galapagos cruise island hopping or land based

The Galapagos Islands are a truly spectacular travel destination worthy of inclusion on any bucket-list. Read our guide to help ensure you choose the right Galapagos travel experience for you...

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Published: 30th June 2019

Bartolome Island, GalapagosThe Galapagos Islands are a magical place to visit combining iconic wildlife, beautiful landscapes, fascinating geography and geology, and a wonderful array of experiences from swimming to scuba diving, bird watching to beaches.

When visiting the Galapagos it is important to choose the right type of experience for you - to fit your preferred travel style, budget, and the type of travel experience you are looking for. The Galapagos are often seen as a "once in a lifetime" type of destination, so a bit of planning and research into the archipelago is always a good idea so you can be confident you make the most out of your experience and maximise your enjoyment.

There are basically three main ways to visit the Galapagos Islands when on a holiday: 1) on a cruise, 2) on an "island-hopping" holiday, and 3) on a "land-based" holiday. Each of these options provides slightly different experiences to the others, and they have their own subtle advantages and disadvantages which must be considered when deciding which is the right choice for you. Read our guide to help you choose the right type of Galapagos holiday for you...

Galapagos Cruise

Camila YachtProbably the most iconic way to explore the Galapagos Islands is on a cruise: gently sailing through the archipelago in the comfort and luxury of a yacht, following in the footsteps of Charles Darwin when he first visited the Galapagos islands on the HMS Beagle. (Image shown is the Camila Cruise yacht).

A Galapagos cruise is a multi-day fully-inclusive live-aboard experience (anything from 4 days to 15 days) following a fixed cruise itinerary through the islands with daily excursions and visits to the various destinations included in your cruise.

Here at Go Andes we have to be honest and admit that a cruise is by far our favourite way to explore the Galapagos - cruises brings the wildlife closer and provides the best chance to spot wildlife (which is the main attraction in the Galapagos), they allow more memorable experiences and excursions, and they allow access to parts of the archipelago that are difficult to access any other way. Cruises elevate the whole adventure to create a more unique and memorable experience in our opinion.

However cruises are not for everyone and there are some disadvantages compared to some of the other options - they are generally more expensive per day (although price alone is not the only consideration, as although they are more expensive the "value" can often be better due to better wildlife watching and length of excursions), and the idea of spending days at a time on a "cruise" isn't for everyone.

One of the main traps that often puts people off cruises is falling into the assumption that a Galapagos cruise is like any other cruise: it isn't! Although we would entirely agree that the huge fully-inclusive cruise ships of the type that cruise around the Mediterranean or the Caribbean aren't for everyone, a Galapagos cruise is a completely different experience. Instead of focussing on the ubiquitous on-board experiences and short "day trip" excursions found on the Caribbean cruises, Galapagos cruises are "expedition cruises" designed to maximise the experiences with most of the time actually spent off the yacht on various excursions - visiting islands, snorkelling, kayaking, wildlife watching and so on. 

Galapagos Camila Cruise DeckThere are various standards of cruise ship available, from budget to incredibly luxurious, and the easiest way to think about this is like comparing a basic hostel to a 5-star luxury hotel - the more you pay the better the experience, the better decor, better services, larger rooms and so on. There is no set standard for rating cruise ships so here at Go Andes we rate ships as budget (equivalent to a back-packer hostel and below), mid-range (equivalent to a 3-star hotel), superior (equivalent to a 4-star hotel) and luxury (equivalent to a 5-star hotel and above). We do not provide budget cruises. When deciding on the right cruise for you the class of the cruise ship is a key consideration, as the higher the standard the higher the cost and the more premium the service: not only the quality and decor of the ship but the standard of the food, the quality of the Galapagos guide (the better guides are contracted to the better ships), and so on.

If you do decide that a cruise is the best option for you then your next step should be choosing the right cruise for you, which also requires some planning and thought (size of ship, islands visited, length of cruise etc) and you can read our guide on that here.

Advantages of Galapagos Cruises

Galapagos Cruise Map

Wildlife: Compared to the other options a Galapagos cruise maximises your time for wildlife watching and excursions and provide the best overall wildlife experiences. Unlike the land-based and island-hopping experiences on a cruise most of the travelling between islands or to/from the various excursion destinations is done at night when you are asleep or during meal-times, so when you wake up in the morning you've already arrived at your next destination maximising time to enjoy the excursions and wildlife.

Visit more places: Galapagos cruises allow you to visit some of the more rural, isolated or distant destinations away from the towns that are very difficult or impossible to visit on day-trips and can only really be accessed on multi-day cruises. To phrase it another way: the only way you can visit many of the Galapagos islands visitor sites is on a cruise.

The experience: The experience of the cruise itself can also be rewarding - not only is a cruise a special unique experience that differs from the more traditional holiday experiences, but it also brings new friendships. The smaller yachts mean you spend the whole duration of the cruise with the same group of people sharing that once-in-a-lifetime experience with them, sharing stories and photos during mealtimes, and enhancing your experience; and you can enjoy the other benefits on the yachts such as the sun deck, jacuzzi, and on the larger cruise ships the small libraries with photography books of the Galapagos or video rooms showing documentaries in the evenings which again enhance the overall adventure.

Isolation: The feeling of isolation really adds to the whole experience. At any one time there are many many cruise ships dotted around the Galapgos, however their routes are managed in a way that spreads them out across the archipelago, which means that when you visit a particular excursion destination you might be the only cruise ship there and although there may be other tourists on another cruise ship in a cover nearby, you can't see them to get the sensation that you have the whole Galapagos to yourselves.

Galapagos KayakingLuxury: There are some very good value affordable cruise options available, but if you are looking for real luxury then there really are some truly wonderfully luxurious cruise ships sailing through the islands. To be fair the standard of the hotels in the towns has improved over recent years, but for the top-tier of luxury a chartered luxury yacht with your own private Galapagos guide and crew for a few days sailing through the archipelago cannot be beaten.

Diving: If you are looking to visit on a diving experience then really you must visit on a live-aboard cruise. Unlike the expedition cruises (that focus on naturalist wildlife experiences) diving cruises only involve diving excursions around the islands, and although some day-trips are possible from the hotels really if you want to get into the best dive sites in the outer reaches of the islands you need to go on a cruise.

Disadvantages of Galapagos Cruises

Expensive: Cruises can be quite expensive per day compared to some of the other options (although when comparing costs you need to consider that cruise costs include everything you need: accommodation, all meals, guide, excursions etc), but if you are travelling on a tight budget or looking for the cheapest option then a land-based or island-hopping option might be better suited to you.

Galapagos WildlifeTime: Cruises are not the best option if you are restricted for time and only have a few days in the Galapagos. The shortest cruises available are 4 days / 3 nights but these shorter cruises do not really allow you explore much of the archipelago and can be an expensive option for what is ultimately a very short visit. Unless you can stretch your stay to 5 days / 4 nights then a land-based holiday is probably the better option to get more for your money.

Avoid Budget Options: Some of the budget cruises can be very poor quality. Remember that when you pay for a cruise you aren't just paying for the yacht itself but are paying for the whole experience so a cheaper price can mean a poor yacht, small or shared cabins (maybe with bunk beds), little or no communal space to relax, an inferior itinerary, terrible food, an inferior Galapagos guide, poor service on board, and a lack of facilities (useable wetsuits, snorkels, kayaks etc) so our advice would be to avoid going too cheap as it will affect your overall experience, not just the quality of the cruise ship itself (here at Go Andes we actually don't provide budget cruises for these reasons).

Sea-Sickness: Cruises are possibly not the best option for people who suffer from sea-sickness (although there are ways around this, such as by choosing one of the larger vessels or a double-hulled catamaran, or travelling at a time of year when the ocean is calmer).

Book Early: They can get sold out months (and sometimes years) in advance, so they can require a little bit of preparation and organisation, although this is worth it to ensure you get the right cruise ship and experience for you. It is possible to just turn up at the Galapagos and risk finding a last-minute cruise with availability, however this is a big risk as there may be no availability or if there is the options available may be severely limited meaning you either end up with an itinerary you didn't want or a very budget or very luxury cruise ship that, either way, doesn't match what you were looking for. The best advice is to book in advance, and book as early as possible.

Galapagos Land-Based Holiday

Galapagos BeachA Galapagos land-based holiday involves staying in a hotel in one of the main towns on the island close to one of the two main Galapagos airports (Seymour Airport on Baltra Island, or San Cristobal Airport on San Cristobal Island) and enjoy daily excursions to spot the wildlife and visit some of the places nearby, returning to the hotel each evening.

The two main locations where land-based holidays are most popular are the towns of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (the capital of the Galapagos) and Puerto Ayora as these offer the largest accommodation choices, have the best hotels, and are easiest to access as they are close by the main airports.

Land-based Galapagos holidays are a great option if you are looking to visit for a short amount of time, want to travel on a budget, want to relax for a few days rather than embark on excursions, or just fancy the idea of staying in a hotel. However you need to consider that there are some major disadvantages compared to some of the other options, particularly from a wildlife perspective and if you want to explore a more expansive area of the Galapagos.

Advantages of a Galapagos Land-Based Holiday

Affordability: A land-based holiday is probably the cheapest way to visit the Galapagos, as the cost only includes the hotel (not excursions), and travel costs are limited as the hotels are in the towns closest to the airports. There are also some smaller visitor sights that can be explored for free, such as walks to beaches to spot sea lions or crabs or visits to the visitor centres within the towns (entry fees may apply).

Time: Land-based options are also great if you are stretched for time and only want to visit the Galapagos for a few nights, allowing you to get a flavour for the Galapagos on a short trip, something which is not really possible on the other options which require a few more days.

Galapagos Beach WalkFree Time: Unlike on cruises where the price of excursions is built into the cruise price, on land-based holidays excursions are not mandatory so if you just want to spend your days as free time relaxing in the hotel pool or wandering through the town for a coffee and to spot the wildlife at the harbour this is perfectly possible. However if you want guided excursions these are also possible.

Visit a Galapagos Town: Although many of the cruises do visit the towns some cruise itineraries will not, so if you want to visit one of the Galapagos towns to see the daily way of life for the people of the Galapagos then a land-based holiday is the best choice.

Sleep in a Hotel: It may seem like an obvious advantage, but sleeping in a hotel rather than on a ship can be very important if cruise ships are not your thing, there's no sea-sickness through the night!

Flexibility: Land-based holidays are flexible and can be booked by themselves or bolted on to the end of a cruise, so you should not think this is an "either or" situation - it is perfectly possible to experience both, so enjoy a short cruise then spend a few days relaxing in a beautiful Galapagos hotel before returning to the Ecuador mainland.

Disadvantages of a Galapagos Land-Based Holiday

Galapagos WildlifeWildlife: The main disadvantage of the land-based Galapagos holidays is they severely limit your wildlife watching opportunities compared to cruises. The free visits to sights within or nearby the town will allow you to see some of the iconic species of the islands, and excursions to other islands or visitor sites further afield further enhance this experience, but in all cases you are limited to destinations that are close by to your hotel and cannot explore the islands and visitor sites deeper into the Galapagos where you can see different species, different landscapes and where the wildlife may be more abundant.

Shorter Excursions: If you are including excursions in a land-based holiday then compared to on a cruise the time to enjoy the excursions on a land-based holiday can be shorter, meaning you can see and do less. This is because excursions on a land-based holiday require part of the day to travel to/from that days visitor site (e.g. on a speed boat), whereas on a cruise you wake up and you have already arrive.

Sea-Sickness: It is common for tourists to book land-based holidays rather than a cruise where there are concerns about sea-sickness, however, unless you are going to restrict yourself to walks to the visitor sites close-by your hotel, the daily excursions often involve lengthy speed-boat travel each morning and evening to and from your hotel and the various visitor sites, so counterintuitively actually a cruise can be the better option in these instances - choose a large vessel or catamaran that is more stable in the water, and travel during the warm season (December to June) when the sea is calmer. 

Visit Less Islands: The Galapagos Islands stretch out over a fairly large area and each island within the archipelago is unique with its own geography, landscape and wildlife. On a land-based holiday you are either restricted to one island for the entire duration of your visit or if you embark on excursions you are still restricted to the few islands that are within a short travel distance of your hotel, so you visit less islands overall.

Galapagos Island-Hopping Holiday

Galapagos BeachA Galapagos island-hopping holiday is very similar to a land-based holiday in that you sleep in a hotel in one of the towns on the islands except their is one key difference: instead of staying in the same hotel for the entire duration of your stay you spend a few nights in one hotel then "hop" to another island to spend a few nights in a different hotel on a different island, and so on.

Island-hopping holidays are a good middle-ground between land-based holidays and cruises, providing a relatively affordable way to visit more of the archipelago without the expense of a cruise, therefore allowing you the chance to visit more islands and see more wildlife than a land-based holiday, although many of the disadvantages of land-based holidays are also found here.

There are only four inhabited islands in the Galapagos with the main population centres being Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island, Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island, and Puerto Velasco Ibarra on Floreana Island, so the island-hopping holidays are entirely focussed around accommodation in these towns.

Advantages of a Galapagos Island-Hopping Holiday

Price: Although island-hopping holidays are generally more expensive than land-based holidays (as they require additional travel within the Galapagos between the various islands) they can be more affordable than cruises while still allowing you to experience more of the archipelago. When comparing price just be sure to factor in that cruise costs are usually all-inclusive whereas island-hopping holidays may be on a bed and breakfast basis and may not include excursions.

Overland Galapagos TourMore Islands: Compared to a land-based holiday where you are restricted to one island (unless you include lengthy excursions to other islands) an island-hopping holiday will include visits to at least two of the islands meaning that you get to experience more of the Galapagos. However to really visit more of the islands a cruise is still the better option.

Free-Time: On a cruise there are excursions arranged every day and while it is perfectly fine to skip the excursions and simply relax with a cocktail on the balcony of your yacht the excursions are built into the price of the cruise, so you've essentially paid for any excursions you skip. On an island-hopping holiday if you wanted a free day to simply stroll around the town, walk to one of the visitor sites nearby or relax in your hotel you can do so and without paying anything - just include a free day in your holiday.

Disadvantages of a Galapagos Island-Hopping Holiday

Galapagos Blue-Footed BoobyWildlife: Overland holidays in the Galapagos, both land-based and island-hopping, are always inferior to a cruise as they don't visit the hidden bays and peripheral visitor sites which are home to unique species, beautiful wildlife, but which can really only be visited on a cruise.

Sea-Sickness: We mentioned this point as a disadvantage on land-based holidays, but the same applies here: don't assume that island-hopping holidays are better for you if you suffer from sea-sickness. Yes you sleep in a hotel rather than on a yacht, but the island "hopping" journeys are completed on speed boats between the various islands so these can be a little bumpy, and daily excursions can also involve boat travel to and from your visitor site destination for that day. If sea-sickness is the only reason you are considering avoiding a cruise, then contact us to discuss further and we can advise on choice of yacht and the best time of year to reduce the motion for you on a cruise.

Conclusion: Galapagos Cruise, Land-Based or Island Hopping?

So which option is better: cruise, land-based holiday or island-hopping? The key here is to understand that there is actually no such thing as a "better" Galapagos experience, there is just a "best" Galapagos experience for you which will depend on your own personal preferences and what you want to experience from your trip...

Best for on a budget or for a short trip: If you are on a budget and / or restricted for time and can only visit the Galapagos for a few days then a land-based holiday is probably best for you (three or four nights is ideal), as they provide a great introduction to the Galapagos and allow you to see some of the iconic wildlife and visit some of the visitor sites relatively cost-effectively.

Best if you want to avoid a cruise: If you simply hate the concept of a cruise then an island-hopping is the best option for you, although make sure you have at least four nights in the Galapagos as anything less than this would mean a land-based is the better option so you aren't wasting too much of your time on travel days between the islands.

Best for wildlife and experiences: If your budget can stretch, you can travel for at least four nights, and you want to have a "once in a lifetime" experience that would showcase the best that the islands have to offer, then in our opinion a cruise is undoubtedly the best way to experience the Galapagos by far. Cruises include visits to more islands and more visitor sites, they allow you the best possibility to see more wildlife as time for excursions is maximised as you travel between destinations during the night, and they provide a more unique and rewarding experience to really elevate the Galapagos Islands to that "once in a lifetime" trip that this destination deserves. Choosing a cruise is very important though, as the wrong cruise for you can affect your experience, so read our blog on 5 Tips When Picking The Best Galapagos Cruise For You. If your budget cannot stretch though do not feel pressured into choosing a cruise, and a mid-range standard

cruise then do our advice would be to not feel pressurised into choosing a cruise, instead of opting for a budget cruise (as ultimately you get what you pay for, and the experiences can be substantilly inferior to a mid-range cruise) consider you will have a better experience on a land-based holiday, or saving up for an extra year to be able to afford a mid-range cruise.

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