Image: Tourists taking pictures of "Solitario George"
Rodrigo Buendia  /  AFP/Getty Images
Tourists take pictures of "Solitario George" (Lonely George), the last giant alive tortoise of this species, native from the Pinta Island, at the Galapagos National Parc in the Santa Cruz Island.
updated 2/15/2008 10:55:14 AM ET 2008-02-15T15:55:14

Book by: ASAP
Travel by: November 2008

The deal
With all the emphasis on green travel these days, there's hardly a better time to visit the ecotourism mecca of the Galapagos islands. This spectacular chain 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador is famous for its link to evolutionist Charles Darwin and shelters over 1,900 plant and animal species found nowhere else on earth. This once-in-a-lifetime journey is typically done on an all-inclusive cruise that usually costs a premium. We've found four worthy expeditions that will give you the most for your money — and lasting memories as well.

Small-ship cruising around the Galapagos
Another Galápagos option is booking a package through ExpeditionTrips.com, a company that specializes in small-ship cruising by screened operators worldwide. They offer 26 trips to the Galapagos, ranging from cruises on simple or luxury expedition ships to voyages on sailing vessels. The trips start at $1,340 for a seven-day sail aboard a 90-person expedition ship with three hotel nights in Quito; transfers; park fee of $100; lodging and meals onboard; sightseeing; guide and lecture services. The best-value cruise aboard a small sailing vessel is the 11-day journey for $2,177.

The Galápagos with G.A.P Adventures
G.A.P Adventures, a Toronto-based tour operator, runs a variety of trips to the Galapagos. The starting price is $1,380 for a six-day package with air from Quito to the islands; two nights´ lodging in Quito; and three nights’ accommodation in a spacious cabin aboard G.A.P Adventurer III, a modern 16-passenger yacht. The 10-day version of this trip costs $2,090 and covers stops on all the islands in the archipelago. All the expeditions include a visit to Charles Darwin Research Station; wildlife encounters; and opportunities for swimming and snorkeling.

Galápagos expedition cruise with Celebrity
For a luxury sailing around the Galapagos, we recommend an early-bird offer we spotted on CruisesOnly. A weeklong expedition cruise aboard five-star Celebrity Xpedition now sells from $2,699, for the Nov. 30 departure. You’ll set sail roundtrip from Galapagos’ Baltra, aboard this classy all ocean-view vessel that, according to CruiseCritic.com, “combines Celebrity stylishness with local, ‘small ship’ ambience”. You’ll board a Zodiac raft each morning and be led through coral beaches and lava rock coastlines by a professional naturalist.

Galápagos and Inca trail combo trip
Want to combine the stellar Galapagos with the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu on one trip? Intrepid Travel offers a superb budget deal that will let you do just that with multiple departure dates in 2008. Their 14-day journey combines a 5-day sailing through the Galapagos with a day each in Quito, Lima, and Cuzco, and culminates with a 4-day hike along Peru's Inca Trail to reach Machu Picchu. Their well-priced deal covers accommodations from hotels (6 nights) to campsites (3 nights along the Inca Trail) to twin-share cabins on a motorized yacht (4 nights in the Galapagos); many meals; and some transportation. 2008 prices start at $2,240 but are discounted by 20 percent if you book by March 31, reducing the price to $1,790.

The dollars
No matter how you spin it, travel to the Galapagos is a pricey proposition, but the deals we've highlighted represent the best and most affordable trips to this ecotourism mecca. You'll also net substantial savings on the Celebrity option simply by choosing their November departure instead of earlier dates; it's priced at $2,699 (versus $4,499). You'll also save 20 percent on Intrepid Travel's package simply by booking before March 31; the discount reduces the price from $2,240 to $1,790 on departures through mid-June and from September onward.

The catch
In all cases, you'll need to pay extra fees on arrival, whether for park entrances, tour operators, and the like, plus pay your own airfare to and from South America before you get there (and, depending on the package, some flights in between). Combined, these additional costs can double your outlay for the journey. That said, everything else is taken care of for you once you've arrived, and you'll pay less overall by booking these packaged deals than you would if you'd booked the same trips independently.

ShermansTravelis a guide to top travel deals and destinations. Sign up for Sherman's Top 25 e-newsletter which features the best editor-screened deals from hundreds of travel providers and is delivered to over 4 million subscribers, free, each week. ShermansTravel also publishes trip ideas and travel features to inspire, guide, and go.

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