NORTHERN LIGHTS CRUISE

COMPLETE GUIDE TO SEEING THE AURORA BOREALIS

No matter if you've seen the Northern Lights on numerous occasions, the bright, vivd colour displays ever fail to leave you in awe of our beautiful world.

The only word to describe the Lights is magical and it takes a hardened soul not to be moved by the sight of them. The sight of lights and their bright reflections bouncing of the Arctic snow, is one you'll never forget.

Even though many of the mysteries surround the Northern Lights have been discovered, there are still some that elude us. For example, why are the lights more active the equinoxes.

Still do this day, scientists cannot predict when a light show will occur and, whilst this adds to the drama, it can sometimes be frustrating for visitors who have come a long way to view the lights.

Taking a cruise to see the Northern Lights is a great option as cruise ships are able to move away from light sources, allowing you to experience the Lights in near total darkness.

Most cruise liners are so confident that you'll see the Northern Lights that they'll offer you a money back guarantee or a free next trip attempt. Cruise ships can also cover great distances along the coast and hunt out the spots that are best.

Below we have provided you with all the information you'll need to find the right Northern Lights cruise to suit you.

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Northern Lights: A Brief History

Northern Lights cruise history

There is deep and varied folklore surrounding the Northern Lights which gives a great insight into not only the Lights, but the early Arctic settlers themselves.

Amazingly, the Lights are often viewed by people as bad omens, particularly in areas where they rarely appear. The Lights supposedly appeared over London during the Blitz in 1939. They also appeared in the USA on the same night that Pearl Harbour was attacked in 1941.

Whilst this is almost certainly a myth, the Lights are not viewed as bad omens in areas where they are common. In Finland, the Lights are called revontuletwhich literally translates as Fox Fire. The story goes that a fox's tail brushed against the snow, creating sparks in the night sky. However, coastal dwellers in the Arctic attributed the Lights as reflections off the scales of the abundant fish in the sea. 

North American tribes believe that the Lights are torches lit by the dead whilst Vikings mention dancing maidens. The Inuit people beehive that the Lights represent the ghosts of hunted animals.

This all being said, astronomers have known for a long period of time how the Northern Lights are created. The phenomenon is caused by electrically charged particles on the solar wind interacting with those in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The extent of the display depends on activity levels on the sun's surface, measured over an 11-year cycle. Over recent years, this activity has been high, leading to exceptional light displays. Green and yellow is the most common colour to see, whilst red and blues are highly sought after.

Although the science behind the Northern Lights has been explained, this does not dampen the awe-inspiring feeling one recipe when looking up at them in all their glory.

Best Time To See The Northern Lights

Northern Lights cruise best time

​Summer

The Northern Lights can be seen from late August through to mid April.

This being said, the most likely time to them is from late September to late March when the nights are darkest. 

Although the Northern Lights shine for much of the year, the Summer period is generally to bright to see them. 

If you cannot travel in Winter then your best bet would be to visit Arctic region during the Summer shoulder months around September or March.

Cruises departing in September are popular frequently get excellent displays whilst also getting great weather for other activities such as wildlife watching, kayaking and dog sledding. 

​Winter

During December and early January there is 24 hours of total darkness.

Although this is great for Northern Light displays, there are very few extra activities on offer during this period which means that cruises and tours are few and far between.

To see the Northern Lights you’ll need a clear night sky. The Aurora is 80 percent of clear nights, giving you the best chance to see them.

October and November tend to be the cloudiest of months in the Arctic and are therefore not as popular with light hunters.

The most popular months tend to be January through to March when there is thick snow for day time activities, clear nights and nice sunsets.

Best Time Of Night To See The Lights

Once you have picked your time and spot, it’s simply waiting game. The Aurora appears most commonly between 10pm-2am, however, there is no guarantee and people have seen fantastic light shows at 4am!

Don’t give up, keep your eyes on the sky and remember to wear layers and keep warm. Also make sure to check the moon cycle. A full moon will blow out the lights whilst a new moon will give you a far greater chance of seeing them. Many tours and cruises are scheduled around this.

Regions To See The Northern Lights

The Arctic is a large region and there are many places you can see the Northern Lights. However, travelling by ship does narrow your options considerably. 

Norway

Northern Lights cruise norway

Norway is by far and away the most popular destination for Northern lights cruises.

Most Northern Light cruises sail along the Norway coastline in the shoulder months of deep winter when there is still some daylight hours.

The coastline of Norway sees frequent Aurora displays and and the climate and seas are fairly benign, making it the perfect cruising destination.

Along the way you'll visit highlights like  the Lofoten Wall, the Seven Sisters mountains, and Torghatten.

Iceland

Northern Lights cruise iceland

There are a number of cruises in the shoulder months of Winter that offer the chance to see the Northern Lights in Iceland

Many of these are in conjunction with a Norway cruise, however there are several options that just explore Iceland only. 

Because of the incredibly diverse landscape, many photographers choose Iceland as their number one option. 

The rugged mountains and towering waterfalls make the perfect backdrop to the Aurora Borealis. 

Greenland

Northern Lights cruise greenland

Because Greenland is so unpopulated, the Northern light displays are incredible. 

However, because much of the country is covered in ice, getting there in the dead of winter on-board a cruise is impossible. 

Around September there a few select cruises that depart for Greenland, often in conjunction with Iceland.

These cruises give you the chance to see the Northern lights, but also some amazing wildlife such as polar bears and musk ox!

Svalbard

Northern Lights cruise svalbard

There are a handful of expedition cruises that explore Svalbard in September.

Although your not guaranteed to see the Lights in September, you’ll be guaranteed to see some incredible landscapes and wildlife aboard these cruises, including polar bears, seals, walrus, Arctic foxes and much more.

The Northern Lights are vivid in Svalbard and if you get a clear night, you'll get some fantastic results. 

once again, these cruises often visit Iceland or Greenland as part of the itinerary.

Canadian Arctic

Northern Lights cruise canadian arctic

Although cruises to the Canadian Arctic are quite rare, even during Summer, there are several cruises in September.

These cruise navigate through the infamous Northern Passage - one of the greatest cruises on earth!

Not only will you have a good shot at seeing the Northern Lights in one of the darkest regions in the world, you'll spot pretty much every major species of Arctic wildlife including musk ox, polar bears, narwhal and beluga. 

Faroe Islands

Northern Lights cruise faroe islands

A principality of Denmark, the Faroe Island are located between Iceland and Norway in the North Atlantic Ocean.

The volcanic archipelago of islands are incredibly dark and you'll have a really good shot at seeing bright Aurora displays here. 

Most cruises that depart from the UK will pass through the Faroe Islands on their way to Iceland, Norway, or Svalbard. 

Northern Lights Itinerary Options

Below is a list of the top Northern Lights cruise options. Each option has pros and cons and you'll need to decide which one suits you most. 

Make sure to consider other elements besides the lights, this include activity options, price, likelihood of seeing the lights and wildlife viewing. 

1. Coastal Norway

Northern Lights cruise itinerary - coastal norway

This is by far and away the most popular Northern Lights cruise option. 

Both Hurtigruten and P&0 sail the coast of Norway all year, including winter. Hurtigruten are so confident that you will see the lights that they offer a free 7 day cruise if you do not.

This offer is only applicable during certain period obviously, and the brightness of the lights cannot be predicted. 

Hurtigruten and P&O sail directly beneath the Auroral Zone in northern Norway, known for its consistent level of light displays during Winter. 

Journey along 2,500 nautical miles and make 90 excursions (not included in P&O) during your 12 packed days. Along the way you stop at 35 ports (only 4 ports on P&O), witness 100 fjords and a 1,000 mountains!

Hurtigruten's most popular option is the 12 day round trip from Bergen, whilst P&O operate a 12 night round trip from Southampton, UK. Hurtigruten's itineraries include far more excursions, whilst P&O will often charge extra. However, the P&O ships offer far more in the way of creature comforts, entertainment, and facilities. 

Hurtigruten Cruise

Prices from: $1,300 (£989)

Duration: 12 days

P&O Cruise

Prices from: $1,650 (£1,250)

Duration: 12 days

2. East Greenland

Northern Lights cruise itinerary - greenland

Northern Light cruises that solely visit Greenland are rare. Only one or two sail each year in mid-September. A few more options open up if you want to include Iceland or Svalbard.

The Plancius expedition ship sails to East Greenland on an Aurora tour in September, as does the Ocean Nova. 

Although not guaranteed, sightings of the lights during this cruise are common. 

The isolation of the country makes it ideal for light displays. Although September can be cloudy, you'll probably get some lovely clear nights in which to witness the bright lights dancing across the sky. 

Because its an expedition cruise, you'll also have a number of guides with you that can give you loads of advise when it comes to photography and wildlife viewing. 

Greenland Cruise

Prices from: $3,900 (£2,900)

Duration: 8 days

Including Iceland

Prices from: $5,900 (£4,400)

Duration: 12 days

Including Svalbard

Prices from: $5,900 (£4,400)

Duration: 12 days

3. Iceland, Greenland and Spitsbergen

Northern Lights cruise itinerary - iceland

If you can't decide where you want to go, why not just visit them all!

This particular cruise only sets sail once during September and lasts over two weeks. The Sea Spirit is most commonly used and is an excellent expedition vessel.

You'll witness epic landscapes, pristine environments and amazing wildlife as you visit the three jewels of the Arctic.

Explore vast sways of Northeast Greenland National Park, discover Scorsebysund's beautiful fjord system and get close to some stunning icebergs.

Along the journey you'll have the opportunity to kayak, hike and take photography tours. Because the trip is in September you are not guaranteed to see the lights, but you would be unlucky not to!

Prices from: $7,900 (£5,900)

Duration: 15 days

4. Out Of The Northwest Passage

Northern Lights cruise itinerary - northwest passage

One of the world’s last true frontiers, the Northwest Passage is the ultimate expedition cruise!

The Canadian Arctic is actually one of the best spots on earth to see the Aurora Borealis and during September, you'll have a great shot.

You will need to bear in mind that this is a long and expensive cruise and the sole aim is not to see the Northern Lights, but to have a proper adventure.

You'll sail along West Greenland before heading into the archipelago of islands that make up much of the Canadian Arctic.

Here you'll visit ancient Thule settlements and witness wildlife on a truly awesome scale. Baffin Island alone is one of the few places on earth where you can see polar bears, brown bears and black bears all in one place!

Prices from: $9,500 (£7,200)

Duration: 17 days

5. Scotland, Faroe Islands and Iceland 

Northern Lights cruise itinerary - faroe islands

Although it may sound odd, the UK (in particular Scotland) offers a chance to see the Northern Lights also.

There are a number of itineraries that travel around Scotland, the Faroe Islands,  and the Outer Hebrides during September and October.

These itineraries are frequently combined with Iceland, making them ideal for seeing the Northern Lights.  

Both Scotland and the faroe Islands are packed with history and if you like visiting ancient remains then this is a great option for you.

Even if you don't include Iceland, you'll et chances to see the lights in Faroe Island and Outer Hebrides. Although perhaps not as bright as Icelandic or Norwegian displays, they're still mesmerising.

This cruise is also one of the cheaper options, especially without Iceland added to the itinerary. If you're on a budget and don't have that much time, this is a solid choice.   

With Iceland

Prices from: $1,500 (£1,100)

Duration: 12 days

Without Iceland

Prices from: $990 (£750)

Duration: 10 days

6. Sail Boat Itineraries

Northern Lights cruise itinerary - sailing

Because the ice freezes up in early Winter, large cruise ships are unable to navigate the ever-decreasing inlets and channels.

Small sail boats on the other hand can. Because of this, there are a number of itineraries offered around Iceland and Svalbard offered in October.

Bear in mind though that you will feel the motion of the sea far more on a sail boat compared to a cruise ship. 

Both the Noorderlicht and the Rembrandt Van Rijn sail during October and offer passengers an excellent chance to see the Aurora Borealis displays in non light-polluted environments. 

This type of cruising has an incredible adventure feel to it as you navigate iceberg-strewn inlets with your two-mast sailing vessel. 

Iceland

Prices from: $1,200 (£900)

Duration: 4-5 days

Svalbard

Prices from: $2,600 (£2,000)

Duration: 8 days

Get a Cruise Quote!

Expedition Cruise do not sell tours, we simply provide impartial advice. If you would like an exact quote from our recommended specialist click Get a Quote.

How To Photograph The Northern Lights

The technique surrounding shooting the Northern Lights is not as complicated or difficult as many people believe.

The real skill lies in perseverance and finding the perfect location to shoot.

A good DSLR will help you, particularly a full frame sensor DSLR which will give you a crisper image at a higher ISO.

However, it’s the lens that’s really important. You’ll need a low aperture wide-angle lens to shoot the Northern Lights. 

This means anything from 14mm-24mm with an aperture of no more than 2.8 for best results. You’ll also need a sturdy tripod.

Depending on hoe dark the night is and how bright the Lights are, you’ll have to play around with the settings a little. However, starting at wide open 2.8 with he lens zoomed out max, you should set your ISO to 1600 and and shoot an exposure of around 10-15 seconds.

The darker it is, the higher the ISO will need to be, or simply make the exposure longer. Remember though, the shorter exposure you can get the better as the Lights are constantly moving and you want to avoid image “smearing”.

Make sure to look at your histogram as this will show you after each shot how well you have exposed the image. It’s often difficult to fine the balance between exposing the Lights correctly whilst keeping details in the dark foreground.

If you want to get fancy, then you can shoot one exposure for the Aurora display and another exposure for the foreground and blend the two together in post. Just make sure your tripod doesn’t move!

Northern Lights Cruise Packing List

Because you'll be sailing within the Arctic Circle, the cruise will be in cold conditions. 

If you already live in Scandinavia then you'll no doubt have the right clothing necessary for your cruise. 

For cruise passengers from warmer climates, you may well need to purchase some extra clothing and gear. 

Although the ship itself will be warm, you will be standing on deck for much of the cold nights witnessing the Aurora Borealis. 

Below are a list of items to consider. 

​Items To Consider

Clothing: It will be cold in the Winter. Makes sure you have base layers, fleece, jacket and parka with you. 

Footwear: The footwear you bring with you also needs to be carefully considered as you will be hiking, relaxing and going out. 

Bags and Daypacks: Because you'll be going ashore for hikes and dog sledding, having a good day pack to store your carry-on items is a good idea.

Gloves: Your hands will freeze first. Make sure you bring a good pair of Winter gloves. We also recommend a liner pair go gloves for extra warmth.

Headgear: Having a good beanie is key as your head loses much heat during the cold nights. 

Important Accessories: From water bottles and earplugs, to kindles and camera equipment, you'll need to consider what you need carefully. 

Get a Cruise Quote!

Expedition Cruise do not sell tours, we simply provide impartial advice. If you would like an exact quote from our recommended specialist click Get a Quote.

Northern Lights Cruise: Highlights

The Lights

Northern Lights cruise highlights

Obviously the main point of an Aurora Borealis cruise is to see the magical lights themselves. Most Norway cruises guarantee this, while expedition cruises to Svalbard and Iceland in September are more touch and go. 

Dog Sledding

Northern Lights cruise highlights -dog sled

A number of Northern lights cruise itineraries include a chance to dog sled! This activity is mainly limited to Norway, but can also be done in Svalbard. Tromso in Norway is the most popular point for this activity. 

Wildlife Watching

Northern Lights cruise highlights -wildlife

Whales are spotted on most Aurora cruises. Which species will come down to luck really. For wildlife lovers, we suggest taking an expedition cruise to Svalbard or Greenland. Both locations give you a good chance of spotting polar bears!

Lofoten Wall

Northern Lights cruise highlights -lofoten wall

When sailing you will see what appears to be an enormous wall rising out of the sea! It is in fact a series of mountains on the Lofoten Islands that appear as a wall from a distance. A fantastic site and place to explore. 

Seven Sisters

Northern Lights cruise highlights -seven sisters

Cruise into port at Sandenessjøen and take a hike up one of the Seven Sisters mountains. Local legends believes these stunning mountains are female trolls turned to stone.

Snowshoe Hikes

Northern Lights cruise highlights -snowshoe

Snowshoe hiking is another popular activity when it comes to Northern Lights cruises. Hurtigruten offer a snowshoe hike snowshoe hike from Tromso to see the lights from land. 

Cruise Insurance

​In our article – Arctic Travel Insurance – we have provide all the information you need to find your perfect insurance policy. Alternatively, you can get a quote straight away with our rcommended specialist below. ​

Northern Lights Cruise Video

Below is a short video by Visit Norway demonstrating the delights of a Hurtigruten Cruise.

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Northern Lights Cruise: FAQ

If you have any queries or questions regarding a Northern Lights cruise, please feel free to leave a comment below and we'll respond ASAP.

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