Catch the aurora - how to plan a holiday to see northern lights on your own

I have been asked to share my northern lights hunting experience from time to time. I thought it would be a good idea to summarize all questions I got and share to everyone here.

What is northern lights?

It's one of the most incredible natural phenomenon. This is because electrically charged particles from sun collide with gaseous particles (oxygen, nitrogen) in earth's atmosphere when they enter earth. Aurora can be seen at northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere. The most well known and common aurora is green, there is also violet, red and blue. Aurora color changes depending the element interacted.

Green: oxygen, up to 240km
Blue: nitrogen, up to 100km
Red: oxygen and nitrogen, above 240km
Purple/ violet: nitrogen, above 100km

What is kp index?

Kp index goes from 0 to 9 where 0 means there is very little geomagnetic activity and 9 indicates extremely strong geomagnetic storm, the higher the better. This is the most important factor when you want to watch aurora. 

Kp index in map below (I drew it and it's not drawn to scale, please google one if you need something very accurate) tells you what kp index to look out for to be in where your location is. For example if the forecast says the kp index at this moment is 4 and you are now in Iceland, it means you will likely see aurora dancing above you. 

What are the forecast websites available?

Aurora Service and their facebook page
Geophysical Institute

When is the best time to see northern lights?

Aurora is a all year round phenomenon. Aurora can only be seen in a dark environment, therefore it is usually visible between September and April when nights are longer. From May to August, the midnight sun doesn't go far below horizon and daylight hours are much longer, it can be 24 hours. 11pm - 2am aurora activity is the most active, however I had spotted aurora from 7pm to 11pm, they can appear anytime.

You need luck to catch aurora. Sometimes even the forecast is good and clear sky above but aurora may not appear, so try to plan your trip as long as possible. The longer you stay in any one of these locations the higher chance you will see aurora, I would suggest minimum 3 - 4 nights. The 1st trip to Finland, I stayed 3 nights in Rovaniemi, aurora appeared the 1st night but faint, so that's 30%. 2nd trip to Iceland and Norway, I stayed 4 nights in Iceland, I saw the lights on the last night there then I also saw them dancing in the sky again both nights in Lofoten Island, that's 50%.

Where to see the lights?

NORTHERN lights, as the name suggests, they usually appear in northern polar region like northern Scandinavia, Alaska, Greenland and northern Canada. Inari or Ivalo in Finland, Tromso in Norway, Yellowknife in Canada, Kiruna in Sweden and Fairbank in Alaska are popular locations to hunt the lights in this region.

There are many places can spot aurora, your choice should be made based on your interest (what you expect from the place other than northern lights), accessibility and your budget. Some place may have higher chance to see aurora but you may have issue in transportation. Some place may not be a great place to chase the lights but it maybe a place where you can do a lot of activities. Some place maybe a very interesting place to visit but not within your budget. I have not been to those cities I mentioned above and I went Rovaniemi in Finland, Lofoten Island in Norway and Iceland instead.

1. Finland

Finland uses euro as official currency so it's the cheapest Scandinavia country among all, it's more affordable compare to Norway, Sweden and Iceland. Not only you can hunt the lights there, Finland is also the hometown of Santa Claus, you can visit Santa Claus village in Rovaniemi (see my Rovaniemi day 6 trip report here), you can also try out these activities such as reindeer sludge, husky sludge (see my Rovaniemi day 6 trip report here), snowmobile or ice fishing if you are there during winter time. Don't put all eggs in one basket, try to plan your trip together with these winter excursions else you may get disappointed if you didn't manage to catch the lights. Like my 1st lights chasing trip in Finland, I was so upset that I couldn't see anything, Rovaniemi had been cloudy for weeks during my visit. I was really sad and I planned another trip as soon as I was back to Singapore. 

It was a cloudy night and this was the best aurora my camera could spot (see my Rovaniemi day 5 trip report here). I couldn't see this with my naked eyes.

Rovaniemi is not the best place to see aurora in Finland. I didn't travel further up north because accessibility is an issue for me and Rovaniemi has everything I want to see. Check Rovaniemi sunset sunrise time here, moon phase, live radar of cloud cover in Rovaniemi and aurora forecast in Europe.

Rovaniemi is the largest city in Europe, in terms of area size. Rovaniemi city centre is pretty small. You can rent a car and drive out of Rovaniemi to hunt the lights. Click here to find out the best place to see northern lights in Rovaniemi.

I signed up northern lights tour with Lapland Safaris at 99 euros per pax. I would recommend you to join the lights tour ONLY IF you are not driving and staying in city. This kind of tour can be very touristy, there are at least 30 people in the group. It is very popular among tourists since everyone is there for aurora. If you are a serious lights hunter, forget about this, spend a bit more money to sign up with people like aurora service tour. Alternatively, you can also choose not to stay in city and find a log cabin in forest. If you have the budget and want to experience something which can only find in Scandinavia, spend a night in glass igloo (Arctic snow hotel or Kakslauttanen Arctic Resortinstead. Snow hotel is another good choice if you are adventurous enough. 

Arctic Snow Hotel is a great remote place to see aurora but I was not lucky enough. However, I still enjoy my stay there. It's a fantastic experience. See my snow hotel trip report here.

I spent 469 euro a night in one of these glass igloos.

Snow chapel

Ice bar

Want to see the lights in Finland? Check out my Finland and Sweden trip itinerary here.

2. Sweden

Abisko national park and Kiruna are two popular places to see northern lights in Sweden. I did not chase the lights in northern part of Sweden, I only spent 2 nights in Stockholm. See my Stockholm trip report here.

The first snow hotel in the world is actually originated from Sweden, the ICEHOTEL. If you feel that snow hotel is too common, try Tree hotel.

3. Iceland

Though everything in Iceland is expensive, it is still quite pocket friendly to hunt northern lights in this country. If you don’t mind to mind to cook your own meal, comfortable to drive around Iceland on your own without guide, don't mind staying in non hotel standard airbnb accommodation or even build your own tent, then you should be able to keep your budget within SGD5000 or much lesser.

It's also probably the easiest place to plan. Just rent a car, grab a map and drive along the Ring Road. Iceland is a beautiful country, you will be tempted to pull over for photo constantly. Do not pull over to side of the road for quick photo even though there is no car around, it's very dangerous!!! There are many farm entrance, side road or information stop where you can pull off your car there. Drive slow and safe if you are not familiar with the place. There was a time we drove on the opposite side after right turn and oncoming traffic was approaching, we were so panic!!!

As I learned from Finland trip, I did not sign up any lights hunting tour. I got myself a holiday cabin and farm house from airbnb. They are located in a secluded place, away from city light, aurora can be seen from bedroom.

There is tree hotel in Sweden, snow hotel in Finland, what about Iceland? Bubble hotel in the forest. It's another perfect choice to view aurora and stars gazing.

If you have a bit of budget and looking for a northern lights' date with professional photographer, you can engage Pall. I was looking for a local photographer who knows where the best place to take photo and someone can teach me a few photography tips, so I hired Pall 2 days during my stay in south Iceland.

Northern lights right behind the farm house I stayed near Reykjavik.

Here is our Iceland trip video.

Interested to visit Iceland? See my Iceland and Norway trip itinerary here.

4. Norway

Lofoten Island is known as the most beautiful island in the world. I spent 2 nights there and I saw the most stunning aurora show in my life. 

Same like Iceland, not much planning is required to visit this island. Public transport is available but the easiest way to explore the island is by car. I went there in October and it's low season in Lofoten, most accommodation reception has flexible opening hours and is only open on request. Reception was closed when I was there but Eliassen Rorbuer's staff had email me the access code earlier. Cabin key was placed in the key safe in front of cabin door which access code is required to get the key out. 

The cabin in Hamnoy I stayed in Lofoten has a fantastic view facing north. I could see northern lights right outside cabin's living room. See my Lofoten day 1 trip report here.  

Aurora appeared as early as 7pm when the sun was still not yet set completely. The show lasted for an hour. 

Aurora at south direction.

Our cabin and rental car. 

We stayed at Kabelvag the next night. The aurora show was even better than the previous night. See my trip report here.  

Here is our Norway trip video.

Interested to visit Norway? See my Iceland and Norway trip itinerary here.

How did I buy my air ticket?

Book ticket online and pay with credit card? No no no no, I'm not sharing something so straightforward here. This requires a bit of planning.

Example 1: 
When I was planning my trip to Finland and Sweden, I compared a few routes (from Singapore to Stockholm, from Singapore to Helsinki, from Singapore to London and etc) on skyscanner and in the end I chose Helsinki (Finnair) as my base as it appeared to be the cheapest option.

1st destination - Singapore to Stockholm (2 hours transit via Helsinki), stopped over 2 nights
2nd destination - Stockholm to Helsinki, stopped over 5 nights
3rd destination - Helsinki to Singapore

1st, 2nd and 3rd were all purchased under one itinerary, one booking number. I bought another separate return ticket from Helsinki to Rovaniemi.

Example 2: 
As for my trip to Norway and Iceland, I flew with Finnair again but I used Oslo as base city.

1st destination - Singapore to Reykjavik (8 hours transit via Helsinki), stopped over 4 nights
2nd destination - Oslo to Singapore (2 hours transit via Helsinki)

They were all planned under one air ticket and I purchased one way ticket from Reykjavik to Oslo and a few one way domestic ticket from budget airline within Norway. 

Example 3:
My second trip to Iceland (and Ireland, Scotland), I flew with Finnair again.

1st destination - Singapore to Reykjavík (2 hours transit via Helsinki), stopped over 5 nights
2nd destination - Dublin to Singapore (8 hours transit via Helsinki)

These 2 were booked under 1 ticket number and I bought one way ticket from Reykjavík to Edinburgh then Rfinburg to Dublin. 

Try to combine multiple trip in one single ticket, this will save quite a bit of money.

What camera set up I used to photograph northern lights?

You need a good camera to capture the stunning northern lights. Good camera I mean, not your iPhone, not your Samsung note, at least a camera which can do long exposure photography. So tripod is essential. I used Nikon D800 with 28mm f1.4 lens. Actually 28mm still not wide enough, probably should use something wider like 17-35mm f2.8 or 14mm f1.8

Hope these tips help in planning your upcoming northern lights holiday! 

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  1. Hi Iva,

    Love your northern lights photos!

    Reminded us our our trip to Iceland some years back... :)

    Looks like its time to revisit Iceland again soon! :)

    1. Hi Tommy, yeah I'm planning to go back Iceland again probably next winter. 4 nights there were not enough and I missed out so much there. I want to see ice cave, I want to do glacier hiking, I want to visit Golden Circle and I want to spend some time in the capital! Hahahah I know I sound crazy.

      Btw, you have a great blog with lot of information.

  2. Just wanted to drop a note, your photos are stunning and your blog is really informative! :)

  3. Wow, what a stunning set of photographs!! the northern lights

  4. The northern lights looks very amazing and stunning. One of the greatest creations it is.