incredible underwater fish and wildlife watching experience.
What Type of Vessel is Best?
In the Galapagos, you have small, medium and large vessels. The large options are essentially cruise ships and only a few are around. They are however an excellent option for families needing more space and on-board activities. The medium ships are a great compromise that have a number of different cabin configurations that are designed to house families and groups in comfort. The small vessels are often catamarans that are ideal for privacy and luxury.