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A guide to aurora-chasing at sea on a northern lights cruise

Witnessing the elusive northern lights flickering across the sky may cause you to gasp, because, take it from me, it’s that cool. The colorful ribbons of green and other hues look like something from outer space — and they are. Auroras appear when charged particles collide with Earth’s atmosphere. Seeing the ethereal display, also known …

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Believe me when I say that seeing the elusive northern lights dance across the sky is so amazing that you may find yourself gasping in awe. The green and other-colored ribbons look alien, and that’s because they are. When electrically charged particles hit the atmosphere of Earth, auroras appear.

Many people dream of one day crossing the aurora borealis off their list of must-see natural wonders. In addition, cruise ships can transport passengers to more accessible locations, increasing their odds of witnessing Mother Nature’s spectacular light show.

Please keep in mind that the cruise director did not manually turn on any of these lights. Clear and dark skies, late-night viewing times, enough solar activity for the colors to appear, and a whole lot of luck are all necessities for catching a glimpse of the northern lights at their best. This is just some food for thought before you put all your cruise expectations on this one activity.

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My question is: where can I go on a cruise to see the northern lights?

Northern Hemisphere locations on the so-called auroral oval (a ring zone over the polar regions) provide the best views of the lights. To put it in cruise terms, the best places to see them are Norway, Iceland, Arctic Canada, and parts of Greenland, as well as northern Alaska, which is very accessible on cruise tours.

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The remainder of Alaska lies just beyond the auroral ring. There is a chance of seeing the aurora borealis if you are on an Inside Passage cruise before April 21 or after August 21 and are willing to stay up late (the lights usually appear in Alaska after midnight).

Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, and UnCruise Adventures are just a few of the cruise lines that sail out of Alaska that offer northern lights signup sheets so that you don’t have to stay up all night, every night in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the natural phenomenon. In the event that the aurora borealis decides to make an appearance while you are sleeping, all you have to do is put your name on the list and you will receive a phone call or knock on your cabin door to wake you up. Prepare to get dressed or out of your robe quickly; the lights could be around for just a few minutes, or they could be there for a long time.

Where Else Can I See the Northern Lights If I Don’t Want to Go to Alaska?

City of Northern Lights because of its location in Norway’s Arctic.

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One of Alta’s claims to fame is that it was the site of the first ever dedicated observatory to the phenomenon, constructed in 1899. The Northern Lights have inspired a tourism industry, with luxurious shore excursions like spending the night in a teepee with viewing windows at a Sami dogsledding camp. The Northern Lights Cathedral is also a famous landmark in Alta.

Gallery: (Travel + Leisure) These Cold-Climate Luxury Cruises Will Make You Forget About the Caribbean.

The city of Tromso in Norway is another popular spot for seeing the Northern Lights. The northern lights arts festival is held in late January and features performances by acclaimed musicians from a wide range of genres.

While many cruise lines, including Cunard, P&O, and Princess, make autumn visits to northern Norway, the best time to go is between November and March when the Northern Lights are at their brightest and most visible. Wintertime Viking travel (see below).

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During the northern lights season, many expedition ships travel to Iceland, Greenland, and Arctic Canada. Most of these trips occur in the beginning of the season, between August and September.

Will taking an Alaskan cruise increase my chances of seeing the Northern Lights?

The Southeast Passage is not the best place to see the aurora borealis, so an Alaska cruise tour can increase your chances of seeing the lights by taking you to Fairbanks and other inland destinations in Alaska.

During the viewing season, you can increase your chances of seeing the lights from Fairbanks and further north, though you still might see them from Denali National Park and Preserve.

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Visitor bureau employees in Fairbanks are proud to proclaim that if you stay there for at least three nights between April 21 and August 21, you have a better than 90% chance of seeing the aurora borealis. (Assuming, of course, that you are out searching at night.)

You might want to book some extra hotel nights before or after your cruise to make up for the fact that your port of call might only last for three nights. Riverboat tours, gold panning, and yoga with reindeer are just some of the other activities available in this chill city (population: about 100,000 people, 16,000 moose).

Holland America Line also offers cruises that stop in the gold rush town of Dawson City in Canada’s Yukon, where the lights can be seen.

I’m hoping to see the northern lights while on a cruise; when would be the best time to do so?

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Solar activity occurs all year long, but during the summer months it is too light to see the northern lights in the locations mentioned due to the late-setting and early-rising Midnight Sun.

The best time to book a cruise to see the aurora borealis in any of these locations is as early in the fall as possible. During the winter months, Norway is the only prime location for viewing the northern lights.

As was previously mentioned, the lights prefer to make an appearance in Alaska between the hours of 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. As autumn and winter progress in Norway, the longer hours of darkness make it easier to spot them.

Can I see the northern lights from a cruise ship?

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There is a caveat, though; the phenomenon is weather-dependent (clear skies are necessary) and unpredictable in other ways (though scientists have tried).

During the winter, Viking offers cruises to Norway departing from London (Tilbury) that are tailored to following the Northern Lights as they dance across the Norwegian Sea (where the sailings stop overnight). In the dead of winter, it can get very dark in these areas, increasing your vulnerability.

Hurtigruten offers a guarantee called the Northern Lights Occurrence promise for its 11- and 12-day Norwegian Coastal Express cruises departing between October and March. For purposes of this definition, the “occurrence” is the deck officers’ announcement to all passengers that northern lights are occurring. If they don’t, you get a complimentary six- or seven-day cruise along the Norwegian coast.

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