A trip to the Galapagos is something that should be experienced if you’re remotely interested in nature and have ever seen a David Attenborough series. There are a variety of ways of seeing the various islands individually, however in order to get a comprehensive and experience, the best way is via guided cruise around the various islands in the archipelago.
Selecting the correct cruise and at a discount can at first be quite mind-boggling however, it shouldn’t be. Most cruises offer last-minute discounts of up to 50% off and with some pre planning its possible to nab a Galapagos last-minute deal. Below are some tips based on my experience finding a good deal. Also, a shout out to Mike who I travelled with along with Lizzie who also put in a decent number of hours into researching and corresponding with various tour agents.
Contact suppliers prior to getting to Ecuador
There are plenty of tour operators who offer last-minute deals, however there is no harm in contacting them up well before “last minute”. The main reason being that you want to be dealing with agents who email back with useful information and seem trustworthy as you’ll be eventually handing over thousands of your hard-earned dollars.
What type of boat do you want to travel on and what type of visitors do you want to hang out with?
All up there are around 77 cruise ships licensed to operate within the national park. There are few classes of boat but still varied in size, crew and passenger types. Below is the loose classification system used by the tourist industry
Tourist: Aimed at the budget traveller and offer the basic amenities and attracts younger travellers who can forgo any luxury amenities. You’d expect to pay around US$1200-$1800 for a full fair seven-day cruise.
T-Superior: Middle range that can offer comfortable conditions and amenities at an affordable rate. All carry up to 16 passengers allocated to eight double rooms with bathrooms. The width of boat can affect the bedding configuration. The wider the boat, the less likely there will be bunks. It will be important to check with the tour agent if this is a concern, particularly in rough seas. Attracts a range of travellers including budget older budget conscious or younger travellers who have can stretch the budget slightly. The percentage discount for this class and tourist tends to be lower as the base rate is lower than that of the deluxe. i.e we book the Golondrina at US$1400 vs $US1,920 full price (28% off)
First Class: Have a wide range of options specified in Tourist superior and Deluxe classes. Cost ranges between US$2,500 and US$4,000 for a full priced seven-day cruise. This class Can be the most confusing to navigate through due to the available amenities, such as availability of large rooms but no air conditioning. Attracts older travellers, some with families. Availability seems to be the highest amongst this class for last-minute deals
Deluxe: Have the most qualified guides on board. They also have the best amenities such as spacious and comfortable rooms, air conditioning, jacuzzi and food. Deluxe boats are split into larger cruise ships (up to 100 passengers) and smaller non cruise ships (motor boats or catamaran). They generally attract older travellers who want everything catered for. This class of boat can cost around $4000-$7000 at full price, however they can offer the largest dollar value discounts i.e 50% off would be $2000-$3,500. When we checked, there was a deal for a larger cruise ship at around $1400 including return flights (US$500 value)
Number of days
Most cruises go for 5 or 8 days. Regardless of how many days you decide to go, the Galapagos Islands takes up a large area so even with an 8 day cruise it will be difficult to see most of them and you may want to book an additional couple of days after the cruise to do further exploration.
Cost vs Route
At first we were too focused on price. However, you’ll need to consider the routes that each of the boats go. The routes and timetable are strictly determined and policed by the national park and cannot be deviated away from by the boats. This is to ensure that there are limited number of boats in a particular area at any time. As a result, you will have boats that will focus on particular areas than others. It will be rare to have a boat that will cover most islands.
Most importantly with the route is access to certain animals. For example, you will mainly see Red Footed Boobies on Genovesa Island, one of the furthest islands away to the north. For the Albatrosses, you will only see them on Espanola which is Furthest South West, but don’t expect to see them in January.
Quality of guide. Less of an issue if your spanish is great
Ask the tour agent about the tour guides as their knowledge ability to communicate to the group the history of the islands and the ecosystem of each of them. This plays a huge part to the overall satisfaction of the trip
Finalising the deal
It’s best to be in Quito to meet with the tour agent and finalise the deal with those who you had correspond with. Don’t bother looking for others as it will be a waste of time. You’ll save a lot of time and stress by doing so. Also, by then the tour agent will have a fair idea of what you want and may even find an even better last-minute deal which will be more in line with what you want.
Paying for it
The preferred payment method is cash but Ecuador ATM’s only allow you to withdraw $500 maximum per ATM card. This means you will need to start withdrawing money when in Ecuador if you are looking to spend around US$1,500 on a cruise. Any credit card transactions will attract a 10% merchant fee. The packages will generally include airline tickets in addition however airline ticket purchases on credit card don’t get taxed at all. So if you need to use a card then use it on an airline ticket.
Alcoholic drinks and snacks aren’t included in the package costs. Beers will set you back around $3.50 per bottle which is near two and a half times the cost than the mainland. If you want to enjoy a few beverages then you may want to bring some spirits and buy mixers on the boat. A bottle of decent rum at the airport cost US$12
This was a confusing issue amongst every on the last day. Some say 10%, others say US$100 per couple towards both Crew and Guide. Of course this will be dependant on the perceived service by the crew and guide. I ended up tipping US$60 all up (US$25 to the crew and $35 to the guide)
Alternative ways of finding a deal
There are other opportunities to find even cheaper deals, however I would only advise this if price is the motivation. Representatives of the boat all wait at Baltra airport to greet guests. It is possible to approach these guys and negotiate a rate if there is availability. Alternatively, there are tour operators in town at Santa Cruz Island who can offer extremely discounted prices. I saw some deals for under US$1,000 when walking around town afterwards.
We ended up booking with the Golondrina with Sangay and it turned out to be the right choice. Originally we were looking for something closer to the first class boats as it was within our budget. Upon further research and reviewing the availabilities, the Golondria offered by far the best route, the guides they used where generally above average and luckily we had a great crew and fellow passengers who were mostly of similar ages.