My next travel goal: seeing the Northern Lights

In looking for new, exciting travel destinations I’m turning to the sky. TravelSort posted a pretty awesome Northern Lights video that caught my eye (below), that has made me determined to finally see the Northern Lights.


I’ve done a bit of research, though I’m hoping y’all have some ideas too. It seems the best time to see the Northern Lights is in March and September, and obviously the further North you go, the better. But does anyone have any firsthand experience with trying to catch a “show?” In other words, are they frequent enough so that one could conceivably take a trip to somewhere in Alaska, Russia, Norway, etc., in order to see the lights, or is that a waste of time? I’d hate to fly to some icy, dark place for a week, only to not see them and realize they’re a lot less common than I had expected.

Anyone else have this as a travel goal, or has recently seen them? I’d love to hear some experiences!

Filed Under: Travel
  1. Wife and I tried to see it when we visited Norway. Got unlucky with the weather but definitely still on the bucket list and would want to try again.

    Will send you an email with the trip report since I can’t link here..

  2. I thought they were only associated with sun spot activity so there is a good chance you’ll not see them unless you can leave at the drop of the hat – or burs of the plasma. someone correct me if I am wrong. I was lucky enoughto see the aurora while flying over northern Canada on KLM once. An amazing scene of darkness, Orion up above, the lights os some town (guessing around Churchill) down below in the frozen lands and shimmering green curtains of the aurora in between. Was truly umforgetablr.

  3. This is something I want to experience also. I am thinking of going to Alaska in August with my child. Don’t know if I can see them in Anchorage or if I have to head to Fairbanks.

  4. That’s funny, I saw a different aurora video yesterday and did extensive research as well into where I should see it. I concluded that Tromsø, Norway is probably the best place, which is also a SAS destination from Oslo. I’ll likely be in Germany in September doing a road trip with a buddy of mine there in Stuttgart, ending up in Munich and Berchtesgaden. Hit me up if you want to meet up and make a side-trip up to Tromsø.

    This is a good website with Alaska-oriented info on the aurora borealis, but also some worldwide forecast and data:

  5. Tried to see them from Iceland in February 2 years ago and the weather didn’t cooperate … although that won’t stop me from trying again!

  6. Bill Bryson had a piece about trying to see the northern lights in his European travel book. Think he was stuck in the north of Norway for days on end before he finally saw them. Think it was probably worth it though.

  7. A colleague just returned from Tromso, Norway – he had been there just to see these lights, he truly seems “enlightened” from that experience… No seriously, I saw the pictures and was amazed. There are these 250-300$ tours every day where they take you late afternoon to past midnight on some form of transport (bus to a high mountain OR a boat out to the seas northerly) and help you catch the sights. They are professionals who get live reports of sights from their sources and accordingly take you there… I’d suggest you taking those trips since they know all the vista points all over near Tromso! Good luck with this one, it should be a lot of fun. And guess what… I helped my colleague book the *A award ticket to Tromso on SAS!!! Yay! He got me a Tromso coffee mug with the lights on it :). Our hobby earned me something 🙂

  8. My girlfriend and I spent three nights in Ivalo, Finland (IVL) the week after Christmas. The sole purpose of our trip was to see aurora. We went aurora hunting on our own (XC skiing) each night and saw spectacular aurora the first two nights. Our last night there, a snow storm passed through blocking the view. We stayed at ‘Kakslauttanen’ in one of their log cabins. I have been recommending Ivalo to all my friends and family members since we’ve been back!

    IVL is easily accessible on AY from HEL. I believe they run 2X daily throughout the winter.

  9. Even without the aurora being in Northern Norway or Finland would be a wonderful experience. Got me thinking now…

  10. I was just curious since you got a job with the travel agency how much you’ve had to cut back on traveling?

  11. Have been thinking of going in March but worried about not seeing them. I have been focusing on Finland. Would like to see what you come up with. Perhaps we can meet up or travel there together.

  12. You have a good chance of seeing them around Nome AK. Ive seen them on two of my three trips in late September. One of the best experiences was watching them from the plane as we approached Nome. So sit next to a window just in case. There are plenty of tours and some B&Bs that will wake you up for the show!

  13. @theblakefish Chenna Hot Springs is amazing. It books up super fast though for peak season. We didn’t see the northern lights from there, but we saw a ton of wildlife.

  14. Some of my Norwegian relatives have told me that while Svalbard (LYR, northernmost airport with commercial service) is an incredible place, it is actually a bit too far north for the best aurora spottting. As one of the other comments suggests, Tromso might be a good choice. Nearby are the Lofoten Islands, one of my favorite places in the whole world. You must go there if in the neighborhood!

  15. Head for Churchill, Manitoba, Canada! Depending on the time of year you could see polar bears or whales as well. Best time to see the lights be January when it’s cold as hell, but you could see them anytime of year.

    Interesting train ride up there, or alternatively about an hour and a bit flight from Winnipeg.

  16. AS an Alaskan resident for seven years, let me answer Lucky’s basic question and that is that yes you have to get lucky to see them. Kind of like any weather, you might get a 24-72 hour notice, but that’s it.
    My advice is to plan a trip to, say Fairbanks, and even if you don’t see the aurora, you can experience many other unique things.

  17. I grew up in interior Alaska — within 100 miles of Fairbanks — and I’ll confirm that Chena Hot Springs is a fairly good destination. I don’t think I’d make a trip to Fairbanks just to go there, but it’s worth visiting. FWIW, I like Liard Hot Springs (Yukon Territory) better, but you can’t fly there.

    As for the aurora… in winter around Fairbanks we’d see it at least once a week (green light), with a decent show (green + some red) more like once a month, and truly epic northern lights (green + red + purple) once a year. It results from charged particles slamming into the upper atmosphere, so solar storms are definitely a big factor.

    The key factor in location is weather. Cloud cover obviously kills the show, so you want dry and clear, which is why Fairbanks (technically a desert) is much better than Anchorage (coastal, much warmer and wetter). Central Siberia would probably be ideal. The hills around Chena Hot Springs are better than Fairbanks (despite being less than 60 miles away) because Fairbanks is prone to ice fog, which kills visibility (although there are other hills near Fairbanks).

    My suggestion? Get 40K AS miles (enough for a standard RT, and nobody else flies to FAI in winter). Get a contact in Fairbanks, and have them call you when (i) the weather is clear, and (ii) a solar flare erupts. Then book a next-day award ticket.

  18. I went to Iceland last March, but it was cloudy the day that there was activity. Love the country, amazing landscapes, food, and people. But it will be hard flying with miles there. NIghtlife in Reykjavik is descent, and there are lots of activities and sights to see around it.

    Another place I want to go is Tromso in Norway. I have heard good things about it.

  19. Tasmania is an awesome place so why not try to see the Southern Lights? Sure, the Northern Lights are effectively the same thing but far fewer people have ever seen Aurora Australis. You could add that to rare things you’ve accomplished!

  20. I say you go to Iceland. You did love my trip report on flyertalk when I went this past summer now I needd to know what it’s like in the winter

  21. As someone mentioned earlier, aurorae are not correlated with month of the year, but instead with sunspot numbers, or, more generally, solar activity. The sun oscillates between being inactive and active, with a period of about 11 years. Right now, the sun appears to be ramping up its activity, but one also needs an eruption of some sort to occur on the correct side of the sun, so that the charged particles [electrons and protons] that cause the northern lights are heading toward earth and not in some other random direction. There is about a one- to three-day lead time, so you would need to be able to travel on short notice. E-mail me if you have more questions. [I do solar physics for a living.]

  22. Just saw them in Iceland! Incredible experience. Check out the site below. They drive you out to places that are dark and clear. If you don’t see the lights on their tour, you go the next night for free. We got lucky and saw an AMAZING show! I highly recommend. Plus, if you’re in Iceland, you get to go to the Blue Lagon, which should also be on everyone’s bucket list.

  23. I have had the fortune to see the Northern Lights three times. Late August from a cruise ship near Juneau (pretty faint), late August from Wonder Lake Campground in Denali National Park (even with a full moon, they were decent), and last September from Teklanika Campground in Denali NP (incredible display and got some great photos). Mainly it takes TIME. I go to Alaska a lot, often between late August and late March (the best times for Aurora viewing). If your main reason for the trip is the Aurora, definitely plan a week or more and as was mentioned above, plan other activities around the trip.

    Late February/early March is a great time to go to Alaska. Fur Rondy and Iditarod are happening about that time in Anchorage (last March there were great reports of the Aurora in/near Anchorage), the Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks, the Winter Carnival in late February in Denali and Healy, etc. There are some websites that give pretty decent predictions of the aurora but you never know. Key is to be up at night and stay up when the forecast is high. The last time (Sep 2011) I was up from about 1.30am until about 3pm with an almost constant display except for a 20-25 minute break. If I had gone back to bed after the first half I would have missed the rest.

    Feel free to contact me if you have any questions. I love Alaska – been there 6 times last year and planning at least 3 trips there this year.

  24. I visited Churchill, Canada in early November a few years ago (a specialty of Natural Habitat Adventures) – the migrating polar bears are awesome. Recommend staying in town (not out on the tundra) because the experience is a lot more varied. Auroras are a bit iffy that time of year cuz of cloud cover, but we did see a nice green display. If you don’t care about polar bears and don’t mind extreme cold, aurora tours to Churchill in Jan/Feb are a good option.

  25. 1) go to iceland. it’s so beautiful you won’t regret it even if you get unlucky with the weather.
    2) no matter where you go, don’t wait. this is supposed to be one of the most active years for the proper solar activity.

  26. There’s a decent shot in Fairbanks, and if you go in March, you can time it with the ice sculpture festival so at least if you don’t see the aurora, you’d have a pretty nice trip.

  27. I was very lucky to get a chance to watch the Northern Lights from the jumpseat of an Icelandair 757 departing from KEF. An old friend of mine was the Captain and knew that there was a great show ongoing above the clouds, so invited me up to the office for the takeoff. Spectacular.

  28. The recent solar activity has been helpful to seeing the lights – we had a couple of good shows right here in southern Ohio before Christmas last year. Two other times in the past 20 years or so they’ve been visible here. Obviously you wouldn’t plan for a trip to the Midwest to see the lights though!

  29. I grew up in Canada and saw them all the time….and never really appreciated them! I’d love to see them again. I didn’t live too far north of the 49th Parallel either.

  30. Fairbanks is an excellent location to see them, and they even have an aurora research institute there affiliated with the UAk university.

    A lodge in Chena Hot Springs, roughly 30 miles outside Fairbanks, specializes in northern lights fans. They promise to awaken you if necessary.

    You want to consider the phase of the moon…go when it’s new.

    AS flies to FB, and you can get there from anywhere in the lower 48 for just 25K AA miles.

    Get a window seat on the plane, because that’s the one place you can see them even if the weather is overcast.

  31. My first British Airways First Class flight SFO-LHR (2001?) offered the best display of the colorful northern lights I’ve seen. I watched a dazzling light show for hours.

    Nothing has ever beat the IFE for that BA flight.

    The BA flight attendant actually suggested I move to the other side of the empty cabin to watch the Aurora Borealis. She said that night was the most vibrant colorful pattern for the northern lights she had ever seen flying.

  32. Hahahahahahaha!
    Guess where I currently am? YZF! (Yellowknife, NWT) Unfortunately, the past two nights have been Aurora Borealis-less. 🙁 Today, I’m flying the DC-3 (with Buffalo Jo in command) and tomorrow flying up to YEV (Inuvik). I love the whole experience up here. The 737-200s that fly up here (5T) aren’t bad either!
    Typing this from the explorer hotel in downtown YZF.
    Any questions – feel free to ask, I’m up here now! 🙂

  33. I’ve only seen the lights once. It’s a location I’d doubt @Lucky would be interested in … seat 3A on a British Awys 747 LAX-LHR 🙂

    I woke in the middle of the night and there they were. No color, just shades of white/gray but looked like giant pieces of “ribbon candy” suspended out my window for as far as I could see. Was truly mesmerizing and at first though I was dreaming.

  34. Best way is to take a Trans-Atlantic cruise back from Europe to State via Iceland and Greenland.
    We did saw these for several nights it was so beautiful and looking forward to do that again soon.
    Around Sept-Oct most Cruise ships are repositioning their fleets from Europe back to Mexico and Caribbean so the cruise fare is very cheap.
    Enjoy and have safe travels

  35. Saw them once in Lake Havasu City, AZ.

    As other commenters have mentioned, the displays are subject to intensity of solar activity (which is apparently increasing for the next several years), weather, and luck. I never would have imagined seeing aurora from a backyard in Arizona, but that makes the experience even better than having traveled somewhere specifically to see the lights.

    In the upcoming years, pay special attention to the forecast, and you might not even have to travel outside the States.

    That said, I suggest choosing a location (perhaps in northern Scandinavia or northern Canada) that you’d really like to visit regardless of aurora activity, and appreciate the Northern lights (if there are any) as a bonus, i.e. part of the charm of that particular locale.

  36. I’ve seen them in the air (Green ones) flying from YUL-YVR in May. We were over the Rockies.

    I’ve seen them driving from Winnipeg to Brandon in June. These were colorful and amazing.

    I’ve seen them in Labelle Quebec in August (about 2 hours north of Montreal). These were colorful.

    Northern Lights are amazing and I would love to see them again !!! Maybe I’ll use my Amex / Aeroplan free companion ticket to go to the Yukon one day to see them.

  37. Narvik in Norway best way is to take the train but the Overnight train actualy leaves from Stockholm. You could even stay at the ice hotel (yes there are many). Best time winter as it’s dark almost 22hours so you might actualy see them at lunch time truely amazing. In winter flights are not the most reliable that’s why most people take the train. and click on the English button, tours, hotels etc… but US$ exchange is not so good for you. Winter is busy in Narvik, mis winter tends to be clearer but it’s a tad chilly.

  38. Ummm…this is like in my Top 3 “Things To Do”. Since you enjoy flying that means you have to come over to Europe and do the whole Finnish-husky trip through the snow up to the Arctic Circle, sleep in an Igloo and catch reindeer for dinner. I would do it in a heartbeat! Want company? 🙂

  39. Oops You need to get as close to the Magnet North Pole as possible, not the North pole bit of a difference.

  40. I live in central Norway and in the 14 years I’ve been here have seen the Northern Lights three times (most recently a couple of weeks ago, right over our house here in Trondheim). You need to go further north, Tromsø is definitely a great place to start and this year is a good time to go for it. There are plenty of other great things to do like dog-sledding etc. but you may struggle to find a flight and hotel with the standards you’re used to 🙂 Norway is well worth a visit but you can safely drop Oslo. Go via Stockholm if you want to see a really beautiful Scandinavian capital. I’m a Brit so I can be unbiased about such things!

  41. Iceland is probably the most convenient place to see them if you live on the East coast (it’s closer than Alaska, MUCH warmer in winter, and also more interesting). Northern Norway might be a better option if you’re just going to see the lights, though – it tends to cloud up a bit less frequently.

  42. I saw the northern lights this December in Rovaniemi, Finland (flew on AA miles!). Apparently they’re there more than 50% of the nights, although it depends on the temperatures. They aren’t always as dramatic as in the videos which are usually sped up, but still nice. Finnair has several destinations in Northern Finland, but Rovaniemi is the most touristed/has the most activities.

  43. The first and only time I saw the northern lights, I didn’t even know what they were. I was driving a Winnebago with five buddies on a fishing trip from Talkeetna up through Denali at about 3:00 a.m. Almost 20 years ago now. My friend, who is from Alaska, was awake with me. They came out of nowhere and it scared the crap out of me. I asked, “what is happening,” and he said, “this is just something that happens sometimes.” We pulled over and sat on top of the camper and watched them. We tried to wake up the other 4, but they were sleeping and didn’t want to give up their non-driving time. I’ve never seen a picture that did them justice — we saw deep purple, green and blue hues and the way the light moved was crazy, like the sky was folding in on itself. The setting and the way they appeared, and the late hour, has always made me wonder whether it really happened. To this day, it feels like a dream. I asked my friend about it not too long ago, and he remembered it just like I did.

  44. We have seen bright northern lights near Kouchibouguac National Park in New Brunswick about 25 years ago and a pretty good show in Iceland near Reykjavik in Nov. 2005. People have told me you can see them from Nova Scotia and PEI.

  45. Flew to Alaska last September and saw it briefly before retreating into the clouds. You can also see it from the plane as well. Flew LAX-ANC with a midnight arrival, if you sit on the right side of the plane it’s visible as you’re up above the clouds. Making 2nd aurora hunt in 2 weeks back to Alaska too! Phases of the moon, solar activity and weather are factors to consider when visiting. Come meet us! 😉

  46. NASA predicts the Northern Lights will be peaking in 2012 and 2013, with the brightest displays in 50 years! The best time to watch them in Alaska is in September, October and March, when skies tend to be clear. Wild Alaska Travel offers several unique, off-the-beaten-path tour packages to see the Northern Lights in Alaska. Check out their unique tour packages to northern Alaska that combine Northern Lights viewing with exclusive tours to see the Polar Bears or witness the Iditarod Sled Dog Race.

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