Without question, the absolute best mode of travel through the Galapagos Islands is a live-aboard boat – any other way and you would miss out on the greatest treasures this archipelago has to offer. But it’s true: a trip to these jewels of Ecuador comes with an exorbitant price tag and could easily turn into the most expensive trip you take in your lifetime.
I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to be. You can do the Galapagos on a budget. Those sea lions acrobatically swirling around in your head can be doing somersaults around you in the South Pacific sooner than you might think.
Here’s how I managed to save $2,600 on my two-week Galapagos adventure.
About six months before my departure, I stumbled across a post on one of my favourite Toronto-based travel sites, YYZ Deals. It gave me sudden heart palpitations – a Galapagos flight for $774 round-trip, taxes included! Did I pounce on that deal? You bet I did. That’s a savings of about $400, and something this sweet seldom appears. For my Toronto readers, you’ll want to sign up for updates on this site that shares with its followers discounts on flights from Toronto to destinations all over the world, sometimes at drop-to-the-floor bargain prices. The deal I seized may never appear again but trust me, this site is gold.
It didn’t matter that I couldn’t find a travel companion with whom I could make the journey. I was determined to see the mysterious tropical islands in all the glorious diversity that so inspired Darwin almost two centuries ago. Without personally knowing anyone who had gone before me and whose footsteps I could comfortably follow, off I went with no friendly advice for guidance. After learning through my research that a last-minute cruise can be significantly discounted when booked locally, I chose to make no pre-trip arrangements except a hotel reservation for my first night. I embraced flexibility and spontaneity over pre-organized plans. The rewards? For a week, I cruised the ocean on a first-class yacht and experienced the wonderland of sun-soaked landscapes and curious wildlife – all without breaking the bank. After disembarking, I had the opportunity to leisurely explore the town of Puerto Ayora and its surrounding areas on Santa Cruz Island at my own pace and make a day trip to a neighbouring island.
I saved over 50% simply by booking my cruise on arrival in the Galapagos instead of from home. The small town of Puerto Ayora is dotted with travel agencies that can make the arrangements for you and I was struck by how easy it was to find a last-minute deal. (This was in March but I’ve read that bargains can be found year-round except during the holidays.) I walked into a travel agency first thing in the morning on my second day and inquired about one-week cruises. The agent placed several phone calls, and showed me photos of three boats and their itineraries, all of which departed on different days. I selected my boat, signed the contract, made my payment and boarded a first-class yacht four hours later. The savings: $2,200. It cost me $1300 instead of the $3500 I would have paid had I booked the cruise from Canada. And, if you’re willing to forgo some luxuries, you can make the cruise even more affordable by selecting a tourist class boat.
The key to doing the Galapagos on a budget is to be there long enough to be flexible. By ensuring I had two weeks on the islands in case I couldn’t embark on my preferred boat for a couple days, I was able to complete my trip without time-related stress. If you have time to kill before or after your cruise, you can simply book extra nights at your hotel or another one nearby and take each day as it comes. There is no shortage of things to see and do in Puerto Ayora. I visited the Charles Darwin Research Station, the idyllic beaches of Tortuga Bay and the iconic giant tortoises, and joined a day trip to Isabela Island.
Pre-Booking vs. Last-Minute Booking
If you’ve read this far and the idea of not having a solid plan before you step off of home soil still shoots anxiety up your spine, consider the potential complications of pre-booking. What could I possibly risk by being well organized, you ask? For a pre-booked cruise, you’ll likely be picked up at the airport by your guide and taken directly to the boat. On my yacht, two passengers boarded – but their luggage didn’t – and half their cruise was spent without their belongings. Another group boarded a day late. One of their connecting flights to the Galapagos was delayed, they missed their final flight and, as a result, a full day of their cruise at $500/day (they booked from home and therefore paid full price). If that wasn’t enough, upon landing at the airport, they then had to cough up an extra $800 to hire a speedboat to transport them to where we were at sea. After a rough hour-and-a-half on a loud speedboat, the exhausted group finally boarded and one poor woman, seasick from the choppy ride, could do nothing but lie in bed until the next morning. Neither of these scenarios is ideal, is it?
YOLO, So Go Solo
But I can’t find anyone to take this trip with me, you might say. So what? The Galapagos Islands are unbelievably safe and if you don’t want to pay the expensive single supplement fee and you’re willing to share a cabin with another solo traveller, you’re all set. I made sure my contract stipulated that my cabin would only be shared with another female (it’s not always a given so it’s best to specify). Luck would have it that most visitors to the Galapagos do travel with companions so I didn’t get paired up with another solo female passenger and, to my unexpected delight, I enjoyed a spacious cabin to myself for a whole week.
That doesn’t mean I spent all my time alone. A 16-passenger boat is small enough to allow for social bonding with your fellow passengers and more personalized attention from your guide, and this can make a world of difference. And with so many nationalities represented, our group was a refreshing microcosm of the world. By the end of the week, not only did I learn about and revel in the natural world at its best in a pristine paradise, I forged international friendships with travellers who in the end I was reluctant and sad to leave.
It’s Possible to Do the Galapagos on a Budget
There are few places in the world where you can experientially and viscerally connect with such unique flora and peculiar fauna in a meaningful way. A visit to the Galapagos is so nourishing to the soul that the memories will linger long after you’ve returned home. The great news is that, by being flexible and surrendering to your whims, the trip you’ve spent your life dreaming about may actually be within your financial reach. If it is, don’t you think it’s time to make it a reality?
If you’ve done the Galapagos on a budget and have other tips to share, please leave a comment below to help out my readers.
Disclosure: I earn a modest commission from Booking.com if you click on one of their links and make a reservation through their site (at no cost to you). Thank you for your support!