Here's a dirty little travel secret: you can show up at almost any popular tourist activity in the world and save serious cash by booking your trip at the last minute.
Whether it's 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.
To exemplify this rule, I'm going to share with you how to book a last-minute cruise to the Galapagos Islands based on my recent experience.
Before I dive in, a disclaimer.
Results will vary significantly due to a large list of variables, from the time of year to tourism trends, and the degree of desperation a boat owner demonstrates 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, which makes it a great year-round destination, however, there are still a few factors to keep in mind 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 diving or take advantage of snorkeling opportunities (as almost everyone does), you may prefer to time your cruise for the warm water season.
During the cold water season, you can still get in the water. However, you'll probably be more comfortable if you rent a wetsuit from your boat, or bring your own.
Go here for an excellent chart of average monthly air and water temperatures, rainfall, and hours of sunshine per day.
The high season for tourism is June to August, which is due to the Summer holiday season in North America and Europe.
Expect cruise rates to be higher during this time, and you may need a little extra time to book a spot on your preferred boat.
Some species of wildlife 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 seen from December to mid-March.
Where to Book Your 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 walking around, collecting quotes from various offices so you can make an informed decision.
While booking from Quito may be the easiest option, it's not necessarily going to offer you the best deals.
Punta 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 Punta Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, and then shop around for very last minute cruises.
The longer you can afford to wait before a cruise departs, the more likely you are to get a bargain-basement price.
Just 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 instead.
For example, one Australian couple I know flew to Punta Ayora and booked their 8-day cruise from there.
On their boat, they learned everyone had paid a different rate, from $800 – $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.
Punta Ayora is a tiny town, and not particularly picturesque; however, there are a bunch of inexpensive day trips you can make, 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 show up on cruise itineraries as well.
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/meal.
Located on the coast, Guayaquil is Ecuador's largest city and considered quite a bit more dangerous than Quito.
There's no central tourist area to compare with Mariscal in Quito, so shopping around at different agencies to compare costs 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 from which to book your last minute cruise, let alone kill time before flying to the Islands.
Length of Cruises
Most (non-diving) cruises are sold as either five days or eight days.
The last day of the cruise is a short one, 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 1/2 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 experience.
The more walks you go on, the more snorkeling you do, the higher your chances of seeing all the fascinating wildlife on offer.
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 for their cruises 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: sailboat, motor yacht, and catamaran.
Sailboats are mostly 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 sea-sickness.
The most popular 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 options.
Slower boats, such as the old sailboats, will not have itineraries that are 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 yachts. Therefore some websites and travel agencies break them out into lower, middle, and higher levels to further delineate the quality of service and thereby justify the pricing.
From a marketing standpoint, this makes sense — getting on a “1st Class” boat sounds a lot 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 the Eden and Estrella del Mar, and can say while each had its own pro's and con's, they both met, if not exceeded, my expectations.
Common features included:
- nice interior design
- comfortable cabins and bathrooms
- good air-conditioning
- great and varied food
- friendly staff
These boats carry 12 – 16 passengers.
Deluxe / Luxury Class
If you can afford to splash out on your Galapagos cruise, then check out the Deluxe or Luxury options.
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 boats for you.
Larger ships, such as the National Geographic Endeavour II, offer another level of luxury and stability the smaller boats can't compete with.
Larger boats also mean more passengers, which may be the preference of some visitors to the Islands.
When you're shopping around, I recommend getting quotes for the full spectrum of boats available.
Don't be scared away by rates you see published online.
Remember, you've got the advantage of booking last minute, at potentially great savings!
You may be able to 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 cruises, I found the faster, more expensive yachts often have plans focused on only encircling Isabella Island, the largest island on the Western side of the Galapagos archipelago.
The coldest water passes along the western coast of the island, 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 of the smaller, 1st Class boats have fabulous itineraries.
I initially chose the 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 that's home to the world's largest colony of Red Footed Boobies, among many other birds.
Unfortunately, that yacht had a mechanical problem the 1st 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 the itineraries will assure you plenty of fantastic wildlife viewing opportunities, so if they make you dizzy looking at and comparing them all, don't worry too much about it.
The itinerary of any given boat is a bigger 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 single best day was spent on Espanola Island, where we had the chance to swim/snorkel with wild sea lions, see red and green “Christmas” Marine Iguanas, Blue Footed Boobies, Galapagos Hawks, Frigate Birds, and the Waved Albatross.
The cost of the boat may be the most significant single expense if you want to experience the Galapagos by water, however, there are a host of other costs to budget for as well.
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 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 – 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. 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 chances to do souvenir shopping in towns like Punta 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 credit, expect that you'll need to make a few large withdrawals from the local ATM's.
The good news is the official currency is the US Dollar.
They charge 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% with E*Trade Checking, then 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 Punta Ayora.
There should be no fee for paying the airline ticket via credit or debit card.
The Cost of My 8-Day, Last Minute Cruise to the Galapagos Islands
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, as well as those who'd been.
I confirmed my spot on the cruise four days before it departed. Here's an itemized list of ALL my expenses associated with the trip:
- $1,550 – an 8-day cruise on a (lower level) 1st Class motor yacht. First night spent on Eden, with the remaining six on Estrella del Mar. Rate includes transport between the airport and boat on Galapagos, snorkel equipment, 7-night on-board 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. Paid in cash 1st day on the boat.
- $3 – Souvenir stone-carved turtle.
- $21 – Drinks and ice cream in a few towns we visited.
- $9 – Yacht bar tab (I was so tired from the day's activities, I didn't drink much alcohol).
- $110 – Tips for guide and yacht staff. Paid in cash.
Did I forget anything? If you've been to the Galapagos, share your money-saving tips in the Comments.