Visiting the Galapagos Islands on a Budget
Although the Galapagos Islands host some of the most luxurious cruises and nature lodges, it's also a great destination for those looking to explore the best nature has to offer on a budget. With careful planning and by following our tips, you will come out with an experience to last a lifetime and enough money leftover to buy that expensive airport latte on the way home.
The best way to balance your budget is to plan ahead. A little bit of forward thinking and investigation before your trip can save you a bunch of money on your trip.
Find cheap plane tickets: When booking your airline, look for the lowest prices. The further ahead you book your flight, the cheaper the tickets will be. If you buy tickets last minute, they will often be the most expensive prices, as airlines expect that you have a sense of urgency. Also, look for flights with multiple layovers or red-eye flights (overnight/ late night flights), as these are usually the least expensive tickets no matter when you buy them. Choosing a seat in economy or coach rather than business class or first class can save you a lot of money as well.
Search the web wisely: Using trip planning sites and search engines like Expedia.com, Kayak.com or TripAdvisor.com can help you sort through your best options and deals.
Only pack what you need: Many airlines will allow up to two checked 50 lb. bags, a carryon and a small personal item per ticket. There is no reason to pack more than this for a vacation, and if you do it will cost you. Overweight bags or extra luggage fees can cost you hundreds of dollars before you've even left home.
Be prepared, Pack smart: Pack at least a week before leaving. If you realize you forgot something (like sun block or swimwear) once you arrive in the Galapagos Islands, it will be much more expensive to buy it in a store there than it would be to remember it before leaving.
Look for the deals: A lot of hotels, tour companies, and cruises will have great promotions and can't-miss deals. At least six months prior to your vacation, subscribe to the sites that look like they have what you're looking for. They will email you all of the deals that might save you some money.
Go during the off-season: It is almost always less expensive to travel during the low season, from April-June and September-December. This is when you will find the best deals on tickets, activities, and lodging.
Plan a shorter trip: The shorter your trip, the less you will spend. It's a pretty obvious concept. Many people have found that four-day trips to the Islands are the perfect way to compress the marvels of the Island into a long weekend adventure. Weeklong trips can cost more than a thousand extra dollars, depending on how many people are traveling and what activities you choose to do.
Find an inexpensive hotel: Land-based trips will be the most cost-effective way to stay in the Galapagos Islands. Of course, you should keep an eye out for special promotions from cruises, but the best way to save money is to find a cheaper hostel. In the Galapagos, cheap doesn't mean bad. For prices between $15 and $50 per night, you can find hotels or hostels with private rooms, full hot water baths, Internet access, and air-conditioning. They are usually further away from the center of action, but there are many that still offer beachfront or ocean view rooms and transportation services to major attractions.
There are also places to camp for the more adventurous travelers, and these can be as little as $5 per night.
Book cruises last minute: Unlike plane tickets, which are usually less expensive if purchased in advance, cruises will often have vacancies they need to fill last-minute and can offer better deals. A cruise will almost never be cheaper than a land-based trip to the Galapagos, but if your heart is set on experiencing the Islands from the crystal blue waters, then definitely wait for the best deals.
Book with the guide company: If you are planning your itinerary, book directly with the companies or hotels you will be visiting. Every time you add another person into the equation (like a travel agent) you are bumping up your price. Just be careful to consider everything if you are planning your trip independently. It's never a bad idea to consult the hotels or tour companies you will be using for advice and suggestions.
Take advantage of public transportation: Ecuador has awesome public transportation. If you have a longer layover between Quito or Guayaquil and your flight to the Galapagos and you plan to explore these great cities, take advantage of their buses and taxis. Always exercise caution when using public transportation, especially as a North American in South America; don't carry expensive items or a lot of cash with you. Bus fares are as low as 25 cents and taxis seldom cost more than $5-$10 to get around the major cities. Just make sure you know where you are going before getting in.
Don't buy souvenirs: Naturally, you will want to share your amazing Galapagos experience with your loved ones when you get home; a good way to do this without filling your suitcase with expensive souvenirs is to take pictures. You can print them out and write stories about your trip on the back that friends and family would appreciate. And it's more personalized than a souvenir. Another option is to have your pictures printed on postcards or mugs from sites like Flickr or Shutterfly.
Buy a simple camera: Even the simplest point-and-shoot cameras these days can take high-resolution photos. Expensive DSLR cameras will, of course, be able to catch the crystal details of every snap, but they can cost upwards of a thousand dollars or more with the appropriate lenses, cases, and accessories. For under $100, you can find a sharp digital camera with a case and a 16 GB memory card to record all the precious moments.
Take advantage of the free activities: The more you add on to your trip, the more expensive it will be. You should definitely take advantage of the knowledgeable guided tours and jaw-dropping snorkeling sites of the Galapagos, but limit these according to your budget. Every large island with a dry landing for cruises or attractions for travelers has hiking trails that wind through the island's unique environment. This is how you will see most of the endemic land species that make the Galapagos so naturally famous, such as the Blue-Footed Boobies, Marine & Land Iguanas, and Sea Lions.
There are also spots like the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, where you can learn about the history, biology, and ecology of the Galapagos Islands and see the Giant Tortoise in a protected habitat without the cost of an expensive tour. Other activities may include exploring the volcanoes, taking a dinghy tour around an island, kayaking, biking or simply relaxing on the tranquil beaches of the clear-watered tropics. All of these options have low rental fees, making them very affordable for all travelers.
Hop islands effectively: To truly experience all the Galapagos have to offer, you can't just stay on one island. So when you're planning to catch a boat to the next island, make sure you have an itinerary planned. It will save you time and money to visit the many wonders of the Galapagos island-by-island, rather than going back and forth between the same islands. A lot of travelers like to use Santa Cruz as their main hub of activities, so if you do plan to do day-trips to other islands, staying on this centrally located island is your best bet.
Leave fine dining to Grandma: There are plenty of elegant restaurants and gourmet meals to be found in the Galapagos; however, this is a great way to really run up the tab. Prices for food and alcohol can end up raising the cost of your trip more than anything else, without you even noticing. Rather than dining at the fancier restaurants and resorts on the islands, consider eating at local cafes and “comedors” (diners). These places will often offer more food that's just as delicious for cheaper prices. Just be careful when ordering things like salads and juices that have been washed or prepared with water - many smaller locales may use unclean water, which can lead to parasites for travelers with unaccustomed stomachs.
Take the money you need: Withdraw the money you will need for traveling through airports until you get to the Islands from your bank at home to avoid transaction fees. Once you are on the Islands, try to use ATMs as little as possible, as international transaction fees can really add up. Coming with a prepared budget will help you determine how much you should take out at any given time.
*There is a $100 entrance fee per person into the Galapagos Islands. Having this ready in cash will save you time.