When planning a trip to the Galapagos Islands, there are two important decisions to make. The first is when to visit, while the second is whether you prefer a Galapagos cruise or land package. Cruises are perhaps the most popular among travelers wishing to explore this remote archipelago. However, you must consider the benefits and drawbacks of each in order to decide which is the best choice for you. Below we have broken down the pros and cons of cruises and land-based packages to help you make this important decision!
*Cover photo by Pantxorama on Flickr.
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Whether you are looking for overt opulence or coziness, there is something for everyone when it comes to accommodations in the Galapagos.
High-end options for Galapagos cruises and hotels are comparable in regard to luxury. Many will have panoramic windows, private balconies, or both, that look out over the ocean. They will have premium toiletries and cozy bathrobes and slippers in their modern-style bathrooms. Rooms or cabins will also be equipped with air-conditioning and a mini-fridge and be cleaned once or twice daily. Either option is perfect for a trip to celebrate a special occasion, like a honeymoon, or for the indulgent globetrotters among us.
Cruises, however, have a bottom limit that best corresponds to a mid-range hotel, similar to a 3-star category. Even the more basic cabins on vessels such as the Galapagos Legend and Coral I & II, which may have only porthole windows or no windows at all, still have air-conditioning and the same private bathrooms as other cabins. Guests in these rooms can, of course, still access comfortable social areas, such as lounges, pools, and bars.
Galapagos hotels, on the other hand, can be very basic. You can find hostels, which have shared rooms and bathrooms, as well as bed & breakfast establishments with simple private rooms. These are, of course, very affordable options for those looking to explore the Galapagos on a budget.
Take away: Both cruises and hotels can offer very luxurious accommodations. It is important to look at the different cabin or room options to ensure you are getting the best quality.
Cabin sizes differ widely from vessel to vessel. You may think that all cruises will feel a bit cramped. However, high-end liners have some of the most spacious accommodations, if at a steeper price. The smallest cabin on the Celebrity Flora ship, which can accommodate 100 passengers, is 330 ft² (84 m²). More impressively, its Penthouse Suite is an immense 1,288 ft² (120 m²). The 16-passenger Sea Star Journey has suite cabins measuring 270 ft² (25 m²), and their Sea Star suite, 377 ft² (35 m²).
However, cabins at a more moderate price point tend to be smaller. On the 100-passenger Galapagos Legend, the smallest cabins, Standard and Standard Plus, measure 140 ft² (13 m²) and 118 ft² (11 m²) respectively.
When it comes to spacious accommodations at a manageable cost, hotels have the advantage. Even the lowest category rooms are at least 217 ft² (20 m²) at Finch Bay Galapagos Hotel. Their suites are 344 ft² (32 m²). This leaves a lot of room to spread out and make yourself at home.
Hotels are often a good option for families. Some cruise ships will offer triple occupancy accommodations or connected cabins. However, frequently the additional bed will be little more than a narrow sofa. Moreover, beds are sometimes fixed in a single arrangement. Conversely, hotel rooms will have more bed configurations that allow families to stay comfortably in one room.
Take away: Both cruises and hotels can offer plenty of space, but large hotel rooms have a more moderate price point. Hotels also offer more dynamic room arrangements for families.
Services & activities
Both cruises and hotels in the Galapagos offer a range of on-board or in-house services and activities. Larger ships and higher-end hotels tend to provide the most variety.
Of course, all cruises will have restaurants and bars since they are all-inclusive, as well as lounging spaces. Larger ships tend to have additional recreational areas. The Santa Cruz II, a 90 passenger vessel, has an outdoor terrace for BBQs, a reading room and library, gym, gift shop, infirmary, and two hot tubs. The Galapagos Legend, meanwhile, has these as well as a swimming pool, an auditorium, a children’s play area, two bars, and a second restaurant.
Smaller vessels with less space will, of course, have fewer social areas. The 16-passenger Camila Luxury Yacht, for example, has a porch, dining room, lounge, bar, and a sundeck jacuzzi. This is more equipped than similar vessels, such as the Galapagos Seaman Journey, which only has a dining room, lounge, and sundeck without a jacuzzi.
The number of services and activities offered by hotels will vary according to their star category. A mid-range property like Solymar Hotel offers an on-site restaurant, bar, terrace, pool, and an event room. The higher-end Finch Bay Hotel additionally offers a spa, business center, their own tour services, as well as kayak and snorkeling equipment rentals. More basic lodgings may only offer a breakfast area.
Take away: The services and activities available vary according to ship size in the case of cruises and the star category in the case of hotels.
The Galapagos Islands have a plethora of unique endemic species. There is also an equal number of exciting ways to see them and experience the islands. Even from island to island, you will find incredible diversity. It is no wonder that many travelers prefer to visit as many islands as possible.
Cruises are truly the best way to visit several different islands. They are also the only way to visit more remote islands. To visit Genovesa, for example, requires sailing overnight. There are some cruise itineraries that sail from one side of the archipelago to the other. However, there are also cruises that stick to just the eastern islands or just the western ones. It’s important to evaluate your itinerary options to ensure that you are able to see your preferred islands and animals.
During a land-based tour, you are sure to see a wide variety of native creatures. However, you will be limited to nearby islands. For instance, if you stay on Santa Cruz, you can take excursions to North Seymour, South Plaza, Santa Fe, or Bartolomé. From San Cristobal, you can sail to Kicker Rock, Española, or Floreana.
Take away: Cruises allow you to visit more islands, as well as the most remote islands, but always make sure the selected itinerary matches your expectations.
The restrictions to control tourist flow to the archipelago add an extra step when planning your Galapagos tour. Each island can welcome only a certain number of visitors per day. This means that cruises and agencies offering day tours must coordinate their routes and tours so as not to surpass these limits.
Because of this, every cruise will have set itineraries that depart on only certain days of the week. If you’re looking to book a Galapagos cruise and you have a specific itinerary in mind, you may need to adjust your vacation time to accommodate their departure dates. If your vacation time isn’t flexible, you will need to compromise with a different cruise or a land-based package.
Land-based packages can start on any day of the week. However, this doesn’t mean that you can visit any island on any day of the week. Your tour options will vary from day to day. For example, your provider or hotel may only offer a Bartolomé tour on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Santa Fe on Wednesdays and Saturdays in order to comply with daily tourist limits.
Take away: Cruises have set itineraries and departure dates. Land-based packages may start on any date but some tours will only be offered on certain days of the week.
Snorkeling and scuba diving
Snorkeling excursions are ubiquitous in the Galapagos. No matter if you choose a cruise or land-based package, you are sure to have snorkeling included. The only difference would be where you snorkel. If there is a distant snorkeling spot you would like to explore during your trip, such as Genovesa, then you should check cruise itineraries. Snorkeling at islands closer to inhabited ones, like Española, can be done via cruise or land package. Just check your itinerary or day tour options!
Scuba diving, on the other hand, requires a bit more planning. Diving is easier to add to a land-based package since you either elect your day tours or can substitute one excursion for a diving day. However, if you are taking a cruise, the set itinerary destinations may not easily allow such changes. In fact, for some cruises, you will have to either arrive a day early or stay a day later in order to fit a scuba diving tour on either end of the cruise itinerary.
Avid scuba divers will be best served by exclusive diving cruises. These ships travel to the most remote islands where marine wildlife is virtually undisturbed. In particular, Darwin and Wolf Island to the most northwest of the archipelago are popular for divers looking to see an abundance of sharks, including whale sharks.
Take away: You will have plenty of snorkeling opportunities no matter if you choose a cruise or land-based package! For a single day of scuba diving, land-based packages are more flexible. Avid scuba divers should consider a specialized cruise.
Due to the Galapagos Islands’ remote location and the restrictions in place to protect the local environment, a Galapagos vacation is generally an expensive one.
Booking an all-inclusive tour package is often the most practical way to get the most out of your island exploration. When comparing the cost of cruises and land-based packages, cruises are generally the more expensive option. A 4-day package at a 4-star hotel will cost somewhere between US $1,500 to $2,000 per person. A cruise of a similar star category, on the other hand, would cost between US $2,500 and $3,000 per person.
However, you must also factor in the cost of roundtrip flights between the Galapagos Islands and mainland Ecuador. For cruises, this is generally more economical as their set departure dates allow them to negotiate rates with airlines. Depending on the cruise, this could cost between US $450 and $550. Conversely, for land packages, you would have to purchase your own airfare at the standard rate. Average round trip Galapagos airfare runs between US $550 and $650.
After totaling the costs, land-based packages of a similar caliber to a cruise will only cost a bit less, if anything at all. However, if traveling on a budget, a basic hotel category will offer the lowest trip cost even after factoring in the flights.
Take away: High-end cruises and hotels offer comparable rates. However, more basic hotels will offer budget-friendly vacation options.
When it comes to whether a cruise or land package is more sustainable, there’s no straightforward answer.
It’s common knowledge that ships, in general, are a major cause of global pollution. However, when it comes to the Galapagos Natural Reserve, cruises are closely monitored. The Ecuadorian government limits the number of cruise ships within the reserve. Moreover, cruises must meet strict environmental standards. Vessels must take care to meet conservation and water treatment standards, use locally sourced products, and hire locals as crew members.
Conversely, hotels have a wide range of eco-friendly and eco-unfriendly options. In recent years, land-based tourism as a whole has become a cause for concern for conservation efforts. An increase in tourism demand means more hotels are constructed, consuming more land and resources. Moreover, day tour operators may not meet environmental standards when it comes to boat maintenance and waste management.
However, just because land-based tourism overall has questionable impacts doesn’t mean that each hotel is a culprit. Although many hotels don’t have systems in place to minimize their impact, there are others that strive for sustainability. Finch Bay, for example, has been a paragon of sustainable hospitality—including on-site water treatment, greenhouse-to-table cuisine, conservation donations, and daily beach cleanups.
Take away: The Ecuadorian government requires that cruise ships meet sustainability standards. The same guidelines aren’t enforced on hotels and land operators, but many strive to be environmentally friendly.
A common concern when traveling to the Galapagos is seasickness. For the very sensitive, being confined on a ship may be the most uncomfortable vacation imaginable. On top of this, the relatively small size of Galapagos cruise vessels aggravates the problem. Even 100-passenger vessels will rock much more than thousand-passenger Caribbean cruises. Staying on land allows travelers to at least have a respite on solid ground in between boating excursions. No matter which type of tour package you choose, though, it’s highly recommended to bring motion sickness medication.
Another aspect to consider is access to healthcare should you suffer an injury or illness. Cruise ships’ staff are trained to handle minor medical problems, such as cuts and scrapes. However, should you suffer a serious injury, such as a broken bone, you would have to wait until reaching an inhabited island to visit an adequately equipped clinic. This could be a few hours or as long as a full day depending on where your vessel is.
If such an accident happened during a land-based tour, you would be able to visit the clinic on the same day. Clinics in the Galapagos are still fairly basic. In the unlikely event of a major accident or illness, you would need to fly back to mainland Ecuador for treatment. Again, doing a land-based tour would make this emergency travel more rapidly accessible.
Take away: Hotels offer respite from seasickness as well as access to more well-equipped healthcare facilities in case of injury.
When it comes to staying connected during your Galapagos vacation, hotels will offer better WiFi. Given the Galapagos Islands’ remote location, the connection may not be the most stable, even at the finest hotels. However, the majority of properties will include WiFi as an amenity.
Conversely, on most cruises, you will have to pay extra for a WiFi connection, which can be quite expensive. Depending on the cruise, they may charge upwards of $80 for a 4 or 5-day itinerary. Moreover, the signal is often very weak out on the open sea.
Take away: Hotels are better for WiFi connection.
As you can see, there is a lot to consider when choosing how to visit the Galapagos Islands. Cruises offer the undoubted benefit of visiting the most islands in the least amount of time, as well as more remote islands. However, land-based Galapagos packages are very comparable options almost every other way, such as luxury and extra services. The Galapagos Islands are truly a magical place, and it’s hard to go wrong no matter which tour you choose.
Contact our expert Travel Advisors to help you plan your Galapagos cruise or land tour!