One of the most desired adventures people have on their bucket list is seeing the Northern Lights, a.k.a Aurora Borealis. However, as beautiful and magical as the moment is, the journey to get there can be extremely difficult and in some cases, very, very expensive. We were lucky to witness the lights on the 28th of February 2019 and we thought we'd share our tips, in hopes that you can see it one day too.
BEFORE BOOKING YOUR TRIP:
You have a higher chance of seeing the lights during long and dark nights so December to March are the best times to go. Don't be put off by the cold weather. There are other benefits to travelling during winter including less crowds, cheaper accommodations and flights, and snow! Just be prepared to dress warmly as the temperature can reach negative 50 degrees, FIFTY!!
Finland, Sweden, Norway and Canada are some of the main countries you can travel to see the lights - consider the northern, quiet areas, not the main cities. In Norway, you'll need to fly from Oslo (capital city) to any of the northern regions/cities such as Alta, Andoya, Bodo, Hamn in Senja, Harstad, Kirkenes, Lakselb, Narvik, the Lofoten Islands, or Tromso. This can be a 2 hour flight or a 6+ hour train ride, depending on the location you've chosen.
Now we have the when and where, let's talk about our experience finding the lights on the day.
There are a few factors influencing your chances of seeing the lights, and you'll need to keep this in mind on the day of hunting.
ONE. The weather plays a huge role. If it is cloudy at 5pm with strong winds, there is a chance the clouds will move along and the lights will show. However, if it's storming in the afternoon, you're most likely going to have a long night of disappointment (especially if you paid for a tour).
Use forcast websites such as THIS (aurora forcast) or THIS (Norway lights) to increase your chances.
TWO. Another thing many websites mention is KP index, which refers to the geomagnetic activity. You want a higher kp number for a better chance of seeing the lights. Even though in middle eastern Europe, there is a higher kp, the light pollution from the cities makes it difficult for the lights to be seen, hence why people travel north to the arctic areas.
THREE. Staying in the main city affects your chances too. For Tromso, the best spots are at least a 30 minute drive outside the city. This can be dangerous, of course, as you are driving in a foreign country on icy roads navigating your way through the darkness. You should not just hire a car and chase the lights if you do not have an experienced guide with you.
COST OF SEEING THE LIGHTS
So the question is.. "Should you pay for a tour?".
These can be really expensive, varying from $400 AUD to $1000 AUD PER PERSON. If you have an endless supply of cash, then going on a tour every night might be the easiest option for a stress free night, as the tour guides are experts at chasing the lights. However, if you're like us who are travelling around Europe on a budget, you'll want to save as much money as possible.
Another option is renting a car but like I said, this can be a dangerous and stressful option. You could catch a taxi to outside the city, but if the driver leaves you in an unknown location, you're going to find it difficult to catch a taxi home. This option is also expensive.
Some of other options we found were feeding reindeers or visiting a Sami tent (the native people of Scandinavia) or dog sledding at night. These options can vary from $200 AUD.
On the 27th of February earlier this year, we flew from Oslo to Tromso via Norwegian air. After landing at 5PM, we caught a 6 minute taxi ride to our hotel and then walked 10 mins to the meeting point. We had pre-booked the reindeer experience the night before for $250 AUD per person, in hopes of catching a glimpse of the lights.
Unfortunately on this night, the wind was fierce and terrifying, scaring even our reindeer friends away. I’m going to share a separate post about this experience because meeting the Sami people and learning about their culture was such a unique and once-in-a-lifetime moment.
The next day, on the 28th February, we felt defeated with our chances of seeing the lights, as we had an early 6AM flight on the 1st of March. The forecast showed "try"and we knew there was no point booking a $500 AUD expedition that night, especially since these tours tend to end at 4AM in the morning.
However, we should have been more hopeful.
The weather on the 28th February was sunny and clear, at -2 degrees Celsius (as you can see in this blog post). There were no winds. And in the evening, there were no clouds in the sky. The forecast might have looked gloomy but the KP index was 3, a higher KP than the day before. At 5PM, we tried to book a last minute tour, thinking "we might as well" but they were sold out 😢.
So we had dinner and were walking dejectedly towards a bar to try aquavit, when the most magical thing happened. I looked up in the sky and saw this faint, green hue. I yelled out to Mick but he couldn't see it so I thought I was just being too hopeful haha. After 5 minutes of staring up into nothing, I saw the glimmer again and took out my phone to take a photo.
Sure enough, Aurora Borealis had appeared.
We hurried back to our hotel to find the best places to watch the lights since we were in the middle of Tromso city. There were two options: a 25 minute taxi ride south to the beach in Bjerkaker area, or a 6 minute taxi ride west to lake Prestvannet. Based on the direction we saw Aurora Borealis dance towards, we opted for the lake.
The taxi driver was really nice and gave us tips and his business card so we had a ride back home. We followed the main trail until we saw a couple walk onto the frozen lake so we followed them and found this clear space to take photos.
It was a freezing 15 minutes, from removing our gloves to snap photos, to trying to keep warm while we smiled for the camera (Anything for the gram, am I right? 😂). After the lights faded, we started to really freeze and hurried back to the main road.
Unfortunately, we lost the taxi business card...
We were nowhere near any hotels / shops. We kept walking towards our hotel while trying to book a taxi online however the Norwegian website made it really difficult to pinpoint our pickup location. We ended up walking the 16 minutes back to our hotel.
It was terrifying, thinking we might lose a limb to the snow. We were both so relieved to get home. My ankles were bleeding from my Timberlands (only 3 days old) but luckily, we did not get any frost bites or other injuries from the icy, slippery roads.
It was definitely worth the experience but next time, we will be a lot more prepared for the arctic winds.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND:
Thank you for reading! It was a lot of content so hopefully, this post made sense 😂