We are frequently asked for our advice and recommendations on the best places to see the aurora. There is no simple answer to this, because there are so many different places to see it and they can all be quite good, if the conditions are right.
Auroras occur at (or near) the geomagnetic poles of the earth. So the closer you can get to the poles, the more chances you have of seeing auroras. In the case of Europe, we are affected by auroras from the North (geomagnetic) Pole, so the further north you can get, the more likely the chances of aurora will be. So for this reason, Northern Scandinavia and Iceland are usually the favourite spots for aurora viewers.
Whichever country you choose, there are a couple of options you have on how much the holiday will cost. Here is a guide from most expensive to least expensive to help you make a more informed decision when you are considering an aurora trip:
1. The dedicated aurora/arctic adventure package
A lot of people say going to view the aurora is a once in a lifetime experience, so they want it to be very special. In this instance we would recommend visiting Lapland, and having the whole arctic winter experience, such as riding reindeer and husky sleighs, camp fires in the wilderness, saunas (and maybe Ice swimming..), aurora chasing on snowmobile etc. So even if the aurora show is hindered by clouds or it is quite a weak showing, you will still have a wonderful week anyway. This type of holiday is quite expensive, but the aurora company provided this service usually includes everything you will need for aurora viewing, such as warm winter overalls etc. Have a look at www.nellim.fi for example.
2. Aurora tour guide (Recommended)
This is a great option if your goal is to see the aurora and you don’t care too much about the daytime activities, or you can make your own agenda during the day time. You make your own way to whatever destination you choose, and usually at a certain time every night, you will meet up with a local tour guide who will drive you to find the auroras for 4 to 5 hours or more. Usually they will have a rendezvous point at a main hotel in the town or other landmark where you meet them. This is a really great option as local knowledge is invaluable. Seeing auroras is great, but seeing them from a beautiful location is even better, and usually only the locals will know where these locations are.
3. Be your own tour guide
This the lowest cost option, and great for people on a budget, and makes it financially viable to visit more than once per winter! This involves finding the cheapest flights to your chosen destination north and staying in a low cost hotel. Usually you will have to fly to the capital city, such as Oslo, then fly up north from there. It is up to you to do the homework and find the cheapest flights possible and find the cheapest hotels or hostels. If you do some homework and find good aurora locations (google streetview is good for this), see if there is a bus route there and see what time the buses stop running. Alternatively you could get taxis or you could also rent a car and drive out of the city to find the aurora yourself. It is worth mentioning, in many town and cities up north, the light pollution isn’t that bad, and you can often see auroras from just outside your hotel, but obviously this isn’t a very beautiful location so it is worth exploring outside the city to find better locations.
What are the best locations?
As I mentioned earlier, there is no easy answer to this. The further north you go, the better the chances of good aurora shows. But also cost (getting there), amenities (is there anything to do in the day time?) and accessibility (1 flight per week?) play an important role. So using this formula we would recommend the following:
Capital of the north. Very high chance of viewing auroras. Wonderful scenery. Very accessible, reasonable priced flights and lots of things to do there in the daytime. Plenty of hotels/hostels. Many local highly knowledgeable aurora tour guides operating out of there, some of which can be found here: http://www.visittromso.no/en/Activities/Northernlights/.
Although not as far north as Tromsø or other Scandinavian locations, it’s accessibility make it a superb choice. Direct flights from most European capitals, such as London – Reykjavik, at reasonable prices make this ideal for short visits. Due to this fact of only needing one flight each way, it is possibly the best value place to see auroras. It has plenty of hotels/hostels and an abundance of daytime activities. The winter temperatures are usually warmer than Lapland also making standing outside for hours a little more tolerable if you aren’t used to it. There some great local tour guides operating from Reykjavic and some that use 4×4’s and will take you to stunning scenery.
Also look into Ivalo/Inari, it is a small town very north, but it has an airport and has flights to Helsinki.
Town located in the very far north of Sweden. Very good chance of seeing aurora here.
The right conditions help
If solar activity has been good, and the solar wind is flowing nice and sparking nice auroras. Then half of the task is complete, but to get a GOOD aurora show, you also need a few things on your side. Firstly, the most hated thing by aurora chasers, clouds. There is nothing you can do about clouds or the weather, but you can do a little homework before you book a trip. Try to see when is the cloudy/rainiest time and when is usually the clearest time. You could email the local weather station or try to find information on the internet about cloudy days at that location.
Also, not mentioned much, but can make a difference between an OK aurora show and an AMAZING aurora show, is the moon. You might not realise just how bright a full moon is if you live in a city. But living in the countryside, on a full moon night, you can go for walks at night without using any lights, the full moon is that bright. Although auroras are visible with a full moon, it does “drown” out some of the aurora. Stargazers hate full moons because it makes millions of stars disappear, but on the opposite side, when there is no moon, the sky is bursting with stars. This is the best time to view aurora! So when planning a trip, although it is not mandatory, we would highly advise to have a look at a lunar calendar, and see when there is no moon, and book your trip then.
On a slightly different note, but it is quite relevant, it is…
The Aurora Hangover
One thing worth mentioning which doesn’t get much (if any) mention, is what I call the aurora hangover. When you are up in north viewing auroras, it is an incredible feeling and you are on a real high. This high lasts for a while. Even when you get back home and you are doing your normal routine. But then a after while, you start coming down of that high, and you start feeling the need to see aurora again. Welcome to the world of aurora addiction. It is for this reason we recommend find the lowest cost method of viewing auroras, preferably with a guide, so it doesn’t break the bank. And if your aurora hangover gets too bad, you can plan an other trip in the near future.
Which ever method your choose, and whichever location you choose. We wish you clear skies and hope you get the aurora show you are hoping for. – Tony.