Tag: northern lights

Everything you need to know to plan a trip to see the Northern Lights

Everything you need to know to plan a trip to see the Northern Lights

Well, in short, my answer would be to go to Abisko National Park in northern Sweden. It’s often touted as the best place in the world to see them, and having seen them two of the three nights I was there, it’s easy to see why.

But moreso, after seeing them again this past week in Iceland, I wanted to take some time to go into what makes certain places good place to see the northern lights, and other places not as good.

In addition to going at the right time of year, there are three things you need: clear skies, little to no light pollution, and to be sufficiently north. The more you maximize each of these, the better your chances are.

How north is “north enough?”

While it’s not unheard of to see the northern lights from the northern United States or the United Kingdom if aurora activity is unusually high, you generally want to be above 61 degrees latitude. In other words, you’ll need to go to one of the following countries: United States (Alaska only), Canada, Denmark (Greenland or Faroe Islands only), Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, or Russia.

How little light pollution do I need?

In general, this will not be a huge concern, as there just aren’t that many major cities that far north. I am mostly mentioning this so that you don’t book a trip to Iceland and stay in Reykjavik the whole time (which would be a huge mistake for other reasons too, considering how many beautiful sights there are to see outside of Reykjavik). If you are staying in Reykjavik (or another major city) on a night when there is a good chance of them being visible, it might not hurt to get out of the city while the sun I setting and wait for the lights in a more remote area. However…

If you see them, just sit back and enjoy them, rather than focus on getting to the best possible location

Hopefully, you’ve done everything you can to get as far away from city lights and cloudy skies as possible. But it’s possible that you may be in an area where part of the sky is still cloudy and/or there’s still some light pollution, and you still see them. While it may be tempting to get in the car and drive to a better location so that you can get an even better display, you can’t always count on the northern lights to wait for you. When I recently saw them in downtown Akureyri, Iceland (admittedly not much of a downtown given that the population is only 18,000), I thought I had the best idea ever by driving to an outdoor hot tub in a neighboring town with far less light pollution. Though it did provide me with the surreal experience of driving “into” the northern lights, by the time I got all settled into the hot tub, they were barely visible.  Furthermore, capturing the northern lights over the roof of a house, or with a city’s landmarks in the background can often make for more unique pictures.

How do I know if I’ll have clear skies three months in advance? (or however far in advance you plan your trip)

You won’t. But most places generally have a predictable weather patter (though this is definitely getting less and less certain now that we’re seeing the impacts of global warming). But there is enough information on the internet about the winter weather of all potential northern lights viewing spots that you should be able to get a general sense. The more varied the weather is, the longer you’re going to want to stay. People associate Iceland with the northern lights more than probably anywhere else (in part because of their very successful marketing campaign to make it into a tourist destination, after its previous attempt to be successful by becoming a global financial capital failed), but the reality is that while Iceland is an amazing country with otherworldly sites everywhere you look, its frequent turbulent weather does not make it a great place to see the northern lights, and I would recommend going for at least seven nights if you want to see them there.


When to see them

Though they can occasionally be seen in August or April, a general rule is to go sometime between the fall equinox (September 21) and spring equinox (March 21). I also wouldn’t recommend going too far after the fall equinox or too far before the spring equinox for two reasons: first, auroral activity tends to be strongest closest to the equinox, and also because if you go up to the Arctic region in mid-December, you should be prepared to enjoy nothing but darkness, as the sun is only up for a few hours every day.

Once I’m there, how do I know if they have a good chance of coming out that night?

To know how far south you can see the Northern Lights, you’ll want to rely on something called the kp index, which is explained better on this page than I ever could. The higher up you are, the lower kp index you need. Given that the kp index usually doesn’t get much higher than 3, this is why it’s a good idea to be above 61 degrees latitude. Furthermore, it might help to consult a weather forecast to see where there might be the best skies.

What to look for

If you’re not sure if what you’re seeing is the northern lights, then you’re not seeing the northern lights. Trust me, you’ll know. Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to be looking for something exactly like you see in the pictures. The camera tends to pick up more green than the human eye can, so it may appear to be a more faint green.

How to capture them

I’m by no means a photography expert, but from my experiences with other people who are, you will first need a high-quality camera where you can adjust exposure settings (sorry, your cell phone camera, no matter how good it is, will not pick them up). Set the camera up on a tripod pointing at the northern lights (either with or without you in the picture), and use an exposure of 30 to 60 seconds (yes, this can mean standing still in the cold for very long).

What about booking a guided tour?

No! That’s why I’m writing this post! No need!  Save your money!


While it’s OK to make the northern lights the primary reason for your trip, don’t make it the only reason. No matter how much you do to maximize your chances, there is no way to guarantee 100% that they will come out. Moreover, there often tends to be an inverse correlation between how good an area is for seeing the northern lights, and how much there is to do in the area. In other words, when you’re not chasing auroras, there’s not a whole lot else to do. So before you book a trip to a remote Arctic town, maybe first look into stopping off at a big city a little bit south, then catching a plane/train/bus (or driving) up North.

While I of course would have been disappointed had I not seen them when I went to Sweden last year, even if they never came out, I still had a great time exploring Stockholm.  On the other hand, on my most recent Iceland trip, my primary goal was not to see the Northern Lights;  as I mentioned above, it is generally not one of the better places to see the Northern Lights due to its unpredictable weather. I planned many other activities to experience the beauty of Iceland, and while I did end up seeing them twice in the eight nights I was there, I still would have had a great trip without having seen them.

I’m not going to have a chance to see them for a while; is there a way I can live vicariously through people who are much further north?

I would recommend following the live webcam from the Aurora Sky Station in Abisko National Park.


Other questions? Have your own tips that I forgot, or your own northern lights experience to share? Feel free to post in the comments or email me.


Photo credit: David Tse

How I saw the Northern Lights for under $400

How I saw the Northern Lights for under $400

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):

johann north

david north

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)

Groceries: $20

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