Don’t Go Chasing Icelandic Northern Lights (or at least don’t pre-pay for it)

Lots of people visit Iceland in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights (aka the “Aurora Borealis”).  And who can blame them?!  They’re breathtaking!  To that end, many tour companies offer “Northern Lights Chasing Tours” or something similarly titled that promises to take you out and about in search of this fabled atmospheric phenomenon.  But what they don’t promise is that you’ll actually see the Northern Lights . . .

You need 3 things in order to see the Northern Lights: (1) solar activity; (2) darkness; and (3) clear skies.

Iceland in the winter is actually pretty fantastic. I speak from experience!

Solar Activity
This is the meat and potatoes and what actually causes the Norther Lights: no solar activity, no deal.  Our sun will sometimes throw off various particles, known as a solar wind, and send them hurtling out into space.  It takes these winds about 40 hours to reach Earth.  If the Earth is in the path of a solar wind, its magnetic fields concentrate the particles at its poles.  As the particles move towards the poles and begin to concentrate in the higher latitudes, such as Iceland, they interact with various gases in the atmosphere to create the awe-inspiring light display we refer to as the Northern Lights.

Darkness
It means just that – it needs to be dark.  This also means that a summer trip to Iceland won’t result in the needed night time darkness.  As early as May through as late as August, due to the Earth’s tilt towards the sun, some degree of sunlight persists around the clock in Iceland and prevents the necessary darkness to view Northern Lights activity.  So consider a trip to Iceland in the winter – the nights are sufficiently dark to see the Lights and it’s not as cold as you’d think thanks to Iceland’s location in the Gulf Stream (trust me, I’ve been there in February and it was fantastic!).

Clear Skies
Just like an overcast day casts only a gray light or a cloudy night masks the moon, cloudy skies will prevent you from seeing Northern Lights activity.  As with any weather, this is up to Mother Nature so with a little luck there will be at least one night on your trip with clear skies to view any Northern Lights activity.

Consider renting a car and doing some Northern Lights chasing on your own.

Unless these three requirements are all present, that “Northern Lights Chasing Tour” you pre-booked months ago simply can’t deliver.  This is not to say you shouldn’t try once you get to Iceland!  Darkness and clear skies are easy to figure out on your own by simply traveling to Iceland at the appropriate time of year and checking the weather app on your phone.  Fortunately, there is also a way for us non-scientist folks to see an “Aurora forecast” by visiting the Icelandic Meteorological Office.  Consider renting a car and doing some chasing on your own if the predictions look good.  Or, if you really want a tour, wait to book it until you’re actually in Iceland and have an opportunity to check out the necessary forecasts.

The Northern Lights are absolutely worth chasing – just be sure to chase them knowing there’s a good chance you’ll catch them.

-Chad

P.S. FUN FACT: Towards the South Pole, this same phenomenon is called the “Aurora Australis.”

Live a Little: 3 Small Ways to be a Travel Dare Devil

International travel is all about new experiences.  But if you don’t step outside your comfort zone then you aren’t really experiencing your destination.  When I say “dare devil” I don’t mean you need to bungie jump or sky dive your way in new experiences.  You simply need to embrace something that might scare you a little and go all-in.

Here are 3 ways to be a travel dare devil that will better immerse you in your chosen destination:

1. Rent a car and drive: This is an option I’ve been recommending to a lot of clients lately and, although they’re a bit dubious about it and recognize the need for a sense of adventure, they’ve found the freedom and access it grants them far outweighs any fears they had about driving in a foreign country.  Sure, signs may be

Driving on the left may take some getting used to, but the freedom to go where you want when you want is well worth it.

in a different language or you may be driving on the left side of the road; but, you’ll also have the freedom to reach those sightseeing gems that don’t have a train station or bus stop nearby.  Plus, if you bring the kids, you’ll be free to stop for the inevitable bathroom breaks.

2. Get lost and find your way WITHOUT your smartphone: In addition to being able to digitally detox, leave your smart phone in the hotel for a day, take a walk, and get lost in the city you’re visiting.  Rather than being tethered to your phone and all the distractions it brings, you’ll be free to take in the sites and interact with the locals when you need to ask for directions or a recommendation for lunch.  Allow yourself to be in your chosen destination without the crutch of your smart phone putting up an e-wall so you can truly experience some place new.

Try a different continent, like South America.

3. Up your destination game:  You’ve been to the great cities of western Europe?  Try eastern Europe or a river cruise.  Or try a new continent like South America.  If you’ve already done the “standard” international travel, then that has become your new normal and it’s time to push the envelope.  Try something truly unique like living for a week in a yurt in Mongolia, hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, or visiting ancient cities of the Silk Road in Uzbekistan.

What’s your next great adventure?  Let GBFTravels help you find it!

-Chad