Choosing the Best Galapagos Islands Cruise for Your Needs

Ocean-Spray cruise through the Galapagos Islands

Choosing the right cruise in the Galapagos Islands is a crucial aspect for any trip. However, this choice itself can pose an overwhelming challenge because of the hundreds of boats and tour companies offering similar services and information.

To work your way through this labyrinth — and depending on your preferences, your budget and your preferred style of travel — a number of factors have to be considered, such as the size of the vessel you require, the duration of your voyage, and when you to plan to take your island vacation.

Travel to the Galapagos Islands can be an experience of a life time, but you and tour operator have to anticipate a lot of details to make this dream come true.

The following are the main concerns you’ll want to keep in mind when deciding on your Galapagos cruise.

What to expect in a Galapagos cruise

Most people have the idea that a cruise in the Galapagos Islands consists of lying out on the ship’s deck while drifting past scenic islands. The reality though is much richer. Tours to these islands come with itineraries that involve challenging treks and a number of excursions daily. So if you though you are not going to walk a lot every day, you are out of the idea of what really are the Galapagos Islands. These excursions are led by trained naturalist guides and are made by small groups of no more than 16 people – which is in line with the environmentally-friendly regulations of the Galapagos National Park.

Though the various itineraries take travelers to the same islands, programs may differ according to the particular ship. Some vessels focus on the ecology or natural science of the islands, for example, while others emphasize adventure tourism (providing more opportunities for kayaking and snorkeling), and other ships specialize in scuba-diving oriented cruises to prime diving sites. Think about what you want to do.

What to see in each island

All of the ships have fixed itineraries; therefore your route will be will defined and you’ll have a good idea of what’s likely to be seen. Therefore, if there are particular wildlife or geological formations you want to see, then you’ll need to select an itinerary that will take you to the island where these can be seen. This will mean doing a little research or asking your tour operator to find the details for each island and their visitor sites. “Blue-footed boobies are seen all over the islands, but waved albatrosses – for example – only have a breeding colony on Espanola,” as one expert has pointed out.

Make your reservation well in advance

For environmental reasons, the Galapagos Park authorities limit the sizes of the vessels sailing through the islands, which means that these ships are small and they fill up fast. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a Galapagos cruise vessel to be sold out six of nine months in advance – particularly for holiday periods like Christmas and New Year’s. This means that if you have a specific vacation date in mind for your trip, you’ll have to book your trip well in advance to ensure the availability of ship for your cruise.

How long is your trip

Related to when you book your trip, you’ll need to consider how long your Galapagos vacation will be.  Be aware that there are 3-, 4-, 7-, 10- and even 14-night cruising options available – with the 7-night (8-day) cruise being the most popular. A 3-night cruise will give you only a taste of the Galapagos Islands, while a 4-night cruise will at least allow you to see the main highlights of the islands without feeling rushed. Remember, the longer the length of cruise, the more islands you’ll be able to visit. The longest cruises explore the outer islands, which are more remote and offer some of the best scuba diving in the archipelago.

Smooth sailing in the Galapagos on board the Lammer Law

Galapagos travel seasons

Though the Galapagos Islands are a year-round destination, certain times of the year are even better for traveling to the islands than others.

In terms of weather, if you prefer the warm season, this extends from December until April, at which time you’ll experience hot sunny days, sporadic rains and calm seas. During this season, average temperatures range from 70s to upper 80s with water temperatures in the mid-70s. The cooler season extends from May to December, when you’ll have comfortable hiking weather and little rain.

Also, try to avoid holiday seasons and school breaks, as prices increase and cabin availability decreases.

If you are one of those people who are particularly interested in wildlife, you’ll want to time your vacation to correspond with the breeding and migratory patterns of some of the Galapagos Islands’ residents. Whales, penguins and the hundreds of other species breed and/or nest at different times of the year in the Galapagos.

How to choose your trip

Once you’ve decided on when to travel and what you want to do (your program), you’ll need to select the ship size appropriate to your needs – whether a small luxury sailing yacht, a relatively large cruise ships, or anything in between. (Note: Because of the national park’s environmentally sensitive restrictions, you won’t find any Royal Caribbean floating hotels here).

The smaller vessels consist of yachts and sailboats carrying 12- 32 guests. These offer the most active and intimate experiences with the most time ashore, as they can visit a wide range of landing sites with no restrictions brought about by vessel size. On the downside, these have smaller cabins, bathrooms, dining room and deck space, and there aren’t as many public places for relishing a private moment on deck. Nonetheless, travelers aboard small yachts and sailboats are more likely to bond with their fellow passengers and crew.

A next step up in terms of size are the mid-sized cruisers, which carry 40-60 passengers. Offering the efficiency and intimacy of a small yacht, at the same time these vessels possess the space and amenities typically found on larger Galapagos ships (i.e. spacious bathrooms and ample deck space, as well as delicious cuisine, a high crew-to-passenger ratio and excellent guides). With multiple decks, you can always find a moment to watch the sunset and enjoy the solitude. Also, as these vessels tend to be more powerful, they can cover greater distances in a given time, making them very versatile with respect to the destinations you can visit in a week’s itinerary.

A third option are the larger cruise ships, carrying 80-100 passengers. These relatively large vessels have the advantage more facilities, with a choice of restaurants and bars, fitness, beauty and massage centers, and even medical centers. Usually these ships have multiple decks and salons where you can mingle with other guests or find space for yourself. These vessels are the most stable and appeal to travelers concerned about seasickness. They are also very appealing for families with small children, in that some offer adjoining cabins as well as their additional space.

Select the best cabin experience

Don’t be so quick to accept any cabin that you’re assigned. Ask about your cabin’s location. Will it be on the top deck or the bottom?  Those with sensitive stomachs should consider lower decks if they’re worried about rocking and becoming seasick. Also, look for cabins with large-view windows or even balconies rather than being limited to small “porthole” windows. And you’ll likely want a view of the sea instead of an interior view of a passageway.

Creature comforts

Though larger cruise ships typically offer more of creature comforts than smaller ship, don’t think that smaller ships are necessarily more rudimentary. You’ll find several luxury yachts with a full complement of amenities, as well as larger cruise ships with more basic amenity packages. Try to match your essential amenities with the ships that provide these.

Your evening buffet on the Ocean Spray Galapagos cruise ship

Don´t forget to ask about the food

You won’t have too many chances to slip off to a local restaurant while on a cruise, which means you’ll have no choice but to eat the food available on your ship. Typically though, breakfasts consist of fresh fruit and juices, lunches usually have salad options and dinners often feature some fresh catches. To help make sure that your meals meet your expectations, go online to find a ship reviews to get a feel for each’s overall dining experience.

Your guide is vital

The Galapagos is the place for learning about this unique living laboratory. Because of this, a knowledgeable and interesting guide is vitally important. The capability and character your Galapagos guide will therefore impact greatly on your overall travel experience.

The Galapagos National Park trains and strictly regulates guides in the islands, with all ships required to have one or more on board. Each of these guides is rated (from level 1 to 5) according to their experience. Nonetheless, a guide’s personality can be just as important to their knowledge level.  Again, you may want to read several online reviews from past passengers to learn about their experiences with guides on particular ships.

While you are in Ecuador…

To don´t a fool gringo, you must know the Galapagos Islands are part of a larger country, Ecuador, located between Colombia and Perú, since you’ll have to travel to mainland Ecuador to then fly to the Galapagos Islands, why not consider some time in the Ecuadorian Andes, the nearby Amazon rainforest or even Machu Picchu in neighboring Peru? These and several other amazing South American highlights are just a short flight away from the Galapagos Islands.

Start planning your Galapagos trip 

These basic tips will go far in helping you select a memorable Galapagos Islands cruise without blowing your budget.  Of course, it can still be difficult trying to choose a Galapagos cruise that will be perfect for you and your family.

Specialized tour operators will be more than happy to help guide you in making your selection. Just give them a call to start planning your Galapagos Islands cruise and they’ll work with you to take care of all the details.

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Paul Green is an award-winning freelance writer whose articles have appeared in publications throughout the Caribbean and Latin America.

 

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