This is a step by step guide advising how to go about choosing and booking a cruise to the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador.
The first decision one needs to make when researching a Galapagos Islands cruise is deciding when you will actually visit Ecuador. The best months to visit the Galapagos Islands are April, May and November due to a combination of the weather conditions, sea temperature and wildlife viewing opportunities. See our guide to the weather in the Galapagos for advice on what to expect in each of the months.
It’s important to book well in advance as the cruise boats can fill up very quickly. For the widest selection of available boats try to book about a year in advance if possible. July and August are some of the busiest months in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, so book even further in advance if you plan on visiting during this holiday season. You can check online to see if some boats are available at your prefered time - see this Galapagos availability guide.
When you’ve decided at what time of the year you’ll visit, you’ll need to decide on a boat. If you’re not booking well in advance there will be very limited options. Almost all Galapagos cruises are of 3, 4 or 7 night duration. The vast majority are week long cruises. A popular alternative to a week long cruise is to book a shorter cruise and combine it with a stay in a hotel on the islands - see this guide to Galapagos Islands hotels for a few upmarket suggestions.
Choosing a Galapagos Islands cruise is actually very easy, but many people get hung up on selecting an individual boat and spend hours and hours researching cruise ships. All you really need to decide is when you will visit, how big a boat you want and how much you want to spend. When you’ve decided on these factors everything else will easily fall into place (hopefully!).
The size of the cruise is the most important decision - boats range from small 10 person cruises up to huge cruise lines that can accommodate hundreds of people. Most of the small boats fit about 16 people, while most of the large boats fit hundreds. See the guide to Galapagos cruise ships for advice on most of the best cruises. Big cruise liners have the advantage having of lots of luxury onboard amenities, in addition to rocking less in the sea and feeling less claustaphobic. On a big boat you won’t have to socialise with other guests if you don’t want to, but you will be mingling with them and taking excursions in larger groups, which may slightly spoil the experience for some. Smaller boats on the other hand will rock in the sea a little more (but if you’re worried about this choose a boat with stabilizers as it will sway less). The staff on the smaller boats will also offer a more personalized service, and you’ll find it hard not to socialize with the other onboard guests (unless you charter a boat of course). Smaller boats can also get much closer to the shoreline and generally offer a more intimate experience of the Galapagos Islands. The only problem is that you run the risk of sharing a boat with noisy and / or annoying other tourists - if you’re unfortunate enough to get a “bad” group (ie. one that you personally clash with), you can’t get away from them on a small boat as you’ll be with them the whole time. Having said this, most of the noisy and / or annoying types of tourists will be on the large cruise ships, where avoiding them will be much easier as there’s more space. So make the decision - big boat or little boat?
When you’ve decided on the size of the boat, you need to decide how much money you want to spend. In the Galapagos Islands it’s almost always a case of what you spend is what you get - the more expensive boats cost more for a reason - because they’re better in terms of both their staff, food, guides and the accommodation on board. If you are utterly determined to see a particular type of bird or animal, pay attention to the individual cruises itinerary and which islands they visit - if a seeing a particular type or colour of booby bird is not that important to you, then don’t worry about the itinerary as almost all boats have extremely similar itineraries and almost all visit the best places anyway. My advice would be not to get too hung up on the cruises itinerary and which islands are visited.
Almost all Galapagos Islands cruises offer extremely similar vacation experiences, the only differentials being the size of the boat and it’s quality, which is directly related to the cost. When you’ve narrowed everything down to a time of the year, size of the boat and amount of money you want to spend, having checked what is available at that time there will probably only be a few boats to choose from. Just pick one - they’re all almost all the same after all!
Having selected your boat (or made the decisions noted above), you’ll need to book the cruise. Going directly to the actual cruise ship operator is rarely cheaper than booking with a specialist tour operator as those same tour operators receive high commission rates and therefore often charge the same price as booking it with the source. Choose a specialist Ecuador or Latin America tour operator as they’ll give you the best advice. Book the flights to the Galapagos (from Quito or Guayaquil in Ecuador) at the same time - there’s little point in booking them yourself as you’ll probably get in a muddle and may end up on the wrong island!
Once your cruise is sorted out, now is the time to develop the rest of your Ecuador vacation itinerary. NEVER arrive in Ecuador one day before your cruise departs as if you’re international flight is cancelled, or your bags are lost, your dream holiday will be completely wrecked. It happens a lot. Arrive at least two days before the cruise departure.
Consider spending much longer on the mainland before (or after) your cruise to the Galapagos Islands as there’s much so see including colonial towns and cities such as Quito and Cuenca, indigenous markets such as that of Otavalo, Inca ruins at Ingapirca, rainforest lodges in the Amazon as well as volcanic scnery beautiful for trekking and outdoor activities.