Most travelers' bucket lists comprise a long list of places they long to see, but some travelers have an extra piece on their lists – a desire to see the Northern Lights. It's a common enough bucket list item that dozens of tour companies, as well as several cruise lines, market around them.
To help you plan a Northern Lights trip for your clients, we've compiled some of the most common questions you might hear, along with a small list of suppliers offering trips focused on the Aurora Borealis.
Where can you see the Northern Lights?
The closer your client is to the Earth's northern pole, the better their chance of seeing the Northern Lights. However, unless your client is looking to trek to the North Pole, there are easier destinations to get to where the chances of seeing the Lights are just as high. These include: Iceland, Norway (and most of northern Scandinavia), Northern Canada, Greenland, and Alaska. (See further below for more information on top destinations.)
When to plan a Northern Lights trip?
While the Aurora Borealis is occurring at all times of the day throughout the year, to see them requires nearly complete darkness. That typically means the long, cold winter months in the northernmost corners of the world are a clients' best bet. Traditionally, the Northern Lights travel season starts in mid- to late-December and winds down in mid-March. Many destinations claim their season starts earlier and ends later and that might be true, but their greatest chances of success are late December to early March.
Can you see the Aurora in the Southern Hemisphere?
Yes. There is an Aurora in the Southern Hemisphere, known as the Aurora Australis (or Southern Lights). To see them, clients need to head south during the Southern Hemisphere winter (mid- to late-May through mid-September). However, there are far fewer spots in the Southern Hemisphere where the Aurora is visible – namely Antarctica (which is inaccessible in the winter), Tasmania, and New Zealand's south island.
Can you see the Northern Lights with the naked eye?
Not really. Unless you're very, very lucky (and even then, the color will be super faint at most) the aurora appears as gray wispy clouds to the naked eye. In order to see all the vibrant colors that can be visible, your clients must have a camera (or cell phone camera) on hand. They don't even have to take photos, they just need to hold the camera up and look at the screen (or through the viewfinder). We can't explain the physics of it, but the camera lens is able to pick up the full spectrum of light created by the Aurora that the naked eye can't.
This is an important piece of information to convey to your clients as not realizing this could lead to them missing their only shot at seeing the lights.
Will I see the Northern Lights every night of my trip?
Probably not. The frequency – and intensity – of the Northern Lights is highly dependent on the sun's activity. Things like solar flares and solar storms create better conditions for seeing the Aurora.
Additionally, the weather makes a huge difference, as you need a clear sky. Clouds will almost always prevent the Lights from being visible.
There are few guarantees when it comes to Northern Lights travel, and clients need to understand they might only see the lights once – or never at all.
Is a cruise or a land tour a better option for seeing the Northern Lights?
It's 50/50. One the one hand, a cruise takes clients to multiple spots so that if one area is experiencing cloudy weather, another might not be. On other hand, if bad weather is following the ship (or vice versa), there's never a chance to wait out the clouds on the chance the next night might be clear. It's the opposite for a land trip. If your client is spending four nights in one place and it's cloudy every night, there's no option to go somewhere else where the skies might be clearer. Deciding between a cruise and a land trip should come down to your client's preferences and not whether there's a better chance to see the Northern Lights with one than the other.
The most common spots for Northern Lights vacations
Alaska – The Northern Lights tour season in Alaska starts as early as late August and goes all the way through April. The Lights are best seen from the interior of the state, with Fairbanks the easiest city to base a client in. Fairbanks also has the highest number of tour operators (and accommodations) offering Northern Lights viewing. The state's largest city, Anchorage, is further south, offering less of a chance to spot the Aurora. Other towns in Alaska where clients might want to try their luck include Coldfoot, Utqiagvik (Barrow), and Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse. These are all more difficult to get to.
Canada – Like the U.S., Canada is a giant country and even though it's all north of the States, the entire country isn't equal when it comes to Northern Lights spotting. The best destinations in Canada to see the Northern Lights are, well, north in places like Whitehorse (Yukon), Churchill (Manitoba), and Yellowknife (Northwest Territories). The Canadian Rockies, including Banff and Jasper National Park, also offer good Northern Lights viewing.
Greenland – Most of Greenland is within the Arctic Circle, making it a great spot for Northern Lights viewing. However, most of Greenland is not easily accessible. What is accessible is still hard to get to. There are no direct flights to the country from the U.S. or Canada. Most go through Iceland or Copenhagen in Denmark. From Iceland, you can send clients to Ilulissat, and from Copenhagen, they can fly to Kangerlussuaq – both places have Northern Lights tour options.
Iceland – Northern Lights tourism is so popular in Iceland the country's national airline, Icelandair, has even built packages around them. It's one of the easiest destinations for North Americans, especially those on the East Coast, to get to.
Norway/Scandinavia – While you can see the Aurora Borealis in the northern regions of all the Scandinavian countries, Norway is the most popular. There are numerous Northern Lights tours available, and the two cruise lines that operate Northern Lights sailings do so along the Norwegian Coast.
Northern Lights cruise & tour operators
There are too many tour operators catering to the Northern Lights pilgrim to name. Here are some of the most well-known brands.
Hurtigruten – Hurtigruten has been sailing the Norwegian coast year-round for more than 100 years. The cruise line is so sure guests will see the Northern Lights during prime viewing season that it offers a Northern Lights guarantee. If your clients don't see the Lights during an 11-day or longer Original Coastal Express or North Cape Express voyage that sails between the end of September (or beginning of October) and end of March, they're entitled to a complimentary six or seven-day Original Coastal Express Classic voyage sailing.
Havila Voyages – A recent entrant to the cruise scene in Norway is Havila Voyages, though the company has been operating ferries for some 70 years. Havila offers a hybrid mail boat/ferry/cruise product, and, like Hurtigruten, offers a Northern Lights guarantee on select voyages.
Viking – Each winter, Viking offers a 13-day "In Search of the Northern Lights" itinerary that gives cruisers the chance to spot the Aurora Borealis.
Aurora Expeditions – The Australia-based Aurora Expeditions offers one Northern Lights sailing each year, which takes cruisers from Norway to Greenland and Iceland.
Quark Expeditions – Another traditional expedition-style cruise line that has usually offered one Northern Lights cruise each year, but will offer four in 2025.
Icelandair – Probably the most well-known land provider of Northern Lights packages, Icelandair offers a variety of packages, usually with only a three-night minimum, that includes air, hotel, and at least one Northern Lights tour.
Vacations by Rail – Clients can choose from one or nearly a dozen rail vacation packages in Alaska, Canada, Norway, Finland, and Sweden. Trip start as short as four days and all include rail travel, hotel accommodations each night, and Northern Lights related experiences.
50 Degrees North – A specialist in everything Nordic, this operator offers a variety of land and cruise/land packages that sometimes include several nights in a glass cabin in Finland's Aurora Village.
Canada by Design – Advisors with clients who want to stay closer to home can work with this Canadian destination management company to create the perfect Northern Lights vacation. The company has a number of four-day options available in the Yukon, all of which travel roundtrip from Vancouver.
Travel Alaska – The Alaska tourism board doesn't operate its own Northern Lights tours, but it does roundup of a vast selection of options for travel advisors and their clients to choose from.