Pros and Cons of a Galapagos Small Ship Cruise

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The Galapagos Islands have been on my bucket list for years, especially once I realized how much I love to travel to see unique wildlife. But the choices when it comes to Galapagos trips seem endless – and therefore a bit overwhelming – when you first start planning.

The first major decision you have to make is whether you want to go on a cruise, or try a land-based trip. I knew I wanted to do a cruise, because you see so much more. (Plus, land-based trips still have you spending quite a bit of time on boats to visit other islands, as it’s the only way to get around!)

Then there are the itinerary combos to choose from (eastern islands! central islands! western islands! eastern and central! western and central! etc.). And, if you’ve settled on doing a cruise, you then have to decide what size ship you want to sail on.

Small ships anchored at South Plaza island

Ship sizes in the Galapagos

First things first: you need to know that cruising in the Galapagos is not like cruising in the Caribbean or Mediterranean. The “big ships” in the Galapagos are tiny in comparison to some of their mammoth counterparts elsewhere in the world.

Because of regulations in the Galapagos, cruise ships legally cannot hold more than 100 passengers – and most of the biggest ships sailing the islands top out around 90.

These are therefore the 3 ship sizes you have to pick from:

  1. Small ships – Usually hold up to 16 passengers (and I’ll explain why this is a magic number a bit later!); good ship example: Reina Silvia Voyager or Cormorant II
  2. Medium-sized ships – 40-50 passengers on average; good ship example: National Geographic Islander II or La Pinta
  3. Large ships – Around 90 passengers; good ship example: Silversea Silver Origin or Santa Cruz II

And within the smaller ship category, you’ll find both single-hulled ship designs and catamarans.

After lots and lots of research and comparison, my dad and I decided to sail on a small ship (with just 16 passengers) on a central + eastern islands itinerary. And I think it was the BEST decision! Read on to find out why.

Reina Silvia Voyager ship in the Galapagos
The ship we sailed on: the Reina Silvia Voyager

Why I chose a small ship in the Galapagos

I actually took myself by surprise in choosing to sail on a small ship in the Galapagos! Going in to planning this trip, I was leaning towards booking on a 90-passenger ship with Hurtigruten. But, the more I read about the different ships available, the more I started leaning towards a smaller vessel instead.

The deciding factor for me personally came down to a series of rules that Galápagos National Park enforces. The number of cruise passengers in the Galapagos is highly regulated, and the maximum group size on any land excursion off a ship is 16 people per naturalist guide.

And while larger ships get permits to take multiple groups on land at once with multiple guides, on a smaller ship you don’t have to worry about any of that. And to me, that sounded great.

A group of tourists on a lava field in the Galapagos
Our whole group could do everything together

PROS and CONS to a small Galapagos cruise

We ended up choosing that smaller ship – the Reina Silvia Voyager, to be exact, which is currently contracted out by G Adventures. This catamaran-style ship has just 10 state rooms and sails with 16 passengers, 8 crew, and 1 guide. Our sailing had 15 passengers.

We chose this ship for 2 main reasons:

  1. The itinerary matched my Galapagos wish list
  2. The ship offers 2 dedicated single rooms on board and doesn’t charge a full single supplement for them (the single rooms are slightly more expensive than what 1 person pays in a double room, but not exorbitantly so – they usually run about 20% more than the double room price, instead of being double the price).

Want to see the exact trip I took? Check out the itinerary here.

After living on this ship for a full week, here are all the pros and cons I came up with. Hopefully they can help you make the same decision I did about whether a small ship in the Galapagos would be right for me!

Amanda in a hot tub on a ship in the Galapagos
Me happily living the small ship life in the Galapagos

PROS of a small ship in the Galapagos

1. One group, one guide, no waiting

Like I mentioned above, Galapagos National Park strictly regulates cruise passengers in the islands. You cannot have more than 16 visitors per 1 naturalist guide, and there are also limits on how many people can be on land at any given time.

On a small ship with just 15 passengers, it meant we could all do the same thing at the same time with our guide, Venus. No one had to wait their turn, and it meant we all got to have the same experiences with the same guide together.

Group of tourists on a beach in the Galapagos
Seeing a 3-day-old sea lion as a group

On larger ships, they divide all the passengers into groups and assign them guides, but park rules sometimes mean that groups have to take turns doing activities. You have to wait for your turn to get on land, and potentially spend less time there if there are more groups waiting for their chance.

I’m sure this runs smoothly overall, but I much preferred not having to waste time waiting around for my turn to get into a zodiac.

2. You get to know everyone

On a smaller ship – especially one with just 16 passengers! – you get the chance to know everyone throughout the course of your cruise.

Our ship only had 2 dining tables, and we generally swapped seats for every meal so we had a chance to chat with everyone. By the end of our 7-day cruise, we felt like one big family with group-wide inside jokes and memories made together.

Dining area on the Reina Silvia Voyager
We got to know one another in this dining area

We also got to know our 8-person crew; it was nice to know the names of everyone making the trip so memorable!

3. More time with guides/naturalists

Since a 16-passenger ship just needs one naturalist guide, it means you get to know them really well, too! We spent a lot of time with our guide Venus every day, from the early morning wet landings to the snorkeling excursions to the pre-dinner briefings.

Getting to know Venus and her infectious love for the wildlife in the Galapagos was half the fun every day. She even took us to some secret spots only she knows (like a spot where we got to see nesting red-billed tropicbirds up close), and edited a video of our whole trip for us.

Galapagos guide
Our rockstar of a Galapagos guide, Venus!

I’m not sure you get as much personalized experience on the larger Galapagos ships (though I’m sure the level of service is still amazing).

4. You go places big ships can’t

Another major bonus of sailing on a smaller ship in the Galapagos is that you get to go to some spots that the big ships simply can’t. We anchored in places with other small ships, exploring parts of islands that guests on the largest ships don’t usually go.

Kicker Rock at Golden Hour
The only time we even saw a bigger ship was this 50-passenger ship near Kicker Rock

There are a handful of more fragile spots in the Galapagos that are really only visited by guests sailing on the smallest ships – which is pretty cool!

On a smaller ship, we were also able to sail closer to certain points of interest, like Kicker Rock and a few other small rocky islands.

Sailing up to a crater island in the Galapagos
Sailing up to a crater-island with flamingos in the center

5. Some flexibility

I say “some” here, because Galapagos National Park strictly regulates everything in the islands. They set the itinerary for every ship, designate specific times for landings, hand out permits for things like snorkeling, and dictate if/when changes need to be made.

For example, in late 2023, there was an ongoing bird flu outbreak in South America, and there were a few specific bird colonies that were closed to tourists to protect the birds. This meant that our itinerary changed on a couple of days, but our crew and guide had no say over the new activities we were assigned to.

Blue footed booby bird in the Galapagos
Our visits to red-footed booby colonies were canceled – but our alternative itinerary allowed me to get photos like this of some blue-footed boobies!

BUT, in other cases, our small group size did give us some flexibility.

One day we came back on board from snorkeling only for the crew to spot a huge pod of dolphins in the distance. We loaded back into the dinghies within minutes, and went out to see them before they were gone. That would never happen on a large ship.

Watching Galapagos penguins from dinghies
We also added this extra penguin-spotting dinghy ride because we could

Having just one group also meant that when we went on land, we could take our time and watch animals for as long as we wanted (well, within our allotted on-land time, at least), since there was no second group waiting to take their turn.

I never felt rushed during our landings, even when I was busy taking hundreds of photos of sea lions and birds.

Cerro Brujo beach in the Galapagos
We could take our time when we had beaches like this to ourselves!

6. Really nice ship options

There are both budget and luxury ships in each size class in the Galapagos, but it seems like there are more choices when it comes to the small ships. The smaller ships offer generously-sized staterooms (some of the more luxury ships are all-suite!), and common areas like lounges and sun decks.

You might not expect a ton of space on a smaller ship, but I was super impressed with the Reina Silvia Voyager. Not only do 8 of the 10 rooms have private balconies on this ship, but even the two single rooms on board had full-size beds, massive closets, and a shower bigger than the one I have at home.

A single room on the Reina Silvia Voyager
My single room on the Reina Silvia Voyager
Bathroom on Reina Silvia Voyager
My bathroom, with a huge shower
Private balcony on Reina Silvia Voyager
My private balcony

Our ship also had a big sun deck with a jacuzzi, a lounge with a small bar, and kayaks on board. Things like wetsuits and snorkeling gear were also included.

Some very nice small ship options in the Galapagos include:

  • Reina Silvia Voyager (the one I sailed on!)
  • Grand Queen Beatriz
  • Grand Daphne
  • Cormorant II
  • Infinity
  • Ocean Spray
  • Origin & Theory
  • Beluga
Kayaking in the Galapagos
Getting ready for a kayaking adventure!

CONS of a small ship in the Galapagos

There are of course some downsides to choosing a small cruise, though some of these might not bother you at all!

1. More chance of seasickness

The biggest con on a small ship is that (sometimes dreaded) motion of the ocean. You can feel the waves and currents more on a small ship – and more specifically on the smaller, single-hull ships.

I didn’t even sail during the roughest season (and we were on a more stable catamaran), but there was at least one night when I couldn’t sleep at all because the ship was rolling so much.

The good news, though, is that as someone who DOES suffer from motion sickness (seasickness, car sickness, you name it and I’ve probably experienced it), I was absolutely fine on this trip taking Dramamine (the less-drowsy kind). I took 2 tablets per day for the first couple days, and then just 1 tablet per day after that. And I didn’t feel ill once!

Amanda from A Dangerous Business on a beach with sea lions in the Galapagos
No fake smiles here – I really did feel fine the whole trip!

In fact, no one on our cruise got sick from the motion. Just definitely go prepared with some seasickness meds or a Reliefband (these things really do help!), and use them prophylactically – DON’T wait until you feel sick to take something.

While I was impressed by what was included on our small ship (like a hot tub, private balconies, snorkeling gear/wetsuits, kayaks, and even hiking poles), it won’t compare to what you’ll find on the biggest ships in the Galapagos.

The bigger ships offer more common areas, libraries, bars, gyms, etc. They tend to have actual restaurants for dining, happy hours, extras like paddleboards or even glass-bottomed boats for excursions, and sometimes a doctor on board.

Indoor lounge space on the Reina Silvia Voyager
The shared indoor lounge space on the Reina Silvia

I honestly didn’t miss any of the “fancy” extras since we spent so much time OFF the ship, but this might make a difference for others.

Again, this didn’t really bother me much, but it’s worth noting for any picky eaters in your group! The crew onboard the Reina Silvia Voyager was great at accommodating dietary restrictions and allergies, and they served up a big breakfast buffet, snacks after most land excursions, and usually 3-course lunches AND dinners.

But there was never a menu or choice of dishes at lunch or dinner; everyone was served the same thing. The food was all delicious (in my opinion), but it did mean that if something came out you didn’t really care for, there wasn’t another option available – and we also didn’t know ahead of time what the meal would be.

Galapagos cruise ship meal
3-course meal in the Galapagos – we ate lots of seafood!

This might be different on other small ships, but I doubt any of the chefs on these smaller vessels will offer multiple dishes to choose from when they have to basically stock up for the entire week at the beginning of the cruise. There aren’t any grocery stores on any of the islands you’ll be going to!

If you have really strong food preferences, be sure to let the crew know before your cruise. (For example, one guest on our ship doesn’t eat cheese, and the chefs made all her dishes without it!)

4. Fewer passengers

This one can definitely be either a pro or a con, depending how you look at it. In my mind, a smaller group is great because you get to know everyone. But if you end up with people in your small group that you just don’t vibe with, it would be tough to avoid them on a small cruise like this.

Also, if you’re traveling as a family or with older people who maybe aren’t quite as active, a smaller ship doesn’t give you any options when it comes to excursion activity level. Everyone does the same thing, so if you don’t want to do a particular walk or snorkeling trip, then you’d just stay on the ship and not have an alternative option.

Amanda and Dad atop Bartolome Island in the Galapagos
My dad, for example, skipped kayaking and some snorkeling sessions, but did all the hiking!

On some of the larger ships, they have the ability to assign groups up based on interests and desired activity level. Just something to keep in mind!

(But also I can say from experience that no one on a smaller ship will care if you skip an hour of snorkeling or opt not to kayak; sometimes chilling on the sun deck with a book is just what you need!)

Who is a small ship Galapagos cruise right for?

Cruising the Galapagos on a small ship was right for me in the end. But it might not be right for you, and that’s totally okay!

A small ship cruise is right for you if:

  • You like the idea of getting to know your fellow travelers and ship crew really well.
  • You want an active trip, and you want to spend the most time possible on activities.
  • You don’t suffer from seasickness (or are happy to take meds to prevent it).
  • You’re not going on this cruise for the extensive food menu.
Reina Silvia Voyager in the Galapagos

A small ship cruise might not be right for you if:

  • You are counting on more activities and places to lounge onboard your ship.
  • You don’t mind waiting your turn to get off the ship for activities.
  • You like to be slightly more anonymous when you travel.
  • You want a slightly smoother ride (though I’d still recommend seasickness tablets).

No matter which size or class of ship you choose, your trip to the Galapagos is going to be epic and memorable!

So what do you think? Does a small ship Galapagos cruise sound like the one for you?

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