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In January 2019, 2.3 million people paid a visit to Iceland, with the majority of these visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of the coveted northern lights. The chance of seeing the northern lights in Iceland is a huge draw for many people but doing your research beforehand is vital if you want to witness a beautiful display of the aurora borealis.
One of the big questions for us ahead of our trip was whether we should book a northern lights tour in Iceland or whether we should self-drive. And now having been to Iceland to witness the northern lights for ourselves, I wanted to give you the low down so you can decide whether or not you should book a northern lights tour in Iceland for yourself.
Should you book a northern lights tour in Iceland?
To cut a long story short, before we embarked on our trip to Iceland, we did some research and decided to book a northern lights tour with a reputable tour company. We opted for a tour rather than a self-drive northern lights hunt for a few reasons. However, hindsight is a beautiful thing and the next time I go to Iceland, I’ll likely do things differently. Here are a few things to consider when deciding whether to book a northern lights tour in Iceland.
What will the weather be like?
This was one of our main considerations when it came to seeing the northern lights in Iceland. The Icelandic weather can be fiercely unpredictable, with beautiful clear skies turning to blizzard snow conditions within minutes. Hence why we were a bit apprehensive when it came to driving out into the countryside at night. Plus, this was our first trip to Iceland so we had no idea what the roads would be like or how safe it would be to drive in the dark.
Turns out, the roads in Iceland are, for the most part, very straight and wide, so driving was fairly easy. That being said, we did have to turn back once due to heavy snowfall and very strong winds!
So, if you’re visiting Iceland in winter, which you most likely are if you’re hunting for the northern lights, watch the weather carefully and only venture out if the forecast is good and you’re confident in your driving ability.
Of course, the plus side to booking a northern lights tour in Iceland is that, even in bad weather conditions, you’ll be able to venture out with your tour company, safe in the knowledge that you won’t need to do any driving. Although, if there is a lot of cloud cover, it’s likely your tour will be cancelled anyway.
Are you interested in learning more about the aurora?
If all you want to do is look up at the sky and witness the amazing spectacle that is the aurora borealis, then self-drive may be your thing. However, if you want to learn more about the facts, figures and folklore behind the northern lights, you’d probably enjoy a tour.
Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and, as a professional photographer, he was able to give us some welcome tips on how to photograph the northern lights too. It was quite interesting to learn more about the phenomenon and find out what causes the aurora. Although, a little online research beforehand would’ve told me everything I needed to know. So, if you’d rather not pay to learn about the northern lights, a quick Google search would probably do.
How strong is the solar activity?
Sunspots = solar activity. And solar activity = aurora borealis. Unfortunately, solar activity is never guaranteed, which is why so many people leave Iceland without seeing the northern lights at all.
The Icelandic aurora forecast will give you a good idea of the kind of activity levels to expect during your trip, on a scale of 0 to 9. If the forecast sits at 0-2, it’s quite likely any tours will be cancelled.
While the forecast is mostly accurate, our tour guide explained that, on some occasions, he had seen amazing displays with a forecast of 2 and on other occasions, had seen nothing when the forecast was 6. So, as long as you have reasonably clear skies, it’s worth heading out on the off chance.
Of course, tour companies watch the weather and solar activity forecasts daily and know where to take people to maximise the chances of seeing the northern lights in Iceland. Also, tour guides and buses are in regular contact with each other and will report sightings and locations to ensure everyone gets a chance to see the aurora. So, if you’d rather not spend time watching the forecast, you can always book a tour and leave the details up to the tour guides.
Would you prefer to enjoy the aurora alone?
The one thing that really detracted from our Iceland northern lights experience was being surrounded by dozens of other people. Due to heavy cloud cover, our tour was cancelled three nights in a row, which meant by the fourth night, there were hundreds of people booked on to the tour. At one point, there were three coaches, or approximately 150 people, traipsing around in the snow hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive northern lights. Unfortunately, they never appeared and we were booked on to another tour the next night.
Suffice to say, when we boarded the coach for a second time, I was glad to see there was only one coach departing. Although this still meant there were 50+ people getting in the way of photographs (exhibit A below) and knocking into my tripod.
This is one of the main reasons I’d prefer to self-drive next time, although having said that, we did meet some pretty cool people on this tour and enjoyed talking to them about their trip, experiences and lives back home.
Still, I think I’d prefer to enjoy the peace and quiet that comes from the Icelandic wilderness and the beautiful display of the northern lights alone next time.
During our trip, we were very fortunate to catch a glimpse of the northern lights in Iceland. Although the solar activity wasn’t strong and we didn’t witness a jaw-dropping display, we definitely saw the aurora in the sky above us. It was a truly beautiful experience but, personally, I’ll opt for a self-drive northern lights hunt on our next trip to Iceland for the reasons mentioned above.
Some other factors to take into account are that while you can opt for smaller, more intimate tours, these are often quite expensive. However, this would definitely be a good option if you’re not hiring a car and don’t want to be on a 50-seater coach.
Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that to enjoy a great northern lights show, you’ll need to get well away from any light pollution. This means coaches generally travel 60 minutes from Reykjavik, so if travelling on a coach for long periods of time makes you a bit sick, you may not have the best experience!
On the other hand, if you want to enjoy a slightly different experience, you can book northern lights boat tours in Reykjavik. By taking a boat tour, you’ll have less travel time, as it’s generally a lot easier to escape light pollution in the middle of the sea!
All in all, I would prefer to self-drive next time but either way, when you get to witness the northern lights in Iceland, you’ll be blown away by this epic natural phenomenon whether you decide to hunt for them yourself or book a northern lights tour in Iceland.
Seems like it could still be a bit dangerous to self-drive according to what you say. What are your thoughts on this?
You have to take it on a case by case basis and use common sense. It won’t always be dangerous but if the weather forecast is for heavy snow, ice and strong winds, then yes it can be very dangerous. It the weather forecast is for a mild, still night, then you likely will be fine. Really just assessing the situation before you head out is best.