The ultimate guide to booking a last minute Galápagos Islands cruise
You only need to watch a snippet of David Attenborough’s documentaries on the Galápagos Islands to realise that these are some of the most extraordinary places for natural life on earth.
The Galápagos has been high up on our list of ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experiences for a while, so we knew that once we couldn’t set foot in Ecuador without visiting.
Fortunately, after a day of cruise shopping around Quito, we had booked onto an 8-day cruise of the north-west islands (many agencies and boat operators refer to this as the ‘Isabela itinerary’).
We wrote this post to guide those who are interested in a slice of island life but cannot afford the price tag that comes with advance booking.
Nº 1 - Budget
Before you start researching your dream cruise, let's get one thing straight - the Galápagos Islands are expensive.
Besides the cruise price, there are certain non-negotiable extras (National Park fee, for example) that you have to pay for, which may impact how much you have left for the actual cruise itself.
For us, these extras came to around $700 per person.
When it comes to the cruise itself, we saw 8-day cruises for as low as $1500 on the lowest class of boat and 5-day cruises for under $1000. Three Australian girls joined our tourist-superior boat for 5-days at $1500, so it depends on your chosen itinerary and class of boat on how expensive your cruise will be.
Read more on how much our Galápagos Islands cruise cost
Nº 2 - Research
Before you start getting quotations for last minute cruises, you should have a good idea of what you are looking for. These are just a few factors you should consider.
We heard, and found out for ourselves, that the best time to book a last minute cruise is between one week and one month prior to departure. Book too late, and you will have fewer options to consider. Book too early, and you may not get the price you're looking for.
You will find that most last minute cruises are only up to first-class standard, and the majority are 'backpacker' or mid-range boats. It’s unlikely that luxury boats such as Treasure of the Galápagos are going to discount very heavily or have spaces left at all, as they are commonly taken up with people who are happy to pay the higher, advanced price.
When we were searching for our last minute cruise, we had our heart set on an itinerary which sailed all the way round Isabela island, passing Fernandina along the way. We found there were far fewer last minute cruises offering this itinerary, but plenty of boats offering a cruise of the south-east islands. We aren't sure why this was, but pay attention to current trends as they may shed light on how quickly your ideal itinerary is selling.
Useful last-minute websites & agencies
We spent a lot of time on Google searching variations of the phrase 'last minute Galápagos cruise', and we recommend these websites.
Galapagos Cruise Links - By far the most 'refreshed' website we bookmarked, this simple site is an awesome tool which shows a large amount of last minute cruises at fair prices. It directly connects you with the boat owner or operator (the travel agent we ended up booking with posts her cruises on there) and it is regularly updated.
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 which publishes their last minute cruises online. They also offer a range of trips around Ecuador and if you want to visit them in person, head to The Secret Garden Quito.
Ecuatravelling - They update their last minute cruise page every Wednesday and Friday and are great to deal with. The agency is located inside the Magic Bean restaurant in Quito if you want to visit in person.
Galapagos Natural Life - A large list of last minute cruises, the majority of which include your air fare.
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 - Very competitively priced last minute options for popular, highly-rated cruises such as Samba, Beagle and Millenium.
Galapagos Islands - A huge range of promotions are available on this pleasant website across a range of boat classes and prices.
Moonrise - Don't let their minimalistic website fool you; drop this Puerto Ayora outfit an email for their last minute offerings and other deals.
Nº 3 - connect with travel agents & boat operators
Whether you’ve decided on a few boats and your ideal itinerary, or you're in a pickle and really need some guidance – you should start to reach out to agencies.
Enquire a few months in advance
Six-to-eight weeks before we were due to land in Ecuador, we messaged around ten different agencies to enquire about last minute trips that month. This gave us an idea of the lowest price cruises were going for around that time, and also showed us which agencies were the most helpful or which were pushy.
For example, we emailed a few companies about certain boats and/or itineraries and our price range, and received a sales-pitch response back for a completely different boat/itinerary which didn’t fit our needs whatsoever and was way too expensive for us.
Of course, prices and availability vary from month-to-month, but we found it a valuable exercise as it meant we knew what prices and type of communication to expect when it came to speaking directly with agents in Quito.
Should you wait until you are in ecuador to book?
Now, this is the tough part... it can be tempting to book a cruise before you arrive, especially if you receive a quotation that you think is reasonable. We decided to wait, and we were glad we did: the prices were lower and we felt more comfortable booking in person after discussing various options in depth.
Should you book your cruise in Quito or on the Galápagos Islands?
We booked our 8-day cruise in Quito, but we met three Australian girls who had booked their 5-day cruise from San Cristóbal. After speaking with them, and viewing offers in the window of travel agents on Santa Cruz, we can safely say that we got just as good, if not a better, deal by booking with our travel agent in Quito.
One aspect that may make booking on the island cheaper is that you have already paid for your airfare; some travel agencies in Quito require that you book your flights with them and add on commission, meaning that you could be paying above the odds for your flight. Ours didn't, so that was a plus. Another reason we are glad we hadn't booked flights before is that some cruises start from one island and finish at another, meaning that if you fly into San Cristóbal but your cruise starts from Baltra, you will have to pay extra for your transfer.
Some people also think that you can get a dirt cheap cruise by turning up at the port close to the time of the cruise actually departing. This is a very risky strategy and is only really viable if you don't care what boat you're on; I haven't read about anyone successfully doing this.
Spend a day visiting agencies in person
Once you arrive in Quito or the Galápagos Islands, you could just wander around and enter every travel agency you see, but that will take days; it’s good to have an idea of reputable agencies and what boats they offer in advance.
One thing we found, though, was that Google Maps and TripAdvisor sometimes had the wrong location, so it’s best to have the address written down in case you need to ask someone for directions, or to show to a taxi driver.
We ended up visiting most of the agencies we'd spoken to over email, but also some we hadn't connected with before. We ended up booking with an agency we'd never heard of until we passed them on the street, Tierra del Feugo, and we would highly recommend them.
Questions to ask your agent
No one likes listening to a prepared sales pitch, so have a list of questions you want to ask before you visit the office. Some questions that we asked are as follows:
- Who is the guide and what is their grade?
- How many people are on the boat?
- Is snorkelling equipment/wetsuit included in the price?
- Does the boat pick up new passengers part-way through the itinerary?
- How many opportunities are there to snorkel/to hike?
- What is the food like?
Three important lessons we learnt when booking our last minute Galápagos cruise
Just because we like you, here are our top pieces of advice when it comes to booking your cruise...
Nº 1 - It may really be the last available cabin
Travel agents are sales people, and there have certainly been times when people have tried to sell us ‘the last space’ on a tour that we’ve known, and been proven right, wasn’t true.
Many of the Galápagos boats are small (eight cabins, sixteen people), so even if a cruise has two cabins left, that’s only two couples like us walking into the travel agency that could make the cruise a full boat.
We were lucky, we really DID get the last cabin on the boat we eventually chose. Our travel agent told us that after we booked it, an earlier couple complained to her that she didn’t hold the space. Especially with a last minute cruise, don’t even try it, as they’d sooner have the money in their pockets than hold out for someone who may disappoint.
Nº 2 - be realistic
Our advice here is two-fold: be sensible with your budget and set an absolute maximum price, and realise that the rock-bottom price for Galápagos cruises may not be as low as you like, or expect.
We set a budget for $2000 per person, and ended up booking a cruise for exactly that. We didn't find any other operators listing cruises with the same itinerary, similar standard of boat and reputation of guide for that price, and we knew that waiting around was unlikely to reveal more options.
Nº 3 - Don't settle on a boat unless you are 100% happy with your choice
You’ve done the research, chosen an itinerary, set your sights on a few boats… and then a travel agent gives you an offer that’s hard to refuse.
It may be a cheaper price on a lower class boat, or a boat you haven’t heard of before, or perhaps a different itinerary to what you originally planned.
For most of us, the Galápagos Islands is a once-in-a-lifetime holiday, so make sure you only spend your hard-earned dollars on a cruise that is truly what you want.
So, what cruise did we end up booking?
After a long day spent walking around Quito, we booked an 8D/7N trip with Tierra del Fuego aboard ‘Eden’, a tourist-superior class yacht with sixteen passengers. Our guide was Luis, and he showed us the incredible northwest islands of the Galápagos. We'll be publishing our full itinerary soon.
If we still haven't persuaded you, take a look at ten of our favourite photographs. And, arguably one of the most important factors – the cost. You can find a full breakdown of costs here, but our cruise alone cost $2000 per person.
We always have a scruffy travel guide in our backpacks. Pick up yours here.