What is the best Galapagos summer program?
With more than 15 different organizations offering Galapagos summer programs for high school students, you might be asking yourself which one is the best. Of course, “best” is a subjective term and there are a variety of different criteria you may want to consider if you, like many high school students, want to see the Galapagos. In the interest of helping the intrepid would-be Galapagos adventurer make sense of the various options, we conducted an analysis of 17 different summer programs that bring high school students to Ecuador and the Galapagos. At Sustainable Summer, we like to think in terms of overall value, so let’s rephrase the initial question to be “what is the best value Galapagos summer program?”
To answer this question, we need to look at both price and what you are getting for your hard earned cash. While price is a really straightforward comparison, the second part is much harder to discern for a couple of reasons. Consequently, three things needs to be stated before we can begin our analysis:
You Gotta Pay to Play
The Galapagos is expensive. Just setting foot in the Galapagos is going to run you over $600 between government regulated/taxed airfare from the mainland and park fees and permits. This does not include the cost of airfare from the US (or wherever you’re coming from) to Ecuador or any other travel costs. This is ONLY the flight from Quito or Guayaquil to the Galapagos and the fees you pay on arrival to the government. That’s it. Keep this in mind when looking at prices of Galapagos summer programs. Every program that I’m aware of includes this cost in their tuition, but unlike the quality of hotels, tours, guides, etc., it’s going to be consistent from program to program, so you can effectively deduct that $600 from the list price to get a better overall sense of the “value” of a program. Additionally, the price of everything – from food to lodging to guides – in the Galapagos is significantly more expensive than mainland Ecuador on average, so keep that in mind when comparing programs with that span both mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos.
Time is Money
Many of the summer programs for high school students in the Galapagos are also part of a longer program in mainland Ecuador. In our analysis, the number of total nights in Ecuador ranged from as few as 10 to as many 35, while the number of nights in the Galapagos proper ranged from as few as 3 to as many as 12. So, any comparison between programs should take into consideration the total amount of time in the Galapagos relative to the overall tuition, and, in consideration of the above comment about airfare and permits, recognize that a big chunk of your price is going to entry fees. For the purposes of value comparison, it may be helpful to simply back this cost out of the overall price. It is going to be very nearly identical from provider to provider, so removing it from the comparison exposes more of the added value that each provider brings to your time in the Galapagos.
Tour Options: Cruise or Land-Based
For those travelers seeking authentic experiences, we think mainland Ecuador is a far more interesting destination than the Galapagos. Due to national park regulations, visiting the Galapagos is really only practical as part of an organized tour, which makes the “low-to-the-ground,” rubbing shoulders with the locals experience that can make travel so rewarding, not really possible in the Galapagos. On my first visit to the islands, I distinctly recall sitting next to a group of older tourists at the airport in Quito, encumbered with cameras and new out of the box tropical adventure wear. One of the women turned to another and asked, “Do you think the locals wear shoes?” Yes, my friend, the locals wear footwear in much the same manner as we do in the US. This is the Galapagos, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. If you are expecting anything resembling traditional culture, you have come to the wrong place. So, know that going in and instead try to get the most out of the packaged tour experience. The park service regulations that enforce strict itineraries are there to protect the natural wildlife and habitat; this is why you came.
So, to visit the Galapagos you essentially have three different tour options: Cruise, land-based, or a combination. I will add that it is possible for “independent” travelers to visit the Galapagos, but this is becoming increasingly difficult to do and is probably really only a viable option in the off season, when you can show up in one of the two main towns and haggle your way onto boat trips out to some of the other islands. Many of the places you would want to visit are so tightly regulated that you really can’t see them as an independent traveler, which means you need to hitch yourself to an organized group, and the permitted availability fills up many months in advance during peak season, which is roughly Dec – Feb and June – Aug.
A cruise is without question the best way to see the islands, but cruises are extraordinarily expensive. If you have $5K to $10K to spend on a one-week cruise, you’ll be well cared for and see some amazing places. If you’re reading this and money is no problem for you, stop reading. Don’t send your high school kid to the Galapagos on a summer program. Take a nice family vacation and do it up with all the luxuries and amenities. The Galapagos is perfect for this kind of thing. Send me pictures, because I will never be able to afford to see the Galapagos in this fashion.
“Budget” cruises are another option, but are widely considered to be of dubious quality and value, yet still run in excess of $1000 for 5 nights on a rickety old boat that will spit out diesel fumes, serve low-grade food, and employ guides of lower quality. There are certain things in life where you really get what you pay for: that $15 knife set rusting in your kitchen drawer; your Uniqlo cashmere sweater that survived one month before disintegrating; most computers not made by Apple; and Galapagos cruises are just a few that come to mind.
“Land-based” itineraries can save you a bundle if you’re willing to trade in the charm of sleeping on a boat for the charm of a local hotel; you also don’t run the risk of sinking in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (see above). The land-based option essentially involves a “day-trip” approach based out of different hotels in the little towns and settlements of the Galapagos. You can still see a lot of the classic Galapagos sites, but getting to the outer islands of the archipelago is simply not possible with this option. Still, life is full of trade-offs, and as far as value goes, we think this is where it’s at. Of course, you can also combine a few nights in a hotel utilizing the “day-trip” approach with a couple nights on a cruise. Also, not a bad option, depending on the quality of the cruise.
Here’s where you need to be careful with land-based itineraries to the Galapagos: the park service carefully regulates all Galapagos tours, and the big money makers are the cruises, so finding two weeks of interesting things to do in the Galapagos without the benefit of a boat can be challenging. The three main islands you can somewhat easily explore using a land-based itinerary are Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabela. Isabela is great, but the North American summer is not really an ideal time to visit. So, for the purposes of constructing an enriching high school Galapagos summer program, you’ve got San Cris and Santa Cruz. There are plenty of good activity options, but it requires careful planning to execute a great program that has all the look and feel of a higher-end cruise without the big price tag. One example: Recently, the park service restricted visits to Kicker Rock, one of San Cristobal’s premier sites, for visitors NOT on a cruise itinerary. So blows the winds of change. It’s possible that a land-based itinerary delivering high value will not be a viable option for visitors in the future. But for now, that’s what we’re rolling with…and that’s also what the vast majority of Galapagos summer programs for high school students are also doing.
So, with that information, we can move into our breakdown of the different options.
Of the 17 different Galapagos summer programs we looked at, 14 are land-based and 3 take a combination cruise/land-based approach. There are no “cruise only” options I am aware of, at least not for summer 2014. We also looked at the number of nights in the Galapagos, the total number of islands visited, the number of days volunteering, the total number of nights in Ecuador, and, of course, the tuition. We did not try to make any comparison between the quality of accommodations, food, activities, guides, etc., because that information is simply not made available by most providers.
Here are some statistics we found when comparing programs along these metrics:
- The average number of nights in the Galapagos: 6.9
- The average number of night in Ecuador (inclusive of nights on the Galapagos): 20.4
- The average number of islands visited: 2.9
- The average number of days volunteering: 2.4
- The average number of days touring: 4.5
- The average percent of time in the Galapagos (relative to total travel days on a program): 41%
- The average “adjusted” price per day in the Galapagos: $241*
* This was calculated by taking the list tuition, subtracting $650 for entry fees and flight, multiplying the tuition against the percentage of time on program in the Galapagos, and then dividing by the number of Galapagos nights.
The tuition prices we found ranged from $6995 for a 28-day program on the high end to $2695 for a 10-day program on the low-end. Of course, this is a fairly meaningless number when considering value. The better metric is price per day, or adjusted price per day (factoring out a $650 figure for entry fees and flight. This ranged from $390/day on down to $144/day. That’s a pretty wide range and underscores why it’s important to do your homework.
With the averages known, we can make some comparisons in an attempt to distill a better sense of overall value per dollar. Again, we are talking about value in the economic sense, which is a function of the service offered at a specific price relative to other alternatives. This is obviously a very crude comparison, since we’re only able to look at a couple of quantifiable factors for each service offered (price, program days, and some very high level itinerary information). However, anyone that is involved in the student travel industry, and anyone that has ever been a participant on a summer program knows that a successful program is largely based on unquantifiable factors such as the other participants, the guides and trip leaders, and the program’s unique approach to facilitating the student experience, rather than the quality of food, services, accommodations. For the most part, in this comparative analysis, these are either unknown or very subjective measures, but I’m working off an assumption that most providers are using generally about the same class of accommodations and other services, because in the Galapagos, there just aren’t that many variations in options at the price points we are talking about. Still, take all of this with a grain of salt.
In general, programs that visit more islands than the average and do less community service than the average are, in all likelihood, spending more dollars per student on the Galapagos experience. That may not translate directly into “value,” per se, but it should at least give you some sense of how your tuition is being spent. Additionally, longer programs deliver better overall value than shorter programs, as measured by adjusted price per day. Finally, land-based programs likely pack in better value than a program that attempts to deliver through a combination land-based/budget cruise approach.
Let me elaborate:
Saving a Boatload of Cash
It’s probably fairly self-explanatory why more island visits is going to cost more money, but I’ll clarify: Whether on an overnight cruise or a day-trip, boat travel is more expensive than a tour on one of the main islands of San Cris or Santa Cruz. Consequently, programs that don’t charter a boat out to one of the other islands are savings a boat load of money (yes, pun intended). Again, this doesn’t mean they aren’t spending money on the student experience in other ways, but it’s a likely indicator of how they are managing their costs.
My assertion that a greater number of community service days than the average is an indicator of cost-savings may be a little contentious. While some organizations may bring additional financial resources to projects and allocate a percentage of tuition dollars towards service projects, in general this is usually a pretty low number. At any rate, on the Galapagos, where tours are expensive, it’s a pretty safe assumption that packing a lot of community service days into the itinerary is a way for a provider to save money, since those service days are going to cost quite a bit less than a tour. Of course, there are some companies that are specifically billing their Galapagos summer programs as community service programs in the Galapagos, rather than a mainland Ecuador/Galapagos combo program, so you obviously know what you’re signing on for. However, it’s worth noting that there are many other places in Ecuador that could benefit from community service. It has always seemed a little odd to me to spend so much money to visit the Galapagos and then spend your entire time there doing community service. See my previous blog post for more on this.
Combination of Cruise/Land-Based
There are only a couple of providers who have decided to go this route. It typically involves a few nights in Puerto Ayora, the main town on Santa Cruz, and then a couple of nights on a boat. If I were shopping around and was seriously looking at a provider that goes with a cruise option, I would ask them very specific questions about their suppliers. What class boat? What class guides? Things of that nature. Most of the Galapagos summer programs that go with the combo approach have been around for a while, so I’d like to think they’re working with a reputable operator for their Galapagos cruises, but, as mentioned previously, it’s tough to pull off a budget cruise option. Even at a $6000 – $7000 price point for 3 weeks or so in Ecuador, that still puts them in the “budget cruise” category after Galapagos entry fees, staff expenses, 2 additional weeks on the mainland, etc. Of course, high school students won’t have much of a point of reference and, when it comes down to it, most people just swoon from the experience of being on a boat, so maybe the budget option works for them.
Longer Trips = Better Value
This one may also be fairly self-explanatory if you have a basic understanding of pricing strategies for service industries. With very few exceptions, the programs that spend more time in Ecuador (3 – 5 weeks) tend to deliver better value compared to programs that just go to the Galapagos for 1-2 weeks. (Of course, this doesn’t even factor in the additional cost of international airfare, which is almost never included in tuition.) Only one program that we looked at in the “short” category made it into the top half (ie; best value) of programs based on the adjusted price per day metric. On the other hand, the bottom 3, and 4 out of the bottom 5 programs, in terms of adjusted price per day, we’re all “short” programs.
Our Perspective & Approach
Okay, I obviously need to acknowledge the flaw in tying “value” to “price per day.” Maybe these more expensive programs pay their staff better, and that’s where the extra money is going. Or maybe they have really amazing accommodations and food. But the reality is that most of what you’re probably looking at is markup and profit margin. You may be okay with that. We’re not. As one of the few non-profits running Galapagos summer programs, we manage our expenses to a break-even budget so you can feel confident that almost all of your tuition is going towards your experience in the Galapagos.
Of course, this doesn’t make Sustainable Summer’s Galapagos program cheap by any definition of the word. At tuitions of $5490 for our 3-weeks Seeds of Change program plus 1-week Galapagos extension, or $4990 for our 2-week Sustaining the Amazon program plus 1-week Galapagos extension, our prices land pretty squarely in the middle of the tuition range for Ecuador summer programs. Our adjusted price per day, on the other hand, is $167 and $189, respectively, which is in the top third of programs based on that metric (the average, again, as mentioned previously, was $241 based on a $650 normalizing deduction for entry fees and flight). We visit 3 islands (San Cris, Santa Cruz, and Bartoleme), which is consistent with the average of 2.9 and spend 7 nights in the Galapagos, compared with 6.9 on average. We have 1 day set aside for community service, compared with the average of 2.4.
Ultimately, we’re confident that the value of our Galapagos summer program is unparalleled in the market, but I felt it necessary to set forth some numbers behind this assertion in a blog post, because consumers too often associate value with price. We run our organization in a very different way than most education travel companies, because we are not an education travel business. We are an environmental education non-profit that uses the experience of living and traveling in a developing country to cultivate environmental leadership potential. Click here to see how we do it.