Like most people I know, seeing the Aurora Borealis (more commonly known as the Northern Lights) has always been a bucket list item for me.
But given that seeing them often requires traveling pretty far north to remote areas of countries where things tend to be a bit more expensive, the cost was often prohibitively high.
Given that airfare tends to usually be the most expensive part of international travel if that cost can be reduced or even eliminated, the overall cost can be reduced significantly. That’s why when I saw a $400 roundtrip flight from Oakland to Stockholm on Norwegian (which I love), I knew this deal was too good to pass up. Of course, the name of this blog is Wicked Cheap Travel, not Cheap Travel. Why pay $400 when I could get it for free?
Note: Prices are even lower for this route this year, as the same trip is now $300!
Perhaps Norwegian is feeling the pressure from WOW Air and their $99 flights to Iceland
Knowing that there are several cards out there offering signup bonuses of $400 or more on travel, I used the CardMatch tool to see if I was pre-approved for any, and saw that I was indeed pre-approved for the Capital One Venture card, which offered a signup bonus of 40,000 points after spending $3,000 in three months, good for $400 when redeemed for travel purchases. Importantly though, I was able to make the purchase first, and then redeem my points to erase it later after I had spent $3,000.
Of course, that only covered my flight to Stockholm and back. As it is a major city (read: light pollution) at a lower latitude, that alone would not be enough to see the northern lights. Instead, I would have to go to the far northern part of Sweden to Abisko National Park, generally considered one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights.
Disclaimer: For this trip, I spent half my time in Stockholm, and half up north seeing the Northern Lights. This blog post will be written from the perspective of only going to Sweden to see the Northern Lights and nothing else so I can keep the title)
Given the Northern Lights’ unpredictability due to a number of factors, it is generally a good idea to allow yourself a few nights to see them. The higher you go, the greater chance you have of seeing them at least once. After reading some other reviews, I settled on three nights.
There are three ways of getting from Stockholm to Abisko: drive, take a train, or fly. Given that it’s a 15-hour drive or so, this didn’t seem too appealing. I figured I would mix it up and take the train up, and fly back.
To get from the Arlanda (Stockholm) airport to the actual city of Stockholm (where one can catch the train to Abisko), there is a very fast express train that will take you there for roughly $30 USD, or a taxi for $60 USD. As there were four of us, we opted for the taxi.
As is often the case with remote areas, we knew that food options would be super limited. Consequently, we stocked up in Stockholm on groceries, mostly getting a mix of bread, pickled/smoked fish, meatballs, amazingly cheap caviar, and fresh fruit, which ran about $20 per person.
I used the Swedish national railway site and saw that I could pay roughly $69 for a coach seat, or $87 for a sleeper. Given that this was an overnight train, I figured I would “splurge” on the sleeper, something which is much harder to do in the US with Amtrak often charging five times the price.
One of the many nice things about Europe is that unlike the US, there is a strong affinity for train travel. As a result, lodging is often set up along train routes so people don’t have to figure out how to get from the train stop to where they’re staying in areas that are often very remote with limited taxi service.
In what was unquestionably the biggest expense of the trip, my three friends and I booked three nights at the Abisko Turiststation STF, getting a cottage that sleeps four people for $688, which came out to $172 per person. Of course, this was located a five minute walk from the train station, and inside the national park itself, so we didn’t have to go very far once we got there. It was very cold and windy:
Once it got dark, we wandered out into the park in the freezing cold weather, and an hour later, we were rewarded with a sight that could only be the Northern Lights, and it was everything I hoped for (though they’re not as green in person, this is more how a camera captures them).
The only downside about being so far north is that there is not a whole lot to do during the day, so we explored the adjacent Kungsleden trail, one of the most beautiful hikes in the summer, but mostly just a pleasant walk through snowy woods in the winter.
We went out again the next night to see the northern lights, and they were even more impressive that night, moving in all sorts of different directions, and putting on quite a show for several hours (note that you will need a very good camera to capture them, if you don’t have one or don’t trust your skills, you can sign up for a tour where you rent a camera and they show you how to use it):
The next day, two people went to the famous nearby Ice Hotel, while I and my friend did a day trip to Narvik, which included some beautiful fjords:
Along the way, we also saw quite a lot of reindeer:
And on the way back, we got a great shot of the Lapponian gate, the halfpipe-looking structure:
Photo credit: Johann Dong
Unfortunately, when we went out later that night, we were not able to see it a third night, and gave up after several hours being out in the cold and seeing nothing. Nevertheless, we were certainly not about to complain having seen them two of three nights, given how often people will not see them any nights.
The closest airport to Abisko is Kiruna (KRN), thought it is still a bit of a ways south. I had booked a $60 flight on Norwegian from Kiruna to Stockholm to connect with my flight going back to Oakland from Stockholm, but this too I eventually got for free, as the $3,000 I would spend to meet the credit card signup bonus requirements was redeemable for an additional $60 in travel.
Unfortunately, none of the trains or buses run early enough to the airport, so the options are either booking a shuttle with Lights over Lapland for $50, or a taxi for $200. As there were four of us and the price was essentially the same, we pre-booked a taxi with Taxi Kiruna. They came to pick us up promptly, and after the long journey to Kiruna, we caught our flight to Stockholm, then back to Oakland, where the weather was slightly warmer, but no more northern lights to be found.
Seeing the northern lights was an experience I’ll never forget, and one that I’m now trying to continuously seek out from different countries. But this doesn’t have to be an expensive trip. To review the essential costs (not including the Stockholm portion of my trip or the day trip to Norway):
Flights from OAK to ARN, KRN to ARN, and ARN to OAK: $460 originally, free with points from credit card signup bonus
Taxi from Arlanda to Stockholm: $15 (per person)
Sleeper train from Stockholm to Abisko: $103 (cheaper now with the kroner falling against the dollar)
Lodging in Abisko for three nights: $187 (per person)
Taxi from Abisko to Kiruna: $50 (per person)
Total cost: $375
Have you been to Abisko and have something to add? Questions about something I wrote? Feel free to e-mail me or post in the comments.
Northern Lights photos credit: David Tse