Chasing Northern Lights

My mother and I went to Iceland 5 years ago and loved it so much that we wanted to go back. Spoiler alert, we still love Iceland and desire to go back again.

The main purpose of this trip was to go see the northern lights, or Aurora borealis. I’ve seen northern lights before on a plane and I’ll never forget the surreal spectacle of dancing green and purple lights. While Iceland does have good viewing for northern lights, they’re also famous for having uncooperative weather, so the advice is to book trips for northern light viewings starting from the first night. All companies have the same policy where the trip will be canceled if it looks unpromising and will rebook you for the next night.

While we were there, the exchange rate for Icelandic kroner (ISK) was about 97 ISK to $1 USD, which made figuring how much things cost easier and therefore, much more painful for me. Iceland has always been an expensive country, but boy is it even pricier now!

Because winter weather in Iceland is unpredictable, I decided that I wasn’t going to rent a car like the last time and instead rely on various tour companies to get to places. It was very unpredictable because while we were there, the weather was unseasonably warm for Iceland and we ended up with warmer weather than New York.

International flights to Reykjavik generally arrive in the morning. I lucked out in not having a seatmate, so I got to spread out a little on the window and aisle seats. I managed to sleep for a few hours. My mother’s flight landed about an hour after mine, so I waited for her and then we took a shuttle bus to downtown Reykjavik. There are a couple different bus companies that operate a shuttle service to Reykjavik. They encourage you to pre-book your shuttle on the Internet, but from what I can see, it’s not necessary. Maybe in the summer with increased tourism, but in the winter, everyone can walk up and easily buy a ticket. I was glad I waited because there was a cheaper shuttle at the airport that you can’t find online. One-way ticket from the airport to downtown (travel time 45 min) Reykjavik was about $23.

I carefully booked an AirBnB that was close to the bus terminal and to a shuttle pick-up stop. Because of the small narrow streets and the incredible number of tourists, Rekjavik restricts where tourists can be picked up in the downtown area. For this reason, it’s important that you select a hotel or an AirBnB within walking distance of a shuttle stop. Hotels and homes outside of the downtown area can have curbside pick-ups and drop-offs, but there may be an additional charge.

We couldn’t check in to our AirBnB until the afternoon, so we ate an Icelandic breakfast at Cafe Loki, which is right next to Hallgrimskirkja, the largest church in Iceland. We ate some traditional Icelandic food (rye bread, dried fish that was similar to the dried fish that we eat in Korean food, smoked salmon, Icelandic lamb soup, lamb pate, etc). Our two breakfast platters were $50 total and this was not a fancy breakfast. We’re talking a simple non-fancy breakfast. That is just how things roll in Iceland. The happiest meal I had in Iceland was paying $16 for a bowl of noodle soup that would have been $8 in NYC (Noodle Station). I was really excited about finding a reasonable/cheap restaurant in Reykjavik.

We killed some time by going inside Hallgrimskirkja (free, but it costs $10 to go up the tower – you get a nice view of the city). The interior of the church is the typical spartan interior that I associate with Protestant Christianity. The church sits atop a hill and you can see it from any direction in Reykjavik. Because my AirBnB was a half block away, I always knew where to go in order to go back home. The other nice thing about Hallgrimskirkja is that it is the site of one of the pick-up/drop-off stops. Getting a place near there is very convenient.

I booked our northern lights excursion with SuperJeep, mostly because I really wanted to ride in a proper super jeep and not in a van with big wheels. It was only slightly more expensive, but riding in a super jeep was more fun. I don’t have any complaints about SuperJeep. They were a fantastic company. Courteous prompt emails. Great guides. Amazing service (all the hot chocolate you can drink with vodka). It’s just that it costs over $200 and their prices are not atypical. That’s the normal standard run of the mill price for these viewing excursions out of Reykjavik. You have to decide if it’s worth it for you. The best viewing for northern lights in Iceland is actually far out of Reykjavik. The tours out of Reykjavik do drive you out of town, but not far enough, IMO. I would only recommend it if you have no plans to leave Reykjavik. If you are going on an overnight tour out of Reykjavik, companies will take you out to go see the lights at night. In retrospect, had I known, I wouldn’t have booked this excursion. What I did appreciate and this is kinda what saved this from being a total wash was that they bring fancy cameras and will take all the photos of you and the aurora borealis that you want. The camera on your photo won’t capture the northern lights; there is an app available for IPhones that will help capture the lights.

The typical viewing of northern lights will not be like anything you see photos of. My first experience with seeing northern lights from a plane was unusual. I lucked out because there were huge solar flares going on, so the activity of the aurora borealis was quite strong.

The more common sight of northern lights is wispy white streaks. The famous green plumes aren’t visible to the naked eye much of the time and can only be seen in photos because the camera lens can pick up the colors. Also the cameras can pick up more northern lights activity than you can see. You can see colors with the naked eye when the northern lights are strong. Several times the guides waved their hands in the air to say activity was going on, with us looking on and seeing nothing, and then when we looked at the camera screen, we saw the lights.

It’s a bit of a letdown from our original expectations. My mom and I got lucky because when we went on our overnight trip to see the ice caves, there was a particularly strong solar activity, so we got an amazing show. You can’t predict what you’re going to see when you go looking for aurora borealis. A lot of it is just about being lucky with weather, timing, and solar activity. I’m sure if I had seen the same amazing northern lights when I paid SuperJeep, I would have said it was worth it.

11 thoughts on “Chasing Northern Lights

  1. Great post full of helpful tips! It’s interesting how Iceland is one of the few countries where flights from the US can actually be the cheaper part of the cost of the vacation since everything is so expensive there. Glad to hear you got to see the northern lights!

  2. I took WowAir recently, and we flew through Reykjavik. it was a whole new experience of expensive, but pretty nice all of it. 🙂 I took a few notes for when I ever want to take a vacation there!

  3. I’ve been wanting to go there for so long, and might be able to this year, so this post is very useful! I’m still not sure whether I want to go in the summer or winter or otherwise. I kind of want to experience Iceland in winter. But thanks for all the good details and recommendations. 🙂

  4. Living in Alaska means I can see the northern lights in the winter which is amazing! What you experienced is typical but I’ll also say that I’ve had many nights where I saw very clear green streaks and even purple and red! It’s all based on luck and if there’s clouds or a low solar forecast you won’t see a good show. You also have to stay out super late which means that I barely ever get to see the northern lights because I’m not staying up until 2:00 am on a weeknight! It is something that makes our long winters a bit more fun.

  5. Pingback: A Retrospective on 2018 | A Fast Paced Life

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