Choosing a cruise

This set of pages offers some things to consider as you make probably the most important decision of your trip—how to travel around the islands.  It’s certainly not an exhaustive list, but it presents some issues I came across in our trip or in talking with other people about their experiences.  Should you do a live-aboard cruise or a land-based tour with day trips to various islands?  What kind of things should you think about when considering all of the options for live-aboard cruises?  Assuming you can’t get to all of the islands, what islands are best known for unusual species?  What about other “must see” aspects of the islands?  Keep in mind these are just my opinions and our experiences, mixed with some of what I’ve learned from other people.  Perhaps these points will help you to think about what’s really important to you on your trip. 

I cover these topics on the pages here.  You can use the page numbers at the bottom of this page to skip around to the various topics.

  • Land-based travel or a naturalist cruise?  (p. 2)
  • Some general cruise considerations (p. 3)
  • Some more specific cruise considerations (p. 4)
  • The cruise itself (p. 5)
  • A spreadsheet to help you choose an itinerary (p. 6)
  • Choosing a boat (p. 7)
  • Unique species by island (p. 8)
  • Other island specialties (p. 8)

29 Responses to Choosing a cruise

  1. trudy trombley says:

    This is great. We’re (hubby and I) planning on Jan-March 2015. I’m going in circles since we want to add Machu Pichu to the trip. Hubby is not a water person so he is leaning towards Celebrity. What do you think. I’m more adventurous than he is. It would be easiest to just go with Celebrity but not as exciting.

    • Tina says:

      Hi, Trudy–

      Glad you’re finding the blog helpful–thanks for letting me know! If you’ve read much of it, you know that I’m a huge fan of the small boats. The Celebrity Xpedition is among the 4 or 5 largest boats working the waters of the Galápagos and the experience is considerably less intimate that it is in the smaller boats. But most folks who take Celebrity report having a fine time.

      But the smaller boats offer an unusual chance to be up close and personal not only with the wildlife (which you’ll have on any naturalist cruise in the archipelago) but also with your fellow passengers and (always important in my book) the crew. Even the smaller boats have common areas that are away from the water, so your husband would have ways to “escape” the seas. (I’m having a hard time imagining someone’s not being a water person, since my husband and I both grew up around huge bodies of water.)

      Perhaps there’s a compromise to be had–say, one of the larger “small” boats? The Eric/Letty/Flamingo boats carry 20 passengers each and get terrific reviews. The Odyssey and Coral II also carry 20 passengers; the Coral I, 36 passengers; Isabela II, 40; La Pinta and Islander, 48 pax. The last 3 are more in the luxury class (as compared to the first-class category of the others)l–perhaps (if money isn’t too restricted) a bit of extra luxury might be a way to bargain down the large size?

      Really, though, the Xpedition typically satisfies those who choose it just fine. It may attract a slightly different crowd–those more into cruising throughout the world–than do the smaller boats since Celebrity has a name that “cruisers” recognize. The smaller, locally owned/operated boats may tend to attract a more eclectic, adventuresome clientele (painting with very broad strokes here).

      But the bottom line is that the wildlife don’t care what boat you arrived in. And they, really, are the stars of any cruise, large or small.

      If you have any other questions I might be able to help with, don’t hesitate to write back!

      Tina

  2. julia says:

    Hi
    I cant find your link for last minute cruises please?

    thanks

    • Tina says:

      Hi, Julia–

      Here’s one: http://www.galapagoscruiselinks.com/index.php . Another one to check would be http://sangay.com/last_minute_offers/ . (I should add this latter one to the Web site–it has a nice presentation.) I’ve never used either of these to reserve a cruise, so I can’t vouch for the service behind either. But both have clear presentations on the Web, at least. There probably are others out there too, if you do a search on “last minute, galapagos” or something like that. But these’ll give you a place to start.

      I hope these help. Good luck!

      Tina

  3. Betsi says:

    Tina,
    Thanks so much for your quick response – now I know we should do the 7 night cruise!
    I will probably contact you again once I get a little further along in the planning.
    Betsi

  4. Betsi says:

    We are just starting to research and plan a trip to the Galapagos Islands for the spring of 2015. Do you think April or May would be the best month to visit? We prefer warm over cold weather but want to go when it’s the overall best month to see everything.
    Also do you think you could see enough for a 4 night cruise, or do you feel strongly we should stay for 7 nights?
    We may also tie in a trip to Maccu Pichu (sp)…
    Thanks!
    Betsi

    • Tina says:

      Hi, Betsi–

      I strongly believe that there is no “best” month to visit the archipelago. The wildlife are doing interesting things any month of the year. So no worries there. The days (and the waters for snorkeling) are warmest Jan. – April, so if you like really warm weather, April will likely be a bit warmer than May. But not a big difference. When we were there in May, the days were PLENTY hot!

      I personally think 4 nights/5 days is too short to get the best of this marvel. That really only gives you 3 full days at sea, since the first day is just an afternoon outing and the last day, just a morning outing. If you choose well, you might get to 1 of the 4 most distant (and most fascinating) islands. But the other landings will be on islands that are closer to the towns (most often, Santa Cruz). Those landings can be nice; but why go all that way, spends all of the money (per person, $400 for airfare, $110 to get into the park) and not see the best that the archipelago has to offer? Many people who take shorter cruises wish they had taken a longer cruise when they’re done; very few people who do a 7-night cruise wish they had done a shorter cruise. Most people go there only once, so I wholeheartedly think you should do the trip that you AND the islands deserve–at least 8 days/7 nights.

      Tina

  5. DB says:

    Great info in your blog, traveled throughout south america for 6 months and recorded tons of Video. Creating a video Blog for those interested in seeing what it is like first hand.
    Hope you don’t mind me sharing: http://threeztraveler.com/galapagos .

  6. jiashman says:

    Tina, thank you for providing so much wonderful information about traveling to the Galapagos. My wife and I are planning to spend the months of February and March in Cuenca, Ecuador, and would like to end our trip in mid-to-late March with a visit to the Galapagos. We found your suggestions about how to do it extremely helpful. I would like your thoughts on the following: We are in our mid-sixties and fairly active–bike riding, walking a mile or two on fairly flat or gently sloping terrain, etc.–but I have arthritic knees and find being on my feet for too long or walking up or down steep and uneven terrain challenging. What are your thoughts about whether the walks might be too challenging and whether one of the two itineraries (east or west) might be gentler.

    • Tina says:

      Hi, Jay!

      So glad you found the info helpful. Considering your worries, here are my thoughts. (Of course, I am not a doctor–nor do I play one on TV…) The longest path that we’ve been on, as I recall, was about 3 km (just under 2 miles), on Española (Punta Suárez). We spent 3 hours on that path, stopping often to listen to the naturalist guide, take a gazillion photos, sit for a bit to admire the amazing scenery… On pretty much every landing, the pace is very slow, if that helps your arthritis. I was having lower back issues on our first trip, so I took a collapsible hiking staff. That gave me something to lean on if I couldn’t find a place to sit and the opportunity for a quick stretch. The staff also helps avoid worries about balance. I highly recommend bringing one (although some boats have hiking sticks on board too).

      I think I’d recommend an eastern itinerary for you folks. The western itinerary spends A LOT of time walking across uneven, HOT lava. One climb at Taugus Cove was almost a bit of a workout! The scenery is spectacular, but the walking is more challenging. And I found fewer places to sit down briefly for a quick break on those islands too. (Black, hot lava is not terribly inviting for that!)

      The eastern islands are older, have eroded more, and have more gentle paths in general than do the islands to the west. The exception there is Genovesa, if that is included on an eastern itinerary. There is a brief climb up Prince Philip’s Steps–large flat boulders forming a stairway of sorts. That might be a challenge for you, but the naturalist guide and panga operators are there to help you out however you need. And, in my experience, fellow passengers pitch in happily too.

      Getting into and out of the pangas can be a bit of a challenge for us older folks. But again, the naturalist guide and panga operators are right there to give you a firm, steadying hand in and out. Their grip, widely used by panga operators in the archipelago, is sometimes called “the Galápagos handshake!”

      Hope this helps some. Don’t hesitate if you have any other questions! I love talking with people about this marvelous archipelago!

      Tina

      • Jay Ashman says:

        Hi, Tina,
        Thanks for you very quick and helpful reply. We have done a fair amount of research at this point, and are considering going with Road Scholar. Their price–$3999 including round-trip airfare to and from Quito–appears to be less than comparable trips, most of which don’t include airfare in that price range. We checked out the ship–the Galaven–and it seems like a quality operation. They offer two itineraries; I cross-referenced the various locations with the Galaven website, and it looks like the trip that goes from March 9 to 19 (http://www.roadscholar.org/n/program/dailySchedule.aspx?DId=1-6IFHMX) is, for the most part, less physically challenging than the alternate itinerary (offered March 16-26). We also checked out the Mary Ann. It looks like a terrific ship, but the price difference is an obstacle. Any thoughts you have would be much appreciated.
        Jay

      • Tina says:

        Hi, Jay–

        I think that this Road Scholar Galápagos program is a great value for the money. (That price also includes medical assistance coverage, should health-related issues arise. That’s especially important in the archipelago, where you could be 24 hours from decent medical care on the mainland.) That’s why we went with them on our first trip. We would have gone with them again for our return trip except that we were traveling with a single friend and she wasn’t especially interested in sharing a cabin with a stranger. So we found the Mary Anne, which didn’t have a single supplement.

        I think you’ve definitely identified the “gentler” of the 2 itineraries. Prince Philip’s Steps on Genovesa are just a bit challenging, but (as I mentioned earlier) the guide and crew will help any who need it. And it’s just at the beginning of that landing. The rest of the landing is an easy, flat walk. The other landings should present no problems. And by traveling with Road Scholar, you should be with a crew that are used to active, but still less-than-young-and-spry passengers.

        I don’t know the Galaven, but it sounds like you’ve done your research!

        Tina

  7. chicnylon says:

    Thanks for all your insight. Truly helpful in my planning. I was curious if you’ve gone on your 2013 Galapagos trip yet and what you thought of Isabel and Fernandina (assuming you visited those islands on your second time around). Thanks!

    • Tina says:

      We returned just last Sunday from our 2nd trip and it was as good–if not even better–than our 1st trip. Isabela and Fernandina are stunning volcanic islands, in sharp contrast to the older, softer, more vegetated eastern islands. Which you prefer is a very personal choice. I think I liked the wildlife diversity and easier walks of the eastern islands, while our traveling companion much favored the steep, dramatic cliffs and other volcanic scenery of Isabela and Fernandina. If snorkeling is important to you, the marine life around Isabela and Fernandina were much more spectacular that what we encountered around the eastern islands–snorkeling with sea turtles, rays, sharks, penguins galore, marine iguanas, and lots of other species. However, if you’re longing to frolic with sea lions, you’ll likely have many more in the water with you around the eastern islands. But any 7-night or longer itinerary will provide you with many wondrous sights. (Shorter itineraries run the risk of never getting you beyond the central islands, where the wildlife is more impacted by the increased human traffic of both day trips and naturalist cruises.)

      I’m trying to formulate my thoughts about this classic “east vs west” dilemma many folks face in choosing a cruise. I’ll add a more detailed discussion of the contrasts and comparisons in the near future. Stay tuned!

      Tina

      • Stephanie says:

        That’s refreshing to hear. My husband is longing to go farther out to the west to see Fernandina & Isabel but I’m concerned about missing out on seeing all the bird/wildlife that you’ve mentioned on the east (although I could do without seeing the sea lions, we have plenty of those here in California). Would you recommend supplementing a west coast trip with day trips or land based tours to the islands somewhat closer to Santa Cruz (like Bartolomé & Santa Fe)? Ah, it’s such a tough decision regardless. Maybe I’ll just have to do what you did, go back for 2nd trip 4 years later!

      • Tina says:

        Hi again, Stephanie–

        You could indeed do some day trips before (or after) a cruise to the western islands. (I personally wouldn’t do them after–I’d be afraid that the day trips would pale by comparison to the wonders of the naturalist cruise. You spend 2+ hours (one way) on a small speed boat–a far cry from the ease of the naturalist cruise.)

        You can only visit a limited number of other islands from Santa Cruz. I usually recommend Bartolomé to see/swim with penguins, but you’d have had much better interactions with them on Isabela and Fernandina. Bartolomé has an iconic view from the top of the extinct volcano; but I’m not sure it’d be worth the time and money of a day trip after the western islands. N. Seymour would be a good day trip if you don’t get to Genovesa–the breeding colonies of the seabirds are unlike anything you’ll see in the western islands. Santa Fé has a unique land iguana species; but other than that, I didn’t find it especially interesting. S. Plaza offers land iguanas too, but that walk didn’t strike me as all that interesting, as I recall. The day trip to Floreana doesn’t go to the same spots as the naturalist cruises do–you go to the inhabited highlands (not as much wildlife there) and typically don’t snorkel at the marvelous Devil’s Crown. So I don’t think that’d be a particularly great a day trip.

        Unfortunately, the best islands (in my opinion, of course!) that are more easterly are Santiago, Genovesa, and Española–none of which can be reached by a day trip. So maybe a day trip to N. Seymour might be something to consider. You might have to plan on a couple of days in Santa Cruz to get that day trip, though. Not all day trips are offered every day and the more popular ones (which N. Seymour probably is) sell out pretty quickly.

        Or–you could do a 14-night trip and get to all of the best spots! For me, that would have been a very tiring trip, but it would have been considerably cheaper than going back a 2nd time. A few boats offer 10- and 11-day trips that might let you get to Genovesa (and maybe Española) without going the entire 15-day route. Something to consider….

        Tina

  8. Cris says:

    Thanks for the information. It is the best I have seen. We are thinking of doing the Road Scholar trip but have notice that the boat has changed to the Gavalen. How does this compare to the Tip Top Ii?

    • Tina says:

      Hi, Cris–

      The Galaven is typically classified in the first-class category, as are the Tip Top boats. It holds 20 passengers (as opposed the 16 on the TT boats). But that is still small enough for an intimate experience. And, if you sail with more than 16 passengers, you’ll have 2 naturalist guides–cutting the typical guide:passenger ratio from 1:16 to 1:10. That’s great!

      It had some problems at the end of 2012, but I think it was pulled for major work after a collision (no passengers on board) and is now sailing again. Reviews are generally good, especially around the naturalist guides and the food (both crucial aspects of this trip). I trust Road Scholar (and probably Holbrook Travel is the contact agency?) to do their research carefully, so I wouldn’t worry about the boat. Look carefully at the itineraries to see which one might fit your interests best. Aside from that, I’d say go for it and have a great time!

      Tina

  9. Melanie says:

    I just want to thank the authors of this blog for sharing such great detailed information and objective advice. It helped us a lot to choose a great ship (7 days on Archipel catamaran) and itinerary, and generally to plan our wonderful trip in January 2013. Well done!!!

  10. willowoman says:

    i surely agree with all-the-above grateful people in thanking you for your most helpful info. muchas gracias!

  11. Heather K. says:

    What an absolutely wonderful page to come across! We are planning a trip for April 2012 and were feeling overwhelmed by all of the choices. After reading your blog I am starting to feel much better about where to start when it comes to making decisions. Thank you!!

  12. Tim says:

    The level of detail you have gone to blows my mind. I wish I had found your site before booking my trip. However, everything so far has just validated my choices, so I am happy. Thanks for putting in this effort.

  13. Elena says:

    Thank you so much for the well researched information and the valuable links! We will be cruising with Ecoventura beginning of January 2012 on one of their last 8 day itineraries including Genovesa, Fernandina, Isabela AND Española. I studied over 20 itineraries before choosing them and now I am even more looking forward to it knowing that that was one of the very last opportunities. Just need to organise a one-day trip to Floreana now :-)

  14. Gloria Fitch says:

    Thanks for much for your information. My head is so full of options, I’m having a hard time sorting them out. It’s wonderful to have someone spend the time to be so helopful.
    Gloria from Texas

  15. Adele says:

    Thanks, so much, for taking the time to write this information. It is extremely helpful!

  16. quatro49 says:

    Your review was so helpful and informative. I leave next week for a 7 day cruise of the Galapagos and I appreciate all of your wonderful information.

  17. shamba says:

    Grasias! I’ve now finished reading EVERYTHING you wrote and feel like I’ve already been on the trip! And the best is yet to come!

  18. SUSAN YANOVICH says:

    YOUR BLOG HAS BEEN THE MOST HELPFUL OF ANYTHING THAT I HAVE READ
    IN MY SEARCH FOR THE PERFECT GALAPAGOS TRIP.
    THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR TAKING THE TROUBLE OF WRITING IT.

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