Visiting Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands on a cruise is the ultimate way to explore. While the Galápagos and backpacking sound like two things that don’t mix, budget travellers shouldn’t write off this bucket list experience entirely – there are lots of great deals waiting to be found!
Searching for a cheap Galápagos cruise can be overwhelming but knowing you can’t believe the prices you see online will lead to more success. Cruises to the Galápagos, while still expensive, can offer amazing value for really a unique experience.
If you’re looking to find out how to bag a budget cruise to the Galápagos, you’re in the right place. As someone who has cruised the Galápagos for $225USD (all-inclusive) per day, I’ve come to learn a thing or two about bagging a good deal which I am going to share with you!
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Finding a Cheap Galápagos Cruise – A How-To Guide
How To Bag an Affordable Galápagos Cruise
The secret to finding a cheap Galápagos cruise is to contact local agencies directly for last-minute deals! 🤫 These offer significant discounts on the advertised prices found on most travel or cruise websites.
Flexible travellers can turn up at one of the main islands (Santa Cruz or San Cristobal) and shop around when they arrive. It is possible to do this in Quito or Guayaquil before you fly, but better deals are usually found on the islands themselves.
As one of the entry requirements of the islands is having a return flight booked, you will need to budget extra time in your schedule to shop around. For example, if you want to do an eight-day cruise, plan to spend ten days on the islands to allow for finding a suitable cruise in your first few days.
Surprisingly, so-called last-minute discounts can be arranged weeks or in some cases months, in advance. This is a great option if you want to secure a cruise that fits better with your existing travel plans or if you have a specific itinerary in mind.
If you are visiting the Galápagos during peak season and the idea of showing up without a concrete plan is just too stressful (guilty!) then my advice is to use Google Maps to find agencies with good reviews in Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz) or Puerto Moreno (San Cristobal). You can then contact the agencies directly by email or social media.
Ask the agencies which cruises are available in your desired time frame and which of those offer last-minute discounts. Once you have found a ship and an itinerary that you like (you can do plenty of research on this as there’s lots of information online) ask for prices from a few agencies to find the best deal. Some vessels are also contactable directly, for example, the Aida Maria. This is one of the best budget cruises in the Galápagos and has its Whatsapp number on its website.
How Much Does a Budget Galápagos Cruise Cost?
I know what you’re thinking… How much is a budget cruise going to set you back? Well, this depends on the ship you choose, travel demand and the time of year. As a rough estimate, you can expect to spend around $1400-1800USD for an eight-day cruise. That works out at between $200-260USD per night!
That might not sound very budget friendly on the surface but when you consider the normal cost of travelling in this region is much higher (all-day tours alone can cost between $100-200USD!) cruises offer good value for money.
Having spent some time on the islands independently as well as doing a cruise, I was really impressed with the price of the cruise and what we got for the money. If you can spare the cash, I couldn’t recommend a cruise more.
What Does a Cheap Galápagos Cruise Include?
Cruises to the Galápagos are all-inclusive which means all your tours, meals and soft drinks are included (unlimited filtered water, tea, coffee, hot chocolate and juice). Just remember to bring a refillable water bottle!
The food on the cruises is usually of a very high standard – we had home-cooked dishes for each meal and there was always enough food for seconds or even thirds! Each time we returned to the ship after visiting an island or doing a snorkel session, there were always snacks and drinks waiting for us too.
Vegetarians can easily be accommodated, but those with dietary requirements should check this at the time of booking. You can purchase wine, beer and fizzy drinks on-board for similar prices to those on land.
The cabins are pretty basic on most budget cruises to the Galápagos, usually consisting of a compact room with a bunk bed and an ensuite. If you are travelling solo, be prepared to share a room if the cruise is at full capacity. Also, be mindful that the room is likely to be very small.
Cabins are often priced at the same rate but allocated on a first come, first served basis, so if you are taking advantage of a last-minute deal, you’ll likely be allocated the rooms in the lower decks of the ship. It’s always worth asking about cabin availability when you book to see if you can get an upper cabin with windows or access to the outdoor deck.
On board all cruises, there will be a dedicated, English-speaking, naturalist guide registered by the Galápagos National Park. They will live with you on the ship for the duration of the cruise and take you on all the tours. The guide sets the itinerary each evening for the following day, which is usually jam-packed! Most days include several stops on land plus snorkelling sessions. In between these excursions, you’ll have your meals on the ship, with a little sailing in between.
A lot of the longer sailing sections to the more remote islands happen overnight, so there’s never a day when you won’t have the opportunity to make several stops. In fact, there is so much on offer, that many of our group actually skipped a couple of the snorkelling sessions just so they could have a rest!
The wonderful thing about cruising the Galápagos is that even in your downtime, you are constantly surrounded by wildlife. Imagine sting rays flipping out of the water as you sip your morning coffee, sharks stalking the boat at night and flocks of frigate birds flying alongside you as you sail. Depending on your itinerary and the time of year you could even spot whales and dolphins!
Unavoidable & Hidden Costs of Galápagos Cruises
- All cruises start in either Santa Cruz or San Cristobal, so unless you are booking a package deal, all the usual travel costs to reach the Galápagos Islands still apply (including flights from mainland Ecuador, the Tourist Transit Card and the Galápagos National Park entrance fee).
- Tips are not included in the cost of your cruise and although not compulsory, you’ll likely want to budget a little extra for this. When you see the incredible job that the crew and the guide do, you’ll want to thank them! Unlike on some of the other tours we did in South America, our cruise did not ask for a suggested donation so there was no pressure to tip a minimum amount.
- If you have arranged your cruise with an agent online in advance, you will likely need to pay a deposit. Bear in mind that you could be required to pay in full if your departure date is imminent! When paying by card, there is often a fee (as a percentage of the overall price). For the cost of a cruise, this can be a significant amount so it’s worth checking payment options upfront when enquiring with agencies.
- On the islands themselves, travel agencies will likely apply an extra charge if you pay using a card. Consider carrying extra cash just in case. You can either withdraw when you are on the mainland or hit up an ATM on the islands.
- If you’re already in Santa Cruz and your cruise leaves from Baltra, you’ll need to make your way back to Baltra Airport which is the usual meeting place for cruise ship passengers. The journey to the dock takes around one hour by bus and costs approx. $5USD. Alternatively, you can take a taxi for the 45-minute journey (approx. $25USD with space for four people). The boat to Baltra Island takes five minutes but only leaves when it’s full. It costs approx. $1USDpp. If you are booking your cruise in person in Santa Cruz, look to negotiate return travel costs to the airport inclusive of the price.
- Snorkelling equipment is not usually included in the price of a cruise and can be expensive to hire on the ship. Depending on your negotiating skills, you can sometimes get cruises to throw in free snorkel hire.
Choosing Your Cruise Itinerary
Choosing your cruise itinerary is the most exciting part of picking a cruise to the Galápagos! Before you review the itineraries, it’s worth having a look at a map of the Galápagos to get your head around the geography and do a little research about the islands. Cruises will depart from either Santa Cruz or San Cristobal (the only islands with airports).
Whilst cruises do visit the main islands that you can easily visit as part of an independent land-hopping visit, a cruise also gives you access to really exciting and unique destinations that can only be visited by boat. The most popular of these are Genovesa, Fernandina and the very remote Darwin and Wolf Islands. The latter two can only be visited on specialist diving cruises (check out Aqua Cruises if you’re interested but be aware, these are expensive).
Cruise itineraries range from 4-12 days and are categorised either as North-South (including islands like Genovesa, Bartolome and Floreana) or East-West (including islands like Isabela, Fernandina and Rabida).
Cruise companies alternate the itineraries week by week so your decision may be made for you if you’re tied to a specific date window. There is no ‘best’ itinerary, as all these stops offer amazing wildlife sightings and unique landscapes. However, if there’s a particular animal that you’re really interested in seeing, this could help you make a decision.
More Remote Galápagos Islands and What They Are Known for
Known as ‘Bird Island’, Genovesa has huge bird colonies including Red-Footed Boobies and Nazca Boobies. It is also famous for its small colony of fur seals and numerous shark species, including Hammerheads. This makes for some very exciting snorkelling opportunities!
The youngest and most volcanically active of all the islands in the Galápagos, Fernandina is also one of the best places to walk through lava fields. See the lava cactus here as well as the Flightless Cormorant and Galápagos Penguins. You may recognise Fernandina as the filming destination for the famous scene in Planet Earth II where the snakes chase the baby iguanas!
Isabela (Western Side)
The biggest of the islands, the western side of Isabela can only be visited on board a cruise. There is a huge diversity of wildlife to see here, from many of the Galápagos favourites to dolphins and even humpback whales.
Most famous for its unusual red sand beach and dramatic cliffs, Rabida is very difficult to get to on a land-hopping itinerary. Home to a huge colony of sea lions, it’s also a top spot for seeing nesting pelicans, Galápagos flamingos and Darwin finches.
A marine site only, unusual fish are abundant here including the Red-Lipped Batfish and Moray Eels.
Darwin and Wolf
These extremely remote sites are very popular with divers. They provide opportunities to see Whale Sharks, Hammerheads and Galápagos Sharks. Talk about a trip you’ll never forget!
Almost all the cheap cruises will take you to the top spots in Santa Cruz (which include the Charles Darwin Centre and the lava tunnels). This means that you won’t need to worry about visiting here on your own. Bear in mind that many of the activities visited by cruises in Santa Cruz are free to enter.
If your cruise finishes in San Cristobal, you’ll be dropped off in the centre of Puerto Moreno. From there, there are lots of great, free things to do close to the centre of town. You’re even within walking distance of the airport for your return flight!
Choosing Your Cruise Ship
There are a variety of ships that cruise around the Galápagos, catering to between 12-110 passengers. The two primary styles of ships are yachts and catamarans. Catamarans tend to be a little larger, more stable and therefore, better for seasickness. However, budget cruises to the Galápagos tend to take place on smaller yachts.
The smaller the ship, the more intimate and personal the experience will be. My group consisted of 11 people on a 16-capacity ship. Our group island visits and snorkelling sessions often felt like private tours as our guide could rearrange the plan if there were other tour groups at the same sites. This meant we often felt like we had the islands to ourselves!
The advantages of cruising the Galápagos on board a bigger ship are that there are more spacious common areas and sometimes more facilities onboard. Some travellers may also prefer a larger group size for the social aspect.
The most popular ships to consider if you are on a budget are the Aida Maria, Bonita, Fragata and Golondrina. However, this is not an exhaustive list – many different vessels can offer good discounts for budget travellers. It’s best to contact agencies with your time window and use their list of cruise options to help you narrow down the choice.
Good to Know!
Tips for Getting the Most Out of a Cheap Galápagos Cruise
1. Go for a Longer Cruise
Whilst it may be tempting to go for a shorter cruise to keep costs down, do consider whether this will offer good value for money. The first day of the cruise will begin at lunchtime to cater to passengers who fly in that morning. Whilst there is usually an early morning activity on your last day, you’ll likely depart the ship after breakfast, so a four-day cruise is only really two and a half days in real terms.
Bear in mind that these short cruises won’t have time to journey too far from Santa Cruz or San Cristobal so you won’t be able to take advantage of the cruise-only destinations. If a short cruise is the most your budget can stretch to, it’s probably worth combining a DIY island hopping trip with day tours instead.
Depending on the cruise itinerary, a five-day cruise may be enough time to take advantage of this style of travel, however, an eight-day cruise is the optimum length for your ‘once in a lifetime’ Galápagos experience! It might sound like a long time to spend on a small yacht but trust me, you won’t want to leave!
2. Visit During December-May if You Get Seasick
The Galápagos is a year-round destination and its location on the equator means the weather remains relatively pleasant and stable. However, June-November brings cooler weather, higher winds and rougher seas. Budget vessels tend to be smaller yachts, and as such, are not best suited for seasickness.
I get terribly seasick and felt like I’d taken a pretty big risk booking eight days on a small yacht! However, the longer sailing journeys to/from remote islands such as Genovesa will always take place at night and you’re not likely to feel sick lying down in bed.
In the afternoons, there were some smaller sailing journeys but our guide always gave us advance notice if the captain expected the sea to be a little rough. This meant we could take sea sickness pills in advance.
Overall, I’d still recommend a cruise for those who suffer from seasickness, just visit during December-May to take advantage of the calm conditions. As a bonus, the sea will also be a little warmer, perfect for snorkelling!
3. Do Your Research Early and Relax
Planning an affordable Galápagos cruise can be overwhelming. The archipelago is a lot bigger than many people initially realise and it’s just not possible to see everything in one visit.
Doing some prior research will really pay off in helping you choose an itinerary, especially if there is specific wildlife you want to see. For example, if you’re dying to spend time with some Galápagos penguins, you’ll want to make sure you head to Isabela/Floreana as a priority.
Once you’ve decided on your itinerary, ship, flights and nabbed your last-minute discount, you just need to wait to board your cruise. And once you’re onboard, all the hard work is done for you!
Although cheap Galápagos cruises may seem like a fabled legend, they really do exist – if you know where to find them! While a land-hopping visit is definitely an option for budget backpackers, bagging a cheap cruise saves stressing about speed boats, lugging your backpack around and finding a cheap bed for the night.
Sit back and relax might not be quite the right term when you’re up early to snorkel with sharks, but rest assured that you are going to see the absolute best that the Galápagos has to offer on a well-chosen budget cruise to the islands. All that is left for you to do is to sit back and enjoy the experience!
Do you have any additional tips on finding a cheap cruise to the Galápagos Islands?