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If you want to experience a mystical connection with nature, you have to fly to one of the Earth’s poles to see either the Aurora borealis, otherwise known as the Northern Lights, or Aurora australis, the Southern Lights. While it’s a hugely popular bucket-list trip, it’s tricky because there’s no guarantee that you’ll actually get to see the lights, which, by the way, can appear in shades of red, yellow, green, blue and violet. They may also appear as clouds, streams of light, arcs or in the form of shooting, glowing rays.
And while people go out of their way — sometimes to the ends of the earth — to see them, there’s no guarantee your wishes will actually come true. Several factors go into whether or not you get to see the lights, and almost none of them can be controlled. Yes, you can head to isolated areas away from the light pollution, but there’s no telling if Mother Nature will make the lights magically appear.
So far, I’ve taken two trips to the Arctic to see the Northern lights — to Tromsø, Norway, and Kiruna, Sweden — and on both attempts, I’ve failed. No beautiful blue and green lights illuminating the sky for me. Nada. Other people, like The Points Guy, have had much better luck — he recently visited Tromsø and managed to see the Northern Lights on his first night there!
Experiencing the Northern Lights is way more than just checking off a bucket list item- it’s a spiritual experience. Mother Nature and science showing off like I’ve never seen before! If you come to Tromsø I highly recommend @tromso_safari and our guide Rico @ted92 who took this shot and our driver Bjorn was the man. Can’t recommend them enough ??
The Northern Lights Tour in Tromsø
For the Tromsø lights, both TPG and I happened to use the same tour company, Tromsø Safari. It’s based in the city, which by the way, is a very cute Scandinavian town that’s worth a day or two to explore in its own right.
Our experiences, though, were polar opposites. I flew to the small airport in Tromsø (TOS) from Oslo (OSL), and upon landing, received a text message from Northern Lights Tromsø (the tour company that I’d originally booked with) saying my tour that night had been canceled due to inclement weather. Since I was only going to be in town for one night, I was pretty upset. After seeing some brochures in the hotel lobby for other Northern Lights tour companies, I decided to book a group tour with a different company, Tromsø Safari, on the off chance that the weather might clear up just enough to spot the Aurora (prices start at 1350 Norwegian Krona, or ~$161 per person). But the first tour company was right — it was so cloudy I didn’t get to see anything.
Compare that to TPG’s experience: On his first night in Tromsø, he took a private tour with Tromsø Safari — prices start at 12,500 Norwegian Krona (~$1,487) for your own guide, driver and friends — and captured the Northern Lights in all their glory. The operator took him around to several different viewpoints for some great photo opportunities. TPG says he highly recommends using Tromsø Safari — Rico was a terrific tour guide and their driver, Bjorn, made the whole experience even more memorable, so try to go with them.
For the record, about a year later I tried it again. I booked a trip to the Icehotel in Kiruna, Sweden and scheduled an excursion one night for a four-hour Northern Lights Snowmobile Safari tour for 1,950 Swedish Krona (~$222) per person that also included dinner. About three hours into the tour, things were still looking bleak, and while I was able to check out the beautiful landscape and enjoy a warm meal by the fire in a cabin in the woods, Mother Nature once again did not cooperate and it was too cloudy for me to see the lights. I’m hoping the third time will be the charm, whenever and wherever that may be.
Tips for Seeing the Northern Lights
While I’m 0 for 2 in seeing the Northern Lights, I might not seem like a reliable source for tips on seeing the spectacle. But, in my failures, I’ve come up with a few tips that could get you closer to the Northern Lights on your next trip.
1. Book a Few Nights — You’ll never know when you’ll be able to see the Northern Lights. Each night is different and a number of factors have to work together seamlessly in order for them to appear, so it’s important to keep your plans flexible. For my trip to Tromsø, I was only there for one night before I had to fly back to the US and I couldn’t delay my trip to dedicate another night. If possible, build in a couple of spare nights so if you fail on the first night, you can try again for a second, third or fourth time.
2. Don’t Give up Hope — If you’re trying to see the lights, know that the weather can change in a matter of hours. For example, when I arrived in Tromsø, my original tour company had canceled our excursion because of bad weather, but just a little while later, Tromsø Safari said the weather was clearing up a bit and there was a chance that they could pop up. So don’t go home too early.
3. Go With an Expert — Trust people who know what they’re doing. That’s why tours are a good idea. Tour guides know where the best places are and they can pad the travel experience with other sights — so even if the lights don’t actually show up you still have a good time. The folks at Tromsø Safari were incredibly helpful and friendly to both TPG and me — TPG really loved working with Bjorn and Rico on his trip in particular.
4. Be Prepared — If you’re seeing the Northern Lights, chances are you’re way up north and it’s freezing. Make sure you pack your warmest clothes — you’ll be outside for a long time looking for the lights to appear. It’ll also likely be a late night. A lot of the tours don’t start until late — like 10:00pm. Don’t forget to bring your camera and play with the settings beforehand so you know how to take the best possible pictures.
5. Visit When It’s Dark — While the Northern Lights can technically be seen year-round, there are certain times of year when it’s darker out for a longer period of time. In Scandinavia, and throughout the Arctic Circle, the ideal months are from September to mid-April. But now’s the time to plan such a trip.
Have you seen the Northern Lights? Tell us about it, below.
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