Paul Schicke
Written by Paul Schicke Senior Expedition Designer

Updated: January 22, 2024
Published: December 12, 2023

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Galapagos Penguin


You’re in the planning stages for a Galapagos trip and you want to understand all the differences between Galapagos cruise itineraries in order to choose the best one for an unforgettable adventure. Good news, you’ve landed in the right place! This comprehensive guide on Galapagos cruise itineraries answers all the common questions that first-time Galapagos travelers have and clears up any confusion for anyone wanting to visit the Galapagos.

We’re happy to report it’s fairly easy to choose an outstanding Galapagos itinerary as long as you understand Galapagos as a destination and the regulations of the Galapagos Park, all explained in this article. Yes, it is not short, but it’s packed with valuable information and by the time you’re done reading this you’ll be an expert on Galapagos cruise itineraries.

Cruise Itineraries or hotel-based trip itineraries?

For starters, if you are reading this, you have likely already determined that a Galapagos luxury cruise is the best way to experience Galapagos (versus staying in a hotel in one of the Port towns), so it’s time to choose the ideal cruise itinerary or loop. If you are still confused as to whether a hotel-based trip or a cruise is the right way to experience Galapagos for you, we recommend you read our blog post on Galapagos cruises vs hotel stays.

Unfortunately there is an overwhelming amount of information out there regarding cruise itineraries, most of which is incorrect. So if you are like many first time Galapagos travelers and cruise itineraries have you confused, don’t worry. We’ve got you. Did you know there are 80+ ships in Galapagos today, and each offers anywhere from 2 to up to 8 different cruise itineraries to choose from? If you do the math, that’s literally hundreds of different itineraries available to choose from, so is it even possible to choose the perfect itinerary? Well It is, and in this article we’ll show you how.

Grace Yacht in the Galapagos

The Basics

The Galapagos Archipelago
The Galapagos is an archipelago made up of 13 main islands and over 100 islets. The easternmost islands of the archipelago, like San Cristobal, are over 4 million years old. And the youngest islands, like Fernandina and Isabela, in the western side of the archipelago, are still forming with constant volcanic eruptions. So not only will you witness very different landscapes between these islands, but also between wildlife, even if their ancestors were identical. Evolution has taken a different course on each island, and being able to witness this first hand is one of the most magical parts of a Galapgos adventure.

Galapagos Islands Map

The Galapagos National Park - the Cruise Itinerary Authority
For any vessel to cruise the Galapagos, it needs to have a cruise operating permit that is granted by the Galapagos National Park. Each cruise operating permit comes with a specific cruise itinerary attached to it, where the park has predetermined which visitor sites each yacht is allowed to visit in a given day, how long the vessel can stay there, what activities its guests can do, and more.

Vessels operating in the Galapagos aren’t free to go wherever they choose in the archipelago. They have to adhere to a very specific schedule predetermined by the Galapagos Park in their authorized cruise itinerary.

Itineraries vs Loops
Galapagos cruise itineraries are often also referred to as “loops” because of the ‘circular’ routes the ships take around the archipelago. So if you see one company call their itineraries ‘itineraries’ and another call theirs ‘loops’, they are essentially talking about the same thing but using a different term.

Galapagos Islands Cruise Itinerary Map

A Little History On Galapagos Itineraries

When the Galapagos cruise business started in the early 1980's, the 7-night / 8-day cruise was the standard length simply because there was only one flight per week out to the islands and yacht owners planned their itineraries to coincide with these flights. This is certainly true for us at Quasar when we pioneered luxury cruises in the Galapagos in 1986.

In 2012 the Galapagos National Park decided to reduce the environmental impact on its 70 terrestrial visitor sites and 75 marine visitor sites by requiring all permitted vessels to wait 14 days before returning to the same National Park visitor site. This had the following positive effects:

• It dispersed vessels more evenly throughout the park.
• It reduced the environmental impact on visitor sites.
• It eliminated having too many visitors at the same site at the same time.

Galapagos Cruise Size Differences

As a result of the above all Galapagos vessels are doing a 2-week voyage through the archipelago that they are permitted to break up into itineraries of whatever length they wish. So if you find a cruise company that offers 4 or 5 day itineraries, they have essentially broken up this 2-week voyage into several shorter itineraries.

Experienced companies like Quasar took change of 2012 as as an opportunity for each of its yachts to take in all the best visitor sites over a two-week period. So, for each of our 8-day itineraries we created itineraries that are equal in terms of the:

• Quality animal encounters
• Quality landing sites
• Level of activity

If you only have a week to spend in the Galapagos, if you go with a company like Quasar, you’ll be happy to know that there is no better or worse itinerary. You can’t go wrong with either one, they’re simply different and we have not had a single complaint about an itinerary in all the years since 2012.

Today, while the 7-night itinerary remains the standard, several cruise companies have started offering shorter cruises to save on costs, or to serve those people who are more pressed for time or who have tighter budgets. Larger ships of 48 to 100 tend to offer shorter length and longer itineraries concurrently, mainly because they need to fill more spaces. A downside to this is that these vessels have guests coming and going throughout.

Choosing Your Ideal Cruise Duration

Which cruise itinerary length is right for you will depend on the time you have available to visit Galapagos, your budget and your passion or desire to see the Islands and animals.

If the Galapagos Islands have always been a dream destination for you, and if you really want to see everything the Islands have to offer, try to go for a 15-day itinerary if budget and time permit. Most people, however, go on a week-long cruise for about 8 days, which is enough to see lots of different places and animals in the Galapagos. But if you don't have much time or you're trying to save money, you can choose a shorter trip that lasts just 4 or 5 days. We go into detail on each of the cruise itinerary options below:

Galapagos Cruise Overhead View

These are the shortest itineraries available for any Galapagos cruise and they are normally the most common itineraries for the lower priced, and especially on larger, vessels of 48 to 100 guests. Because these shorter itineraries almost always navigate only around the central Islands they save on fuel costs and are therefore able to offer lower prices. They also have to stay closer to the port towns, and the two airports that serve them, to continually pick up and drop off guests.

PROS: They are the lowest priced itineraries available in Galapagos. If you are on a really tight budget or if you are really pressed for time, then these are the itineraries for you.

CONS: The first and last days are normally travel days, so you only really get to spend about 2 ½ days exploring the Galapagos on these itineraries. Due to the time it takes to navigate, you also normally don’t get to visit the western, southern or northern islands of the archipelago which are the most interesting and also home to some of the most iconic species (waved albatross, flightless cormorants, red-footed boobies).

Grace Yacht with Galapagos Sea Lion

These are the second shortest itineraries available for any Galapagos cruise and they are normally offered by a wider range of cruise companies. Some 5 Day itineraries may take you to the farther removed islands, thereby allowing you to see some of the more iconic species in Galapagos.

PROS: You are able to see and enjoy more than on the 4 day itineraries. If you don’t have the budget or the time for a 7 day cruise, but you don’t want the shorter 4 day cruises, then this is the itinerary for you.

CONS: These tend to be less adventurous, and you don’t get as an immersive Galapagos experience as on the 8 day itineraries. You may only get to visit one of the more remote and interesting Islands like Española, Fernandina, Isabela or Genovesa. Again you will likely see more day boats and experience the same coming and going of guests during your voyage as on the 4 day itineraries.

Galapagos Sea Lion on a Beach

As explained at the beginning of this article, companies who offer 4 and 5 day cruise itineraries are essentially breaking up the 14 day itineraries assigned by the Park into multiple, shorter Itineraries. This means guests will be overlapping all the time and the same guests who were on the vessel when you arrive will likely not be the same guests there when you depart leading to less cohesiveness among the group. You can also expect to see more day boats. If you are on a larger ship and are taking a longer itinerary that also offers shorter itineraries concurrently, expect to return to port every 4 days to pick up and drop off more guests, tethering your itinerary to the two Galapagos airports.


For most travelers, this is the standard Galapagos Itinerary duration that we recommend. On an 8-day cruise, you will generally experience roughly half of the archipelago during that time and you’ll get to venture to the more interesting, pristine and more remote islands of the archipelago like Genovesa in the north, Española in the southeast and Fernandina and Isabela in the west.

PROS: In one week you are able to see and enjoy most of the archipelago. On these itineraries you are guaranteed to visit the more remote islands and see the more iconic species like the flightless cormorant, the waved albatross or the red-footed boobies. Another plus is that you will have more chance encounters with pods of dolphins and whales.

Evolution Yacht next to Kicker Rock

Unless you are on a larger ship, the group that arrives on day 1 will be the same group that stays with the yacht the entire time leaving on day 8, leading to much more cohesiveness among the group. This has proven to be a great environment for getting to know like minded travelers and we have a number of guests reporting that they formed such good relationships onboard that they have gone on other adventures with their newfound Galapagos friends.

CONS: These itineraries are more expensive than the 5 day itineraries and you don’t get the ultimate Galapagos experience as on the full 15 day itinerary.

As mentioned, all vessels in the Galapagos are on a 2 week voyage through the archipelago. Time-privileged travelers seeking deeper Galapagos immersion can take advantage of this on a 15 day/14 night itinerary. These are often offered as two back to back 8 day itineraries with savings if you stay on board for the full voyage.

These itineraries offer the best of the best of Galapagos because they cover the entire archipelago, ensuring no experience is left a mystery. Guests enjoy a higher chance of encountering the rare species that inspired Darwin’s brilliant works. The longer you spend in the islands and the more flexibility you have, the better your chances of maximizing these unexpected life-changing encounters, like snorkeling with wild dolphins, chasing orcas in the zodiacs or witnessing a blue footed booby feeding frenzy.

Remember that if you can only manage 8 days in the Galapagos at a time, the good news is that if you return and do a trip on the same vessel you can experience all new landing and snorkeling sites if you take your vessel’s other 8 day itinerary. Many companies provide saving incentives to returning guests. Basically it’s a 15 day itinerary in two installments.

PROS: You get to see the entire archipelago experiencing almost all the islands. Not only will you get to see most of the animal colonies but you will have more opportunities for those magical chance encounters. In short, your chances for life-changing wildlife encounters are maximized.

CONS: These are the highest priced itineraries available in Galapagos and normally accessible to budget and time-privileged travelers.

When considering a longer cruise, you might want to ascertain that your ship only does 8 or 15 day cruises and that it is not dropping off / picking up passengers who are on a shorter cruise. When poorly executed, this can result in too much down time for the ship in the middle of your longer cruise and a sense that you are wasting precious hours in Galapagos, waiting around.

The Biggest Mistake When It Comes To Choosing Your Cruise Itinerary Length

Probably the biggest mistake a traveler can make when visiting the Galapagos is simply not leaving enough time to see and really ‘live’ the islands. For most people it's a big investment to travel to Galapagos and usually a long way just to get there, so you need to make sure to leave enough time to properly experience the Islands. Understand that both the first day you travel to the Galapagos and the day you return to the mainland are mostly just that, travel days.

You want to make sure that you get the most out of your time and investment while on the Islands. Longer stays allow for a more comprehensive experience, ensuring you can fully appreciate the abundant wildlife, engage in various activities, and discover the distinct features of different islands.

Galapagos Hiking with Marine Iguanas

Are there any islands and animals one must see while in Galapagos?

What Islands Should You Visit While in Galapagos?

The Islands in Galapagos are very different from one another for various reasons, including ongoing volcanic activity, because they are far removed from the population centers and have received less human influence over time, or because evolution has taken a different course on each island because of their location and their age. The same species can have 2 very different subspecies from one island to the next and witnessing this is one of the wonders of a Galapagos cruise. Sadly, many people leave the Islands without ever really seeing evolution at work because they simply did not spend enough time in them or because they choose the wrong itinerary.

Galapagos Lava Fields

Therefore, to choose a great Galapagos itinerary as it relates to the individual Islands and their visitor sites, you must look for a good mix of Islands from different locations of the archipelago, with an itinerary that goes from north to south and east to west and not just focused on the central Islands. Many cruise companies, in order to save money, do cruise itineraries that only stay around the central islands, thereby saving on fuel costs. You definitely need to look for an itinerary that covers the most ground in the Galapagos, and the reality is that the longer you spend in the archipelago, the more islands and the more variety of species you’ll get to see.

What Are The Must See Animals of Galapagos?
Generally speaking, some of the most popular wildlife of the Galapagos can be seen just about on any cruise, regardless of the cruise category or itinerary duration. These Galapagos animals include sea lions, Giant tortoises, Marine Iguanas, Frigatebirds, Land Iguanas, Blue Footed Boobies, Nazca Boobies and Penguins.

At Quasar we recommend that if there is a very specific animal that you would like to see while on your Galapagos adventure, that you get in touch with one of our Galapagos Expedition Designers to talk to them about it. They will be able to tell you on which islands you can find the animal that you want to see and on which of our cruise itineraries we visit that specific Island.

Galapagos Giant Toroise

What about the activities on different Galapagos cruise itineraries?

Generally speaking, regardless of the cruise company you choose or the itinerary of their ships, the activities you get to do each day will generally be the same. The cruise permits of the Galapagos National Park allow companies to offer walks & hikes around the islands, snorkeling at designated marine sites around the archipelago, dinghy or zodiac rides around the shores or mangroves of the Islands and Kayaking or stand-up paddle boarding at specific sites in Galapagos. Regardless of the cruise company and itinerary length you choose, you will be able to do most, if not all of these activities. Perhaps the only exception to this rule is with the kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding that, although allowed on all vessels, are normally only offered by the higher-end cruise companies.

Kayaking in Galapagos with Flightless Cormorants


Over the last 4 decades in Galapagos, experience has shown us at Quasar that an 8 Day / 7 Night cruise itinerary is just right to maximize amazing animal encounters, balanced with optimal relaxation. Of course, if you are one of those time and budget privileged travelers there is no equal to a 15 day itinerary, but for most, the 8 Day itinerary is the way to go.

Remember that Galapagos is really not about the port towns, it’s about the animals and the National Park, so if you are considering spending less than a week in the Islands, be aware that you are going to miss a whole lot of wildlife and visitor sites as a result. You may not understand this now, but we can tell you from experience that if you go for less than a week to Galapagos, right about the time you are starting to relax and really starting to enjoy the Islands, you will have to leave and that’s the moment you’ll realize just how many amazing experiences were waiting for you throughout the archipelago that you will never get to enjoy.

Taking a Quasar Cruise with Dolphins jumping

So make sure you spend at least a week in the Galapagos, if time and budget permits. But if for any reason you can’t travel for a full week, make the trip as long as possible to experience the most in the time that you have using all the useful tips and advice found on this guide.

Paul Schicke
By Paul Schicke
Senior Expedition Designer

Hello! My name is Paul. I am a photographer, traveler, teacher and writer. I have extensive experience in travel to Galapagos, Peru, Patagonia and the western seaboard of South America specializing in ways travelers can experience these once-in-a-life destinations like locals on the road. Lover of wine, chocolate, travel, coffee, and helping others plan vacations of a lifetime!

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