The aurora is a natural wonder that everyone wants to see. Holiday trips to view the northern lights are on many people’s bucket lists. You may be surprised to know that you can easily see them for yourself without paying a fortune. Here are our top travel tips on how to see the aurora on a budget.
Usually you need to travel some distance to see the aurora, unless you are lucky enough to live already in high-latitude regions towards the poles where they occur.
Growing interest in the northern lights (aurora borealis), or southern lights (aurora australis) if you live in the southern hemisphere, has spawned a section of the travel industry devoted to chasing them.
Some of these trips are aurora cruises to far northern latitudes, venturing into the Arctic. Others are package deal flights where you are taken to a suitable destination and then join escorted tours to look for the lights.
Another commercial option is to join a dedicated aurora flight from an airport, where your aircraft flies into the right zone and you may see a display though your little porthole window if you squint and are lucky before flying home again.
Specialist trips are expensive, but may suit people who don’t need to worry about the cost, or who like to have everything taken care of for them.
But you can actually plan a trip to try to see the aurora for a lot less money by doing it yourself, if you know where and when to go. And as well as keeping costs down, you can have more control about just when to go, even taking advantage of promising conditions to book and pack a case at short notice.
I know all this, because I have done it myself. So here are some tips on how to plan your own trip to see the aurora on a budget!
What is the aurora?
The aurora is produced by “space weather” – a stream of charged particles emitted by the Sun and racing across space in a breeze of constant radiation called the solar wind. When they reach Earth, they collide with a protective bubble around our planet known as the magnetosphere.
Some of the charged particles get channelled in towards the magnetic poles, which are slightly displaced from the geographical poles on the Earth’s axis. There the mainly electrons react with atoms of oxygen and nitrogen high in the upper atmosphere, causing them to glow. It is rather like when you switch on a fluorescent tube in your old workshop and it glows. Read more about the aurora in our special guide.
The regions where the aurora occurs appear like huge ovals surrounding the magnetic poles. In the northern hemisphere, the oval usually hangs over high latitude locations such as Alaska, Iceland and nordic countries, but it can expand further south when it is more active.
Where to see the aurora
The further north you live, or south in the southern hemisphere, the more often you can see an aurora. So they are common in Alaska or Iceland, for example, but can also be seen less frequently from southern Canada, Scotland or the southern parts of New Zealand. On rare occasions, they will appear for more southerly places in Europe and the USA.
If you happen to live in Scotland or Canada therefore, you could just wait patiently for displays that occasionally occur. For the rest of us, we will need to travel to get a chance to see something.
For example, I live in southern England, where aurorae are rare, so need to head north to go aurora chasing. Fortunately, we live in an era of cheap air travel which makes this a lot easier.
From the UK, suitable destinations would include Finland, Iceland and northern Norway or Sweden. In North America, you might want to head to Alsaka or the Yukon, but Iceland is also within easy reach. So look for flight destinations from your local airports, and compare them to find one that is suitable. The Web will allow you to find, compare and book flights online, as well as accommodation and other needs.
I have recently returned from a trip to see the aurora from Iceland. I only booked it a couple of weeks before I left and was open to other destinations. I found that I would have to take two flights, via Oslo, to reach northern Norway using a budget airline in October, but only one to fly to Iceland. A trip to Iceland was therefore a lot cheaper and quicker, flying with EasyJet, and that was what I chose.
EasyJet fly to Iceland’s main airport, Keflavik, from two London airports – Gatwick and Luton. Single fares start at around £40 (US $50 in 2018). I chose Luton and paid just under £130 (US $165) which, apart from giving me extra legroom and priority boarding, allowed me to carry on a second small item of cabin luggage (my camera bag).
Arranging your own trip means you can travel at short notice if there are predictions for active aurorae, but bear in mind that flights tend to cost more the later you book.
Where to stay
Though the aurora can be spectacular, much of the display is more subtle and you will want a dark sky to see it at its best. Ideally, therefore, you should find somewhere to stay away from city lights. Make sure the place you choose is accessible, either by bus or a reasonably short taxi ride, unless you are prepared to book a hire car for your stay.
I hired a small car for a week in Iceland earlier this month and it cost me under £300 (US $380) with the basic insurance. I booked it online before I flew out, and I would have paid more from one of the major rental companies with desks at the airport terminal.
Having said that, if you really want to save money, you could visit a small city such as Iceland’s capital Reykjavik and find a reasonably dark sky nearby. Reykjavik has a north-facing seafront, and I have watched a couple of auroral displays to the north of me, over the sea, from that location.
Sites like Booking.com and Airbnb make it very easy nowadays to find a place to stay at your chosen destination. On my first trip to Iceland in March 2014, I used Booking.com to find a reasonably priced guesthouse in Reykjavik, close to the famous Hallgrimskirkja church, which incidentally bears a remarkable resemblance to the Space Shuttle! Since it can be seen from anywhere in the city, I could be sure I would never be lost.
On my latest trip, I wanted to stay outside the city, so chose a motel in a small town called Vogar, midway between the airport and Reykjavik, which I found using Booking.com. It was a great choice as I had a well equipped and very comfortable room, with separate hallway, and en suite bathroom.
Of course, you don’t have to use a booking agency. Often I have been encouraged by the place I stayed to call them direct in future, which will save them a commission fee and might get you a better deal too. As it was, my seven nights, including a filling breakfast, cost me under £500 (US $640) which I found great value.
Airbnb will show you a wealth of private homes, which can cater for numbers from single travellers to families or small groups. Often these can be in remote locations, away from town and city lights, so are worth considering if you have transport.
You can often check out the locations with Google Maps before you go. Thanks to Streetview, I knew my way around the small Icelandic town of Vogar before I arrived there, and was able to drive straight to my motel without any need for SatNav/GPS.
When to go
The aurora is triggered by activity on the Sun, and so conventional wisdom has been that displays are more frequent at times of high solar activity. The Sun has an 11-year cycle of activity from minimum, when it is low and shows few sunspots, to maximum.
However, scientists have found that the streams of particles can be ejected throughout the cycle. We have been near solar minimum in 2018, yet there have been major auroral displays following the appearance of coronal holes – regions where the Sun’s magnetic field opens allowing particles to flood out. I recently was lucky to see a sky filled with bright aurora just days after a large coronal hole opened on the Sun.
If it is not already obvious, the high latitudes where the aurora regularly occurs are also those where summer nights have permanently bright skies if not midnight sun. So avoid those weeks! Mid-winter experiences long nights but very low temperatures. For these reasons, you may wish to travel in the weeks around the equinoxes, in March and September, when there are similar lengths of day and night.
Whenever you go, it is best to choose a time of the month when moonlight does not interfere. A Full Moon will drown out the fainter aurorae, so book a period around New Moon if you can.
Don’t expect to see the aurora as soon as it gets dark. It can start up very quickly at any time and disappear equally quickly, though the best chances apparently are to be had between 10pm and 2am local time. You may want to make regular checks on the sky throughout the night, or perhaps ask someone to alert you when the aurora makes an appearance (this is one advantage of a commercial trip, since such a service is often offered).
Remember that the aurora is not guaranteed to appear even at high latitudes. Also that the weather is unpredictable, and your aurora could be hidden by cloud! It is a good idea therefore to stay for more than a couple of days. A week should give you a good chance of getting some clear skies and hopefully some aurora too!
You sometimes hear talk of an “aurora season” but I think that is more to do with when dark nights have returned to the high latitudes rather then any increased auroral activity at a certain time of year.
The level of geomagnetic activity affecting the Earth is measured by something called the Kp-index on a scale from one to 9. The higher the number, the greater the prospects. Kp levels below 4 indicate little or no activity. Above 4 you can hope to see some good aurora, with the highest numbers producing storms that can be seen at more southerly latitudes in the northern hemisphere, (and more northerly latitudes for those in the southern hemisphere).
There are various websites which will give you forecasts of auroral activity, in a similar way to the more familiar meteorological weather forecasts. One popular one is Spaceweather.com.
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