Galapagos Cruise or Island Hopping—A Look at the Pros and Cons of Each Tour Option
Now that you’ve established your motivations for going to the Galapagos Islands, it’s time to start planning your trip there. For most people, this is a one-shot deal – they’ll go once and never come back. It’s critically important that you take the time to consider your options and ensure you experience Galapagos in the way best suited to your needs and interests.
There are two main ways to discover the islands—by expedition cruise, where you have your private cabin on a ship and have meals on-board, or by land-based island-hopping, where you sleep in hotels and eat in restaurants.
To help you figure out which option is best for you, here’s a look at the pros and cons of each tour method.
Pros of Island-Hopping
Usually Costs Less Than a Cruise, particularly if you are OK with lower-end services
Hotel-based tours allow visitors to choose their accommodations from a range of prices—budget, mid-range, first-class, and luxury. With the most basic of accommodations going at what you might expect to leave as a daily tip on a first-class ship, you can clearly spend time in Galapagos at a much lower cost by staying on land. But if you like more comfortable hotels, the price differences can quickly disappear.
Similarly, you can spend very little on a back alley meal of rice and beans with a piece of chicken, but if you like nicer places, prices go up as well.
Finally, to get out and about the islands and to visit the wild places where Galapagos shows off its best attributes, you need to book day trips. These vary in price but can add up to be close to the price of what you’d pay onboard a ship, depending on the comfort class.
At the end of the day, unless you’re into low-end accommodations and meals, the price of a land-based based trip is not necessarily much lower than that of a decent mid-range cruise ship experience.
Leisurely and Flexible, Go at Your Own Pace
There is a wide range of activities for those staying at hotels – many can be organized for free, or don’t require advance bookings. Visiting the local beach, local swimming holes, or a highlands farm where giant tortoises roam, for example. Land-based visitors can build their own schedules, making this a more flexible option compared to following a cruise’s set itinerary. Having said this, spaces on day trips to remote visitor sites are limited and unless these are booked in advanced (e.g. up to several months if during the high season), there may be no space left for you.
Arguably better for People with Seasickness
If you are very prone to seasickness, you can choose a land-based visit – but unless you have no intention of visiting sites off the island on which you’re staying, you’ll invariably have to spend a good deal of time on a boat. Day trip boats are smaller and faster – and trips on these have been qualified as “bone-jarring”. You can spend up to two hours each way on such ships while visiting remote sites.
Cell-phone Reception Almost Wherever You Go
If you must have cell reception because you can’t live without being connected with your phone, then land-based tours are probably better for you (though Galapagos mobile data and internet is 15 years behind the times). Typically on a ship, you’ll be out of cell-phone range 50% of the time.
More Time Spent On Land
Those staying at hotels will spend more time on land, browsing shops and eating at local restaurants. So they will get to know the local communities better. However, as we note above, if that’s your main interest in a tropical island holiday, Galapagos is not the ideal place to go.
Cons of Island Hopping
Inconvenient to Go from Island to Island
The ferries taking you between the main inhabited islands consist of uncomfortable speedboats. People regularly report that passengers are often sick and that the ride (2.5 hours typically) can be “bone-jarringly rough”. Though the journey is relatively short at 2.5 hours, moving from one inhabited island to another typically will take up a big part of a day. By the time you pack, check-out of your hotel, get to the docks, wait around for the other passengers, travel, arrive, find your new hotel and check-in, you’ll have little left of the day to enjoy. For those who have only a limited time in the islands, this is a consideration.
More Time Spent in Transit on Day Trips
Day trips will have you get up early, find your way to the town docks, wait around for other passengers and then head off on a fast, possibly bumpy boat ride to your destination. At the end of your visit, you’ll have to go home again. In all, you might end up spending 6 of the 12 daylight hours in transit.
Though at the end of the day, you might be spending less money, you are also spending less time enjoying what the islands have to offer.
Miss Out On Several Sites, Won't See as Much of the Islands
Since only three of the main islands can easily accommodate visitors, your itineraries and site visiting options will be limited to sites within easy reach of these islands. You will be visiting the most visited sites, where wildlife is most disturbed by tourists.
Timing is poor for wildlife observation
Land-based tours will have you arrive at visitors sites after 10 AM (as per park regulations). By then, the equatorial sun has risen quite high and has become quite hot. Most wildlife species are active at sunrise when things are cooler. This is when you’ll see the best displays of various behaviours, such as feeding, courting, mating, fighting. By the time things get hot, most animals find shade and rest until later in the afternoon – by which time a land-based tour is required to have left the visitor site.
Pros of Cruise Tours
More Efficient Itinerary, See More In the Same Amount of Time
Most cruises have diverse itineraries, visiting two sites per day, at which you can expect to go on a hike, snorkel, kayak and more. Ships do most of their travelling during meals and downtime (e.g. overnight) so you can spend more time visiting the islands during the day. Typically, on waking up early in the morning, the ship is already anchored at a remote visitor site. Some ships will even have you disembarking at sun-rise, a full 4 hours before any land-based visitor is allowed to do so, just when conditions are ideal.
Much Better for Photographers
A lot of visitors to the Galapgos are keen photographers. These people will know that lighting is a big part of taking good pictures. Under a bright sun there are big contrasts between shaded and non-shaded areas, making it very difficult to obtain well balanced pictures. On a cruise, you will be among the wildlife much ealier in the day, when the lighting is much softer (and when animals are at their most active). Similarly, you'll be at visitor sites much later in the afternoon. In both cases, with the early or late sun, the light is much more amenable to taking great shots.
See More Islands & Experience More of the Galapagos
A typical 8-day cruise will have you visit 20 or more visitor sites. A land-based visit would require nearly 3 weeks to do the same but necessarily limited to sites near inhabited islands.
Logistically much simpler
The only challenge in organizing a ship-based visit to Galapagos is finding a ship most suited to your needs and interests. Once that is done, there are no more concerns. Unless you purchase a package organized by a tour operator, you’ll have to deal with the daily logistics of organizing your Galapagos visit while on a land-based tour. Which hotel to choose, which restaurant, what day trip to book, how to catch the ferry to another island. All this can be quite time consuming and can distract you from enjoying what Galapagos is all about.
Only Unpack/Pack Once
If you’re like most people, you probably don’t enjoy packing and unpacking or checking into and out of hotels at all. With island-hopping, you’ll have to unpack and pack your luggage at every hotel you visit. But with a cruise, you will only need to unpack once and pack once for the duration of your stay. Something to consider if you’re travelling with children as well.
Quick Access to Guides and Specialists
A naturalist guide will lead all of your tours with a cruise booking. And you’ll also have experienced crew members on board to take care of your needs, including medical needs in case of an illness or injury.
Zero Hassle, Worry-Free Experience
Having everything taken care of for you during a cruise makes for a stress-free vacation. You don’t need to worry about a thing, freeing you to focus on what you travelled so far to enjoy.
Stars and bio-luminescence
Galapagos is on the Equator, in the Pacific Ocean. The stars there are brilliant – far from any light pollution. For visitors from the northern hemisphere, it’s the first time they ever see the Southern Cross, while those from the south get to see the Big Dipper for the first time.
The sea is also full of bioluminescent plankton. On a ship, out at sea, you’ll have the chance to marvel at these “underwater fireflies”. The brightly lit towns in Galapagos prevent you from enjoying such spectacles of nature.
Cons of Cruise Tours
Though there are land-based trips that will be pricier than a ships based trip of equal length, typically, an expedition cruise is more costly. While a decent mid-range cruise my cost about $550/person/day, a well-organized land-based trip (not counting all the time invested in organizing it) using accommodations and eating out at similarly rated places could go for about $350 /person/day.
For those with a bit of flexibility, last-minute cruise offers can result in savings from 10% to as much as 40%, or even 50% (rare). Under such circumstances, the ship-based experience can come in at the same price, or even lower than an equivalent land-based trip.
If you need to work (which we don’t recommend during such a beautiful vacation!), you can expect to have cell-phone reception about 50% of your time at sea – and don’t expect top service.
Can Cause Seasickness for Those Who Are Prone
Though many people are concerned about seasickness, surveys of returning passengers have shown that fewer than 3% reported it having negatively affected their trip. Typically, you might feel it a bit during one particular crossing. Or you might feel it a bit on the first day, then you get your sea legs and are fine for the rest of the trip. There are excellent medications that are commonly used to control it.
While land-based Galapagos vacations are more suited to some, if you cruise around the Galapagos Islands, you’ll truly get the most out of what this iconic archipelago as to offer in your limited time there. The places you’ll visit, the time you’ll save, and the hassle-free living makes a Galapagos Islands cruise tour an exceptional experience.