Galápagos Islands On A Budget: How I Spent Half The Money And Double The Time

The Galápagos Islands are known for being one of the more expensive places to visit, especially when compared to the price of traveling through mainland Ecuador.  However, since I had studied biology in college I knew I couldn’t pass up a trip to the islands made famous by Charles Darwin.  I visited the islands on a budget that ultimately equalled $79 a day.  Here are some of my money-saving tips, in addition to the breakdown of the amount of money I spent during my 15-day stay.

Strap yourselves in kids, this is gonna be a long blog post.

Cruise vs. Independent Travel

Booking a Galápagos cruise from your home country is more expensive than booking a cruise from Quito, which is more expensive than booking from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island.  Since I had the flexibility of spending 15 days in the Galápagos my plan was to arrive in Puerto Ayora and check out cruise prices.  However, after talking to a number of people and seeing the prices for day-trips, I ultimately decided to island hop independently.  My reasons for such were:

  • Four of the 19 Galápagos islands are available for independent travel.  A number of the other islands are accessible by day tours.
  • The first and last day of a cruise shouldn’t really be counted toward the cruise day total, as not many activities occur during those days.  For example, on a six-day cruise the first day is spent with some travel and getting settled onto the cruise ship.  The last day might include half a day of activity or so, but will also involve the disembark and travel to the trip end point.  So a six-day cruise will not actually be packed with activities for all six days.
  • Traveling independently allowed me to travel at my own pace and see the things I wanted to see.  If I wanted to lay on a beach and read all day, I could so.  If I wanted to snorkel in the morning and spend the afternoon exploring one of the many turtle centers, I could so.  My schedule was my own to make rather than being rushed from one activity to another by a guide.
  • There are tons of free activities and opportunities to see animals on each island.  I highly recommend Thrifty Nomads’ 23 Ways to Explore Galapagos on a Budget.

After making my decision to travel independently, I later spoke to a group I met in the Galápagos who said the cheapest tour they found in Puerto Ayora essentially followed the same activities they completed independently or with guided day tours – but they were able to do it sans cruise for much cheaper.  This, coupled with the fact that the average tour price my hostel-mates purchased in Quito was $2,000+ for 7 days of cruising or less, ultimately led me to choose independent travel.  Was I pampered on a luxury cruise?  No – but I wasn’t living in squalor, either.  Overall I was very happy with my decision to island hop independently.

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So while I didn’t drop $2K on a luxury cruise, here are some places I did spend money…

Galápagos Entry Fee

A non-negotiable.  You must pay the $100 at your starting airport (Quito or Guayaquil).  The money goes toward conservation of the islands.

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Galápagos Transit Control Card

Another non-negotiable.  I don’t quite understand the difference between this $20 card and the above mentioned entry fee, but both are required for entry.  You must hold onto this card until you leave the islands, as it will be required at departure to prove you have not overstayed your maximum allotable days.

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Airfare

In order to fly to the Galápagos Islands you must first start in either Quito or Guayaquil, Ecuador; it is not possible to fly into the islands from another country.  Avianca, TAME, and LATAM are the three airlines that fly to the archipelago; you have the option of flying into Baltra Airport (you’ll then transfer by ferry to Santa Cruz island) or San Cristóbal airport.

Finding airfare to the Galápagos Islands can be tricky, as low prices advertised online are sometimes reserved for Ecuadorian nationals.  I would recommend calling the airline companies themselves to clarify which tickets are available to you as a non-Ecuadorian citizen, as you could accidentally purchase the lower Ecuadorian-only fare and then get hit with a large fee once you get to the airport.

Since I had recently opened an American Airlines credit card to take advantage of the 50,000 mile sign-up bonus, I happened to have a large number of American Airline miles.  American Airlines is a member of the OneWorld alliance, as is LATAM Airlines.  This means I was able to use my American Airlines miles to pay for my flight to the Galápagos.

I first tried searching for flights to the Galápagos on American Airlines’ website.  Since no such flights existed I called their 1-800 phone number and booked directly through an agent; there was no extra charge for doing so as the flight was not available to book online.  The round-trip flight cost me 10,000 miles and $49.44.

For reference, Avianca is a member of the Star Alliance (as is United Airlines), so you could do the same thing with United miles.

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Accommodation

As a solo traveler, I was actually at a disadvantage when it came to accommodation, as most lodgings in the Galápagos do not have dorms, and thus I paid the full price of each private room.

On Santa Cruz island I booked a few nights in a shared room at the Galápagos Best Homestay, although I later found Hostel Galápagos Dreams online to be cheaper.  I also received free accommodation for six nights on Santa Cruz through my Workaway position.

On Isabela island I stayed in a hospedaje of a friend of my Workaway’s matriarch.  It wasn’t anything special, but I got a discounted rate, free breakfast, and it was located about 20 steps from the beach.

On San Cristóbal island I finally took the advice I had read on the internet and of a girl I had met on one of my guided day tours – don’t book ahead, just show up and ask for a room.  Traveling at the end of November, which is a bit on shoulder season, I was too fearful that all the rooms would be taken when I showed up.  Booking.com and Hostelworld telling me the hostel had sold out for the night didn’t help, either.  When I finally took a chance on San Cristóbal I was so glad I did.  I picked a night a few weeks ahead of my actual desired date and researched prices on Hostelworld.  I then found the first, second, and third cheapest hostels on the island and started by visiting the cheapest.  Even though per both Booking.com and Hostelworld Hostal Gosén was booked full, when I showed up I was told there was a single room with a double bed and private bathroom available for the dates I desired.  I was told the price was $22 a night for a private room with a private bath and double bed, but after I murmured “Hmm, no hay desayuno…?” the price was bumped down to $20 a night.

Important note: Be aware that as of June 2017 it is a requirement that you show proof of accommodation for every night of your stay (cruise lodging suffices) upon entry to the islands.  As I didn’t have a solid plan in place, I circumvented this requirement by using Hostelworld to book the three nights I knew I wanted to stay in Galápagos Best Homestay, then making a separate reservation at the same hostel for the rest of my time in the Galápagos.  Per Hostelworld’s rules, as long as I made my reservation more than 7 days in advance and cancelled three days in advance, I would not get charged and would receive my deposit back… which is exactly what happened! After arrival I simply cancelled the second reservation. As of my November 2018 trip this was still a somewhat new rule and I didn’t find it to be enforced whatsoever, but better to be safe than sorry.  See other Galápagos Islands entry requirements here.

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Food

I made sure that in all of my lodgings I had a kitchen available, so I cooked myself a breakfast of oatmeal and fruit every morning, save for when a breakfast was included with my lodging.  Most nights I cooked myself a simple dinner of quinoa, veggies, lentils, and bread from a local panadería.  

Note that Santa Cruz island is the only island with a proper grocery store, so be sure to stock up on groceries before leaving for the other islands.

I usually ate lunch at a restaurant or packed some snacks to take to the beach.  Lunch ranged from $2 for two tortillas verdes to a delicious vegetarian $5 almuerzo del día at Andrea & Valerio on Santa Cruz.

Don’t make my mistake of showing up at the Quito airport without any food and having to spend $13 (a fortune for food in Ecuador) for a crummy soup and snacks at the airport.  You can bring food into the Quito and Guayaquil airports, but you cannot take most food onto the islands themselves.   So it’s completely fine, and cheaper, to bring a lunch to the airport with you.

If you take guided day tours lunch with a snack is usually included in the price of the tour.  Most tour companies have vegetarian options, just be sure to tell them ahead of time.  (And remind them.  Again and again.  Even after doing all of this and specifying in Spanish that I did not eat chicken or seafood, a fish somehow wound up in my rice for one of my snorkel tours.)

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Day tours

I booked four day tours on the three islands I visited (I didn’t make it to Floreana).  Prices ranged from $150  + tip for the 360° snorkel tour on San Cristóbal to $40 + tip for the Sierra Negra volcano hike on Isabela.  Generally scuba tours cost more than snorkel tours, which cost more than land tours.  I booked each tour in person the evening before  to try and obtain a “last minute” price.  It’s quite easy to find the tour companies, as each island has a strip where tour offices are lined up next to each other.  If you book multiple tours with one company you can sometimes receive a small discount.

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Travel

Inter-island ferries are not to be taken lightly in regard to your budget.  Each ferry departs from Santa Cruz, so if you would like to travel from Isabela to San Cristóbal you must first take a ferry from Isabela to Santa Cruz and then another from Santa Cruz to San Cristóbal.  Each ferry only runs about twice a day, so trips must be planned accordingly.  Most ferry operators will quote you $30 for each ride, but I found that if you ask where to find the $25 tickets or walk out after saying you can find them for $25 elsewhere, you’ll quickly be offered a $25 ticket price.

Be aware that the price of the ferry does NOT cover the price of the dingy to take you to the ferry boat.  How else you’re expected to get to the ferry parked in the water 30m off the dock I’ve yet to determine, but the dingy boat to and from the ferry costs anywhere from 50 cents to $1 each way.

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Miscellaneous

I generally found Santa Cruz island to be the cheapest of the three, with Isabela island being the most expensive (once you land you must pay a $20 to enter, and that’s after the $120 of fees you pay at the airport).

I had read a few blogs recommending buying snorkel gear prior to coming to the islands to save money on rentals.  Ever the frugalista, I combed Quito’s stores for two three afternoons in search of the cheapest snorkel gear.  After visiting a random appliance store that happened to sell a snorkel and fin set twice, I finally decided to buy the set for $24 (yes, the sales associate recognized me each time I came in and said something along the lines of “You’re finally buying it, eh?”).  I was so proud of my cost savings until I used the snorkel set once in Las Grietas… and then promptly lost it.  Lesson learned: don’t spend too much time fretting over saving a dollar here or there.  In retrospect a wetshirt would have been more useful for me, as I wasn’t super big on snorkeling independently, snorkels and fins were provided during each snorkeling day tour, and I found the November water to be quite cold, even with a 3mm full body wetsuit.  You live and you learn.

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So how much money did I spend in total?  Here’s a cost breakdown:

Cost (USD)
Galápagos Entry Fee 100
Galápagos Transit Control Card
20
Airfare 49.44
Accommodation 203
Food (including groceries) 126.75
Day tours (including tips) 447
Travel (ferries, buses, etc.) 150
Miscellaneous (independent activities, souvenirs, laundry, etc.) 82.7
Total 1178.89

Thus, my daily budget equaled about $79 a day.  Not half bad, if I do say so myself.  The Galápagos Islands were certainly a more expensive part of my extended trip through South America, but I feel as if it was worth the time and money spent.  Upon reflection, I don’t feel like I missed out or skimped on anything I wanted to do in order to cut back on costs.  And while I won’t knock anyone who wants to take a cruise, this is what I found worked for me.

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