A trip to the Galapagos Islands is always going to be that clichéd Holiday of a Lifetime. And rightly so. Stubborn Mule’s Helene Cooper spent a week in this amazing part of the world during October half term with her nine-year old. They can confirm (with great enthusiasm!) that it really is the wildlife extravaganza everyone thinks it is.

Here is her ultimate guide to a once in a lifetime family trip to the Galapagos.

“I honestly don’t know where to start when describing how utterly incredible these islands are. They are a complete paradise for children. You are surrounded by the most stunning and unusual creatures at every turn, some seemingly straight out of a fantasy book. Within mere hours of arriving in the Galapagos, we found ourselves snorkelling alongside sea lions, golden rays and white-tipped sharks. And my son had a spine-tingling moment swimming with a baby sea turtle.

A trip to the Galapagos is no holiday, rather a non-stop expedition. But who wants a pool when there are albatross chicks, bright-coloured Sally Lightfoot Crabs and exotic puffed-up frigate birds to spot?

Child taking photo of Frigate bird on a Galapagos family trip

A male Frigate bird displays his fabulous red breast

We paddled a kayak beneath a cliff filled with Blue-footed Boobies in all their Disney-like creation. We walked in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island and had close encounters with the majestic Giant Tortoise, surely the inspiration for ET? We came across a ‘mess’ of iguanas blocking the paths and all around, and were surrounded by dramatic and surprisingly colourful volcanic scenery. Flash-red sesuvium vegetation clashed with aquamarine seas and powder white sand. A stunning view that brightened both camera lens and memory to aid me through the dull British winter days….

Sally Lightfoot crab

Tick-off the extraordinary Sally Lightfoot crab

A Galapagos family trip is quite simply a stunning kaleidoscope of wildlife experiences. Spotting the Big Five in Africa is absolutely incredible (I know, I’ve done it). Sailing to Antarctica in search of penguins and orca whales is also phenomenal (I’m lucky enough to have enjoyed that too). However, spotting the Big Fifteen in the Galapagos is not only unforgettable but also fantastically interactive – and FUN!

Kayaking in the Galapagos Islands on a family Galapagos trip

Kayaking is great fun and the perfect way to get up close to wildlife on a Galapagos family trip

My son was in seventh heaven, snapping away merrily at absolutely everything. He screamed with delight whenever he spotted a fur seal or even a Galapagos centipede ahead of the guide. At times though he did struggle with the confines of sticking to the paths and listening to the naturalists. So although we had a truly special and very memorable time in this unique place, it is important to suggest a few tips. And perhaps blow away a few misconceptions so that you can get a family holiday to the Galapagos right for you and your family. One trip does not fit all…

Mother and son posing with a giant tortoise on a Galapagos family trip

A classic photo for the family album… posing with a Galapagos giant tortoise

What’s the best family Galapagos trip for you

1. Choose the way you see the Galapagos extremely carefully

There are pros and cons to both land-based programmes and live-aboard cruises and every family is different. If cost is the main factor then a land based hotel package is worth considering. These are usually cheaper than a cruise (depending on the category of hotel chosen). However do bear in mind that you will then spend a considerable amount of time travelling to and from the various islands. If any family member suffers from motion sickness then spending 2-3 hours in a speedboat might be a problem.

On a live-aboard programme you will cruise (usually overnight) to the various locations. This means that you are already in situ for your visit the next morning. You will be able to travel to more islands and seasickness can be allayed by choosing a larger vessel with good stabilisers. Perhaps the perfect Galapagos family holiday would be a combination of both….

2. Consider the ages and inclinations of your children

If your child is not a strong swimmer or dislikes the water then a trip to the Galapagos is probably not going to be for you. Similarly, if the kids are not that interested in wildlife, if they prefer to be running freely along a beach or enjoying city culture, you may want to think twice before considering a Galapagos family trip.

Even with land-based trips, the emphasis is on getting in the water. You will be snorkelling, swimming or diving with the marine life. When walking along the beaches and on the islands in general, there are strict rules about sticking with the guide to the path. Very active children or young ones with short concentration spans will struggle with this. Many boats have a minimum age and of course with toddlers there is be the ever-present safety factor.

Days are busy too and extremely tiring for youngsters (and parents!). Please see a Typical Day on a Galapagos Island Cruise to give you an idea. With really young children we would advise a land-based package with plenty of pool time in between excursions. Or perhaps wait until they are slightly older and can appreciate everything more.

Galapagos family trip with ship in background and mother with son in wetsuits on the beach

3. What happens if I choose a land-based package?

If you decide on a hotel package we would strongly advise basing yourself on at least two islands. This allows you to see more of the archipelago and thus a wider variety of wildlife and scenery.

You would spend a couple of nights in the first hotel, usually on either San Cristobal or Santa Cruz. These have easy access to the two main airports. From here you can take day trips to various islands or beaches before transferring to a second island. This will usually be Isabela as this is the third of the three main islands where hotel accommodation is possible. After a further two or three nights here, you would then transfer back to the closest airport at the end.

Obviously there are all sorts of combinations possible depending on the length of the holiday and budget. There are a number of different types of hotels available, from simple 3-star guesthouses to luxurious beachfront resorts. There is even an African-style safari camp based deep in the highlands of Santa Cruz offering stunning views from its infinity pool.

4. What if I choose a live-aboard cruise programme?

There are a number of different categories of ship to choose from for a Galapagos holiday. The cheaper ships are ‘Tourist Class’ and are fairly basic small boats of 16 passengers with bunk bed accommodation. More comfortable are the First Class yachts and large expedition ships. It has always been assumed that using a smaller vessel is better for visiting the Galapagos. The assumption is that these will offer more intimate groups, are better for the environment and able to access smaller coves etc…

However this is not necessarily true. Larger vessels offer more stability which is good news for seasick sufferers. There is more room for kids to ‘run’ around (within reason) and there is usually a games room with TV/DVD (although there is in reality little spare time to enjoy these). Larger ships also offer excellent modern facilities and are built to the latest standards taking pollution and other environmental issues into account. A big buffet keeps everyone happy and fussy eaters are given special consideration by the chef. Triples, suites or interconnecting cabins are readily available and facilities are generally much better than on the smaller, older boats.

Do not worry about large numbers on a bigger ship either. At each location, you will be split up into smaller groups of 10-12 and allotted specific activities and routes to follow.  For example, one group may head off snorkelling, another on a glass-bottomed boat cruise and another on a hiking trail. You sign up for certain activities according to preference and the groups take it in turns to visit the various locations. Or the guides will arrange for one group to follow walking trails in reverse so you never miss out on anything. This means that you never feel part of a huge group descending on the islands. You won’t feel as if you are infringing on the privacy of the animals or spoiling the intimacy of the wildlife experience. [If you haven’t already, read about a typical day on a Live-Aboard Galapagos Islands cruise here.]

If you are travelling with another family and make up a group of 12-16 people then it would be worth looking into a private charter. Any additional cost would be more than worthwhile for the privacy and ability to customise your experience (within the limitations of the islands’ strict rules on itineraries).

5. How long should I stay?

When considering the length of your Galapagos family holiday you need to bear in mind that any trip to the Galapagos is always going to be a minimum of a week. You will need a night in Quito or Guayaquil on the mainland before and after your trip. International flights from the UK are usually overnight and most cruises are a minimum of 3 nights/4 days. This is due to the strict schedules the Galapagos authorities enforce on visiting patterns.

On top of this is the minimum spend of the flights to and from the islands, the Galapagos National Park fee and the cost of the transit card. There is little point spending all this money without making the most of your time there. We would recommend, if budget allows, at least a 5-day cruise as a minimum.

6. Does the itinerary matter?

It rather depends if you have your heart set on seeing a Galapagos Albatross chick or swimming with a Galapagos penguin. Specific islands are home to specific creatures so do your research carefully and choose the right itinerary for you. However, if you are happy ticking off boobies (of any kind), various iguanas and sea lions aplenty then any trip to the Galapagos is going to keep you happy.

There is no hunting out the wildlife, such as you might experience in certain parks in Africa or on a leopard safari in Sri Lanka for example. You are surrounded by extraordinary animals, birds and reptiles from the minute you step off the plane. There is pretty much no chance that you will come away disappointed whichever itinerary you choose. And ultimately, most children will not be too fussed about the difference between a Land, Marine or Santa Fe Iguana… Read our Top Ten Activities to enjoy on a Galapagos family trip.

7. Do I need to book months in advance?

As with most family holidays, you will no doubt be travelling at peak times and have specific dates in mind. You will also have certain requirements (budget, number of children etc…) particular to your family. So the answer is going to be yes, you need to book as far in advance as possible.

There are strict limits on numbers at the various landing sites and a limited number of vessels are authorised to sail around the islands.  Christmas is peak season and cruises and hotels get booked up a year in advance.

For most families, a trip to the Galapagos is the trip of a lifetime or a celebration of a special occasion. It is therefore vital to get all the elements right. Booking as far in advance as possible allows for the best options and availability according to budget. Rarely does the phrase ‘last-minute bargain’ come into play when speaking of a Galapagos holiday.

8. Budget

The Big One. There is no way round it, a Galapagos family holiday is not a cheap holiday. Let’s start with the basics. Any trip to the Galapagos involves pre and post night stays on the mainland. This is due to the vagaries of flight connections it is not advisable to book international flights the same day as your Galapagos flights.

On top of this and the airport transfers there is the cost of the internal flights (from $400 per person). You also have the Galapagos National Park fee ($100 per adult/$50 per child) and the Galapagos Transit Card ($20 per person). So without any arrangements on the islands at all, the costs are already starting to mount up.

The shortest land-based, two island package, using tourist class accommodation for a family of four would start at £5,590.

A live-aboard cruise package would be from £10,590 on a tourist class boat or £13,590 on a larger expedition vessel. International flights are on top of this.

In addition, you have to factor in general spending money and tips. Tips are not inconsiderable as you have to take into account the ship crew, naturalist guides, restaurant manager/chef/head barman etc…

Souvenirs are not cheap and drinks cost considerably more than on the mainland. To give you an idea, it costs US$2.50 for a postcard and stamp,US$15 for a t-shirt,US$18 for a pack of Galapagos coffee,US$4.50 for a fizzy drink,US$9.50 for a glass of Chilean wine. There are also the inevitable pre-trip purchases to consider – please take a look at our Packing List for the Galapagos and Ecuador

9. Is there a better time of year to visit?

There are endless discussions on this topic and numerous Galapagos wildlife calendars out there to view. Ultimately it will depend on whether you have specific requirements in mind. If you want to see lava lizards courting then you need to travel in July. If blue-footed boobies courting is your priority then May is the optimum time to visit. Generally speaking though, the Galapagos are considered a year-round destination in terms of air and sea temperatures and wildlife activity. Please see our Galapagos Wildlife and Climate Advice.

10. So what’s the perfect Galapagos family trip?

Bearing the above in mind re budget, it is important to get the trip right for your family. You also need to make the most of your time in the Galapagos and on mainland Ecuador. We would recommend spending at least a few days on the mainland before flying to the Galapagos to recover from any jetlag. A trip to the Galapagos is very action-packed and busy and you need to be at optimum strength to enjoy each day.

If time and money are no object then we suggest getting over the jetlag with at least 10 days on the mainland. Here you can enjoy the colonial market towns north of Quito and get out and about amongst the stunning volcanic scenery south of Quito. You can also spend time in the Amazon jungle which makes for a fascinating contrast with the wildlife of the Galapagos.

After this, you can fly to the Galapagos Islands and base yourself at the beach in the Finch Bay Hotel on Santa Cruz for a few days. Here you can acclimatise and get familiar with the onslaught of wildlife that constantly surrounds you. You can take a few day trips (kayaking, mountain biking, diving), wander into Puerto Ayora to visit the Charles Darwin Research Centre and soak up the local culture. Then hop on a live-aboard vessel and see as many of the islands as possible.

You could then choose to relax at the exquisite Galapagos Safari Camp, nestled in the highlands of Santa Cruz. The camp offers a level of luxury found in the tented camps of eastern and southern Africa so is perfect for some R and R. Then fly back to Guayaquil and home.

However, not everyone will have the time and budget for this. As you will see above, there are a huge number of variations to consider when designing the perfect Galapagos family trip for your family. For some example holidays see our Ecuador & Galapagos itineraries page. These are just a starting point – we’ll take all of your requirements into consideration and will use these to design a bespoke itinerary that will perfectly suit you.”

Galapagos family trip - a seal lion sun bathing

There’ll be regular sightings of sun bathing seals on any Galapagos family trip

Speak to an expert about a Galapagos family trip

We’d love to talk with you about a family trip to the Galapagos and share our knowledge. So please do get in touch if this is something you are considering. You can ring during office hours on 01728 752751, or use our website contact form.