While the Galapagos Islands are known to be extremely expensive, it is possible to explore the islands on a budget. Here are some tips to help you save some money and plan your future trip to the islands and hopefully experience the Galapagos Islands on a Budget.
If you would rather hear our full podcast episode on the Galapagos Islands listen to Podcast 27: Galapagos Islands (One of Earth’s Most Unique Locations).
From sandy white beaches, hiking through volcanoes, swimming with sea lions, snorkeling and diving with sting-rays, sharks, manta rays, sea turtles, and a plethora of tropical fish, to surfing the swells of the Pacific Ocean and exploring the various islands on foot to see the unique wildlife and vegetation the Galapagos Islands has to offer, some simply dismiss going to the islands due to its steep costs.
Galapagos Islands on a Budget
Hidden fees– Before you arrive at the Galapagos Islands you will have to purchase a Transit Control Card (TCT)/ Migration Card for $20 USD/ person. The card can be purchased at the Special Regime for Galapagos Governing Council Offices located in the Quito and Guayaquil airports (after providing the appropriate identification and electronic booking).
This card will state your date of entry and exit to the islands and must be kept during your entire stay. The document is required for both entry and exit into and out of the islands. Upon arrival, you will also have to pay a “Protected Area Entrance Fee”. The fee varies depending upon age, nationality, and residency status. For US citizens it is $100 USD/person.
The entrance fee is collected at border patrol and is given back to the Galapagos National Parks to help maintain and protect the islands. These fees are just something to be aware of when you are planning your Galapagos trip as they are not optional.
Use points to book your flight- The best way to get to Galapagos Islands is from mainland Ecuador, Quito or Guayaquil, with Guayaquil being the cheaper of the two options. Both TAME and LATAM airlines provide daily, flights to either Baltra Island or San Cristoból Island with round-trip flights ranging from $420- $600 per person.
To save money in an attempt to visit the Galapagos Islands on a budget, we used airline points, and simply paid tax for our round-trip tickets. Note: The airport on Baltra Island will connect you to Santa Cruz Island, the most developed island in all of Galapagos and where most tours and cruises depart.
Budget hotels/ hostels- There are a plethora of clean, comfortable, and very nice budget hotels and hostels to choose from on the Galapagos Islands. Typically a single room will cost $20 USD/ person per night. For a couple, prices are usually advertised as $40 USD/ night for a double bed. Note: The Galapagos Islands are extremely hot and humid.
Some hotels/ hostels do not offer air conditioning as a standard part of your stay. In my opinion, paying a little extra money to have a room with air conditioning is well worth it when it comes to being able to sleep comfortably at nighttime. Also, for the most part, you will not spend much time in your room during the day due to the fact you will be on excursions (if this is the route you chose). After a long day of kayaking, snorkeling, diving, and hiking in the hot sun, etc., it is always nice to come back and take a shower in an air-conditioned room.
Another thing to note, if you book your room on websites such as Hostelworld.com, Booking.com, or Airbnb, you will you will lose your negotiating power and most likely pay more money in the end. The owner of our hostel was more than happy to work out a deal with us knowing we were staying for 9 nights. Instead of paying $40 USD/ night we ended up paying $30 USD/ night and that helped us visit the Galapagos Islands on a budget.
Do NOT book your cruise in advance- Simply put, booking a cruise in advance is quite costly. Cruise ships charge outrageous prices in advance for their tickets to travelers who have a set holiday/ vacation time to travel. The cruises do not always sell out and as the departure date nears, remaining ticket prices are largely reduced to fill the spots on the cruise ships.
I know for those Type A’s out there the mere thought of going to a place with no plan in place or no itinerary to follow may cause extreme anxiety, but there are several tour agencies that have “last minute” cruises available for half the original cost which will help you enjoy the Galapagos Islands on a budget. This approach does not work for everyone. Keep in mind, your schedule must be flexible (some last minute cruises may require you to set sail the very next day or even the day you make a deal).
You also may not be able to book the exact cruise you had in mind; there are only so many cruises leaving the islands each day (varies by cruise class, duration, and route). Worst case scenario, you do not find the last minute cruise that you like and you take a land-based approach instead. Note: most cruises include accommodations, food, and excursions. Make sure to ask about additional expenses. It is usually customary to tip an additional $10 USD/ person per day.
Although the excursions are included (snorkeling, diving, hiking, etc.), some cruises will charge an extra fee ($15-20 per day) for snorkeling and scuba equipment. Another thing to note is that most cruises are advertised by duration and class. The duration of the cruise can be very misleading. For example, a 5-day cruise, in actuality is actually a 3.5-day cruise due to the fact that the first and last day are lacking many activities and are usually spent transferring or sailing.
Travel during “low season”- Many tour operators consider the months of April and May and September and October to be their “low season” or “slow season” months. During this time, tourism in the Galapagos Islands is lower and many of the cruises and tour companies lower their prices to entice travelers to book an excursion. Traveling during these months will give you the best shot to see the Galapagos Islands on a budget.
Bonus Travel Tip: On crazy adventures or just walking the streets of the city you are visiting, your shoes will likely get very dirty. You don’t want to have to put dirty or dusty shoes into your backpack or suitcase for your next destination. Some places it is almost impossible to get the dust off so we always pack our extra shoes or sandals in these Shoe Bags before putting them into our backpacks. Find this and other tips on our Travel Tools page.
Book “Day Trips”- Prior to coming to the Galapagos Islands, we had our hearts set on booking a last minute cruise especially since our schedule was very flexible. The first day we arrived at Puerto Ayora (located on Isla Santa Cruz) we started to “shop around” and went to each of the different tour agencies to inquire about their “last minute” cruise deals.
We found that most of the tour agencies were ready and willing to offer any available cruises that were leftover at steeply, discounted prices. We found one particular tour agent that was very helpful and explained to us the difference between the cruises and the land-based, “day trips”. With the “day trips” we found that we would be able to visit more sites, see more islands, spend less money, and have more free time, versus taking a cruise.
For example, we were offered a 5 day, First Class cruise (all inclusive, excluding tips, that would visit 3 islands) for $850 USD/ person. Our “day trip” package was $720 USD/ person for 6 full days of excursions (all-inclusive, including a 1-night stay in a hostel on Isla Isabella, breakfasts, snacks, lunches, and dinners as well as hotel transfers and ferry transfers between the different islands).
The excursions were spread over 8 days in 6 different islands (North Seymour Island, Santa Cruz Island, Isabela Island, Santa Fe Island, Pinzón Island, and San Cristóbal Island) to allow for us to have two full days of free time to ourselves to either explore the rest of the islands on our own time or have some downtime and get some rest. Our itinerary was as follows:
Day 1: North Seymour Island- This day tour included a 2-hour ferry transfer from Santa Cruz Island to North Seymour Island to see the blue-footed boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, and land iguanas. The second half of our day was spent snorkeling around North Seymour Island with sting-rays, manta-rays, various types of sharks, and tropical fish.
Day 2: Santa Cruz Island (Free Day)
Day 3: Isabela Island- This 2-day tour included a 2-hour ferry transfer from Santa Cruz Island to Isabela Island, complete with a one night stay in a hostel (included in the package). The first half day tour consisted of a 2-hour kayaking tour in the Pacific Ocean around Isabela Island to see the Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants, marine iguanas, and various pelicans. After kayaking, our guides anchored our kayaks in the middle of the ocean so we were then able to snorkel for an hour to see the various tropical fish and giant Galapagos tortoises in and around Isabela island.
Day 4: Isabela Island – Our second day on Isabela island we hiked 5 hours to the rim of Sierra Negra Volcano.
Day 5: Santa Fe Island- This day tour included a 1-hour ferry transfer from Santa Cruz Island to Santa Fe Island to partake in 3 snorkeling excursions throughout the day where we were able to swim with the sea lions, sea turtles, various types of tropical fish, manta-rays, sting-rays, and sharks.
Day 6: Pinzón Island- This day tour included a 2-hour ferry transfer from Santa Cruz Island to Pinzón Island to partake in 4 snorkeling excursions throughout the day where we were able to swim amongst sea turtles, various types of tropical fish, manta-rays, sting-rays, and sharks.
Day 7: San Cristóbal Island (Free Day)- This 2-day tour included a 2-hour ferry transfer from Santa Cruz Island to San Cristóbal Island (we had to find and pay for a hostel on our own).
Day 8: San Cristóbal Island- Our day tour consisted of a 2-hour snorkeling session or relaxing sunbathing session on the white sandy beach of Manglesito Beach followed by 3 snorkeling sessions based around Kicker Rock. Throughout the day our guide took us through the natural, rock channel formations to swim with the eagle rays, hammerhead sharks, white-tip sharks, sea turtles, and sea lions.
Take advantage of “Free Activities”- Surprisingly there are many free things to do in the Galapagos Islands (free beaches, hiking, snorkeling, parks, etc.). During our stay, we had 2 “free days” in which we did not have “Day Trips” booked so we took full advantage of the free activities.
Playa de los Alemanes: Just take a quick water taxi ($0.50 USD/ person) and walk about 10 minutes. This beach has some great, free snorkeling and sandy white beaches.
Tortuga Bay: Recently voted Top 10 Beaches in the World by TripAdvisor, 2017 Traveler’s Choice Award. From Santa Cruz Island the walk is approximately 45 minutes. There is no need to take a taxi because the taxi can only take you to the main walking path where you will need to sign in. Here you can surf, snorkel, or relax and catch some rays.
Las Grietas: This is by far one of the coolest things we have ever done! From Santa Cruz Island you can take a quick water taxi ($0.50 USD/ person) and walk about 30 minutes to Las Grietas (just follow the signs). You will sign in with a National Park Director. There is a place on the rocks to put your personal belongings while you snorkel (clothes, shoes, cameras, etc.).
You are allowed to snorkel for as long as you would like through the lava canyon. I suggest that you go early because only 48 people are allowed at a time to swim/ snorkel inside the lava canyon. Also, make sure to wear water shoes due to the fact that there are volcanic fissures and lava rock formations in the water that are very sharp and could cut your foot.
San Cristóbal Island:
San Cristóbal Interpretive Center- This center tells the history of the Galapagos Islands and provides a great overview on both the threats and solutions that are being implemented to protect the islands.
Playa Loberia- From the main island you can take a taxi for $3 USD total (once the taxi driver drops you off, simply let the driver know the time you would like to be picked up from the beach and he/she will return to pick you up at the same drop-off location).
There are playful sea lions that swim up onto the shoreline. Do not let the sandy, white beach fool you. Entering the ocean with caution as there are rocks everywhere. Once you get past the rocky entrance, it is well worth it. While snorkeling at this beach you can easily see sea turtles, tropical fish, and swim amongst the sea lions.
Playa Mann- This beach is located close to town and is a perfect place to buy a beer and some local food from a vendor and watch the sunset.
Purchase groceries at the local markets and eat cheap- Food in the Galapagos Islands is very expensive. Expect to pay $15-20 USD/ person per meal (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) at the local restaurants. The restaurants are full of western-type food; pizza, pasta, burgers, sushi, etc. If you venture off the main streets and look for whiteboards offering local, Ecuadorian meals at the “meriendas”, you can always find 2 courses, lunch deals for $5.
A typical Ecuadorian lunch includes a fish soup to start, a fish or chicken entree served with vegetables or potatoes, and all you can drink, fresh-squeezed, juice or lemonade. If you are lucky, you might find a lunch special that offers ceviche. Dinner specials typically will cost $10-15 USD/ person depending on what type of fresh fish or seafood is being served at the restaurant that evening.
On both Santa Cruz Island and San Cristóbal Island, we were able to find the most amazing bakeries that made fresh bread, pastries, and empanadas daily. Depending on what type of bread you purchased, the price ranged from $0.60 USD/ unit to $1.50 USD/ unit. There are also several vendors that sell homemade baked goods and empanadas at the main ports and various locations throughout the island on Santa Cruz for $1 USD/ unit.
Another way to save money on food is to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at the various fruit and vegetable markets located throughout the islands and make your own food at your hotel/ hostel (provided your hotel/ hostel has a kitchen). The markets have many fruits and vegetables available for sale for very cheap (12 bananas for $1 USD, 1lb of strawberries for $3 USD, 1lb of tomatoes for $1, 1lb of dried lentils or beans or oatmeal all $1 USD). Note: We noticed that besides fruits, vegetables, dried lentils, beans, or rice, any other product for purchase at the markets was extremely expensive (coffee, cheese, canned goods, peanut butter, condiments, etc.).
Barter for tours/ excursions- Travel agents know that travelers are looking to make a deal on tours and cruises when coming to the Galapagos Islands. It is not uncommon for travelers to ask for a deal. Agents have a bottom line that they cannot go below and you will have a budget that you need to adhere to. It is better to just be straightforward with the agent so you can have time to “shop around” and make a deal quickly.
Purchase your toiletries and sunscreen PRIOR to arriving at the islands– Everything is more expensive on the Galapagos Islands. We saw bottles of sunscreen in pharmacies for $30 USD/ bottle. We used Banana Boat 50+, Sport Performance Sunscreen which worked great for us being in and out of the water snorkeling and swimming all day in the hot Ecuadorian sun.
Same goes for toiletries like shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, body wash, etc. I would also highly suggest bringing plenty of mosquito repellant as it is very expensive and the island is full of them! We used OFF Mosquito Repellant Lotion. It was a lifesaver. It is available in a 50ml bottle, perfect for traveling and carry-on luggage and really spreads well over your body to protect you from the mosquitos.
Bring your own snorkeling gear- Although our “day tours” included our snorkeling gear in the price, I must say the gear itself was not the best, most modern snorkeling equipment provided by the tour company. If you want to assure that your gear fits properly and that you can see well while snorkeling, I highly suggest you bring your own.
Also, it will come in handy for the days in which you have free time to explore the islands and go to the beaches and take advantage of the free snorkeling sites. There are several tour agencies from which you are able to rent snorkeling gear for a day, but it will cost you $5 (mask and snorkel only)-$10 (mask, snorkel, and fins) USD/ person per day.
Take the bus– Upon arrival at Seymour airport, make sure to take one of the buses that are parked directly outside of the airport. The bus is FREE and will take you to a ferry that will take you across the Itabaca Canal to Santa Cruz Island for $1.00 USD/ person. From there you can either get on another bus or take a taxi. A taxi will cost you $18 USD. The bus will cost you $2 USD/ person and will take you all the way to Puerto Ayora. The total trip lasts about 1 hour.
Traveled May 2017