A Galapagos trip is high on the bucket lists of many travelers, and with good reason. UNESCO has called the archipelago one of the most unique and biodiverse regions on the planet, and the Galapagos Conservancy confirms that the islands off the Ecuadorian coast are notable for their nearly unparalleled numbers of endemic bird, mammal, plant, and marine species.
Even the most well-traveled people tend to use adjectives like “life-changing” to describe their time on the island; among them is Matt Long, a former lobbyist turned travel blogger who visited the Galapagos in 2009. “Traveling there brings forth a true feeling of exploration and discovery,” says Long, who traveled with Lindblad Expeditions.
Planning a Galapagos trip, though, isn't like planning most vacations.
First, travelers can't simply show up in the Galapagos; they must organize their visit with a licensed tour operator. This means that prospective visitors must plan in advance, as far ahead as a year, according to Abercrombie and Kent, a tour company that has been leading trips to the Galapagos since 1995.
Because expectations are typically high and because the cost is usually higher—as much as $10,000 with some tour operators-- it's important to know how long you want to spend on the islands; what you want to see and experience; and what kind of support and amenities you expect. Without taking these factors into account before your trip, you're likely to be out a lot of money and disappointed by your experience.
So how do you plan a Galapagos trip?
Steve Nomchong, founder of Yacu Amu Experiences, a tour operator leading Galapagos journeys since 1996, says that any travel decisions should be preceded by understanding why one wants to visit the Galapagos in the first place. Most, but not all, travelers, Nomchong says, are motivated to visit the Galapagos because they love nature and want to see endemic species in their natural habitat.
The decisions they'll make, about tour operators and specific itineraries, will depend upon their motivations for visiting the islands. “Big decisions,” explains Nomchong, “are cruise vs. island-based tour, small yacht/catamaran vs. small ship, and length of trip.”
Long says that while a Galapagos trip can be done on a budget, this is not a trip where you want to skimp.
“If you go with a cut-rate cruise operator, you're going to get a cut-rate experience. That's not to say you should go with the most expensive either, but this is not a situation where the lowest bid should win. If that means saving for two, five, or 10 years, it's worth it.” Dalene and Pete Heck, long-term travelers, agree.
The Hecks urge prospective Galapagos visitors to not “cheap out.” “You are going to be on the sea for 5-10 days,” says Pete. “You are already spending a lot of money getting there; you might as well make your journey worth it and not risk being miserably uncomfortable.”
Long chose Lindblad Expeditions because of its reputation. Not only did the company have a verifiable track record of operating responsibly in the Galapagos, it also had a veritable stamp of approval because of its partnership with National Geographic. Long recommends choosing a tour operator based on its reputation, its number of years operating in the Galapagos, its naturalist/guest ratio on board the vessel, and its history of sustainable, “leave no trace” operations.
The staff of Abercrombie and Kent, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, advises travelers planning Galapagos journeys to ask for specific details about itinerary options, inclusions, and landing spots that will be visited. Questions to ask include: What is the number of visits to populated ports versus unpopulated sites away from crowds? How many landings are planned for each day?
Also, travelers with children will want to know if there are any special activities for kids or on-board, and if childcare included in the trip fee. Abercrombie and Kent offers a “family departures” program with a Children's Activity Coordinator and child-friendly programming.
For more tips for planning a Galapagos trip, check out our slideshow.
Julie Schwietert Collazo is a freelance writer based in New York City.