How To Visit The Galapagos Islands Using Points & Miles
Wondering how to visit the Galapagos Islands using points and miles? Admittedly, visiting the Galapagos isn’t cheap. Using points & miles, plus some proper planning, can significantly reduce the cost of visiting these amazing islands. In this article, we’ll look at how to visit the Galapagos Islands using points & miles, what you CAN and what you CAN’T use points & miles for on the trip, and other things you need to know before you go.
Using Points & Miles For Flights & Lodging In Galapagos
Unfortunately, there are no chain hotels in the Galapagos Islands. That means redeeming our Hyatt and Marriott points won’t work here. Instead, we’ll look at other redemption options for reducing costs on lodging. First, we’ll start with getting to the Galapagos using points & miles for flights.
Flights To Galapagos
The Galapagos Islands are part of Ecuador, though the closest island sits 600 miles off the coast of mainland Ecuador. Nearly all flights to the Galapagos Islands enter through GPS airport, located on tiny Baltra Island. Flights will connect from Quito or Guayaquil on the mainland. There are multiple flights per week with Avianca and LATAM airlines. (There are flights from the mainland to other islands, but many of them are not operating during COVID restrictions/downturn in tourism, plus these airlines don’t offer a way to redeem miles for flights) Flights cost $200-$500 per adult, one way, depending on the time of year, so redemption rates are strong. The flight from GYE lasts 2 hours.
From Guayaquil GYE
Flights from mainland Ecuador to the Galapagos islands stop in Guayaquil, even if you’re boarding in Quito. Thus, the cheapest options are from Guayaquil GYE airport. Here are the best point redemption options:
- Alaska Airlines – 12,500 miles + taxes + partner fees (worst option)
- Avianca LifeMiles – 8,500 miles + $16.10
- Delta – 12,500 miles + $12
- United – 9,000 miles + $11.10
From Quito UIO
If you need to board in Quito, understand that your flight will have about 50 minutes on the ground in Guayaquil for people to get on and off the plane. Due to this “stop”, the taxes and amount of miles you spend will likely go up.
- Alaska Airlines – 12,500 miles + taxes + partner fees (worst option)
- Avianca LifeMiles – 8,500 miles + $23.93
- Delta – 12,500 miles + $19
- United – 14,000 miles + $18.93
Other Airline Program Notes
I noted Alaska as the worst redemption option and want to clarify the reasoning. You cannot redeem Alaska miles online for LATAM flights. Thus, even though the number of miles required doesn’t look that high, you will get a $25 call center booking fee + $15 partner booking fee. That’s on top of the taxes/fees you’ll pay anyway. I think that really reduces the value of this booking, and I value Alaska Airlines miles more than this.
There are programs that should be partners but don’t allow for bookings. LATAM said it would maintain its partnership with British Airways after exiting oneworld alliance, but British Airways said I can’t redeem miles on this route.
LATAM, despite its new partnership with Delta, is not a full member of SkyTeam, so you can’t redeem miles using Air France / KLM Flying Blue.
Hotels / Lodging In Galapagos
Given that you aren’t going to redeem any “free night” certificates or hotel program points, where should you stay? Thinking a little differently than how we normally redeem our points can help us here, since we’re going to pay for the stay. The goal is to reduce cash output and get back points/miles if possible.
Chase Travel Portal
You can pay for your hotel using your Chase Ultimate Rewards points via their travel portal (seen above). Depending on which card(s) you have with Chase, you can redeem your points against the cost of the hotel at 1.25 cents per point with the Chase Sapphire Preferred or 1.5 cents per point with the Chase Sapphire Reserve.
If you have American Express Membership Rewards, you can use AmexTravel.com. it works similarly to what I said above about Chase. Your points are worth 1 cent each when redeemed on flights but only 0.7 cents each when redeemed for hotels, which isn’t great. It’s less than half the value of hotel redemptions mentioned above with Chase. However, if you’re sitting on points and don’t want to fork out cash, this can be a good option.
During our visit to the Galapagos, we booked through Airbnb. Through stacking deals like $50 off your first stay and using the Delta Airbnb portal to earn extra miles, you can reduce your costs and increase your earnings. You can also buy Airbnb discounted gifts when they go on sale in various places. If you’re buying online, use shopping portals for extra discounts & extra points earning. Plus, use the card that earns the most points at the place where you’re buying. You should be able to get at least 10% off through these methods, and options abound.
The nice thing about booking through Airbnb is that you can have a kitchen. We saved money on the ridiculous cost of Galapagos restaurants by going to the supermarket and then cooking at home.
Much like the Airbnb strategy, you can stack discounts and bonuses if booking a hotel through Hotels.com. I previously wrote about these strategies here. You can buy discounted gift cards, use shopping portals, and even take advantage of the Hotels.com loyalty program for free nights. Also, if you have the Hotels.com Rewards Visa from Wells Fargo, you can earn free nights faster. Read more here.
Galapagos Islands Need To Know
You’ve booked your Galapagos visit using points & miles, now how do we get there? From GPS airport, you have a variety of options for going to other islands (inter-island flights are with local companies only and have no options for using points/miles) via flight or boat. What most people do, though, is head to the largest city of the Galapagos Islands, which is Puerto Ayora. More on that later.
Before you can go to the Galapagos Islands, understand that about 98% of the territory is protected and/or National Park. Thus, who/what enters is strictly controlled. Here’s a look at the “before you go” stuff you need to take care of before you can get on the plane.
Salvoconducto / Safe Conduct Document
You need the “salvoconducto” document to travel to the Galapagos, no matter what your plans are. Any tour operator or hotel can issue this to you. They basically assume responsibility for your conduct and need to inform you of the rules during your stay (don’t harm the animals, don’t drive off road, stuff like that). If you’re booking with someone who has a tourism license, they can and should provide this to you free of charge. Our Airbnb host provided this after we sent pictures of our passports. Print this and bring it with you to the airport in Quito on Guayaquil.
Transit Control Card & Inspection Of Belongings
The government says the purpose of this document is to monitor how long visitors spend in the Galapagos. Given that you have to pay for it, it seems more like just a method of collecting money. You can apply for this online here, or you can do it at the airport. The cost is $20 per adult. (Ecuador’s official currency is US Dollars, so everything is priced accordingly) The card is perforated and has all of your information on both halves. You will keep half of it, and you need to turn this in when leaving the islands. Don’t lose it!
The Process At Guayaquil Airport
Procedures could be slightly different at the Quito airport, but here’s what to do at the GYE airport in Guayaquil.
- If arriving on a connecting flight, you need to reclaim bags and do a new check-in, so the government can ensure you do all necessary steps for travel to the Galapagos Islands.
- Near domestic check-in counters, look for signs for Galapagos inspection. If you don’t have the TCC yet, you’ll do this first. Despite signs on the window saying they accepted credit cards, it was cash only. They conveniently have a row of ATMs nearby.
- To apply for the TCC, you need to show your salvoconducto document. During this process is also where we had to show our negative COVID test results. Results can be no more than 4 days old (10 days old to enter Ecuador but stricter limits for Galapagos).
- After obtaining your TCC or bringing the print-out from doing it online, pass all of your bags (carry on and checked) through inspection. They’re checking for raw fruits, meats, or anything that could bring diseases into their ecosystem.
- They will mark your bags as passing inspection, then you can do your normal check in for the flight. At check in, you will need to show the COVID test results, salvoconducto, and TCC card. Keep all of this handy.
If you’re checking in at the Quito airport, the TCC booth is a wood + glass area facing out towards the street (away from the check-in counters) with “Galapagos” in huge letters at the top.
On Arrival In Galapagos
Once you arrive in the Galapagos Islands, you will pass through another sanitary control looking for anything that could have bugs, disease, etc. You will also pay a hefty fee to enter the protected National Park. If you live in Ecuador, it’s only $6 per adult. Live in South America? $50 each. Live anywhere else? Fork over $100 per adult, $50 for children under 12. Be aware that they do NOT accept credit cards. They will warn people before boarding the flight that you can’t leave the terminal to go to the ATM. Bring the cash with you in new, good-looking US dollars. Just another reason why they have a gang of ATMs near the inspection/check-in counters.
Getting To Your Destination
Assuming that you’re going to Puerto Ayora, the main city and most common destination, it will take a while. And it will cost you.
Remember that I said GPS airport is on tiny Baltra Island? Puerto Ayora is on the southern edge of nearby Santa Cruz Island. From the airport, everyone takes a bus, which costs $5 each way. Cash only.
This bus takes you to a small canal between Baltra and Santa Cruz islands. People and their stuff are loaded onto a water taxi, which takes you to the other side. $1 each, cash only.
From here, you have 2 options. You can take a taxi, which costs $25. You’ll spend about 40 minutes going to Puerto Ayora and will be dropped off at the door of your hotel/Airbnb. The other option is a $5 bus that takes about 2 hours and will drop you in the center of Puerto Ayora. Depending on where you’re staying, you can talk or catch a taxi ($2-$5) to your destination. All of these are cash only–no credit card rewards to be earned.
Add all of that up and do it in reverse on your way back to the airport when you leave, paying the same amounts again. Keep your eyes peeled on the route, you’ll probably see some giant tortoises near the road.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of things you just can’t use credit cards for in Galapagos. That means not earning points. It also implies the reverse: it’s hard to redeem points. That being said, it is possible to visit the Galapagos Islands using points & miles to reduce costs and increase points earnings, depending on your approach. Additionally, several businesses that normally accept credit cards told us their service has been down since the islands were cut off for a while during COVID restrictions. Thus, they became cash-only “until further notice”. This included some restaurants and nearly all dive shops.
With some planning, you can save money on visiting what is an expensive but dream-worthy destination: the Galapagos Islands. We loved our trip. I hope you enjoy yours.