How to pick the best Galapagos cruise (Part II)

From the last post, part one, you know how to decide when, where and how to get to the Galapagos and that’s huge. Now here’s the fun bit and the bit I wish I had known more about before going. This post will help you decipher between the types of boats and helps tailor your experience to make sure the boat you pick is the best it can be. After all, this is a once in a lifetime trip!

There are a myriad of things to consider that I wish we had known before we visited the Galapagos. I hope this will guide you on how to ensure you select the very best Galapagos cruise for you.

What type of boat is best for you?

My first ever cruise was the Alya in the Galapagos. We spoke extensively to those on the islands before, during and after our cruise and it’s not quite as simple as just picking the boat, which takes your fancy. There are a number of things to consider. Do you want a more intimate cruise or a larger cruise with more entertainment? Do you prefer luxurious amenities and gourmet food or would you prefer to save on these? How packed are your itineraries? Will you likely be just using the boat itself to sleep between excursions or are you planning to use the leisure facilities? Do you get motion sickness?

A catamaran is generally a more stable boat, so you’re less likely to feel any motion sickness on one of these, especially if it’s one of the newer, more powerful ones. The waters can get really choppy in the Galapagos, even in transition seasons and even on a catamaran there may be times when you feel uncomfortable. Unless you are used to sailing, I wouldn’t recommend a sailing boat as if your boat is narrow or less sturdy, you will feel it significantly more! Yachts can be smaller which can provide a more intimate experience, however, it is now possible to also get catamarans which have fewer guests so for us, we found a catamaran with fewer guests was a good compromise. Our catamaran, The Alya, had space for 16 guests but only 11 of the spaces were filled. This felt like a good size as we got to know all of the guests and always had the crew available to us.

If you’re into diving, it may be worth noting that the majority of regular cruises, “naturalist cruises” do not offer diving, instead, they usually provide snorkelling. If you’re keen to dive it may be better to book a liveaboard diving cruise. We didn’t do a diving cruise so I can’t advise more on this but I believe there are a number of options so it’s worth doing some research. The sea visibility when we went was incredible and so when snorkelling we were up and close with sea lions, turtles, countless species of fish, reef sharks, seahorses, rays and much more. They were so close by and it was absolutely incredible to see so many so close by!

What category of boat should you take?

There are four classes of cruises in the Galapagos:

  1. Luxury Class (most luxurious)
  2. First Class
  3. Tourist Superior
  4. Tourist Economy Class (most basic)

The cruise class determines the level of accommodation, food, service and training of the guides (known as Naturalists) aboard. We went for a Luxury Class catamaran, as we wanted the best guides as well as gourmet food, larger rooms with balconies and a place to properly unwind between excursions… of course, the jacuzzi was a huge selling point! We were advised that there are good guides on most cruises from Luxury to Tourist Superior class so you should pick whatever works best for your budget but note that the very best naturalist guides are on Luxury Class cruises.

Given that a lot of time is spent aboard the boat, I’d advise allocating a large amount of your budget on the cruise itself. Luxury and First-Class boats tend to be the best Galapagos cruises and you can expect guides with strong English, with significant experience of spotting and explaining the wildlife. Generally, this is where you’ll find the guides with the most experience and they tend to be better. The itineraries on the luxury and first class cruises are designed to see as much wildlife as possible. You can expect air conditioning, private bathrooms with hot showers, and a window and/or balcony in your bedroom. For Tourist Superior or Tourist Economy classes, you mustn’t assume these come as standard and should check when booking. There may be some good ones but equally, it’s worth doing significant research before booking as to some extent you do get what you pay for! Luxury Class will usually include a King-sized bed with an en-suite full bathroom, whereas on Tourist Economy you are more likely to have a cabin with bunk beds and shared bathrooms, and there is no guarantee of hot showers!

For some cruises, you may have the option to have a larger room for a premium price, which may come with better views. On a better boat you may not feel the need to, but if you’ve gone for one of the lower categories then this may be money well spent to ensure you are comfortable and don’t risk feelings of claustrophobia! I really appreciated having our own balcony and large windows as between excursions we’d see countless turtles swimming alongside us, bobbing up their heads as if to greet us. Best of all, it was amazing to be able to see that, first thing in the morning, when you open your eyes, from the comfort of bed!

Should you book your cruise ahead of time or can you get a better price last minute?

If you are limited in terms of how much time you have, are visiting during high season and/or have very specific preferences then it is definitely worth booking your cruise ahead. Some boats fill up ahead and some leave on only certain days each month, so if you don’t have the benefit of lots of time then it’s worth booking even a few weeks ahead.

Given that we were on a longer trip with more flexibility, we booked our cruise at the very last minute (upon arriving in Santa Cruz) and got a last-minute deal for the Luxury Class cruise that we wanted. This is a great option if you have multiple weeks in the Galapagos or are flexible with your return flights but I would recommend beginning your calls and emails around a week before you’d like to depart if possible to prevent stress and disappointment. The drawback of this method is you may not get the exact cruise of your choice if it is full. Only do this if you’re very flexible and comfortable with taking that risk. Some of the best Galapagos cruises book up early so do research the specific boats.

How do you actually book Galapagos cruise ships?

Something we didn’t know was that none of the cruise companies’ offices are actually based in the Galapagos Islands. You’d think you could speak to someone running the boat from the islands, right? Nope! Instead, the headquarters are mainly based in Quito with just travel agencies in the islands. This means, if you try to book from the Galapagos you will have to do it through an agency (and potentially pay more). There are many agencies on Santa Cruz island in the main town, Puerto Ayora, but they all have access to the same information and essentially act as a go-between to call Quito for you.

If you arrive on a weekend and want to book a last-minute cruise, it’s more than likely you’ll end up having an agent from the Galapagos phoning the headquarters in Quito to try and book the cruise. This can be frustrating as some of the offices in Quito don’t work weekends, so if you are trying to leave on a weekend or a Monday morning, you may struggle to get through. Secondly, some agencies can be quite pushy. We found quite a few who just said it was impossible to get on the cruise we wanted as it was a weekend and they couldn’t get through on the phone, despite it being available. Persistence is key – in the end, we phoned directly on a Monday morning, bypassing the agencies, and got a better price.

For this reason, it makes more sense to negotiate the price of your Galapagos cruise ship by phone, email or in person in Quito before coming to the Galapagos. If you’re flexible, you can leave it to the last second and reap much cheaper deals, although this is risky and is really only for those who are happy to be flexible about which cruise they end up on.

The booking process itself involves providing passport details, dietary requirements, insurance details, any health declarations etc. for all passengers. If you’re booking with a travel agency in the Galapagos you can pay with cash (and sometimes get a tiny discount). If like us, you go directly to the cruise company, you have the option usually to do a bank transfer or credit card payment.

What’s the next best option if a cruise is out of budget?

Firstly, I can’t stress enough how great the further away islands are and so if you can negotiate a cruise then do (see the next point for tips on how!) If not, don’t worry; you’ll still have a great time!

I’d recommend spending your time split between Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal. Each of these islands have really interesting things to see and with public transport, you may find these more affordable. Do note that travel between the islands is by public ferry (there are only around two a day and you almost always need to go through Santa Cruz). The other option is to take private speedboats, which can quickly become expensive and then negate the cost savings of not taking a cruise.

Given that distances are vast, the public ferries take a long time and a large proportion of time would be spent travelling between the islands. Of course, you’d still have a fantastic time, but to see more types of wildlife you may be better off coming in low season you can negotiate on a cruise.

There are places you can see independently on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal islands, as they are both easy to navigate, well-signposted and frequently visited. Whether cruising or not, don’t miss the Charles Darwin centre on Santa Cruz island. It’s a fantastic starting point to learn about the islands, remind you of the principles of evolution and for you to see giant tortoises.

During our travels, we came across friends who had done day excursions from Santa Cruz such as Isla Pinzon and Sante Fe and thoroughly recommended them. Although it’s an early start and the sea crossings can be a couple of hours, they were able to see more wildlife, have lunch and do it on a budget.

Our cruise didn’t cover Santa Cruz so we were glad that we had spent a night there before the cruise started, allowing us time to soak in some of the main sites, meet locals who actually live in the Galapagos, and try some of the incredible fresh seafood!

Bon Voyage!

Congratulations, you’ve got through this long post. You must really want to go to Ecuador, and now you know how to pick the best Galapagos cruise ships as well as trip costs, and how to make this a truly once in a lifetime trip. It’s probably the best trip I’ve ever taken and I just know you’re going to love it. To see more photos from the Galapagos and our travels around the world do follow along on Instagram and Facebook.

If you want to know more about the best routes, hidden costs in the Galapagos, and when the best time to visit is, check out my last post here.

For more insight into the wildlife you may spot and our experience of a Galapagos Luxury Class cruise, you can see my post of the Alya Cruise here!

If you’ve any additional tips or questions, please do comment below, I’d love to hear from you!

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How to pick your galapagos cruise boat

This post was written as part of the Travel Link Up on once in a lifetime trips, hosted by Emma, Polly and Angie. Head over to their blogs to see more!