In this series, Lonely Planet’s team of writers and editors answers your travel problems and provides tips and hacks to help you plan a hassle-free trip. We thought this question would be perfect for LP author Kerry Walker, who’s long been obsessed with cold, remote places, snow and northern lights.
Question: We are planning a winter break to the Arctic, but are undecided whether to go for Finland, Norway or Sweden. Where would you recommend? Also, we’ve heard that there is no guarantee of seeing the northern lights if we just go for a few days. What else is there to do?
Kerry Walker: Plenty. Observing the northern lights flash away in night skies is a moment you’ll treasure forever. But you can’t buy tickets, and the aurora borealis doesn’t perform at the click of a finger (or booking button). While the unpredictability of the lights is an intrinsic part of their beauty, it can be incredibly frustrating if you’ve pinned your hopes on seeing them and have invested time and money in journeying all the way to the Arctic – and they are a no-show.
But before you brace yourself for disappointment, know that there are several ways you can increase the odds.
The light beyond
The northern lights shine at polar latitudes from September to April – but your best chance is to visit during the dark days and long nights of the Polar Night (late November to mid-January), when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. Where you go matters: pick a base positioned right under the aurora oval, which forms a ring around the earth’s geomagnetic North Pole. The remoter and darker, the better. After that, it’s down to luck: how clear the skies are, and how strong solar activity is.
It’s important that you don’t make seeing the northern lights as the be-all and end-all of a trip to the Arctic. They are a bonus, not a given. Plan a trip that you would happily take regardless of whether or not the lights shine. Trust me – it’s magical up there either way. Envisage the Arctic, and you might picture a bleak white wilderness. But it’s actually insanely beautiful: the pastel light of would-be sunrises and sunsets; the pristine snow and ice formations; the frozen forests, fells and mountains.
Embrace the cold
And there are many ways to harness this beauty. Winter in the Arctic doesn’t mean hibernating and huddling under reindeer hides. It means bundling up in thermals, snowsuits and boots and diving into the snow – whether you go for Lapland in Finland, Arctic Sweden or Norway.
Even villages that are little more than specks on the map often have a blizzard of activities on offer, from snowmobiling and dogsledding to reindeer-driven sleigh rides, ice fishing, snowshoeing, skiing (downhill and cross-country), sea kayaking and ice floating (yep, it’s a thing). These activities aren’t just aimed at tourists; locals embrace them too. The temptation is to do it all. But before you overcram your itinerary, keep in mind the harsh elements and extreme cold. Go for a less-is-more approach, with one big activity a day, and you’ll have time to appreciate the place, watch wildlife, and absorb the silence and majesty of the Arctic.
Plan your trip
The choice of where to go is boundless. Finland tends to be a bit more competitive price-wise (especially if you can land a deal outside of peak Santa season in December) and easier to access (with direct flights to Rovaniemi). Norway wins when it comes to big, in-your-face mountains, while Sweden charms with its remote, little-visited wilds.
If you don’t mind traveling in a small group, guided holidays abound and some can save you a fortune, especially if you’re planning lots of activities. Arctic-savvy companies include Intrepid, Exodus, Much Better Adventures and Responsible Travel, The Aurora Zone and Discover the World. The advantage of booking a package is that you know what you’re paying up front, as most cover flights, transfers, accommodation, meals and activities.
If you’re planning an individual trip, the Arctic is your oyster. You might not have considered Finnish Lapland for skiing, with fells topping out at a modest 1000m (3281ft) – but you really should. Crowds are few and properly cold polar winters deliver dreamy powder for cross-country, downhill and off-piste skiing in resorts like Levi and Ylläs. For more peace, stray further north to the likes of Saariselkä, the gateway to the Narnia-like wilds of Urho Kekkonen National Park, or Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park, rubbing up against the Swedish border, for a gulp of the world’s cleanest air and every adventurous pursuit you can shake a snowball at.
The Arctic less known
Swedish Lapland is less well known and a bit trickier to reach (a flight to Stockholm, then a connection to Kiruna). But my, is it lovely – particularly if you base yourself somewhere like Abisko, which borders a phenomenally wild national park and has carved out a reputation for some of the world’s best northern lights with its Aurora Sky Station. In Jukkasjärvi, the original Icehotel, carved afresh each year, is a destination in itself, and a wonderland of Arctic activities, from dogsledding to Sámi reindeer encounters, cross-country skiing, ice fishing, snowmobiling, moose safaris and northern lights photography workshops.
Norway is just as bewitching, and throws whopping great mountains into the equation. The islands have the scenic edge – try Lofoten or Senja, or head to Rebbenesøya, just north of easily reached Tromsø, for Arctic camping and winter kayaking, skiing and snowshoeing at Elements Arctic Camp. Midway between Norway and the North Pole and home to more polar bears than people, Svalbard still feels the way it must have to those early intrepid explorers, especially when you head out into the snowy wilds on a multi-day dogsledding or snowmobiling expedition.
And if you are determined to see the lights no matter what? Hop on a Hurtigruten Cruise. During the auroral season, the company offers a Northern Lights Promise on voyages of over 11 nights – which means that if the northern lights fail to appear, they’ll give you a free week-long northbound voyage to give it another shot.