The Galápagos Islands. They’re famous for being the place where Darwin made some important observations which contributed to his world-changing theory of evolution. It’s a paradise for lovers of birds and wildlife and geology. Giant tortoises, iguanas that have adapted to swimming in the ocean, Galápagos penguins and other unique and endemic species live in abundance here–and they’ve never developed a fear of predators. You can walk right up to wild birds and they keep on doing their thing, as if you weren’t even there. Snorkeling and diving opportunities balance out the hiking and wildlife activities for a very fun, well-rounded and educational vacation.
An Expensive Destination
Back in 2008 I had one of those opportunities of a lifetime–a chance to visit these beautiful, normally very-expensive-to-visit Galápagos Islands. How expensive?
Airfare will cost in the neighborhood of $1,000 to Guayaquil, Ecuador (give or take a few hundred, depending on which part of the U.S. you’re flying from and the time of year), plus another $300-$400 to fly from Guayaquil to the islands. There is also a $100 entrance fee to the islands (Galápagos National Park).
Eight-day budget cruises (which is what we did) can start at around $2,000-$2,500. If you work with a local company you might find something a lot cheaper, or for rock-bottom prices you can just show up and book a last minute cruise–but then also run the risk of not being able to find anything at all–particularly in high season, so this option should only be used if you have a lot of flexibility or it’s low season. Expect to pay a lot more for a mid-range or luxury boat.
If you’re going to spend some additional time on land (as we did), you might find a hostel for around $15 per person per night on the budget end, or a hotel room for anywhere between $45 and over $250 per night. Add in the extra food expenses, activities, and ground/water transportation and you’ll easily spend a minimum of $3,000 per person to do the Galápagos.
Of course you can do shorter cruises or spend all your time on land and spend less, but I would argue that you are missing out on a significant Galápagos experience by doing that. Land tourism in the Galapagos Islands is on the rise, but it’s also more damaging to its environment, so for the experience and for environmental reasons, I strongly recommend a cruise for at least a significant portion of your visit to the Galápagos.
So how did I manage to do it for $600? I’ll share my story, with the disclaimer that some of the factors that played into this were unique to my situation and will probably not apply to you for this exact destination.
Still, maybe you’ll be inspired to give travel a chance–even if you’re not in the greatest financial place right now. There are ways to make it happen! I hope that you will glean some tips for how you might apply the same principles for a trip of your own–maybe not to the Galápagos, but at least somewhere new and different…
How I Did It
Things started out by an incredible stroke of good fortune. Some friends of mine moved to the Galápagos Islands to work for a few months, and they extended an open invitation to friends to come and visit them–and stay in their house–while they were there. Not wishing to pass up an amazing opportunity, another friend and I began scheming a way to make it work. My sister decided to join in as well, and the three of us began exploring the options.
By this point I had been a frequent flyer mile collector for about 5 years and had already flown to Africa, Europe and other places for next to nothing (to the astonishment of many friends and colleagues who knew that I was not rich).
I checked my mileage balance and then looked at the rates to fly to Ecuador, and guess what? I had enough miles for all three of us! I looked up the cost for tickets for my friend and sister, and then e-mailed them. I would cover their plane tickets if they would cover a portion of my expenses, to equal less than what their flights would have cost them. I proposed that my friend cover a portion of my cruise, and my sister cover my flights from the mainland to the Islands, as well as the park entrance fee of $100. Both readily agreed, happy to save a couple hundred dollars off the cost of their airfare.
Next I set out to find the cheapest cruise I could. After searching around I found the e-mail address for a local company and I corresponded with them in Spanish to negotiate the price: $1,000 each for an 8 day cruise. I wired the money to them and they reserved our spots on the 16-passenger motor yacht.
The cruise was nothing fancy, but we got to see all the same amazing places that the wealthy tourists spending 5 times as much got to see. The boat was equipped with 8 cabins, each with bunk beds and its own private bathroom containing a sink, toilet and shower.
The cabins on the lower level did smell of diesel fumes during the day, but at night as everyone was retreating to bed they would turn on the A/C, so it smelled fine when were ready to sleep. During the day we were usually either out exploring, eating in the dining room, or relaxing up on the deck anyway.
At one point the boat’s running water quit working and so nobody was able to take a shower, but fortunately we were headed for a place where it could be fixed while we toured around on land, and it was ready to go when we returned in the evening.
We had a great mix of activities, both on land and snorkeling in the water.
Yes, it was an economy cruise–basically a floating hostel–but worth every penny. What a great adventure!
We had a great chef on board who accommodated vegetarian and gluten free needs, always amazing us with what he could produce in his tiny little galley.
Our guide was friendly and knowledgeable and spoke English.
The rest of the crew did a great job of making us feel comfortable and welcome.
We enjoyed our fellow passengers, too. They came from all over the world–Israel, Denmark, the U.K., Switzerland…
We planned to spend a few days before and after the cruise with our friends at their home in Puerto Ayora–the largest town in the islands. Their hospitality saved us the cost of a couple of hotel rooms. Also, with the use of their kitchen, we were able to save a lot by cooking our own food instead of eating out for every single meal.
I bought a couple of small, simple souvenirs, we ate out a few times, we bought groceries, and we paid someone to wash our laundry. Then there was the shared cost of the taxi and hotel room in Guayaquil on the way in, and a few expenses as we spent a day in Guayaquil on the way back out. We had to pay fees and taxes on our international flights, but that wasn’t much.
All in all, when the trip was over I estimated that with my share of my cruise and the odds and ends expenses, I spent about $600 total on that amazing trip!
I’ve never been wealthy, but I have learned through one experience after another that if I want to travel badly enough, I can find ways to do it. Below I will share some tips that will hopefully help you to realize your dreams to travel. Read on!
How You Can Slash Your Travel Costs and See the World
Here are 7 different ways you might be able to cut costs and start traveling:
1. Stay with friends, family or acquaintances (or perfectly nice strangers).
Do you have a friend or family member who has moved abroad and might love a visit? Many of my travels have centered around meeting up with old friends. It’s fun to catch up, they appreciate a visitor, and I get to see a new place! Win-win! Think about your network and whether there may be some travel opportunities lurking there.
If you don’t already have a connection outside of your country or region, there are two other great free (or nearly free) options: couchsurfing and house sitting. I explained couchsurfing in another post, so if you are not familiar with it please look into it. It’s a great way to make new friends around the world!
Also, did you know that there are people in neat places who also like to take vacations? And when they are away, they like to have people take care of their home and pets for them. If you love animals, this could be a great way for you to have a free place to stay (complete with a kitchen you can cook in, which saves you even more money) while you explore a new place, in exchange for watching over things for them. There are several house sitting websites, but the one I personally belong to and have heard the best things about from experienced house sitters is Trusted Housesitters. There’s a fee to join, but if you could house sit even one or two nights during your annual membership period, it would pay for itself! Who knows what adventures might pop up if you open yourself to the possibilities?
(NOTE: For more free accommodation options, I highly recommend the e-book, How to Get Free Accommodation Around the World, by Nora Dunn.)
2. Collect frequent flyer miles.
And please don’t tell me you can’t collect miles because you don’t fly that much! You don’t have to fly to earn frequent flyer miles. Over 90% of the miles I earn are through methods other than flying, and these miles have taken me all over the world. With enough miles, you can go anywhere in the world for usually under $100. You can use your miles toward a ticket for yourself, but you can also use your miles to get tickets for other people, as I did! If you could save up enough miles to cover your fare and a friend’s fare, saving them some money and helping you save even more…where could you go?
3. Try to arrange tours and activities directly with the locals rather than through a big agency with a U.S./Europe/Australia/New Zealand-based office.
These first-world companies might make it super convenient for you, but if you’re trying to save some money then putting in a few days of research to find a good, reputable local company and deal with them directly could save you hundreds or thousands of dollars. I used the same technique to arrange tours in Africa in 2012.
4. Whenever possible, negotiate in the language of your destination country.
Those who insist on English only may pay what Benny Lewis (author of Fluent in 3 Months) calls “The English Tax.” If you don’t speak the language, see if you can find a friend who does who can help you. Search Fiverr for people who can translate or negotiate for you. I’ve heard of some people hiring a local to negotiate on their behalf, in exchange for a modest fee.
5. Be open to adventure.
Maybe you can’t afford a high-end hotel or luxury cruise, but could you have a blast on a cheaper boat or in a hostel. Are you really so set on a luxury experience that if you can’t have it you’d rather just not travel at all? C’mon, be adventurous. Sometimes adjusting the luxury level to our budget isn’t such a huge sacrifice…it’s just a different adventure–and it can be a blast. Do the research to make sure what you are getting into will be safe and clean…and then just jump in and go for the adventure ride!
6. Travel with friends.
Traveling solo is great, and not having someone to travel with should not be an excuse for not traveling, but if you can find a partner or small group to travel with, you can split expenses like hotel rooms, taxis or rental cars, and guides and save even more money that way!
7. Skip most of the souvenirs.
Some people feel like they must pick up a souvenir on every trip they take. Don’t be one of them. Seriously, the best souvenirs you take with you will be your stories, pictures and memories–and those are free. Take a journal and a camera and capture the experience to share with your friends, family and/or students. A lot of the stuff you get in souvenir shops is cheap junk that will eventually just get in your way and wind up in a yard sale. Plus you’ll have to carry it around with you until you get back home, which is no fun.
The one type of souvenir I do usually buy is postcards, which I mail to friends or put into my scrapbooks after the trip is over. I may also pick up some interesting brochures (free!) for things I’ve done to add to the scrapbooks.
When I buy other souvenirs, it’s usually something practical–clothing I think I will actually wear on a regular basis, jewelry, or a practical item that will remind me of this place each time I use it: a clay pot, a hammock, a reusable shopping bag, a picture for the bedroom wall. Occasionally I will also buy a CD with some of the local music to bring back memories later. If the souvenir you’re looking at won’t serve a very clear and useful purpose in your life or home, you should probably leave it behind–especially if you’re trying to save money.
Go Ye Therefore…and See the World!
I hope after reading this that you can see how travel can be very affordable if you’re willing to put in some extra effort to researching and planning it.
If you really want to travel, find a way! There is an adventure out there to match nearly any budget.