Northern Lights trip? Been there, done that.

One of Iceland’s biggest attractions is the Northern Lights. Although you can see them from Reykjavík (and in fact there were some spectacular displays over the winter), it is recommended that you get away from the city lights and get out into the countryside for a better view.


Several bus companies run tours for this, and in theory these tours do not go out if the conditions are not right for seeing the Northern Lights (ie heavy cloud cover). So, if you do go out, it’s because you have a reasonable chance of seeing something. If you don’t see anything, you get offered a free trip the next night or as many nights after as it takes to see them.

I braved one of these trips on a gale-force-windy evening in October. I say braved, because I’m a morning person rather than a late night person and I hate being driven around for hours on a bus – but I needed to at least give it a try because I really wanted to see the Northern Lights. Here is my trip diary:

1. 19:30 – get picked up at accommodation on small bus, drive to tour office. Run, or rather get blown, across street to exchange voucher for ticket, get blown back across street to big bus.

2. 20:00 – big bus departs, people excited to hopefully see something, doesn’t take long to get out of the city into absolute pitch blackness.

3. 21:00 – would have no idea where we are but guide says it’s around Mt Hekla (WHAT?! We are driving around the gateway to Hell in the dark with no one else around and no one knows where we are??…ok, I’ll calm down).

4. 21:30 – hmm, a couple of false starts so far where we’ve headed off in a particular direction where the sky looks like it might be doing something, only it’s not. Eyes getting heavy now from looking at nothing but black. Everyone very quiet now.

It all looked a bit like this

5. 21:45 – yay! Stopping at a services in Selfoss. Only, hold on, they aren’t really selling much. Everyone uses the toilet and most people buy something stinky like Doritos to eat on the bus. A little disappointing given that we have passed some nice big N1 stations selling hot dogs and other delights. Strangely, I’m sure that another group trip I went on stopped at these same uninspiring services, who could have made a fortune if they’d have had any meals on offer.

6. 22:30 – morale has perked up again after the stop, and the promise that the Lights are more likely to be seen the later it is. We have gone off on a side road somewhere.

7. 23:00 – everyone is out of the bus and can barely stand up. The wind is absolutely howling and it’s a little scary being out in the pitch black with nothing but us and the bus for miles around. There are some very faint swirls happening in the sky. People watch for as long as they can stand it before staggering back to the bus with some difficulty. Nothing that will come out in photos unfortunately although that doesn’t stop one man and his tripod hanging on for as long as possible.

8. 23:15 – the bus has taken this long just to turn around – for some reason we cannot just turn around in the middle of the road despite the fact that we would see another car’s headlights for absolutely miles before they got to us. We have had to go down yet another strange side road and make a 50 point turn to get back to the original way we were going.

9. 23:45 – I’ve fallen asleep! I think this is the first time I’ve ever fallen asleep sitting up on a bus. Anyway, we’re all off the bus again now as the guide thinks he might have seen something. It’s impossibly cold and windy. He hasn’t seen anything. Back on the bus, 15 minutes to turn around again. I think at this point everyone on the bus just wants to go now.

10. 12:30 – ooh, we just passed Litla-Hraun, Iceland’s only real prison and setting of the show Fangavaktin! That was a little moment of excitement for me and no one else. Unfortunately the guide has had the bus lights on for ages and they are really hurting everyone’s eyes while he goes around and asks where everyone has to be dropped off, which must be a really tedious process for them every night.

11. Arrived back “home” at 1:30 after dropping lots of other people off and feeling very glad I wasn’t staying downtown or it would have been longer.

Technically, we did see the Northern Lights but I don’t think I would do one of these trips again hoping for a better view of them.

I fully appreciate that seeing the lights isn’t guaranteed and part of the fun is not knowing if you will see anything, but as I suspected a late night on a bus for 6 hours isn’t much fun. I also made the mistake of doing this the day I arrived which was very tiring. Next time, I would either stay over in the countryside or go out with a local or in my own car and stay in one place and take my chances.

Or, maybe I’ll stick to the midnight sun – much easier to see.

Have you seen the Northern Lights?


27 thoughts on “Northern Lights trip? Been there, done that.

  1. Loved this! I wonder what Icelandic prisons are like, haha. I was expecting to read about the amazing light show you saw but it sounds like it’s not necessarily guaranteed that you’ll get to see one even if you risk your life for it (brr…wind). 😛 Reading about your Northern Lights adventure reminded me of my own plight to find giant sea turtles when we were diving in Cairns (although I think overall it was a positive experience):
    Anyhow, we’re going in July so I know we won’t see the lights but look forward to the midnight sun. 🙂 We’d like to see the lights one day, perhaps in Finland or… Alaska?

    • Ooh, I might do a post about the prison one day. It’s like a cozy little dormitory where people actually get educated and rehabilitated. Very civilised!

      I can imagine the Great Barrier Reef being a bit disappointing – not the reef itself but all the tourists and the whole dive process that you did.

      Can’t wait to read about your trip when you go! I think seeing the lights spontaneously somewhere almost by accident would be really good.

  2. This sounds like one of those things that everybody says is awesome after the fact, but the actual act of doing it is way overrated (like movies at the park/outdoor concerts in July/going to the Louvre). I would love to see the Northern Lights, but I don’t know if I would go to those lengths to do it.

      • The Louvre I only know from stories, I have actually never been to Europe. The Alamo in San Antonio, TX and Las Vegas are my overrated tourist destinations. Vegas is just designed to take your money and the Alamo is actually a reconstruction done back in the mid-30’s in the middle of a bunch of tourist traps.

  3. Despite living in Norway for 6 months, I’ve only seen the lights once and that was in Durham (in the north of England) but it was quite a spectacular viewing. I like that it was so random. I was in the pub with some mates after a swordfighting session and when we left at closing we saw the sky lit up to the north. Due to streetlights we weren’t getting the best sighting, so one of them said he knew a great place to watch them from where it would be very dark and on a hill.

    So that’s how I ended up in a graveyard at midnight watching the aurora! 🙂

    It wasn’t the best show possible, not dancing green across the whole sky like I’ve seen on TV. I seem to recall it was mostly red, maybe some green, and only to the north. I think it moved a bit too. But it was cool and I reckon if I see them again it will be by chance and serendipity rather than going on a tour for the same reasons you didn’t rate it.

    • Wow, that’s amazing, I wouldn’t think you could see them in Durham! It would be really fun to see the spontaneously like that.

      I’m not sure they ever look as good as you see on TV and in pictures, I think something about capturing the image on the right kind of film makes them much more vivid than in real life. I think. Anyhow, I’m getting ideas about maybe going some place else in Scandinavia this winter so you never know…

  4. “Have you seen the Northern Lights?”
    Yes I have on several occasions, but not in Iceland. Actually the northern parts of Norway is better for Aurora Borrealis, because it’s above the polar circle.

  5. Would love to see the northern lights. But … I wouldn’t want to stay out in the cold, or be on a bus long enough to MAYBE see them! Boy am I soft, huh? hehe

  6. I live in Minnesota, and I have indeed seen the Northern Lights. 🙂 But to see them in Iceland? A different experience.

    And cold? Speak not to me of the cold. 🙂


    • I really didn’t know you could see them so far “south”. I always thought the whole “skywalk” system was a really good idea – at least people accept it’s going to be cold and do something about it!
      I think seeing them anywhere that you are “on holiday” would seem more exciting than from home.

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  9. Thanks for your trip diary. Very interesting. I wouldn’t do such a bus-trip. I guess an easier way to see Northern lights is to check into a nice hotel or guesthouse in the country and wait, while you have dinner or a nice drink at the bar. 😉
    I’ve seen Northern Lights in Northern Norway while my trip with the Hurtigrute.

  10. Hello! You have a great blog – as a fellow Icelandophile I’ve enjoyed reading it! 🙂 Sorry to hear the Northern Lights have so far eluded you in their full glory. To be honest, I reckon those evening bus tours are a bit of a scam – they tell you that whether you catch the lights is all down to luck, get your money off you even if conditions are unpromising, and then if you don’t see anything they *may* take you out again for free the next evening… but many people may not be able to go out again the next night.

    All you actually need to work out when and where to see the lights is two websites – and your own transport would be handy! will predict whether there’ll be any activity over the next few days, and tells you where to find clear skies.

    For the aurora forecast, if it tells you the level will be 2 or higher – you’re in luck! 2 is technically *low* activity, but we’ve seen some absolutely beautiful level 2 displays. Anything higher will be just dazzling – I’ve only seen a 4 (active) once, and that was right in the middle of Reykjavik city centre! It was so bright, you could see it quite clearly through the street lighting! Normally, of course, you’ll need to be well away from city lights.

    For the cloud cover forecast, the white areas are clear skies – the darker the green, the more cloud cover. On our last winter trip pretty much all of Iceland was buried under a heavy green blanket for almost the whole week we were there – and on the couple of clear nights, there was zero activity! So we’re going back mid-March to stay in the northeast, which statistically gets clearer and drier weather than the South (and the capital area in particular!)

    All of Iceland is located slap bang within the auroral oval, so you have as good a chance of seeing the lights in Iceland as you do in North Norway. It is possible to be too far north to see them well, in fact – Svalbard is a good example! You’re more likely to see them between the hours of 10pm and 2am, however you can see them any time when it’s fully dark.

    Anyway, hope you find the info helpful – I really hope you get to see a great display soon! Fingers crossed for you!

    • Thanks for that, and for reading. I did find both those websites before our last trip in December, and they did help to at least indicate which days would be more likely than others. There were a couple of “3” nights. Sadly the weather was just too cloudy every night, but at least we knew that and didn’t waste time TRYING to see the Lights, although many buses of tourists did try. In a way I don’t mind as it just gives more motivation for winter trips and going back. 🙂

      Good luck on your next trip and thanks for the tips!

  11. Hi Eva,
    that’ rather disappointing. I agree with others; would love to give it a try, but not 6 hours on the bus.
    This makes me reconsider the tour package: “Aurora Adventure” by I am looking into a different agencies too. Not sure if just go to Iceland (March 2014=one week) and get a tour from there, or be very organized and book all the itinerary from home several weeks ahead. Any advise on that?

    • If you’re just planning to visit Reykjavik it’s easy enough to book a night trip on the day – just watch the weather and aurora forecasts. The trip won’t go if there is NO chance of seeing anything, and you will be offered another night’s trip free with most companies if you do go out and see nothing. Basically, you have to accept that it’s nature and you probably won’t see them – and if you do it’s a bonus.

  12. Every now and then I see the Aurora. No wonder – after all I was born, raised and have lived in Iceland for most of my life – and the decade I spent living outside of Iceland I lived in Northern Norway, which is even more up North and hence is suitable for Aurora gazing. I live in 107 Reykjavik (the are west of the city center on the coast) and every now and then from September to March when my Schnauzer dog takes me out for the evening walk we can see the greenish bands or clusters on the sky, sometimes as early as 7 p.m. but mostly between 10 p.m. and midnight or so, sometimes even well into the night. Mostly rather soft, not so bright, bands, slowly moving over our heads – and occasionally really dancing or even flashing across the dark starry sky. But NOT every night – after all there are clouds – and there is a predictive correlation between Aurora and solar “eruptions”; low solar activity, low Aurora activity and vice versa. Hardly ever are the Aurora like what you see in the time lapse videos on the Internet – although it on rare occasions happens and makes you stunned – and your neck stiff if you are not well dressed and fit to lay down on the ground and enjoy. My advice is not to take such bus trips – for the reasons so well described in this blog post – but to enjoy it if you come across it – or otherwise enjoy the fantastic starry sky at night – making you wonder about how small we are in the (often well visible) Milky Way and the Universe and the miracle of being here now. You might even download an app for recognizing the signs of the sky; Orion, Cassiopeia, etc.

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