Northern Exposure

Seeing the northern lights tops many travelers’ wish lists, and making it happen is becoming easier than ever.

Snowy mountain peak in southern Iceland with Northern Lights in sky above N. Umnajwannaphan/Getty Images

Imagine you’re gazing up into the still night sky, the air crisp and clear, and above you, dazzling green light dances along the horizon’s edge and among the stars. 

Scientifically, the northern lights—or aurora borealis—are caused by collisions between gaseous particles from the Earth’s atmosphere and charged particles from the sun’s atmosphere. But northern cultures explained them as the spirits of ancestors, manifestations of the gods, a bad omen, giant reflections of torches and campfires, and—in Finland—a fox dancing across the night sky.

Fascination with this awe-inspiring phenomenon continues: A growing number of travelers want to see the northern lights in their lifetime, and guided vacations and cruises are by far the best and easiest way to make that happen. Even if you’re used to planning your own travel, chasing the lights can be tricky. Tour guides have the expertise to help get you to the right place at the right time.

Seeing the northern lights requires a little planning. The sky needs to be dark and clear, with little cloud cover. And while you can see the lights from many northern destinations, some of the most popular viewing spots include Alaska as well as Iceland, Finland and other Nordic countries. Lodgings tend to be booked far in advance, so work with your AAA Travel Advisor well ahead of time to find the guided vacation that fits your needs.


Best time of year: September to April

Best places: Akureyri, Reykjavík, Ásbyrgi Canyon, Vik

“We went to Iceland at the end of February. We saw the northern lights three, four times, and we were very happy with that,” says Jitendra Shah (AAA Member since 1972). Jitendra and his wife, Ramila, live in Indiana, have been retired for 20 years and travel often. They had never seen the northern lights, so they booked a guided vacation through their AAA Travel Advisor, who took care of all the details. “The group had 15 people, and we were the oldest,” says Jitendra, “but everyone was extremely caring and cooperative.”

In Iceland, you can see the northern lights from Reykjavík, the capital. The Shahs’ tour also took them to Akureyri, a picturesque town that sits at the base of a fjord. They did not see the lights there but were awed by the sunrise.  

“We went early in the morning to see the sunrise. [In Akureyri there is] water everywhere, ice everywhere, snow everywhere. It’s like we were in heaven,” says Ramila. “I loved it.”

Back in Reykjavík, the Shahs succeeded in seeing the northern lights, as their guide took the group 10 minutes out of town. ”Seeing the northern lights is an awesome experience,” says Ramila.  “You never know if you’re going to catch it. It’s like going on a safari to see a lion—if you’re lucky, you will see it.”

Couple looking at purple and green Northern Lights over Lake Kuusamo, Pohjois-Pohjanmaa, Finland Samuli Vainionpää/Getty Images


Best time of year: September to early April

Best places: Rovaniemi, Kemi, Ivalo, Muonio

When you visit Finland to see the northern lights, your first stop will be the bustling capital city of Helsinki. If you have a chance, walk around downtown to check out some of the iconic examples of modern architecture. Sample the fare at the local coffee shops and restaurants and explore the Suomenlinna sea fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The port city’s light signature is too bright for good aurora viewing, so make your way north from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, on the Arctic Circle. Among the places to stay are dome-shaped structures with glass roofs, ideal for viewing the northern lights from the warmth of the indoors. However, outdoor activities are a big part of the experience in Rovaniemi, which is also considered the home of Santa Claus.

During the day, enjoy this winter wonderland through cross-country skiing, snowmobiling or dogsledding. Experience the exhilaration of going from a hot sauna (practically a must in Finland) straight into a freezing lake—provided you don’t have any medical issues such as a heart condition. You can even visit Santa and take a ride on a reindeer-drawn sleigh. 

By night, when all is quiet, see the lights dance across the sky.

The Aurora Borealis in Denali National Park, Alaska sky.


Best time of year: September to April

Best places: Fairbanks, Denali National Park and Preserve

“The AAA Member Choice Northern Lights Tour in 2022 was my third trip to Alaska,” says Lori Andersen (AAA Member since 1984) of Fort Meyers, Florida. “The tour started in Fairbanks, and we also took the train down through Denali [National Park and Preserve], to Talkeetna and then down to Anchorage.” 

Fairbanks is known as one of the best places in the world to view the northern lights. Aurora Pointe, a northern lights research center, offers a heated indoor space where visitors can spend time during the cold nights while waiting for the lights to appear. 

Andersen and her tour group were waiting at Aurora Pointe when the lights began to come out. “They kept getting brighter and more vibrant, a yellow-green band that ran from left to right, sometimes in swirls. You’ve never seen anything like it; it’s a feeling of exhilaration,” she says.

Fairbanks offers a variety of restaurants and accommodations. In addition to seeing the lights in Fairbanks, you can take in the wonderous wilderness of snow-capped mountains, rivers and lakes, and abundant wildlife. Go mushing or enjoy a hot spring.

Denali National Park and Preserve is known as a prime northern lights viewing spot, but it’s not always accessible in the winter. You can find comfortable winter lodging, however, in the nearby town of Healy. 

Quote from AAA Member Lori Andersen that states You have never seen anything like it it is a feeling of exhilaration


Experience the Northern Lights on a Cruise Vacation 

Imagine taking in the awesome spectacle of the northern lights from the comfort of a luxurious cruise ship. Several AAA partners offer cruise vacations that chase the northern lights along the Nordic coast. Venture into the Nordic seas and take in the spectacular scenery as you learn about the cultures and history of the region. These small ships feature special excursions, fine food and wine, and top-notch customer service. Talk with your AAA Travel Advisor to learn more.

Another way to see the lights by cruise is to book a journey to Alaska at the end of the season (September) and include a cruise-to-land tour to Fairbanks or Denali National Park and Preserve. AAA partners can get you there in grand style. 

Map showing locations where Northern Lights can be seen, including Russia, Finland, Norway, Sweden, UK, Iceland, Greenland, Canada and Alaska Andrew Lyons

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