Aurora Tourism: The Complete Guide to Seeing the Northern Lights

The northern lights are on your bucket list. In fact, I am willing to bet they are near the top. For most people, however, the box remains unchecked like a batter left on base in the world series.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Follow this guide for the unforgettable experience of Aurora Borealis.

Go North!

This tip is obviously not a surprise, I mean it’s in the name after all. But it’s actually more difficult than it may seem. Many Aurora tourists may have the preconceived notion that simply flying to a northern city is all that’s required, and they’re wrong. Light pollution makes it nearly impossible to see the aurora unless it is really powerful, in which case you have all the more reason to go somewhere dark. Here are some suggestions:

  • Iceland is one of the most popular destinations for aurora tourism, and rightfully so. Flights to Keflavik airport are amongst the cheapest transatlantic fares available from North America and Europe, and the short flight times are convenient. Reykjavik, the capital, is a small enough city that light pollution isn’t very high, but it is still suggested to rent a car (or get a ticket on a bus) and flee the city. I recommend Arnarstapí, which is a cute little town a few hours north of the city known for its sea cliffs. Höfn is also great (and where I saw the aurora!) and within close distance of the picturesque Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon.
  • Canada and Alaska are great options for North Americans who don’t want to fly to see the northern lights. Just drive north until the roads end and then hike the rest of the way. It is a misconception that you have to be within the arctic circle to see the northern lights, but that is simply not the case. The northern lights are frequently visible in Anchorage, Fairbanks and even many Canadian cities such as Quebec. Just remember to drive into the countryside for optimal light conditions!
  • Scandinavia and Russia are perfect for Europeans or Americans who want to see the northern lights. Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki and Saint Petersburg are all far enough north to get the full experience, although towns such as Luleå and Narvik will give you a far higher likelihood of success.

Check the weather

The most important thing aurora tourists forget is to check the weather. A simple cloud cover is enough to block out the lights, so it is important to keep an eye on radars.

If you check cloud cover before driving out of the city you can adjust your plans to improve your chances. For example, it may be cloudy in Oslo but not Bergen, and if you know in advance you can make the drive before nightfall.

Check the forecast

Now that you know where you want to go and if it will be cloudy you have to make sure the northern lights are active! Aurora borealis is caused by flares on the sun’s surface, and their activity varies day-to-day. Fortunately, there are plenty of meteorological services that predict aurora activity on a scale from 0–9. If you are far enough north you can spot the lights at a low number like 1 or 2, but the higher the number the better the aurora.

Be prepared to fail :/

Sometimes, it doesn’t work out. In the worst case, you will get a new ticket from the same tour company. Their elusiveness is what makes them special, and patience is rewarded.

Written by

Journalist, entrepreneur and student - Boston College, University of Otago. Buddhist. Expert adventurer and consultant for conducting business in Asia.

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