Is Chasing the Northern Lights Worth It?

The Northern Lights draw travelers in pursuit. Is it worth it?

I flew all the way to Svalbard (north of Norway), an international Arctic territory, to learn that I was likely too far north and the weather often too cloudy to have any reasonable shot at seeing them. I had already booked two nights of activities where I stumbled around in the dark.

That seems common. Whenever I have been that I might see them, and local tourism bureaux and tour agencies don’t hold back in marketing, once I am there I hear a bunch of reasons why it ain’t gonna happen that night.

There is an oval whey there are most prevalent, and Tromsø, Norway, where I had an overnight connection in squarely there. Despite being very tired I booked a last-minute evening tour, missed dinner due to late flight and found myself standing in the cold dark hoping for something to happen. We got very little.

This is what my pocket camera got, much worse than what guide Geir got with his professional camera, yet still much more than I saw with my eyes.

Tromso Northern Lights

Here are my lessons learned:

  1. Don’t pin a trip’s success on seeing the Northern Lights.
  2. Go with an expert. I wrongly thought you would just look at your window and see them. You need someone who knows where to look and how to look. I booked with Aurora Photo Guide. Geir stood in the cold with eyes peeled to the sky for hours while I huddled in the van with hot chocolate and biscuits.
  3. If really determined, some providers offer plans to allow multi-day retries in case not successful the first night.
  4. The pictures, those HDR shots, look much better than the reality.

With all the reputation, I wouldn’t have skipped an attempt to see them, however I think even if they had been a great night, it would have been underwhelming to my expectations. I would have preferred dinner and a bit of rest before my onward flight.

Readers, what are your Northern Lights experiences?

Rapid Travel Chai newsletter ¦ Twitter ¦ Facebook ¦ Instagram

Pingbacks

  • Ben

    You’d have better luck to see them in Iceland. And the cost is generally cheaper than going to Norway.

  • Shannon

    why go all the way to Norway when you do better in Alaska?

  • Suzanne

    I live in Canada, in Toronto, to be precise, and we occasionally see them this far south. My family is from Ottawa, a bit further north, but still nothing like the far north – despite what Americans often think of us – and there they can usually be seen several times each year in the summer. So you don’t necessarily have to go to the remote reaches of the north to see them, nor to leave the continent. The displays I’ve seen were all quite impressive, and definitely as good as the pictures, although they were all one colour, that shimmering phosphorescent green: no red at all. By far the most spectacular display I have seen was from an airplane window, on a flight from Ottawa to Winnipeg. For most of the flight there was an amazing rippling curtain from the altitude of the plane, about 33,000 feet, stretching right to the ground. It looked to be just north of us, on my side of the plane, extending in both directions as far as I could see. I spent the entire flight glued to the window, watching that curtain ripple and roll, getting brighter and fainter, until it faded away just before Winnipeg.

  • iv

    I saw them in Yukon, Canada… beautiful!

  • Robert

    They look much better in photos; they are very faint (only a squiggle to the naked eye) and only appear prominent after letting in tons of light with a long exposure. Avoid taking tours with a large group – others in the group inevitably leave their camera’s flash on and will ruin your long-exposure attempts!

  • Pingback: Is Chasing the Northern Lights Worth It? | Leap Daily()

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Shannon – I was I Norway and Svalbard to see those places, I got suckered by the marketing to try to add Northern Lights.

  • Forrest

    Yep, Svalbard is definitely too far north too chase northern lights. Got lucky last year where we caught a glimpse the same evening after a total solar eclipse, but it was a particularly active solar season.

    My recommendation is to skip Iceland for Aurora as well, as it’s more often than not overcast, and go straight to Alaska. Boring but reliable.

    Did you do any snowmobile tours in Svalbard? I’m doing Barentsburg in a couple weeks and was wondering if you had any tips on not paying the obscene rack rate on that.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Forrest – all the operators in Svalbard seem to be in a formal or informal cartel, everything is expensive and each about the same price, essentially all that exists is listed on the official tourism site calendar, not to be confused with the separate selection on a more polished site sent out by some of the hotels.

  • I don’t think it makes sense to chase the Northern Lights, per se, but rather to travel to places that you are interested in. If those places happen to be somewhere that you have a chance to see the Northern Lights — go for it! I was lucky to be in Iceland in September on a night with high activity and not much cloud cover. We did drive about 2 hours out of our way with the hopes of seeing the lights, but also found a hot spring that we felt would make the trip worthwhile either way. We did see the lights while we were there are it was definitely amazing, but I think it would have been even if we hadn’t seen them!

  • Jamie

    I agree with the Toronto native above. Our upper Midwest is also good for northern lights.
    I was going to cheekily suggest a time machine: Go back to college and get a summer job somewhere with lots of tourists (so you’ll have a job and friends to hang out with) but far from any cities (so no light pollution). Since you’re in your late teens/early twenties you’ll be out after dark every night, with maximum chances of seeing them. For me it was Door County Wisconsin. I saw them often enough that it wasn’t until later that I realized that it is rare to have seen them.
    I’m not sure I’d chase them, but like you’ve done on this trip, if you’re somewhere that they might be, then have a look. A cabin up north might be nice – sit out on your porch or in a lawn chair with a glass of wine, look at the stars and if you’re lucky, see some northern lights.

  • John

    Nice honest review, I sorry the trip was not all you expected or wanted.
    What no photos of the hot chocolate and biscuits. ;).,.. A little private joke.

  • Several years ago I flew to Fairbanks in March with the intent of seeing the Northern Lights. They have an institute there, connected to the University, whose website has lots of helpful information. For example, go when there is a new (invisible) moon, so the sky will be really dark.

    On the outbound flight the lights were happening big time…plenty of reds. The FA noticed me glued to the window, with a jacket over my head to keep out cabin lights, and said that the flight crew up front were enjoying the show also.

    That was the only time I saw them…it was overcast for my 2 nights on the ground.

    So, my tip would be to fly in and out at night, guaranteeing that you will be above the clouds.