I'm going to share with you how to book a last-minute cruise to the Galapagos Islands based on my experience.
Here's a dirty little travel secret: you can show up at almost any popular tourist activity worldwide and save serious cash by taking advantage of last-minute deals to book your trip.
Whether hiring a Nepali guide and porter for a trek to Everest Base Camp or going on safari in Africa, rare will be the occasion you can't get started within a few days of arrival.
Before I dive into how you can visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site, I'd like to offer a disclaimer.
Results will vary significantly due to variables, from the time of year to tourism trends and the degree of desperation boat owners demonstrate at any given time to fill remaining beds before a cruise departs.
When to Go
Due to their proximity to the Equator, the weather on the Galapagos Islands remains relatively constant, making it a great year-round destination.
However, there are still a few factors to consider when deciding when to go.
While the air temperatures may remain relatively constant, there is a hot and cold season based on ocean currents.
Warm Wet Season = Late December to June
Cold Dry Season = Late June to December
If you plan to go scuba diving or take advantage of snorkeling opportunities (as almost everyone does), the warm water season is the best time to book a cheap Galapagos cruise.
During the cold water season, you can still get in the water. However, you'll probably be more comfortable renting a wetsuit from your boat (or bringing your own).
The high season for tourism is June to August due to the summer holiday season in North America and Europe.
Expect cruise rates and, therefore, last-minute prices to be higher during this time, and you may need a little extra time to book your preferred boat.
Some wildlife species are only present in and around the islands at certain times of the year due to their migrations.
If you have your heart set on seeing whales off the coast of Isabella Island, or a specific type of bird, do your research in advance.
For example, the giant waved albatross is not typically seen from December to mid-March.
Where to Buy a Galapagos Island Tour
There are three main cities where travelers are best off shopping around for and booking their last-minute cruise to the Galapagos Islands.
The Mariscal neighborhood around Plaza Foch in Quito has a high density of hostels, hotels, restaurants, bars, and tour agencies.
You can easily walk out of your hostel and spend a few hours collecting quotes and special offers from tour agencies, searching for the best price to make an informed decision.
While booking from Quito may be the easiest option, it will not necessarily offer you the best deals.
Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island
If you're serious about saving a few hundred dollars off the price of a cruise, you can arrange your flight(s) to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island (home to giant tortoises) and then shop around for very last-minute cruises.
The longer you can wait before a cruise departs, the more likely you will get a bargain basement price.
Don't sit on a quote you like too long because someone else can put down a deposit at any time, and you'll either have to wait longer or go with an otherwise second or third choice.
For example, one Australian couple I know flew to Puerto Ayora and booked their 8-day cruise there.
They learned everyone had paid a different rate on their boat, from $800 to $1,200.
Unfortunately, I don't know which class of boat they used; however, based on the price, it was either Economy/Tourist Class or, more likely, a 1st Class motor yacht.
Puerto Ayora is a tiny town and not particularly picturesque; however, you can make many inexpensive day trips, such as visiting the Darwin Research Center or Tortuga Bay, to kill time before your cruise departs.
Be forewarned; these two popular spots may also appear on cruise itineraries.
There are several decent Internet cafes in town. Rooms can be had for $20/night, and if you avoid tourist restaurants and eat with the locals, you can get by on $5 per meal.
Located on the coast, Guayaquil is Ecuador's largest city and is considered more dangerous than Quito.
There's no central tourist area to compare with Mariscal in Quito, so shopping at different agencies to compare last-minute Galapagos cruise deals isn't as easy.
While you may save $40 on your airfare to/from the islands by flying out of Guayaquil, it's the least attractive location to book your last-minute cruise, let alone kill time before flying to the islands.
Length of Cruises
Most (non-diving) cruises are sold for five or eight days, and the last day of the cruise is short, so you're better off thinking of them as four- and 7-day cruises.
To go a step further, the first day is only a half-day, so choosing a 5-day cruise equates to 3 full days, while an 8-day cruise equates to 6 full days.
A cruise around the Galapagos Islands is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most travelers, so I highly recommend the 8-day cruise to make the most of your visit.
The more walks you go on and the more snorkeling you do, the higher your chances of seeing all the fascinating wildlife.
Another option is to take the 5-day cruise and tack on some extra time, in the end, to explore independently or do some scuba diving through another company.
Types of Ships
The most significant variable in determining how much you pay for a last-minute cruise to the Galapagos Islands will be the class of boat you choose.
Finding out what others paid to their cruise operators is meaningless unless you also ask which boat they took.
In addition to the class of boat, which equates to the comfort level and quality of service, there are three main styles:
- Motor yacht
Sailboats are primarily for show and are often powered by their motors more than the wind.
Motor yachts are the most common boat. And modern catamarans offer increased stability for those who are prone to seasickness.
The best options for budget travelers are the Economy and 1st Class motor yachts.
Economy / Tourist Class – Least Expensive
The economy class boats offer the Galapagos experience for those with the least money to spend.
Comfort, quality of food, and itineraries are all sacrificed to some degree when you choose these budget cruises.
Slower boats, such as the old sailboats, will not have itineraries as varied as the faster boats. These boats carry 12-16 passengers.
1st Class – Most Popular
Within the category of 1st Class are a wide variety of small yachts.
Therefore, some websites and tour operators break them out into the lower, middle, and higher levels to further delineate the quality of service and justify the pricing.
From a marketing standpoint, this makes sense — getting on a “1st Class” boat sounds much better to customers than an “Economy” one!
The good news is even the lower-level 1st Class yachts are sufficient (if not entirely enjoyable) in terms of comfort, food, and quality of service by the crew.
For example, I experienced both Eden and Estrella del Mar and can say that while each had its pros and cons, they both met my expectations, if not exceeded them.
Common features included:
- Nice interior design
- Comfortable cabins and bathrooms
- Good air-conditioning
- Great and varied food
- Friendly staff
These boats can carry a small group of 12-16 passengers.
Deluxe / Luxury Class
Check out the Galapagos luxury cruises if you can afford to splash out on your adventure at sea.
These yachts and catamarans offer the highest quality service and the best-educated naturalists (who will also speak the best English).
And if you're looking for a jacuzzi on deck, these are the small ships for you.
Larger ships, such as the National Geographic Endeavour II, offer luxury and stability that smaller boats can't compete with.
Larger boats also mean more passengers, which may be the preference of some visitors to the Islands.
I recommend getting quotes for the full spectrum of boats available when shopping around.
Don't be scared away by rates you see published online. Remember, you've got the advantage of booking last minute, at potentially significant savings!
You may get a great, last-minute deal on a Deluxe catamaran for the price of a typical 1st Class boat.
When I was getting quotes for my last-minute cruise to the Galapagos Islands, I found the faster, more expensive yachts often have plans focused on only encircling Isabella Island.
Isabella is the largest island on the western side of the Galapagos archipelago.
The coldest water passes along Isabella's western coast, which means it's suitable for whale watching, and there's also the chance to see dolphins, in addition to much of the same wildlife you can see on the smaller islands.
However, even some smaller, 1st Class boats have fabulous itineraries.
I initially chose Eden, for example, because it was one of the few boats to visit the small, northern island of Genovesa on an 8-day cruise.
It's a very out-of-the-way island home to the world's largest colony of red-footed boobies, among many other birds.
Unfortunately, that yacht had a mechanical problem the first day, and we missed out on Genovesa as it wasn't on our new boat's, Estrella del Mar's, itinerary.
As a result of that experience, we learned that it takes a minimum of eight days for the park services to approve changes to cruise itineraries.
If something goes wrong, there's little chance your boat will be able to make up for it on another day.
All itineraries will ensure you have plenty of fantastic wildlife viewing opportunities. So, if you get dizzy looking at and comparing them all, don't worry too much about it.
The itinerary of any given boat is a more significant factor if you're dead set on seeing certain types of birds or wildlife, such as the whales, which are only around Isabella Island, and the red-footed boobies on Genovesa.
My Favorite Island
Of my 8-day itinerary, the best day was spent on Espanola Island, where we could snorkel with wild sea lions, see red and green “Christmas” marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, Galapagos hawks, frigate birds, and the waved albatross.
The boat cost may be the most significant single expense if you want to book a last-minute cruise to the Galapagos Islands; however, there are additional costs to budget.
Luckily, these are all well-known and easy to account for.
- $430 – Roundtrip Airfare to/from Islands (this is slightly less in the Low Tourist season or if you fly out of Guayaquil vs. Quito). I was informed you could try and book the airfare yourself, and note you're an Ecuadorian to get about a 50% lower rate. However, if they call you out on this at the airport, you'll be required to pay the difference on the spot.
- $100 – Galapagos National Park entrance fee (paid on arrival at the airport)
- $10 – Airport fee (paid at the airport from which you depart the mainland)
- $100+ Tip for the guide and boat crew. The rule of thumb is to tip at least $10 per day, split between the guide and boat crew. At the end of your cruise, you'll receive two envelopes for divvying up the cash. Tip more if you had a great time!
- $30 – Wetsuit rental for a week. Necessary during the cold water season and a good idea any time if you're prone to sunburn. The boats carry a range of full and half-length sizes to rent.
- $30 – Snorkel rental for a week. On nicer boats, this fee is included in the overall cost of the cruise, so make sure you find out when you're getting quotes. Or bring your own.
- Bar Tab – On lower level 1st Class yachts, the beers were $2.50, and cocktails $4-$5.
- Souvenirs – You'll have a few souvenir shopping opportunities in towns like Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island.
How to Pay
Ecuador is very much a cash-based economy, so unless you want to pay high fees to pay for your trip with a credit card, expect to make a few large withdrawals from the local ATMs.
The good news is the official currency is the U.S. dollar.
I booked my trip through Sangay Tours, which was recommended to me by Uncornered Market, and I'm happy to recommend them as well.
When I booked, they charged a 10% fee for using credit cards and a 4% fee for using PayPal.
If you have a debit card that charges a lesser foreign transaction fee, such as 1%, it'll make sense to take money out via ATM and pay in cash.
Depending on your daily withdrawal limit, this may require multiple trips to the ATM and travel office, which is another reason to book your trip in Quito or Puerto Ayora.
There should be no fee for paying the airline ticket via credit or debit card.
Total Cost of My 8-Day Galapagos Cruise
As soon as I'd announced my pending cruise to the Galapagos Islands, I started getting questions about how much the trip cost me, both from those who were planning to go and those who'd been.
I confirmed my spot on the last-minute Galapagos cruise four days before it departed.
Itemized List of ALL My Expenses
- $1,550 – an 8-day cruise on a (lower level) 1st Class motor yacht. The first night was spent on Eden, with the remaining six on Estrella del Mar. The rate includes transport between the airport and boat on Galapagos, snorkel equipment, 7-night onboard accommodation, and three meals a day. Paid in cash.
- $428.60 – Roundtrip airfare from Quito to Santa Cruz Island via TAME Airlines. Paid on a debit card.
- $10 – Quito airport departure / park-related fee. Paid in cash.
- $100 – Galapagos Park fee. Paid in cash.
- $30 – Wetsuit rental for the week. I paid in cash on the first day on the boat.
- $3 – Souvenir stone-carved sea turtle.
- $21 – Drinks and ice cream in a few towns we visited.
- $9 – Yacht bar tab (I was so tired from activities that I didn't drink much alcohol).
- $110 – Tips for guide and yacht staff, paid in cash.
My Total Cost = $2,261.60
This was the most I've ever paid for a single tour; however, it was a unique experience. And I had a wonderful time learning about the Islands' history, geology, and wildlife.
I hope this information proves useful when planning your last-minute cruise to the Galapagos Islands.