If you're considering taking a Northern Lights cruise, now is the time to read up on seeing the natural displays at sea as demand for cruises to see the Northern Lights continues to grow.
As one of the most amazing ways to see the Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights cruises aren't your average European sailing Northern Norway is where the majority of the trips go, taking you to hard-to-reach places with the clearest of skies above.
You'll travel on an expedition ship (try one from trusted Northern Lights cruise company Hurtigruten) making you feel like a true explorer, with on-board experts available to tell you everything you need to know about the displays as you spot them along the way.
What's more, some travel companies are so confident that you'll see the Northern Lights at sea that they offer an aurora guarantee, which means that if you don't witness them during your trip, you'll receive another cruise for free.
To inspire you to try something different and opt for a Northern Lights cruise this winter, we spoke to resident lecturer Dr John Mason at Hurtigruten, the top experts in Northern Lights cruises to Norway (check out our exclusive sailing with BBC weather presenter Carol Kirkwood this December), to bring you everything you need to know about these special winter sailings in one ultimate guide.
What can you expect on your first Northern Lights cruise?
"On a Northern Lights voyage, apart from the chance of seeing the Northern Lights (to which I am now somewhat addicted), the coastal scenery is fabulous and ever-changing, the ships are very comfortable, the crews are incredibly professional, friendly and helpful - and the food is superb," explains Dr Mason.
"While it is true that the Norwegian coastal weather is unpredictable, it can change very quickly – on occasions in a matter of minutes. I have seen a fierce snowstorm up on deck give way to a beautifully clear, star-studded sky with Northern Lights visible, and all in the space of just 20 minutes.
"Under normal conditions, the auroral oval lies to the north of Tromsø, so the section of the voyage from Tromsø to Kirkenes and back is generally the best location for seeing the Lights, but I have seen them as far south as Bergen and quite often once within the Arctic Circle."
Why is it the best way to see the natural phenomenon?
A Northern Lights cruise not only takes you to corners that you don't have access to on land, but the lengthier stay on board a ship heightens your chances of seeing the natural phenomenon.
Dr Mason says: "Statistics collected in 2015 showed that if a guest stays just one night in the Arctic they have only a 14% chance of seeing the Northern Lights, whereas if they stay for five nights their chances increase to about 90%. But you must be ready to get up whenever the sky is clear – even if that is at 3 o’clock in the morning.
"On Hurtigruten’s voyages (try this one), you will be notified when the Northern Lights are visible at any point over the tannoy so you are guaranteed not to miss them."
When is the best time to take a Northern Lights cruise?
In the Arctic, the Northern Lights season runs from the last week in September to the first week in April, Dr Mason explains.
"During the late spring and summer months there is continuous daylight, which is why they are not visible.
"During the autumn and winter, you are very likely to see the Northern Lights whenever the sky is clear and dark, and they may often be glimpsed through thin or broken cloud on land."
How do the displays look from a cruise ship?
"Often, as night falls and the sky is clear and dark, one’s first view of the aurora is nothing more than a faint arc of light, usually to the north, which appears greyish to the naked eye simply because our eyes are not good at seeing colour in low light levels.
"As the aurora brightens the first hints of colour, usually pale green, may be discerned. Then, if the display becomes more active, bright spots may be seen moving along the arc and rays may be seen shooting upwards into the sky. If the arc ripples and distorts, or if multiple arcs appear, the excitement mounts and there is the expectation of a fine show.
"The most active parts of an auroral display may last only a few minutes, so one must keep alert. In the grandest outbursts, the aurora may become all-sky, a breathtaking, rapidly moving kaleidoscope of colour, perhaps coming together in a magnificent ‘corona’ (
when the stream of charged particles flow exactly in your direction) almost overhead.
"On a Northern Lights cruise, the kaleidoscope of colour circulates overhead, bringing an incredibly immersive experience on board."
What else can you experience on board a Northern Lights cruise ship?
The ships used to take you to the Northern Lights are so much more than floating hotels and offer the utmost comfort and unique features. MS Nordlys, for instance, has a modern, Arctic-inspired design, with a few luxuries on board.
You can expect a bakery and ice cream bar serving up Scandi specialities such as smørbrød (open sandwiches) and ice creams in usual flavours (stockfish and brown cheese). The Panorama Bar at the front of the ship is also a great spot to have a hot drink as you soak up the views.
When you're not searching for the Northern Lights, there's also a sauna, outdoor hot tubs on the deck, multiple restaurants and a gym.
One of the best things you'll find on board is the Expedition Team. Serving as university at sea, the team of experts offer lectures, presentations and activities for you to take part in during the Northern Lights cruise to ensure it is educational as well as a magical experience.
You may learn about the local wildlife, cultures and even other phenomena in the surrounding areas where you're sailing. The team will also introduce to the Nordic concept of friluftsliv, the notion of getting outdoors, and will encourage you to take part in hikes and outdoor activities throughout the trip.
What should you pack for a Northern Lights cruise?
One of our favourite Norwegian phrases is, 'there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing,' and this couldn't be more true when it comes to a Northern Lights cruise. You'll want to ensure you're protected from the elements and packing layers is key, with wool or silk base layers and two or three layers of fleeces or wools on top, and don't forget the thermals for your legs, too.
For your outer layers, a windproof jacket is essential, as are insulated trousers used for ski or other cold weather trips. If you're heading out on icy excursions, like snowmobiling the travel company should have a once-piece snowsuit for you to wear.
Two pairs of gloves (a thin pair and mittens to wear on top), hiking-style snow boots, wool socks (not cotton), a wool or fleece hat, swimwear for the hot tub, plenty of lip balm and moisturiser to prevent dry skin are some of the essentials to pack for a Northern Lights cruise.
Want to experience a once-in-a-lifetime Northern Lights cruise? Good Housekeeping has partnered with Hurtigruten to bring you a unique cruise to Norway this December 2021, where you'll be joined by BBC weather presenter Carol Kirkwood this November.
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