The Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis) rank high on the travel bucket list of many people, but to be able to witness their beauty in real life requires a lot of planning and often a large wallet.
However, that doesn’t mean that you have to go into debt to be able to see the Aurora in real life.
I’m here to share why I consider Abisko, Sweden to be the cheapest place to see the Northern Lights, my best viewing tips to increase your chances and how to generally plan your Aurora trip on a budget. All from my personal experience.
- My tips for seeing the Northern Lights on a budget
- Aurora Australis and Aurora Borealis: Where can you see them?
- Abisko Sweden: Best and cheapest place to see the Northern Lights
- Best time to see the Northern Lights on a budget
- Other activities you can do if your budget allows
- So how much does it cost to see the Northern Lights on a budget?
- Do the Northern Lights actually look like the photos?
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My tips for seeing the Northern Lights on a budget
If you’re looking for one of the cheapest ways to see the Northern Lights, here are my best tips on how to keep your costs down (which I’ll further expand on in this post) and at the same time maximize your chances:
- Choose Abisko as your destination! Sweden is less expensive than other well-known Aurora destinations like Iceland, Norway, or Finland, but there are higher chances of a clear sky here. This means that your stay can be shorter and, therefore is one of the cheapest places to see the Northern Lights.
- Don’t book an Aurora chasing tour. If you opt for Abisko, booking a Northern Lights tour is not necessary since you can see the lights from the lake for free.
- Book your train/plane ticket ahead of time.
- Book your accommodation ahead of time. There are so few options, that you might be forced to pay a lot more if you wait or worse, you might end up not finding a room to book at all. Remember, Abisko is a small village.
- Travel around the Equinoxes to increase your chances of seeing the Aurora.
Aurora Australis and Aurora Borealis: Where can you see them?
First things first, an Aurora is a natural light display in the sky, that is usually seen in the high latitude areas of the Earth (Arctic Pole and Antarctica). They are the outcome of disturbances in the magnetosphere (made by the solar wind).
Auroras happening near the South Pole are called Australis or the Southern Lights, while the ones happening near the North Pole are called Borealis or the Northern Lights. They usually occur in a band, called the auroral zone and are best seen at night, against a dark, clear sky.
Aurora Australis can be observed from high southern latitudes in Antarctica, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, and Australia.
Aurora Borealis on the other hand is visible from locations close to the center of the Arctic Circle such as Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.
Abisko Sweden: Best and cheapest place to see the Northern Lights
The best places to see the Aurora Borealis are locations with no pollution (that includes light pollution) located inside or as close as possible to the auroral zone and that get as many clear nights as possible.
Norway (particularly Tromso) and Iceland are two locations that are often dubbed the best places to see the Northern Lights. I don’t agree with this, especially if you are on a budget.
Tromso is a big city with lots of pollution and Norway even though stunning doesn’t have the best weather in winter. Besides, it’s a pretty expensive country. To maximize your chances of seeing the Northern Lights, you will have to stay for quite a few days, costing you some good money.
You’ll also need to book tours to chase the Aurora as the city’s bright lights often won’t permit you to see it properly, even if the weather conditions allow it. And these types of tours are not cheap.
On the other hand, Iceland has even more wayward weather than Norway and it’s also much more expensive. Enough said.
If you are only interested in seeing the Northern Lights, my suggestion is to skip past any other options and choose Abisko, Sweden instead.
Abisko is a small village, 250 km within the Arctic Circle, near Abisko National Park. Given the fact that it has less than 100 inhabitants, there’s almost no pollution there. But that’s not what makes it truly special, rather it’s the lake near which it is situated, called Tornetrask.
The atmospheric effect of the lake and the mountains surrounding it allowed for a microclimate to develop in the area. The locals call it the “blue hole”.
This means that Abisko often has clear nights which are essential for spotting Auroras, making it the best place to see the Northern Lights in my opinion.
It is said that if you stay there for 3 nights, you will see the Aurora Borealis at least once (in most cases that is).
Besides, Sweden, while still expensive, is less pricey than other Nordic countries and while you can book an Aurora chasing tour if you want to, it is not actually necessary. You can simply go out on the lake and watch the lights in all their glory as I did.
However, having said that, if you have the budget for it, a tour will definitely be a more comfortable and warmer experience, than going on your own.
Most tours offer you winter overalls, a lavvu (tent used by Sami people as temporary shelter) with a fire to keep you warm, and a photographer guide.
Besides, if you don’t already have the required camera equipment (check my beginner-friendly guide on how to photograph the Northern Lights to find out what things you should have), you might find it’s cheaper to book an Aurora photography tour since you’ll be provided with everything you need from camera to a tripod. All you have to bring is a good memory card.
Is Abisko’s “blue hole” a real thing?!
In my experience it is! About 2 weeks before my trip to the Arctic Circle I started checking the weather periodically and I was crushed. Heavy snowfall was forecasted for the 4 days and nights that I was to spend there.
On our first night, sure enough, it was snowing. Lightly, but still snowing. We got to the lake and the lights were up, but the display was pretty weak. The cameras were picking up the colors, but we weren’t able to see much with our own eyes.
The second night there was a snowstorm. We set off for Tornetrask pretty resigned, even our host said there was absolutely no chance of seeing the lights that night.
But when we arrived at the edge of the lake, even though it was still snowing heavily, we could spot clear holes above us, through which the Aurora was visible.
The Northern Lights were strong and moving fast, so we checked our phones: there was a solar storm happening at a KP 6 intensity! I’ll never forget how all of us on the lake – a bunch of strangers in the dark, started screaming at the sky in awe.
I didn’t get the best pictures that night because of the snow, but I was so happy to see such a strong display despite the weather forecast.
The third night we knew it was a good one from the moment we stepped out of our hostel: the sky was clear even though it was supposed to snow and we could already see the Aurora from the village, where there was a bit of light pollution.
We barely reached Tornetrask Lake and we immediately got an alert on our phones: there was a solar storm happening. AGAIN.
The Lights were running across the whole sky, more vividly than the night before. They also had specks of pink this time around. There were moments when I simply laid flat on the lake to try to see it all.
On our last night in Abisko, the snowstorm came back, but this time there were no ‘holes’, nor a solar storm, so we didn’t see the Northern Lights again.
Is Abisko the cheapest place to see the Northern Lights in Europe?
The European countries from which you can see the Northern Lights are Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.
Out of them, Russia has the lowest cost of living, however, there are far less low costs options to fly there, than for the Scandinavian countries. Besides, in the current context, I wouldn’t recommend traveling to Russia.
Now, the second most affordable country is Sweden, but that’s not the sole reason why I think Abisko is the cheapest place to see the Northern Lights in Europe.
As I already mentioned, due to its microclimate, it’s generally enough to only stay 3 or 4 days in Abisko to witness the Lights. And you don’t need to book an expensive Aurora chasing tour either. This is not the case for the other countries, Russia included.
Where to stay in Abisko on a budget?
There are not many accommodation options in Abisko, since it’s such a small village, so make sure to book in advance. We stayed at abisko.net, which is a pretty basic, but affordable hostel (for the Arctic Circle that is!).
The hostel offered at that time several room options in two buildings: Winterday Hostel and Haverskog Hostel. We decided to upgrade to a double room with a toilet and sink, inside the Haverskog Hostel since I’m pretty picky when it comes to bathroom facilities.
Basically, the only thing we shared was the showers, which were inside the building, on the ground floor. As a side note, Winterday had the bathroom in a separate building.
Our room was 3780 SEK for 4 nights, bed linens included. This comes to about 371€ or 440$ for 2 people.
Nowadays, there is no mention of Haverskog Hostel on their site anymore. However, on Booking.com they still seem to offer rooms like the one we had, so they might have just dropped out one of the names.
But, I’d recommend reaching out to them and inquiring about the showers, just to be sure. The rooms also seem to be cheaper at 700 SEK per day (we paid 900 SEK/per day).
Other accommodation options are:
- Abisko Hostel
- STF Abisko Turiststation
- Abisko Guesthouse
- Abisko Mountain Lodge
- Lovely house in Abisko
How to get to Abisko, Sweden
There are 2 main, comfortable options to arrive in Abisko and depending on when you buy the tickets, either one can be cheaper:
- Direct night train from Stockholm, but it takes about 17 hours;
- Plane from Stockholm to Kiruna, then either a taxi, a private transfer, bus, train, or rented car to Abisko. Depending on when your plane lands, you will need to spend a night in Kiruna if you want to take the cheaper option which is the train or the bus.
We opted for the train because I have a love-hate relationship with planes and I was afraid that we might experience strong turbulence when we would land at the North Pole.
Besides, neither I nor my boyfriend had a driving license at the time and taxis were pretty expensive (the plane was landing late in the afternoon and there were no more buses). We also didn’t feel like spending a night in Kiruna.
I will mention that a friend of mine arrived by plane one day after, and even though the landing was a bit bumpy she actually loved it.
As for me, I found the train ride comfortable and enjoyable (spoiler alert: trains are my favorite way of transportation)
I spent half of the night watching the scenery pass by and trying to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights (and I succeeded, even though it was a pretty weak display).
We paid 4 314 SEK (approx. 423€ or 500$) for a 3-bed couchette for 2 people (Stockholm- Abisko – Stockholm). The best and cheapest time to buy is about 4 months in advance when they put the tickets on sale. Since there is a limited number of low-priced tickets, they tend to sell out fast.
If you want to take the train and have accommodation booked in the village, make sure to choose Abisko Ostra as the destination and not STF Abisko Turiststation, which is the station for Abisko National Park.
But can’t you see the Northern Lights in Stockholm?
I’m not gonna say it’s impossible to see the lights from Stockholm because that’s simply not true. There are times when people can witness beautiful Auroras from the Swedish capital despite how far south the city is located, the pollution, and even the odds.
But that’s not a regular occurrence at all! And if you visit Stockholm hoping to see the Northern Lights you might end up being utterly disappointed. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Best time to see the Northern Lights on a budget
Auroras and the Sun cycle
Since Auroras appear as a result of disturbances in the magnetosphere, caused by the solar wind when it interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field, the more intense the solar activity, the stronger the display.
Some of the best moments to witness Auroras are during geomagnetic storms. These cannot be predicted by a lot of time, but we can get an idea of how much solar activity we can expect in a year, by looking at the solar cycle.
The sun has an 11-year activity cycle, during which it experiences a peak and a low as its magnetic field flips – north becomes south, and vice versa. These extremes are determined by how many sunspots there can be observed on the solar surface.
The optimal time to see Auroras is during the peak period when the number of sunspots is highest. This means that solar activity is also more intense and solar storms are happening more frequently. As we approach the low period, solar activity decreases, which usually means fewer, weaker Auroras.
We are now experiencing Solar Cycle 25, which began in December 2019. Initially expected to reach its peak around 2025, an updated forecast now estimates the maximum to be in 2024. This cycle will end in 2031, when it will reach its minimum.
Best time to see the Aurora Borealis
Is 2024 your only shoot for seeing the Aurora Borealis?! Definitely not!
I first saw the Northern Lights in March 2018, less than 2 years before the Solar Cycle low. And I was lucky enough to catch two solar storms, on two consecutive nights, so it was quite a display. But it did require a bit more planning on my part, which I’m positive that it contributed to my success in seeing the lights.
Now, while you do not have to sit around and wait for the Solar peak, it certainly helps to plan your trip as close as possible to it. You will have higher chances of seeing strong, amazing Auroras.
But the Solar Cycle peak is not the only period of time when we know that solar activity intensifies. This also happens during the Equinoxes. That means that it’s a good idea to plan your Aurora trip around the 21st of March or the 23rd of September.
And that’s the reason why I went to see the lights in March (generally speaking the Aurora season lasts from the beginning of September until the end of March).
I knew that the period was not very good from a Solar Cycle point of view, so I decided to maximize my chances the best that I could. And it worked!
I stayed within the Arctic Circle for 4 nights and I saw the Northern Lights on 3 of them. We experienced a solar storm on 2 separate occasions: on the 19th of March and on the 20th of March, so right before the Equinox.
There are several sites and apps that you can use for Aurora forecasts. I chose SoftServeNews website. I found it very accurate and I opted to get personal alerts for the mere price of a few dollars. They still offer this option: a month of Aurora Alerts costs 3.10$.
While in Abisko, I also used the live cameras of LightsOverLapland to keep tabs on whether there was any sign of the Aurora before we got out at night.
Other activities you can do if your budget allows
Apart from the Aurora chasing tours, you can also do the following activities in Abisko:
- Landscape photography tours (for example Norway Photo Tour – Fjords, Mountains and the Sea; Landscape photography adventure)
- Dog sledding ride
- Narvik day trip: you can visit Narvik in Norway by either train or car
- Visit the Icehotel in Jukkasjarvi
- Guided snowshoe hike in Abisko National Park
- Snowmobile trip: you can choose between driving one or sitting in the slight
- Sleigh ride by snowmobile
- Go ice climbing
I recommend you read my post on the best things to do in Abisko if you want to find out more details about all these activities.
So how much does it cost to see the Northern Lights on a budget?
We ended up paying around 397€ (~470$) per person on transportation from Stockholm to Abisko and accommodation for 4 nights. That’s super affordable for a trip to the Arctic Circle! And we did not skimp on comfort: we had our own couchette and our own room with a toilet.
As for activities, we did not do an Aurora chasing tour, but we did book a dog sledding ride and a snowmobile sled tour (while I loved the first one, I kind of regret doing the second – I think driving one might be way more fun), which cost us 3000 SEK and 1700 SEK respectively.
Add the plane tickets to Stockholm (about 110€ for two – low cost) and we spent a grand total of 683€ (803$) per person. But you have to take into consideration that the activities were almost half of the total and they’re not mandatory if you’re on a tight budget.
Do the Northern Lights actually look like the photos?
Generally speaking, you will not see the Northern Lights the same as in photos. This is mainly because our eyes have a harder time seeing color in dark environments. Cameras on the other hand are built differently and can detect much more details in low light conditions.
It’s also good to remember, that most Aurora photos you see online are probably edited in order to bring out all the wonderful shades of the display.
But first things first, the human eye has two sets of cells:
- Cone cells: These are the main cells that we use for daytime vision and they can detect colors.
- Rod cells: These cells help us see in lower light conditions, but only in grayscale.
The less powerful a Northern Lights display is, the less chance for our cone cells to be able to pick up the colors and the more the rod ones take over. That’s why for us, most Auroras look like faded or muted versions of what our camera sees or even completely grey.
Even so, most times you will be able to tell you’re seeing the Northern Lights, even if you can’t tell the color. This is because they move and look in a way that no cloud does. But if you’re still unsure, just pop your camera out; it will be able to detect even the faintest display.
Now, naturally, not all eyes are the same. Some people might see the Auroras more vividly than others.
For example, I was never able to see bright greens: I only saw the Lights in different muted grey-green shades, even during the solar storm; I edited the image above as best as I could to simulate what I remember seeing versus what my camera saw for reference.
My friend, however, told me she was able to see the Aurora as bright green as on her camera, during the maximum peak of the display.
Therefore my eyes might simply have a harder time detecting the color green or the fact that I had contact lenses on (I can’t see at a distance) could have affected this.
However, I did see the pink hues and flares as vividly as my camera did, so not all hope is lost. Just that it’s good to manage your expectations to avoid disappointment.
Because you may not see the Northern Lights in the exact same way as your camera, but this does not diminish the fact that experiencing the Aurora in person is a wonderful, jaw-dropping encounter.
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