How to see the Aurora Borealis on a budget
The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) sits at the top of the list for many people, but to be able to witness its beauty in real life requires a lot of planning and often a large wallet. However, that doesn’t mean that you have to take a loan to see the lights, I’m here to share the best way to see the Northern Lights on a budget.
Aurora Australis and Aurora Borealis
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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 or Russia.
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 can we expect in a year, by looking at the solar cycle.
The sun has an 11 years 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 the Auroras is during the peak period when the number of sunspots is highest. This means that the solar activity is also more intense and solar storms are happening more frequently.
As we approach the low period, the solar activity decreases, which usually means fewer, weaker Auroras.
We are now experiencing Solar Cycle 25, which began in December 2019. It is expected to reach its peak around 2025.
Best time to see Aurora Borealis
Do you have to wait until 2025 to try and see Aurora Borealis?! Definitely not!
I 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 the 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. 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.
Best place to see the Northen Lights on a budget
The best places to see 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 max 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 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 more expensive. Enough said.
If you are only interested in 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 watching the Aurora, making it the best place to see the Northern Lights. 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 a little bit cheaper than other Nordic countries. You’ll also save up on Aurora tours. While you can book one if you like, it is not necessary. You can simply go on the lake and watch the lights in all their glory as I did.
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. I was crushed. Heavy snowfall was forecasted for the 4 days that I was staying 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 went to the lake pretty resigned, even our hosts said there was no chance of seeing the lights. But when we arrived there, even though it was still snowing heavily, we could spot clear holes above us, through which the Aurora was visible. The lights were strong and moving fast, so we checked our phones: there was a solar storm, KP 6.
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 the moment we left our room: the sky was clear even though it was supposed to snow and we could already see the lights from inside the village. We barely reached the lake and we got an alert on our phones: there was a solar storm. AGAIN.
The lights were running across the whole sky, more vividly than the day 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.
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/day).
Other accommodation options are:
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 17h;
- Plane from Stockholm to Kiruna, then a taxi/bus/train/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 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 the 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.
A friend of mine arrived by plane one day after, and even though the landing was a bit bumpy she actually loved it.
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 (I actually succeeded, even though it was a pretty weak display).
We paid 4 314 SEK (approx. 423€ or 500$) on a 3-beds couchette for 2 people (Stockholm- Abisko – Stockholm). The best and cheapest time to buy is about 4 months in advance when they put the tickets on sale. Since there is a limited number of low-priced tickets, they tend to sell out fast.
If you want to take the train and have accommodation booked in the village, make sure to choose Abisko Ostra as the destination and not STF Abisko Turiststation, which is the station for Abisko National Park.
There are several sites and apps that you can use for Aurora forecasts. I chose SoftServeNews website. I found it very accurate and I opted to get personal alerts for the mere price of a few dollars. They still offer this option: a month of Aurora Alerts costs 3.10$.
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.
Round up on the best way to see the Northern Light on a budget
- Choose Abisko as your destination! Sweden is a bit cheaper than other Nordic countries, besides there are higher chances of a clear sky here. That means that your stay can be shorter.
- Don’t book an Aurora chasing tour. It is not necessary to book a tour 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.
We ended up paying around 397€ (~470$) per person on transportation from Stockholm to Abisko and accommodation for 4 nights. That’s super affordable for a trip to the Arctic Circle! And we did not skimp on comfort: we had our own couchette and our own room with a toilet.
As for activities, we did not do an Aurora chasing tour, but we did book a dog sledding ride and a snowmobile sled tour (while I loved the first one, I kinda regret doing the second), which cost us 3000 SEK and 1700 SEK respectively.
Add the plane tickets to Stockholm (about 110€ for two – low cost) and we spent a grand total of 683€ (803$) 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.