Northern Lights

Our daughter has at the top of her 'To Do Before I Die' list, seeing the Northern Lights and staying in the Ice Hotel in Swedish Lapland. I said I would post on this site as there is bound to be someone who has experienced the Northern Lights and maybe the Ice Hotel. Your feedback would be much appreciated.

Posted by Agnes
Alexandria, VA, USA
616 posts

I haven't (but plan to one day :-)) experienced the Northern Lights, but I just wanted to throw out that Akureyri, Iceland and Tromso, Norway are also potential sites. I have been to Iceland and it's a great little place to visit, so I would put in a plug for it (it has an Ice Bar, but it's a major tourist gimmic). Keep in mind that everything that's on a "Must do Before You Die" list is likely to be overpriced because folks will feel like they must do it at any price, although there are other alternatives. Whatever the case, it sounds like A LOT of fun!!! I hope your daughter makes it out there and has a great sighting.

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9134 posts

She should familiarize herself with the aurora forecast from the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Note that although it predicts aurora actvity, there are other additional factors that determine whether or not she can actually see the lights. First off, the time of year. If she's visiting in the summer months, forget it. Too much light in the sky. Second, the weather. Scandinavia has a fairly damp climate, so even if there is aurora activity on a given night, the chances of cloud cover blocking the view are much higher than in, say, Alaska or Canada. If she really wants to see the lights, she could maximize her chances by visiting northern Canada or central Alaska in winter, where the air is much drier. A couple more tips. Viewing the lights is not like looking up at the moon. You have to place yourself if position that maximizes your odds. I stayed near Fairbanks Alaska for one month in the winter, and I had to exert a considerable effort. I checked the aurora forecast, and on a night with high predicted activity and no cloud cover, I found a spot outside the ambient lights of the town with relatively open horizons. I brought a chair, very warm clothes and a thick blanket, sat and waited. And waited. And waited some more. My first two attempts were unsuccessful, but the sky rewarded me with a brilliant show the third time. So, it takes a little persistence.

Posted by Christina
New York, NY, 10025
365 posts

She should also read the first bit of Bill Bryson's Neither Here Nor There, which is an account of his waiting in the tiny town of Hammerfest, Norway, to see the lights. Amusing, but also gives a sense that seeing the lights unfortunately probably requires a time investment. My husband went to college somewhere where he could see the lights (Minnesota, USA), and I've always been jealous.

Posted by Lola
Seattle, WA
5444 posts

Since your chances of seeing the aurora on any particular night are slight, I suggest she separate the two goals, spending one night at the pricy Ice Hotel if she likes, and traveling somewhere else (with clear skies) to spend some time, to increase her chances of seeing a good one. To give you an idea of prices in Sweden/Ice Hotel, I just received a National Geographic Traveler tour catalog. They offer 8 nights in Sweden, including 3 in Stockholm and 5 above the Arctic Circle (with one at the Ice Hotel) for a whopping $7900 (USD). My experience with travel prices is that we can generally do a similar trip independently for about half what the good tour companies charge, but that would still be $4000 per person. I didn't check what a single night at the Ice Hotel costs. Tom is spot on about the infrequency of the aurora. I spent 7 winters in Fairbanks (yes, all winter) and can count on two hands the number of really good displays we saw. We lived well out of town in an area of dark and open sky, and we had a hammock set up outside so we could go and watch. People would call each other when there was a good one-but they are not all that common. And Fairbanks, with its dry climate an clear skies, is one of the best places in the world to see it. If she is adventurous, she might consider the 3 day/2 night winter dogsled trip into Denali Park and Preserve, offered by Earthson Lodge in Alaska. $2300 per person, includes pick-up at the Fairbanks airport so you don't have to rent a car. http://www.earthsonglodge.com/winter.html I would suggest going in March, when it is not as cold and there is more daylight. We did overnight ski trips at that time and the temperatures (down to minue 10 F. at night) were very manageable. Daytime it can get above freezing in the sunshine. It is really beautiful out there. . .

Posted by Judy
Adelaide, SA, Australia
802 posts

Thank you for your great information. I knew you guys would come through. I will pass this on to my daughter. They would go in winter. Scandanavia is their preferred destination.

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
8761 posts

I agree with the others.... I've never seen them, but my cousin's wife has made several attempts. Each time she has gone to Iceland or Finland she has been obscured by cloud and/or rain. She has twice made flights on a specially equipped aircraft which circulates in about the right area and is, of course, above the cloud layers. She's never actually been successful in seeing a decently good display. She got a brief glimpse of a mediocre display once. I wish your daughter good luck...

Posted by David
Seattle, WA, USA
1414 posts

Lola's advice is sound. You can not predict far in advance when you might be able to see an aurora - not due to local weather but due to variations in solar activity. To me, trying to "chase" it seems like a very, very poor use of expensive and scarce time in Europe, when you can just as easily see them from all sorts of places. The best auroral display I've ever seen was southern Michigan - it was spectacular, clear and colorful like a "laser light show." That display was seen as far south as Mexico City (this was years ago, but great auroral displays do happen once in a long while). I've also seen them several times from around Oregon and Washington (faint, but there) and numerous times from Southeast Alaska (pretty good). My point is that you do not go somewhere to see the northern lights (not unless you're going to spend a year there...). You see them by being in the right place (there are LOTS of right places) at the right time (you will never know when the right time is coming) and by paying attention to the night sky (which we should all probably do more of anyway). Checking space weather.com would also help. Go to Europe - but spend your time wisely there (unless you're lucky enough to have so much money and free time that you can go very often). Go to an ice hotel if you must - at least that's something you can predict will probably be there when you show up with your hard-earned money. But if you want to see the aurora, go spend some time (weeks or months) in less expensive northern latitudes.

Posted by Toni
Charlotte, NC, USA
2847 posts

Another good place to try to catch the Northern Lights is Iceland. They could fly Iceland Air and get a free layover (even 4-7 days!). Iceland Air has special winter packages that include Northern Light watches.

Posted by Judy
Adelaide, SA, Australia
802 posts

From all of your informative replies, there is obviously going to be a huge amount of luck involved, rather than planning, to be fortunate enough to catch a sighting. At this stage they are planning on spending at least 4-5 days in the region. They plan to involve themselves in other Arctic Circle activities, which will be memorable, Im sure.