It’s never cheap to visit the Galapagos – but follow these money-saving tips and your family will experience the best of Ecuador’s amazing isles for the least cost possible.
By Nicola “Poz” Poswillo
Like that of many families, the Galapagos has been on my brood’s bucket list for a really long time. But could we really do it together, while the kids still wanted to be with us and while we were still spry enough to roam without a walker? And what about the expense? I wasn’t sure it was doable as a family vacation considering we were coming from our home in New Zealand with 9-year-old twin daughters and a 12-year-old son in tow.
Still, I had wanted to return to the Galapagos since backpacking in South America 20 years prior. And was I really going to get what could be my last glimpse of a blue-footed booby without my children? No way, Jose! Essentially, the reality for us is always taking our kids and make it work—or don’t go!
So we started saving—a lot.
It was a lengthy process to decide when to go and how to see the Galapagos as there are many, many options. First, you need to fly to the islands from Ecuador (click here to read about our travels on the Ecuadoran mainland). There are land- and water-based trips; 4-, 8- and 8-plus day options; economy, “superior,” first-class and luxury boats; motorboats and yachts; boats with 12–100 people. Bewildering.
After reading all about it, we decided to save a bit harder and do an 8-day motorboat trip on the Eden. Though it sounds splurge-y, it actually is the best use of a family’s Galapagos budget. Here’s why:
- Day 1 is arrival and Day 8 is departure, so that essentially gave us 6 full days of exploring.
- A boat trip, while more expensive, ensured we had maximum time exploring the Galapagos sites and minimized the daily travel to and from land-based hotels.
- If the children wanted to sleep in, they wouldn’t miss early departure times.
- It’s costly to get to and from the Galapagos (approximately a 90-minute flight from mainland Ecuador); this doesn’t change with length of trip.
- It’s a $100 national park fee per person ($50 for children under 12) no matter how many days you stay.
- Yachts don’t move as fast as motorboats, so they generally don’t go to the outer islands.
Galapagos boat trips are also sold as a less expensive, last-minute option, with any remaining berths one month prior to departure going for a cheaper price. More decisions. After much research, we decided this option did not suit our family. The chance of getting five last-minute beds in suitable rooms was highly unlikely in a time frame that suited our dates. (It would be very different if we were two backpackers with months to travel!) There were only two eight-day trips that fit into our five-week trip away…
But it never hurts to ask for a discount! When I booked directly with the boat, they ended up offering me the “last-minute” prices three months prior to departure, with a discount for the kids under 12. This was the best option for us, as securing our Galapagos beds meant we could then book flights through the airlines (and not pay last-minute expensive fares) and then make plans for the rest of our trip.
Choosing an off-peak time of year definitely helped us get the cruise for less. The Galapagos has peak and nonpeak times of the year and months when the water is warmer. We decided on May, outside of Christmas and Easter holidays; outside of July and August when much of the world is on holiday; and at a time of the year when the water isn’t too chilly, enabling us more time to explore the marine life of the Galapagos. It was also the month with OK weather in the part of the mainland where we would spend the rest of our trip.
As our boat itinerary only explored the eastern half of the Galapagos, we decided to add on a few days at the end of our tour, to independently travel to Isla Isabella, the largest island in the Galapagos. Twice-a-day water taxis (think three hours in a large speedboat with 20 other people) run to and from the islands, and there are plentiful hostels and hotels in Puerto Villamil, the main town.
Our independent stay ended up being a great option as there are several land-based places to visit—volcanoes, the Wall of Tears (a former penal colony), the flamingo lagoon, the highlands, the snorkeling beach—just a short way from town. We rented bikes for a couple of days to explore and stayed in a hostel (booked on arrival) in a family room with a queen-size bed and three singles.
The kids loved the Galapagos the best out of all of Ecuador. They loved the catered food on the boat, the snorkeling, the land animals, and the people on the boat with us. They also loved chilling out on the beaches after our tour.
Overall, the Galapagos lived up the hype for our family – it was a real adventure, with some huge learning for the children. It was expensive but well worth it – and it was all paid for a few months before we left, so we didn’t come home to a huge bill!
The ROAM Report: Galapagos
Travelers: Poz (Mum), Steve (Dad), Jack (12), Molly (9), Kate (9)
Date: May 2017
Itinerary: Two weeks—8 days by boat with a land-based add-on of Isla Isabella—in the eastern Galapagos.
Budget: Galapagos 8-day, all-expenses-paid tour: $11,500; national park fees: $400 on arrival; roundtrip flights from Quito to Galapagos: $1,500); interisland water taxis: $30 per person
The Good Stuff
Snorkeling in the Galapagos was definitely a highlight. Wetsuits ($10 per day) and snorkeling gear (free) were available on the boat but we elected to take our child-size wetsuits, masks and snorkels from home as there were none of these available aboard. In May, snorkeling without a wetsuit would be possible, but wearing one meant we could stay in the water longer (usually an hour or so twice a day).
We often drifted with the currents as we were snorkeling, which is chillier than swimming but allows you to see more sea life.
Trekking on the Galapagos was also a highlight. Every island we visited had different species. While the walks weren’t long or arduous, the weather was hot and some degree of fitness is required. We went to nine different islands, often visiting several sites on each island. As advertised, we saw an incredible range of Galapagos creatures (boobies, albatrosses, frigates, finches and many more), marine and land iguanas, crabs, penguins, turtles, tortoises, sea lions, rays, sharks, fish and on and on).
Biking on Isla Isabella. We rented bikes and took bike bungies we brought from home with us. (These 1.5-meter elastic ties go onto the adult seat stem and then attach on the other side to the child’s handlebar stem). These enabled the kids to bike a bit farther than they normally would and to keep up with the grownups.
Sharing Is Caring On our boat tour, since there were no other kids, the children made good friends with some of the adults. It felt very safe on our small boat and for Dad and me it was great to “share the children” with others, especially when we went snorkeling or disembarked to explore the islands.
The Not So Good
Flight Times May Change I had carefully chosen flights that left Quito at a child-friendly hour, had the minimum wait time in Guayaquil and still arrived by the requested time set by the tour. However—the night before our flight, the company changed the flight times, meaning we had to get up at 3 a.m. for our 5 a.m. flight to Guayaquil and then we had a two-hour layover in Guayaquil before flying on to the Galapagos. Hardly child-friendly, but our kids just had to suck it up!
Expensive Meals Food prices are relatively high in the Galapagos because most of the food is flown or boated in, however all of our food was provided while we were on the boat and we brought some extras from home for the hostel (which also had a well-equipped kitchen): our favorite toast spreads, Marmite and peanut butter; the children’s favorite hot chocolate drink—Milo—and a couple of bags of milk powder; Earl Grey and English breakfast tea (the only tea we could buy in Ecuador was herbal tea) and coffee bags; and a couple of packets of the children’s favorite breakfast cereal
Good to Know
Agent vs. Direct As there are many different classes of boat, I contacted one of the Quito agents recommended on TripAdvisor and in the Lonely Planet guidebook to suggest some boats. Trying to select boats with similar itineraries (so we were comparing apples-to-apples) from this long list was tricky. In the end, I bypassed the agents and approached the boat directly about their fares. (In 2019, the Eden appears to only be “book-able” via a third-party tour company – but don’t let that scare you away.)
Cabin Matters Because we are a family of five, we chose our “tourist superior” class boat (from many with very similar itineraries), on the cabin arrangements. The rooms are all for two people, but the boat we chose had two rooms with bunks, the bottom one slightly larger than the top. This enabled Dad and our 12-year-old son to have one room while Mum bunked with the 9-year-old girls in the other room on the opposite side of the boat. (I shared the bottom bunk.) I knew we wouldn’t be able to share a bed in the twin rooms as they were too narrow (I compared the width of the beds by the length of the pillows in the photos of the boat on the tour operator’s website. I figured pillows are a standard size, so I was able to compare different beds on different boats). Yes, this trip took a lot of research, especially when you consider I was comparing bed sizes by the pillows!
According to boat policy, we did have to book one bed in a third room as there are five of us. We had the option of paying double for sole occupancy of the room, but turned this down. Worst-case scenario I would share the room with another traveler, but we were pretty sure we could fit in the two rooms with the bunks. We ended up storing our extra luggage in this third room, which turned out to be all ours anyway.
Flight 411 Ecuador wisely only allows flights to the Galapagos from the Ecuadoran mainland, which encourages you to spend a bit of time there too (check out our mainland fun here.) You can fly to the Galapagos from Guayaquil or Quito, although the Quito planes end up having a stop in Guayaquil anyway. It’s common for airlines to give half-price airfare to the under-12 set, so that was a plus. You can also save a bit of money if you shop around for the airline fares yourself, as there are several flight operators and prices don’t always match up.
Tres Aeropuertos There are three airports in the Galapagos. Our tour started and finished in different islands and some people on our boat (well, their agents) had booked them out of the wrong airport. Make sure you’re going in and out of the right airports.
Know Your Port Be mindful of where your tour operator is picking you up. Ours met us at the airport and we took five minutes on a bus to get to our boat. Other people had to take public transport to the boat while others had to travel an hour to their boat. Just make sure you have enough time if you’re traveling without a guide.
Worth It At five weeks, our entire Ecuadorean trip was the longest we had been on as a family – though by the end, our children were ready to be at home. Although the boat itineraries didn’t work out for our trip, I’d recommend other families conclude their Ecuadoran adventure in the Galapagos and save the best for last.
by Nicola “Poz” Poswillo, March 2018 – Updated February 2019
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