This New Guide to Northern Lights Travel Couldn’t Be Better Timed
What can turn into jaw-dropping ribbons of greens and purples in the night sky, starts as nothing more than darkness with a wisp of clouds. From personal experience, I can say the northern lights are very unpredictable and what may end up being an unlucky view can turn into a cool-tone rainbow. So pack your patience, a fully-charged camera battery, and approximately eight hand warmers for a nighttime viewing of the northern lights.
The aurora borealis are predicted to have extraordinary visibility in 2024. To help travelers plan and book their bucket list vacation to colder temperatures, Expedia just released a new comprehensive guide to northern lights travel packed with insights on trending destinations, booking hacks, photography tips, and ideal itineraries. Below, we share some of the guide’s key insights for the aurora chasers among you.
Where to see the northern lights
Due to an auspicious solar cycle, 2024 is expected to bring increased opportunities for travelers to glimpse the northern lights in the Northern Hemisphere. With the help of Expedia, you can plan that once-in-a-lifetime trip to any of the following popular places and chase the aurora borealis this year.
The Finnish Lapland region is most popular, home to popular northern lights destinations Rovaniemi and Inari, among others. October is the most budget-friendly time to go to Finland during the northern lights season (which runs from late September through late March).
Top Canadian destinations for northern lights tourism include Churchill, Manitoba, which boasted a significant increase in tourists in 2023 compared to 2022; Banff, Jasper, Alberta; and Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories.
Norway’s aurora forecasts stretch from fall to spring, but statistically the best times to see the lights here are in March and April and September or October. Top destinations in Norway include Alta, the second northern-most city in the world; Narvik; and Tromsø.
4. United States
Americans don’t even have to get their passports out to see the light show. Destinations like Alaska, Michigan, and Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota are all hotbeds for aurora borealis activity. Typically peak times to see them throughout the year are fall and winter months because of their cold temperatures.
Between September and April, the people in Iceland are treated to a magnificent natural display. The Westfjords and North Iceland are ideal sighting locations because they have longer hours of darkness and typically less cloud cover than other areas. The only exception in this region would be Akureyri because it’s the second-largest city in Iceland and the light pollution makes it less ideal for aurora chasers.
The Swedish Lapland is the large expanse of land in northern Sweden that covers nearly a quarter of the country, and it’s the best place for viewing the aurora borealis. These undulating rainbows can be caught as late as the end of March or even early April.
Best times to see the northern lights around the world
Before you board your flight or book that round-trip ticket, ensure that you’re visiting at the right time of the year. These are the best months during aurora season to plan a trip in the coming year:
While technically, yes, it’s free to just walk outside and look up into the night sky to see the streams of color, it can be pretty costly to get to the destinations themselves. With far-reaching cities that require multiple layovers, the price tag associated with a northern lights vacation can often be daunting and it’s not uncommon for this to be a major deterrent for so many.
Fortunately, most of the popular destinations offer travel packages with discounted rates for international travelers looking to visit for an aurora borealis experience. Expedia’s Price Tracking feature in its app also helps travelers choose the most affordable times to take a northern lights trip by notifying them when flight prices change and recommending the best time to book.
Suggested northern lights itineraries
The aurora borealis is not typically visible until after 10 pm local time, and unless you have plans to camp outside all day in anticipation, it’s best to plan for some activities and sight-seeing during the day. These three itineraries below from Expedia give insight into what you can expect on your northern lights vacation:
- Yellowknife, Northwest Territories: This is one of Canada’s best places to catch the aurora borealis. Locals recommend a minimum three-to-four-night stay to increase the odds of glimpsing them. Package rates for a four-night trip including a stay at the Explorer Hotel and roundtrip airfare from Chicago in October 2024 start around $1,720. Schedule an intimate viewing experience with transportation and a midnight snack included through Bucketlist Tours for around $90 per person.
- Tromsø, Norway: Indulge in a week-long retreat at the Radisson Blu Hotel Tromsø and combine your flight and hotel into an Expedia package. The average cost for an October trip is around $1,454 (hotel plus roundtrip flights between New York and Tromsø). Make the most of your days by adding a reindeer sledding adventure for an additional $147 per person.
- Fairbanks, Alaska: Book a seven-night package to this popular northern lights destination, including a stay at Chena Hot Springs Resort with flights from Seattle for $1,654. Add an Aurora Ice Museum experience for $16 per person.
Connect with locals on your northern lights trip
There are strong emotional ties to the aurora borealis for a number of residents who live in the Northern Hemisphere. After years of having the northern lights in their backyard, locals living in countries like Finland, Iceland, Norway, and northern parts of Canada can attest to what it’s like and the sixth sense they get when the lights start to show themselves. Engaging with locals during your northern lights adventure will only enrich your experience and broaden your perspective.
Many Indigenous communities, like the South Slavey people in Canada’s Northwest Territories for example, believe the northern lights are our ancestors and loved ones coming to visit us. The auroras help them remember what their relatives left behind for them and remind them that they are not alone.
“When we feel at our lowest and the northern lights come out, we put our hands up, take a deep breath, and remember what we have,” said Arvin Landry, a member of the South Slavey indigenous community. “How [the lights] move are indications for who it is. If they’re dancing, it’s our relatives dancing for us.”
How to photograph the northern lights
Surprisingly, your cellphone can capture a more intense and bright night sky than you can see with your own eyes. Even when shooting with a smartphone camera, it’s possible to bring home the magic of the auroras with these photography tips from award-winning wildlife and nature photographer Dave Sandford:
1. You will have the best opportunities to shoot the night sky by heading as far away from urban centers as possible to where it is dark with little to no light pollution.
2. Lean on local guides or a group excursion to get you to the right place at the right time for northern lights hunting. Download one of the many aurora tracking apps and make sure you bring spare batteries or memory cards because cold temperatures tend to zap your charge faster than normal.
3. You will need a slower camera shutter speed when shooting the night sky, and using a tripod will help prevent camera shake and give you crisp, sharp images regardless of what type of camera you’re using.
4. Depending on your location, include mountains, a tree line, lighted tent, building structures or reflections of the northern lights on a lake or pond in your photo. Using a foreground subject will take your images to the next level and give your viewer a sense of scale.
5. Layers are key for proper sub-zero aurora viewing and photography. The warmer you are, the more comfortable you’ll be to fully embrace the cold temperatures and to truly enjoy the magic in the night sky.
6. Don’t forget to savor the moment. Make a point to put the camera down and lose yourself in the extraordinary experience.