The allure of the Galapagos Islands frequently captured my attention from an early age. I always had an interest in animals and remote islands and the Galapagos offered both. I think my obsession with nature documentaries also built up a desire to visit this unique destination. Birds with blue and red feet, performing amusing love dances and sharks that are content with you swimming close by, not feeling the need to attack. I wanted to experience this precious and unique part of our world and learn more about its natural environment.

When I first thought of visiting the Galapagos Islands (ten years ago), I never believed it would be inline with my travel budget. It is such a remote destination that I assumed the cost of flights, accommodation and tours would see my bank account quickly dwindle down to nothing. But when I arrived into Quito, Ecuador and began talking with tour agencies, I soon realised that visiting the Galapagos Islands on a budget was possible. So off I went on my five day cruise and now here I am a decade later and returning to my absolute favourite place on earth. Whilst money cannot put a price on a Galapagos experience, you can definitely see everything it has to offer with limited funds. You just need to know how. Here are a 10 tips on how to visit the Galapagos Islands on a budget:


How to Visit the Galapagos Islands on a Budget

1. Visit in the low season

galapagos islands on a budget wildlife photography

My first visit to the Galapagos was in the high season, in November 2003, and my second visit was in October 2013, which is the low season. There was a noticeable difference in the cost between seasons and naturally the price difference was due to a decade gap between travels. In my experience, October is prime time to travel here – the prices are cheaper, the weather is still fantastic, the ocean is relatively warm (but I am from Tasmania, so 23 degree ocean temperature is actually hot for me), and it was a perfect time of year to see baby animals. If you want the absolute cheapest time to visit, then go for September. The trade-off is rough seas but you will have great bargaining power. What I liked about visiting in the low season was not feeling the urgency to book cruises or accommodation before arriving. Less people travelling to the Galapagos means vacancies on cruises, tours and accommodations. This gives you time to shop around without feeling pressured to book until you find exactly what you want.


2. Book direct with cruise operators

galapagos islands on a budget Sunset

This little secret is something I learnt after I booked our cruise. I had the idea that I would book the tours once in the Galapagos, as we would be closer to the action and score a better deal than if we booked in Quito. And the latter was true, however if you book with the tour operator directly, then you will save even more. There were two travellers on our cruise who booked directly with the boat owner and paid $350 per person less than my husband and I. They did miss out on the first day, as they arrived into the Galapagos the day after the cruise departed, but they did not miss out on too much. When we departed Ecuador, I was reading through the invaluable Galapagos Islands tourist information guide, and at the back of the book were the contact details for all of the cruise tour operators for the Galapagos Islands. Voilà! This guide is your ticket to avoiding paying travel agency commissions and the best way to get a great price for your cruise.


3. Be flexible with your dates

galapagos islands on a budget Blue Footed Booby

Flexibility is essential to get the best deals on flights to the Galapagos and all tours. The flights to the Galapagos generally have a fixed price (US $240 each way), however you can find some great last minute deals on the internet. I met someone who found a round trip to the Galapagos for US $170, but the rules of the airfare only allowed a maximum stay of three days. Another traveler was booking a flight from Bogota, Columbia to Quito, Ecuador, however a flight from Bogota to the Galapagos was going to be the same price. Naturally she chose the latter.

There are two main airports located on the Galapagos Islands. One is located on Isla Baltra, which is an island next to the main island of Santa Cruz. The other airport is located on the island of San Cristobal. The flights to San Cristobal are cheaper than flying into Isla Baltra, so if you have San Cristobal on your itinerary, you may want to start your adventure here to save money.

Having flexibility with cruises and tours will save you money. If you are able to arrive onto the Galapagos without any bookings, and are happy to jump on last minute tours and cruises, tour operators will give you discounts so they can fill their tour or cruise. There may be some catches, such as sharing a cabin with another traveler, or the cruise may leave from a different island you are staying on. The live aboard dive cruise that my husband was originally thinking of books out up to two years in advance. Due to a cancellation, the $4000 price tag would have been reduced to $2800 if he had chosen this tour last minute.


4. Find a travel partner

galapagos islands on a budget Tortoise photo

If you visit the Galapagos with a travel partner, you can share some of the travelling costs, and it also allows you to ask for discounts. Tour operators prefer to have the maximum group size before departure, so two more people instead of one added to a tour will be more favourable and may entice them to give you a discount. When we were booking our 8 day cruise, the travel agent gave us our price and I immediately asked for a $100 discount since there were two of us travelling. She contacted the boat owner and they agreed to the discount without any hesitation.


5. Don’t be afraid to ask for discounts and shop around

galapagos islands on a budget Isabela Island

In the low season, tours can have difficulty filling capacity. This gives you the ability to ask for discounts on your tour. Don’t be afraid! The worst they can say is no, or offer you a counter discount, that might not be as big. Be sure to shop around for the best deals. When we were booking our diving, one travel agent quoted US $140 and the tour agency next door quoted US $175 for the exact same dive tour. Once you have shopped around and have an idea on price, choose a tour operator you want to book with and wheel and deal until you get the best price!


6. DIY tours

galapagos islands on a budget nature photos

The islands of Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal have plenty of self-guided activities. When you first arrive, be sure to visit one of the tourist offices and pick up the Galapagos Islands Information Guide. This little gem will quickly become your best friend and will allow you to plan your time strategically on the Galapagos. It includes maps, suggested sites you can visit yourself and background information on the Galapagos.

What I love about DIY tours is having the freedom to chose what I want to see and when I want to depart, not having to travel with a large group and compete with photo opportunities.

My favourite self-guided tour on Santa Cruz is the hike to Tortuga Bay. It is a beautiful hike through the national park on a well paved path. Along the way we saw different species of finches, lava lizards and marine iguanas. The path leads to the Galapagos Beach, where you watch the locals surf or take a stab at it yourself. Once on the beach, it is a 20 minute walk to Tortuga Bay. The soft white sand beach is surrounded by mangroves and you can spend the day snorkelling with White Tip Reef Sharks or rent kayaks at the bay and enjoy the area this way.

On Isabela Island I loved the snorkelling at Concha and Perla Bay. This shallow bay is only a 15 minute walk from the town of Puerto Villamil and is next to the ferry terminal. It is home to sea turtles, eagle rays, and sea lions. The crystal blue water makes is easy to spot the marine life and if you snorkel here before 9:00am you will avoid the large crowds arriving from the daily tours. The Breeding Centre for turtles is another DIY must do. It is only 1.5km from Puerto Villamil and here you can see how the Galapagos Islands National Park service is conserving these creatures. A five minute walk north from the Breeding Centre you will find pink flamingos roaming freely.

If you decide to go the DIY tour option, the ferry cost between each island is US $30 per person each way. The US $100 fee you pay upon entering the Galapagos at immigration means that there is no additional cost to enter the various national park sites throughout the Galapagos.


7. Hostels or budget hotels

galapagos islands on a budget

As a budget traveller, the cost savings of staying in a dorm room within a hostel is no secret, but hostels may also offer private rooms for only a little more than a dorm. Be sure to ask what the cost is for a private room. If you are travelling as a couple, private rooms are always a nicer option. Check if there are rooms that offer shared bathroom or private bathroom options, and work out which fits into your budget. Visit hotels and ask what the prices of their economical rooms are. If you are looking for somewhere a little quieter, a hotel may be more suitable and in many instances their economical rooms are the same prices as a private room in a hostel. Always ask to look at the room before you commit. Check for hot water and ask if Wi-Fi and breakfast are included. As with tours, negotiate a price for your room, especially if it is low season and/or if you are staying for an extended period. If you want free accommodation, Couchsurfing has a presence on the Galapagos Islands too.

We stayed in three hotels during our Galapagos adventure. The first was Flamingo Hotel, which offered an economical room with private bathroom and hot water. It was US $28 per night for the room and for the price it was a great stay. We also stayed at Hotel Lirio Del Mar. It was only meters from Flamingo Hotel, and although it had a cold-water bathroom, it offered us peace and quiet from the outside world. There is not a lot of atmosphere here, but it still has all of the budget amenities you need.

On Isabela Island we stayed at Hotel Real. For US $25 per night, we had our own little two-storey cabana. Hammocks hung under trees throughout the garden and it was located on Terra Real Ave, two blocks from the centre of town.


8. Volunteer on the Galapagos

Participating in a volunteer program is one option that can help you experience the Galapagos Islands on a budget. There are many programs available that can be prearranged, however, they can be expensive. I met a woman who arranged her program from the UK at a cost of US $2,000 per month to participate. If you are planning on staying for a couple of months, look out for volunteer opportunities once you’re there. I met someone who did a cruise and at the end she was offered a volunteer position on the boat as a housekeeper in exchange for continuing on the cruise and visiting the islands at no charge.


9. Eat where the locals eat

As with any tourist spot, there are many expensive restaurants located throughout the Galapagos Islands. Most are on the waterfront throughout the Santa Cruz and Isabela islands. On top of being expensive, they also charge up to 22% in tax, something you will not find in the cheaper restaurants. If you take a walk a few streets inward on any of the inhabited islands, you will find smaller restaurants with cheaper food which is typically where the locals eat.

On the island of Santa Cruz, we made a nightly pilgrimage to the kiosk street, located two blocks back from the waterfront. During the day the area looks like an average street where you can order ‘almuerzos’, a three course lunch with a drink for as little as US $3 per person. At night this street is transformed and comes alive with alfresco dining and cooking. The street is closed off and the restaurants move their tables and chairs onto the street and serve the local fanfare. Seafood is the highlight for visiting this area for dinner. We feasted on a full lobster, which was cooked on a BBQ and served with rice, salad and fries, all for $30.

On Isabela Island, I quickly fell in love with the bar/hostel Caleta Iguana (Casa Rosada). Located at the end of Antonio Gil Avenue and right on the beach, it was the perfect place to watch the sunset. It is also the place to have fun in the area. In addition to great food and cheap drinks, they have a volleyball net set up, a slack line, and a fire pit. If relaxing around a fire, talking with the locals and the tourists is your thing, then make a beeline to Caleta Iguana when you visit Isabela.


10. Buy your travel essentials before arrival

Visiting the Galapagos Islands on a budget is not possible if you need to buy your equipment there. From basic provisions to high tech gear, things can get pretty expensive. I was looking at buying a bug spray and the price was US $15 compared to US $8 when I bought it back in the US. My husband was interested in buying a tripod mount for his Go Pro, but with the US $20 price tag – double the recommended retail price – he decided to wait until we were back in the US. While I do agree with buying local when I am travelling to show my support, in this case I recommend making a list of your travel essentials and purchasing all of them before your visit to the Galapagos.


Photos courtesy of Theresa Lord

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Theresa Lord

Theresa Lord

Theresa has a background in travel consultancy and has spent the last ten years saving her pennies and travelling off the beaten track to remote destinations. Growing up on the island of Tasmania, Australia, she has an interest in visiting islands, and her favourites are Easter Island and the Galapagos Islands. Theresa has travelled extensively throughout USA and Latin America. Her other interests include cooking (mainly Thai), hiking and being in the ocean. You can follow her travels on her travel blog: “The Beauty Hiker

Departful is a travel magazine that provides accessible, relevant, and thoughtful travel tips and ideas to inspire people to explore the world around them. We feature travel articles, travel tips, and photography based on our own experiences from over 100 countries covering all things adventure, culture, food and drink, technology, and gear. Made with ❤ in Toronto.

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