Travelling during the high/peak seasons will almost always cost more; both of our trips have been scheduled for shoulder seasons – November and February. If there are certain animals you want to see, however (such as albatross or whale sharks), there is no way to plan for trip outside of peak season. In general, peak season tends to be from December to mid-January and June to August.
Keep in mind that even if you find a great deal on airfare during high season, accommodations and trip rates will likely still be more expensive than in low season and demand will be much higher. It less likely that you will be able to get last-minute deals on day trips, multi-day cruises or accommodation if you visit during high season.
When to Visit
To get a better sense of when when be best to go is dependent on what time of experiences you are looking for. Check out our guide here which discusses what times of year are best for certain types of animal encounters, weather considerations, budget concerns and other factors you may not have considered.
Quasar Expeditions has great resources on what to expect in terms of weather and likely animal sightings in the Galápagos for each month of the year, which can be a great place to start if you have the privilege to schedule your trip any time of the year. We are looking forward to increased water clarity and for slightly warmer waters (snorkeling off of Pinzon was VERY chilly) compared to our end-of-November trip in 2016. Also consider if you will be visiting during rainy season (December to May) or dry season (June to November). Rain and garúa, the misty clouds found at higher elevations, is particularly a consideration if you are planning hikes to the highlands of Santa Cruz or to planning to hike volcanoes, such as Sierra Negra on Isla Isabela. During rainy season, views may be obstructed by the mist depending on the day and timing of your visit.
Here is a great air and water temperature, as well as rainfall reference from Southwind Adventures.
Finding a Good Deal
We monitor flights through Google Flights (web-based) and Skyscanner (app or web-based) to track prices and find target arrival/departure dates. We have found that due to the complexity of transfers, it is harder for even these flight aggregators to provide flexible date data without manually searching each variation.
For our trip, we have been monitoring airfare costs from Austin to Quito and from Quito to both San Cristobal and Santa Cruz separately so that we can book directly with airlines. Even when we were finding good composite prices for both legs, Skyscanner tends to send us to third-party vendors (think Expedia, Kayak, etc.) and the prices are lower than booking directly with airlines if you try to put the trip together yourself. If it seems too good to be true, there may be a catch.
While this may be okay if you are flying direct, I strongly advise against booking with third-party vendors who bundle flights from multiple carriers. If you miss a flight, there are heavy penalties for flight changes for the rest of your connections, if you can make changes at all. The third-party vendor will not help you if you miss your connection and are transferring to a different carrier (e.g. American to Quito and then LATAM from Quito to the island).
Things outside of your control will inevitably happen and flights are delayed or cancelled regularly, so make sure you book with an airline directly if you can. Even if its slightly more, because at least an agent will be there on the other end of the phone who can eventually get you to where you need to go. Overly low fares usually mean that the connections may be too short to catch, you are facing incredibly long layovers, or the fares don’t even exist and you will be forced into different flights at the same price point, which will be far from favorable.
We also are signed up for the free basic Scott’s Premium Flights service (and their premium service in the past) but haven’t seen any specials on flights to the Galápagos in the last 12 months, as of this writing. We HAVE seen deals on flights to Guayaquil and to Quito, however, which could make the first leg of your journey to mainland Ecuador much cheaper.
Tip: If you are within a few hours of another major airport hub (we are located in Austin, so we are close to Dallas and Houston as well), play around with your departure airport – you can sometimes save a significant amount of money by adding a small driving component to your trip. We also considered driving to New Orleans, where flights are cheap to Guayaquil due to a new airline route that opened there.
Visiting the Galápagos after South American Land Travel
You also have the option of traveling north from Peru into Ecuador via the mainland but make sure you plan your vaccinations and visas accordingly. We see cheap flights to Lima frequently and it is tempting to consider travelling overland to Ecuador and then just booking a flight for the Galápagos leg. Do know, however, that travelers coming from Brasil or Peru (or that have visited either in the last six months) are required to have their yellow fever vaccination as well. There is a global shortage of yellow fever vaccines, so even if there’s a great flight deal to Lima and you plan to travel overland to Ecuador, the cost of needing this additional vaccine may negate the money you saved by flying into Peru.
Even if you aren’t travelling directly from these countries, if you have been to them recently, you may still be turned away by customs if you don’t have your yellow fever vaccination. Other countries may also be considered suspect and customs agents may not pay close attention to date stamps before determining whether or not you require the vaccine to enter the country.
I actually had this problem when traveling with a Brazilian national to South Africa, where I was almost turned away at customs in Johannesburg since I did not have a yellow fever vaccination and she was carrying a Brazilian passport (but had not visited in the last six months). I had never even been to South America at this point, but I was even suspect by proxy – don’t mess around with the chance that you may need this vaccine if you’ve been through these areas in your recent travels.
Buyer Beware: Ecuadorian Resident Rates
You may see airfare from mainland Ecuador to the Galápagos that is <$300 per person, but double-check the fine print to make sure that these are not Ecuadorian resident rates. I also have a sneaking suspicion that some of the third-party flight vendors who bundle multiple carriers may be utilizing these resident rates as well to drop the price down lower. Just because you think that you bought a non-resident fare does not mean that this third-party vendor knows to check for this requirement or has read the fine print. At the end of the day, you will be the individual on the line for the additional taxes and fees if you purchase a resident fare and cannot prove Ecuadorian residency. Doing your research and paying attention to the fine print should keep you from any unpleasant surcharges and additional fees that come with cutting corners.
It looks like Avianca will show you resident rates without warning until you go to check out. When finalizing your flights, a pop-up window appears stating that you need to provide proof of Ecuadorian residency or will be subject to $150 per person (potentially each way) if unable to prove residency when checking in for your flight. I have seen that some bloggers are working around the system (using VPNs and the like) and buying flights at residential rates, taking a chance and hoping that the airport agent may choose not to collect the fee. It is worth shopping around for the best non-resident rate directly with the airline you will be flying with. Using Google Flights web-based searches, they list the best price for Ecuadorian residents and the best price for non-residents but doesn’t allow you to filter for non-resident fares.
Piecing Together Flights on Your Own
It may seem daunting at first, but you can score big if you are willing to put in a bit of legwork on your own. If you are planning to go to the Galápagos, you will have two, maybe three, legs to research and it is not that difficult to sort out on your own and really customize your travel.
1. LENGTH OF STAY: First things first, figure out how long you want to stay. It is usually a good idea to have an idea of both your minimum and your maximum stay based on what you want to see or what you want to afford. For example, at least 7 days so that you can stay overnight on two different islands and no more than 14 days due to budget constraints. Now you can start playing around with departure months and dates during the time frame(s) you want to visit.
2. TIMING OF STAY: Next, figure out what you want to see and consult our guide here for the best months to visit the Galapagos with a number of different considerations in mind. For example, if you have to see albatross, what months are best for maximizing your chances? Use this guide to consider different variables including your bucket list animal encounters, weather preferences and budget or planning constraints. Now you can start playing around with dates for your trip in Google Flights, Skyscanner, or another such online tool. Once you figure out the general idea of when you will travel (for us, some time between the middle of January and the end of February, aiming for about two weeks), you can start playing around with specific dates.
3. NAILING DOWN OUR FIRST LEG: Your origin* to mainland Ecuador – either Quito (UIO) or Guayaquil (GYE). This is going to be the most expensive, so expect to put in the most time getting this price as low as you can. It is also likely to be the leg of your trip that ultimately determines the specific dates of your arrival and departure since the prices for the second Galápagos leg are fairly stable day-to-day. It is the international leg that will cost the most.
*Pro tip: If you happen to live within 3-5 hours driving distance of other major airport hubs, try a combination of these other possible departure hubs with your two possible arrival hubs. We live in Austin, Texas so we searched the following permutations:
Austin – Quito; Austin – Guayaquil; Houston – Quito; Houston – Guayaquil; Dallas – Quito; Dallas – Guayaquil; San Antonio – Quito; San Antonio – Guayaquil; we even checked New Orleans – Quito and New Orleans – Guayaquil since we have friends we could leave our vehicle with there if the savings were big enough to warrant a 7-hour road trip.
4. SECOND LEG / ISLAND ARRIVAL: Now you need to figure out which island you will be arriving on – Baltra Island (GPS) / Santa Cruz Island or San Cristobal Island (SCY). You can play around with dates and pricing, especially if you are willing to spend a few days on the mainland in either Guayaquil or Quito. For our search, we tried the following permutations as examples:
Quito-San Cristobal; Quito-Baltra; Guayaquil-San Cristobal; Guayaquil-Baltra; we checked dates that were nearby our “ideal fare” arrival dates we would be tracking prices on.
A Few Other Notes on Cost Trade-Offs
You can also consider a open jaw approach (arrive on Baltra, depart San Cristobal or the reverse. Since we haven’t been to San Cristobal before, we don’t mind making the trip there twice this time around we wouldn’t save money by departing from Santa Cruz ($50 extra per person for our flight dates) even when we factor in the extra cost of the ferry trip return to San Cristobal ($60 for two people). We still net savings by departing from the same island as our arrival based upon our timing and travel choices.
We thought we would say more money by departing from Guayaquil, but based on our trip criteria, it is about the same price to fly out of Quito. Flights to Guayaquil from any of our possible departure airports were more expensive than flights to Quito from any of our possible departure airports, so we narrowed down our options that way – no need to spend more to get to Guayaquil if it wouldn’t save us more money on the second leg. We also found that it was cheaper to get to San Cristobal than to Baltra, but I expect that this will vary based upon your flight criteria. Be flexible in this type of weighing these type of trade-offs in order to secure the best deal.
Note: If you have a pre-booked cruise, make sure that you know which island the cruise departs from. In this circumstance, you would need to make sure you arrive on the correct island at the correct time, which may limit you variations / leg work in finding the best flight cost for your second leg since your options are more limited.
Unlike the first leg searches, there are really only three airlines you need to do your search permutations on – no need to use Google Flights or Skyscanner. The only three airlines that operate in the Galápagos are TAME, Avianca and LATAM. I recommend LATAM because it is easiest to distinguish between resident and non-resident rates; I’ve heard mixed things about TAME and Avianca, including the risk of last-minute cancellations.
No matter who you choose, expect for your flight to run late – it is kind of a rite of passage when visiting the Galápagos. Make sure that you take this into consideration when booking your return flight in particular; it won’t matter much on your arrival planning since you will lose most of your first day on the islands to travel.
Coming from Further Afield
If you are traveling from outside of the Americas, you should also consider segmenting your trip into a possible third leg if you have the visa capabilities of stopping off in the United States. For international residents outside of North or South America, here’s an example of how you may piece together your flight- European residents may save money by traveling from Amsterdam to New York and then from New York down to Ecuador, or Asian residents save by traveling from Tokyo to LAX and then LAX to Ecuador.
You would start with the international leg (Tokyo to LAX), then the Americas leg (LAX to Ecuador), then the Galápagos leg (Ecuador to the Islands). You would layer your arrivals and departures carefully (e.g. Tokyo to LAX on Monday LAX to Ecuador on Tuesday and Ecuador to the Islands on Wednesday, then the same procedure in reverse).
Pulling the Trigger
This is all going to come down to your personal travel and planning style. Know that most people have a longer-than-normal planning period for the Galápagos because it is such an information overload and can be so cost-prohibitive.
We choose to pick a couple of “ideal fares” that we track via email and app notification over a period of time until we feel comfortable pulling the trigger. It can be hard to what the numbers fluctuate, but we like to know with more certainty when we have a good deal so that we pull the trigger with confidence and without making too many layover or timing compromises.
Once you have figured out the ballpark of what it will cost to take your trip, you can keep an eye out for flights with better layover timing that come in at the same price, or flights that get you to the islands earlier at the same price and decide to purchase then. We don’t recommend using third-party flight vendors (more on that in other posts), and if you are piecing together your flights yourself, I suggest minimizing the number of different carriers that you fly with so that it is easier to adapt in case of cancellation or delay. These flights also tend to include your checked bag fees and sometimes additional carry-on items and flexibility.
We have found flights solely operated by American Airlines and British Airways from Austin to Quito and waiting for one with desirable arrival times and layover periods (Goldilocks – not too long, not too short) and went ahead and bought them for <$900 for two economy tickets to Quito. Our flights on LATAM to San Cristobal are <$700 round-trip at the non-resident rate for two economy tickets, put us at <$800 per person in total airfare. This is without any last-minute flight deals or mistake fares, so with a long-enough runway and enough patience and flexibility, I think we could even have done better.
Considering that third-party vendor flights from Austin to San Cristobal on the same dates run ~$1500 per person and have legs on discount carriers, it pays to put it in the time to find the best route and book directly with the airline carriers themselves. Also consider the baggage fees with the carriers you choose – our flights come with one checked bag free and were only $20 more than other flights on mixed carriers without checked bag fees included. Google Flights has a feature that allows you to include how many carry-on bags you will have, another new hidden airfare extra cost to keep in mind. Make sure your bags are under 44 pounds since this is the maximum for the island leg flights even if you are permitted more weight on the first leg of your journey.
The last thing to do is double- and triple-check your dates and arrival times to make sure you have ample time between the two separately booked legs of your trip. Some international legs will take more than 24 hours (indicated by a small superscript +1 or +2 if looking at the flight summary data), so make sure you don’t book the second leg of your trip before your first leg as arrived! Cheap airfare may also have very short layovers during your connections, so avoid this so that your bags are able to make the journey with you.
If you are flying two different carriers (American the first leg, LATAM the second), American has no way to (or it will take a while or extra cost to) forward your luggage on to your final destination. Note that this is the same scenario if you book with a third-party vendor like Expedia, but just keep this reality in mind and make sure that you always have at least one change of clothes in your carry-on luggage. I would also recommend having at least one other set of eyes look at the two proposed legs of your flights to make sure you haven’t made any silly errors while digging through so many different possible combinations!
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