How to choose the perfect Galápagos Islands cruise
We spent a long time agonising over our trip to the Galápagos Islands. We worried about whether we could actually afford it, how long we should go for and whether we should do a cruise or island hop.
When we eventually decided that a liveaboard was the best option, we were met with a new quandry - how on earth do we choose which cruise to go on?!
Researching Galápagos Islands cruise options can be a mammoth task, so we've put together this guide to help you choose the perfect cruise for you.
Time of year
Animals mate, give birth and migrate at certain times of year and if there is a certain species you are desperate to see, you may need to time your travels accordingly. For example, the waved albatross lay eggs around May, so head to Española (south west of San Cristóbal on the above map) during that time if you want to see them during nesting season.
TOP TIP: This infographic by Intrepid Travel shows the mating, migrating and nesting seasons of various animals in the archipelago.
Your vessel will be your hotel, restaurant and viewing platform for at least a couple of days, so it's worth getting to know what you can expect.
There are typically four categories of boat. They include ‘tourist/basic/budget’ at the bottom end, followed by ‘tourist-superior/mid-range/comfortable’, then ‘first-class/high-end’ and finally ‘luxury’. Bare in mind that these are not your typical cruises, so a first-class boat may seem ‘basic’ to the upper-class cruiser!
If you want a certain feature, such as a hot tub, this will reduce your choices as these are only common on boats of first-class quality and above. It is common for luxury boats have more passengers (think around the forty mark, going up to the hundreds). Most boats have a maximum of sixteen passengers, which was perfect for us, as it allows closer encounters with animals and the ability to work well with your guide.
As expected, the cost reflects the class of boat. If you wanted to book an 8-day cruise aboard a first class boat (such as Odyssey or Majestic), it would cost around $4000 in advance. If you wanted to book an 8-day cruise aboard a tourist class yacht (such as Golondrina or Darwin) or in advance, it would cost around $2500.
You can find out how much our cruise cost by reading our cost breakdown post.
Unfortunately, and rather annoyingly, the individual boats do not seem to have listings on review websites such as TripAdvisor. Instead, you will find mentions of boats in reviews for the travel agency used to book the cruise, or if you're lucky, someone may have written an account of their cruise on the TripAdvisor forum or on Lonely Planet's Thorntree. You can also take a look at CruiseCritic, but reviews are mainly for luxury cruises.
Boats we considered
We only did one cruise (which you can read more about here) so cannot recommend these boats from personal experience, but they were in our shortlist due to their great itineraries and reputation from reviews we read online.
- Nemo I, II and III
- Samba (no direct website as far as we know)
- Aida Maria
- Treasure of the Galapagos
- Reina Silvia
We ended up booking an 8-day cruise aboard Eden, a tourist superior yacht, ten days before departure. This, any many other boats, were available last minute, and you can read up on how to book a last minute cruise here.
TOP TIP: Use the websites listed at the bottom of this post to view the different classes of boats. You may find that some boats straddle classes; Aida Maria is listed as being in the lowest class on Happy Gringo's website, but on the second-lowest on Carpe DM's website. This isn't a trick; some companies just have different criteria when categorising boats on their website.
Most importantly, the class of your boat denotes quality of not just the vessel but also the naturalist guide on board. There are three stages of certification (from I to III) and the higher, the better. Local guides are trained in the history, geology, volcanology, ecology and of course wildlife, and they will be your eyes and ears when exploring the natural landscape.
The general pattern is that the higher class of boat comes with a higher class of guide. This does not mean that a lower class guide may not be as professional or eager, but the higher-class guides generally have greater knowledge and can answer complex questions. Ultimately, it's vital to have a guide that you understand, who can point out and explain things you may not have otherwise seen, and even have a laugh with you. It will really make a difference to your overall experience.
TOP TIP: When you are browsing for cruises, enquire who the guide will be, and do some research on them. It is also worth asking how many other boats or companies the guide works for. The more companies a guide works for, the less closely connected they may be to the boat or operator, which may impact the quality of their service. Our guide, Luis, worked for four companies in total, including a day-trip operator and charter yacht, and we would highly recommend him.
You may know which islands you want to visit based on what animals or landscapes you want to see, but if you don’t, the itinerary split will give you a good indicator of where you can visit in your timeframe.
North west vs. South east
Typically, cruises start and end in Santa Cruz/Baltra or San Cristóbal, and either visit the north-west islands (which can be a combination of Genovesa, Isabela, North Seymour, Bartholomew), or the south-east islands (Floreana, Española, Santa Fe). You won’t find many cruises that visit Fernandina AND Española in 8 days, for example, as the distances are too far.
Happy Gringo has a great page that summarises what you can see at each island, and each boat it lists includes a map of their itinerary with this consistent design. You will realise how handy this is once you start looking other websites that have a different style of map for each boat – it can get confusing.
TOP TIP: Avoid itineraries which focus too much time on and around the main islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal and Santiago. This isn't because there isn't a lot to see and do here, but because you could visit many of the places on your own (i.e. without a naturalist guide or without the need for a cruise), or on a day-trip. It is inevitable that cruises will visit some of these stops on your cruise (notably Santa Cruz Charles Darwin station and Highlands, places around Puerto Villamil on Isabela such as Sierra Negra volcano), but it's best to steer clear of poor itineraries that don't venture far off the track that you could DIY for less.
There are literally hundreds of websites advertising Galápagos Islands cruises, so it can be hard to know where to start. If you have a specific boat in mind, it's probably worth visiting their direct website if they have one. Otherwise, take a look at our recommendations.
National Geographic Expeditions - Could this be the ultimate cruise? With 96 passengers and a high price tag, it's not our kind of thing, but you cover a lot of ocean on this "voyage of discovery".
Celebrity Cruises - They run a range of upmarket cruises and boast some incredible itineraries.
Ecoventura - This sustainable organisation have two signature yachts Eric and Letty and offer low passenger-guide ratios.
Galapagos Cruise Links - Although this is primarily used for people who want to book a last minute cruise, it is very user-friendly and generally lists cruises up to three months into the future. It offers photographs of the boat, a snapshot of the itineraries and the various dates, as well as links to the individual boat's website where they have one.
Happy Gringo - A highly-rated travel agent with a detailed website that contains handy maps and lots of information about the islands and what to see where. Cristina was very responsive to our emails and gave us plenty of advice and options.
Carpe DM - A popular and well-known travel agency ran out of The Secret Garden hostel in Quito, which publishes details of their last minute options online too. They also offer a range of trips around the rest of Ecuador.
Ecuatravelling - Another practical website with a medium-sized range of boats, but more availability if you email them. The agency is located inside the Magic Bean restaurant in Quito if you want to visit in person.
Tierra del Fuego - A neat website which does not offer a wide range of boats but the staff can give you more options if you email them. We ended up booking with Lorena and she was a pleasure to work with.
Galapagos Experience - Lots of boats listed at competitive prices; also good for last minute options.
Galapagos Islands - A huge range of boats of different classes and prices are available on this pleasant website. It also has a good promotions page.