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How to Choose Your Galapagos Cruise

by Todd Smith

Galapagos cruises have become incredibly popular, and there are no shortage of agencies looking to sell you a Galapagos cruise. We are here to help with honest, unbiased opinions and expert advice to help you choose the right ship and trip (one that fits your interests, ability and budget) at the best price. We visit the Galapagos frequently and offer travelers the most accurate, up-to-date information available. AdventureSmith Explorations' founder and director, Todd Smith, along with the crew of Galapagos experts at AdventureSmith Explorations offer the following advice to travelers interested in visiting the Galapagos Islands. We hope you enjoy our Galapagos Cruise guide. 

Wet Landing

Plan Ahead!

The Galapagos Islands are one of the most spectacular and remote locations on Earth. Visitation to Galapagos is limited, vessels are small and spaces fill up fast. Many Galapagos cruises are often sold out 6 to 9 months in advance with holidays booked more than 12 months in advance. For the best selection of Galapagos cruises and available cabins advance reservations are encouraged, and often required.

Getting to/from Ecuador and the Galapagos

Galapagos cruises begin and end in the Islands, located 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. It is not possible to fly directly to the Galapagos from North America on the same day, so most Galapagos cruises require a stopover. Quito, Ecuador's colonial capitol city is the most popular stopover and a great location to explore the Andes or Amazon. It is also possible to transfer through the coastal city of Guayaquil.

I highly suggest travelers consider arriving Ecuador at least two nights prior to the cruise. Most flights from North America arrive Ecuador in the evening between 8-11pm. If your flight is delayed or cancelled, and your flight to the Galapagos is early the next morning, you will miss the ship. The wilderness nature of Galapagos cruises makes it difficult to catch up. Arriving two nights prior provides a full day to recoup from your flight and explore mainland Ecuador: Quito (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the nearby market at Otovalo, or Guayaquil.

After your cruise, flights arrive back into Guayaquil and Quito in the late afternoon usually between 2-4pm. It may be possible to fly back to North America on a red-eye flight; however most travelers choose to overnight again in Quito or Guayaquil and depart the next morning. This also allows you to leave some luggage at your hotel for the duration of the cruise. This can be helpful if your Galapagos cruise is part of a larger South American travel package.

New Quito Airport Update

In February 2013, a new Quito airport opened in Tababela, 11 miles northeast of Quito. All of the former airport's operations have been moved to the new location, which retains the name Mariscal Sucre International Airport. The new airport features a 38,000 square foot terminal, the tallest control tower in South America (41m) and a 2.55-mile-long runway, one of the longest in the world. Due to the new airport's location farther from Quito's central hotels than the present one, travelers should expect to pay more for taxis and transfers, as well as higher airport domestic tariffs. In addition transfer times from the airport to downtown Quito have increased from about 30 minutes to as much as two hours each way. 

Quito

How Much Time to Spend in the Galapagos Islands

Galapagos cruises range from 4-day/3-night to 15-day/14-night cruises. When combined with stopovers in mainland Ecuador, trips can reach up to 18 days/17 nights. How much time you have and how much time your budget will allow are important factors when considering your Galapagos cruise.

Because of new itinerary regulations, implemented by the Galapagos National Park in 2011-2012, travelers must now choose a 10-14 night cruise if they wish to experience all the unique habitats and species the Galapagos has to offer. Each ship now operates a 14-night/15-day itinerary with no repeated landing sites. When choosing any cruise less than 10 nights carefully consider what islands and experiences are important to you. Shorter cruises will inevitably miss out on some species. It is important to consult with a Galapagos cruise expert who has been to the islands and knows the landing sites. They will match you with the right Galapagos cruise for your interest, ability and budget.

How to Choose Your Ship

All Galapagos cruises include daily guided shore excursions in small groups to explore the islands and experience wildlife up close. Shore groups are limited to 16 people by the Galapagos National Park to limit the impact to the environment and preserve a wilderness experience for the visitor. So even aboard a 100-passenger ship, you will still explore the islands up close in a small group with a trained naturalist guide. All cruises also offer the opportunity to snorkel almost every day.

Below, I've separated Galapagos boats into three categories: small yachts and sailboats carrying 8-32 passengers, mid-size cruisers carrying 40-60 passengers and small ships carrying 80-100 passengers.

Galapagos Cruises aboard the Evolution

Yachts & Sailboats

Smaller yachts and sailboats carrying 12- 32 guests can vary considerably in price and amenities from rustic floating base camps to luxurious yachts that will satisfy the most refined travel styles. They offer the most active and intimate experience with the most time ashore. It is easier to get 16 travelers ashore in one group than it is to ferry 100 passengers ashore in multiple groups, so smaller yachts can mean more time ashore. In general smaller yachts often carry kayaks whereas larger ships do not. If kayaking is important to you, choose a small yacht.

The tradeoff is that these boats are smaller. They have smaller cabins, bathrooms, dining room and deck space. Smaller boats mean there are not as many public places to go for a private moment on deck. However, travelers aboard small yachts and sailboats often comment that getting to know their fellow passengers and crew, is one of the highlights of the trip.

Sailboats are popular in the Galapagos Islands, but keep in mind that ocean currents and wind conditions are such that most transit is done under motor power. Sails will be hoisted when conditions and schedules allow. Sailboats are the smallest boats in the Galapagos and often have bunk beds instead of lower beds.

The Voyager offers simple accommodations at an affordable price. The Corals and sister ships Eric/Letty/Flamingo are the most popular mid-priced options. The Grace and Evolution are luxury boats for those who want to see the Galapagos in style.

Mid-Sized Cruisers

Mid-sized cruisers carrying 40-60 passengers offer the efficiency and intimacy of a small yacht combined with the space and amenities typically found on a larger Galapagos ship. Ships such as the Eclipse, Isabela II and La Pinta have larger cabins, spacious bathrooms, ample deck space, delicious cuisine, a high crew-to-passenger ratio and excellent guides. There are multiple decks where you can always find a moment to watch the sunset and enjoy the solitude.

Mid-sized Galapagos ships offer ample time ashore and in the water snorkeling. They have efficient landing systems with multiple shore craft to ferry hikers to the trail or to snorkel in speed and comfort. Mid-sized ships appeal to travelers seeking to cruise aboard the finest boats available. The Eclipse, La Pinta, and Isabela II combine elegance and adventure while the National Geographic Islander offers the region's finest expedition leaders from National Geographic.

Small Ships

Because mega cruise ships are not allowed in the Galapagos, these small ships carrying 80-100 passengers are the largest to cruise the region. These ships are the most stable and appeal to travelers concerned about seasickness. They are also very appealing for families with small children because some offer adjoining cabins andbecause of the additional space.

Galapagos small ships offer a variety of cabin categories from affordable with portholes to elegant with balconies. Usually there are multiple decks, vistas, libraries and salons where you can mingle with other guests or find space for yourself.
Each small ship has a unique personality and appeals to a certain clientele. The Legend and Santa Cruz are popular and affordable, the Galapagos Explorer II is more upscale and the National Geographic Endeavour features expedition leaders and lecturers from National Geographic.

Santa Cruz

A Word About Guides

The experience and demeanor of your Galapagos guide will have a profound impact on your overall experience. The Galapagos National Park trains and strictly regulates guides in the Islands, instituting a rating system of Level 1-3 to gauge a guide's experience. Levels are achieved through a combination of longevity and education, but we have found that this does not tell the whole story.

Galapagos naturalist guides vary considerably in their skills and experience. A guide's personality and ability to engage travelers is just as important as his or her level of knowledge. Don't assume that all guides speak English; they don't. In general you will find that the most experienced guides work aboard the nicest ships. Nicer ships have higher prices, which translates more tips for the best guides. While no operator can guarantee which guide will be aboard on your cruise, ask your AdventureSmith booking specialist about the quality and qualifications aboard the ships you are inquiring about.

One Galapagos cruise line, Lindblad Expeditions, stands above the rest in terms of onboard programs and naturalist guides. In addition to guides employed by the Galapagos National Park, they employ a wide range of experts from National Geographic. Lindblad cruises aboard the National Geographic Endeavour and National Geographic Islander appeal to travelers willing to pay a premium for an intellectual and educational experience with National Geographic in the Galapagos Islands.

Galapagos Guide

Ocean Conditions & When to Go

Weather in the Galapagos Islands is attractive to adventure travel and small ship cruising year-round. Galapagos climate is almost entirely influenced by the ocean currents. The warm season from December until April is dominated by a warm current bringing hot sunny days with sporadic rains and calm seas. Average temperatures range from 70s to upper 80s with water temperatures in the mid 70s.

From May to December cool currents from the south create cooler weather, and rain is uncommon creating comfortable hiking weather. Although seas are rarely rough, trade winds cause the ocean to be choppier this time of year and a misty fog may linger into the day. Average temperatures range from 60s to upper 70s with water temperatures from the mid 60s to low 70s.

You are usually cruising close to land and between islands, which serve to provide a bit of protection from rougher seas. On a typical 8-day Galapagos cruise, you will make 2-4 crossings through open water where you may encounter 4-6 foot swells over the course of 4-6 hours of travel. It is extremely rare to encounter stormy conditions; however swells can cause a lot of rocking during open water crossings. More likely the swells will gently rock the boat during the time of transit.

Find more information on Galapagos climate. What is going on in the Galapagos Islands when you want to travel? View Galapagos By Month, a handy guide to understand Galapagos climate, wildlife and occurrences by month.

Galapagos Cruise Reviews

There are now countless Galapagos cruise and travel review websites on the internet. Many offer honest advice, but many need to be taken with a grain of salt. Use Galapagos reviews as a tool but don't rush to judgment when you read a poor review. Often this is a result of a mismatch between the style of the traveler and the type of cruise they were on. The best type of Galapagos review is a personal referral. Ask your booking agent if he/she can put you in touch with someone who has traveled to the Galapagos with similar interests as you or aboard the boat you are inquiring about. Reputable Galapagos agencies will gladly refer their past clients.

Galapagos By Land

While we strongly believe that a small ship cruise is the best way to experience the Galapagos Islands, cruises are not for everyone. It is possible to visit the Galapagos, including remote landing sites to encounter wildlife, on a lodge-based trip. Similar to the diverse selection of Galapagos cruises, there are a variety of land-based trips that appeal to different travel styles and budget. Some tours are based from a single lodge, which offers less travel days and more time to explore and relax. Others offer a mix of lodges based on different islands. Some offer active options such as kayaking, mountain biking and scuba diving while others are more relaxed. All land-based tours will have guided visits to Galapagos landing sites to view wildlife. Land-based tours offer a chance to visit Puerto Ayora or San Cristobal, the two largest settlements in the Galapagos Islands.

Galapagos Aventura Lodge

Free Galapagos Cruise Advice

Most important speak with an experienced Galapagos expert.  AdventureSmith Explorations employees are award-winning Galapagos small ship cruise specialists with a focus on guided small group nature tours and custom travel for individuals, couples, families and small groups. Our founder and president Todd Smith helped pioneer expedition cruising and our staff has decades of experience guiding, arranging, and selling wilderness adventures. We offer first hand knowledge, personal service, sustainable practices and unbeatable prices. Contact us today.

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