As the leaves start falling off the trees and the days become shorter again, the number of questions about the northern lights in our e-mail inbox grows exponentially. I guess northern lights questions is to an Icelander that works in tourism what pumpkin spice is to North-Americans: a sign of seasons changed.
Quick side note: I didn’t realize until quite recently what pumpkin spice is. I thought it was some sort of spice that tasted like pumpkin and could not for the life of me understand why people were getting all excited about pumpkin flavored coffee.
I’ve actually answered a lot of the questions about the Northern Lights already here on the blog. Like when it is the best time to see them, whether or not you can see the northern lights in summer (you don’t really need to read that one, the answer is no) and how to use the northern lights forecast but people always seem to have more questions. The most popular one, currently, is which one of the boundless availability of northern lights tours is the best. Which, coincidentally but probably not surprisingly, is the reason I’m writing this post right now.
So let’s not diddle-daddle but dive right into this fascinating subject.
But first, do I really need to do a northern lights tour?
That’s a really good question and the answer is simple: No, you don’t need to do a tour to see the northern lights. In fact, you don’t need anything really to see them but a bit of darkness, the right conditions (weather and activity wise) and the ability to look up.
You could see them walking home from the bar, given that you’re not too inebriated to remember to look up. Or even while waiting for your northern lights tour pickup. If you rent a car you could just drive anywhere where the skies are clear and there’s sufficient darkness and hope for the best. Many people also see them from their countryside hotels, many of which now offer a service where they will wake you up if the lights are spotted from the hotel.
So you definitely don’t need to do a tour. However, there are some valid reasons why some people may choose to do a northern lights tour instead of venturing out on their own.
1) If the northern lights are not very strong (which is not uncommon), it’s more likely that you will see them outside of the light pollution of the city. If you’re not renting a car, your best option to get out of the city at night is by doing a tour.
2) Sometimes the cloud cover is unfavorable in Reykjavík while it’s completely fine 30 minutes in any direction outside of the city. If you don’t have a rental car to get there you might miss out an amazing show if you don’t do a tour.
3) I know what (some of) you are thinking: Why would I not rent a car? A lot of people just choose not to drive and that’s perfectly OK. We’re all different and that’s what makes the world so great.
4) The Icelandic weather can be difficult and the same goes for the road conditions. Although many people don’t mind driving in Iceland while it’s bright they feel uncomfortable driving in the dark in conditions they don’t know. Especially when there’s snow and ice on the ground. Which is understandable and quite frankly not unwise.
5) Sometimes you just want to do a tour. Simple as that.
What do I need to know about doing a northern lights tour from Iceland?
With that out of the way, we can explore what you need to know if you do decide to do a northern lights tour as a part of your Iceland experience.
In general, I always recommend you try to book your northern lights tour as early in your trip as possible so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to reschedule if you need to (which is a likely scenario). So the first night, if at all possible, is ideal. I would not recommend the first night for families with young kids arriving from the US and Canada though just because it’s very likely that the travel and the whole time zone confusion is going to hit your kids harder than the adults.
There are a lot of tours on offer which I know can be confusing. What you need to know about all of these tours though is that they more or less all offer the same. They take you out of the light pollution of the city, not too far though because they usually only have 3-4 hours for the tour, and they stop somewhere to let you enjoy the show if the Aurora decides to cooperate. The difference mostly lies in what kind of vehicle is used, whether they include something extra like a warm drink or photos with the northern lights and such, reliability, whether or not they offer a second attempt if you don’t see the lights on the first try and how easy it is to rebook if they do.
You will also find a lot of tours that offer an activity combined with the northern lights like this great northern lights and glacier walk tour I did a few years ago. As much as I enjoyed that tour, despite the northern lights being a bit shy, you have to remember that most of the time the northern lights are secondary or just an added bonus while the activity itself is the main draw. Because of that, you will usually not get a second chance if you don’t see any northern lights nor will you get a refund for that part. I would only recommend these combination tours if you have a short time in Iceland and you need to use your days to the max or if you have plenty of time and money and you don’t mind paying for another (cheaper) northern lights tour if the combo tour is a bust.
What you need to keep in mind is that any northern lights tour is a gamble and sightings can never be guaranteed. That is the whole reason for why so many operators offer a second chance if the first try is a no go. You also have to remember that northern lights tours get canceled a lot because of unfavorable weather conditions and activity levels and although you may not see a reason for the cancelation the operator has more info and experience than the average traveler and makes these decisions based on them. Different operators have different thresholds for when they go out and when they make a decision to cancel but they never cancel “just because” since that’s lost money to them and the northern lights is a risky enough business for them as it is. So if your northern lights tour gets canceled it’s not personal and there’s almost certainly a valid reason for it.
To keep this post simple and easy to follow, I’m going to divide these tours into the following categories and tell you a little bit about each one: Boat tours, Big Bus tours, Small Group Bus tours, Super Jeep tours, and Private tours. Since the majority of people who visit Iceland in winter spend most of their time in the south of the country, I’m going to focus on northern lights tours from Reykjavík in this post but most of the information is applicable to other parts of the country too.
There are quite a few companies that offer northern lights tours by boat in anything from big boats to yachts. They all leave more or less from the same spot in the old harbor and they all go out on Faxaflói bay, just far enough to take you out of the light pollution of the city. I did a tour like that a few years ago and really enjoyed it but my travel partner and I were lucky because the weather was lovely and we saw some pretty nice northern lights so the tour checked all the boxes for us.
If you are on a short trip and you don’t have a lot of possibilities to rebook I would probably not recommend the boat tour for the simple fact it gets canceled more often than the tours on land. I think it’s a great option though if your schedule is open enough that it allows you to book a tour on short notice when the conditions allow for it or if you have more time and you can easily rebook another tour if the boat tour doesn’t pan out.
- Quicker access to the darkness (you don’t have to travel as far as with the buses so more time to enjoy the lights)
- Warm overalls are usually provided.
- Most of the boats have an inside area that is warmed up and you can wander in and out as you please during the tour. This makes it a good option for families.
- Seeing the city lights from the ocean is an added bonus
- Bathroom on board (this matters for a lot of people)
- Will often offer a bus tour replacement with an opportunity to rebook the boat tour if the conditions for a tour on land are more favorable.
- The boat tours tend to get canceled more often than the bus tours because the weather is a bigger risk factor.
- If you’re prone to get seasick, the sea can be quite rough at times
- The boats can’t travel in a different direction if the cloud cover is less favorable on the bay.
- Being out at sea at night in winter in Iceland can be cold with a capital C, overalls or no overalls.
- The boat tours are more expensive than the big bus tours but still can have a sizable crowd if they’re at full capacity
- Not suitable for photographing the northern lights (because the boat never sits completely still)
Northern Lights boat tours worth checking out
We here at I Heart Reykjavík have recommended the same Northern Lights boat tour since we started offering tours through our partners on the blog and we’ve had hundreds if not thousands of guests joining it. The main reason we keep recommending this particular tour, apart from the fact we like our partner, is the fact how flexible it is with rescheduling and cancelations and such. These things matter, especially with the northern lights tours that routinely get canceled.
Although big bus tours, in general, are not my preferred method of travel there are a few things that make big bus northern lights tours worth considering. For one, they’re usually the most economical option but the biggest advantage I see is the reliability and flexibility when it comes to rebooking. You hardly ever have to worry that they get booked out (although, that has happened once or twice in recent years after a long period of cancelations) and they make it relatively easy for you to rebook in case of a cancelation or if you’re not successful on your first attempt. The bus tours (and all the tours on land for that matter) also have the advantage over the boat tours that they can drive in whatever direction is most promising on any given night while the boats are more restricted in where they can go. The biggest disadvantage is how big the groups can get so if you’er sensitive to that, they are best avoided.
- Usually the most economical option
- More flexibility if you need to move your tour around due to flight delays and such
- Almost always offer a second chance if you’re not successful on your first attempt
- Usually easy to rebook if your tour gets canceled due to unfavorable conditions
- Rarely sell out.
- Tend to be quite reliable when it comes to departures and such – never canceled because there are not enough participants etc.
- The groups can get really big because of the unlimited availability. If one bus sells out they just add another and the groups can easily consist of 400+ people.
- The big buses need to park in areas where it’s safe for them to stop so they often all end up in the same areas (which makes the crowds even bigger).
- With bigger groups, simply because there are more variables, there’s a bigger chance that something goes wrong with the pickup and such.
- Usually no toilet on board the bus and little or no time for bathroom breaks.
- Sometimes your fellow travelers are not particularly considerate and because there are more of them there’s a higher risk for annoyance
Big Bus Northern Light tours worth checking out
It doesn’t really matter which big bus northern lights tour you look at, if you read the reviews you get are always a mixed bag of very negative and very positive experiences. What they often have in common is that the negative reviews are mostly written by people who didn’t see any lights (or something went wrong with the pickup etc) while the positive are written by the lucky ones who witnessed the show they were hoping for. Personally, I think all of the bigger bus tours offer a very similar experience so choosing the right one mostly comes down to how organized the operator is and how easy it is to rebook and such. Which is why we recommend this big bus northern lights tour which makes that process very easy.
The main issue with these tours are the big group sizes but if you’re aware of it and you know what you’re getting yourself into, you should be able to enjoy it for what it is and not what you thought or hoped it would be.
I like smaller group tours because to me they seem more personal and intimate somehow. When the buses are smaller (they usually carry 16-19 people max) they don’t need as much space to park safely and can, therefore, go to areas away from the big crowds. That’s not to say you’ll be all alone in the world but they mostly try to keep it more intimate. The smaller tours are often also operated by smaller companies where each guest matters more but the flipside to that is that they often also have limited availability of vehicles so rebooking if there’s a cancellation or if you don’t see anything on your first attempt may become difficult. In some cases though, these smaller tours are operated by bigger companies where this is not an issue or they offer you a second attempt on one of their bigger bus tours.
- Smaller buses don’t need as much space to park so they have more options when it comes to where they can stop and can, therefore, avoid the big bus crowds
- Even if you have 10 small buses in the same place that’s never going to be as many people as 10 big buses carry
- More personal, your driver is usually also your guide and you have more opportunities to interact with them
- Often not that much more expensive than the bigger bus tours
- Often offer a second chance if you don’t see anything on your first attempt (although the second chance may be on a bigger bus if they offer tours like that)
- Book out more frequently than the bigger bus tours which can make it difficult to rebook in case of a cancellation
- Your second try, if you don’t see anything on the first attempt, is often on a bigger bus tour.
- No toilets on board and little or no time for bathroom breaks.
- There’s a bigger chance, if the company is small, that they don’t get enough participants which means they might cancel the tour even though the conditions are favorable.
Small group northern lights bus tours worth checking out
This small bus northern lights tour starts by visiting the Aurora Museum where you can learn everything from what exactly the northern lights are to how to best photograph them. They also offer hot chocolate to help keep you warm and if you don’t see any northern lights you get to try again on a big bus tour offered by a partner company. The good thing about this particular tour is that the operator does tours both from Reykjavík and Akureyri in the north so if you do a tour in Reykjavík that is not successful you can try again in Akureyri if you’re headed there.
Since I’m a little spoiled and I often get to try all kinds of tours as a partner to the companies I work with (without having to worry too much about the price) the super jeep tours are my favorite northern lights tours. Especially in the dead of winter if there’s snow over everything and the jeeps can do more “off-road” driving (by off-road I mean trails that are inaccessible by normal cars and buses but still legal to drive on). So if your budget allows for it they’re great but just keep in mind that you can book almost 4 people on a big bus tour for the price of 1 person on a super jeep tour.
- Smaller groups (4-6 people per car)
- The super jeeps can go to areas other vehicles can’t so they can avoid the crowds
- Sometimes offer a second try if your first attempt is not successful
- Often do some (legal and environmentally sound) “off-road” driving to make the tour more exciting
- More action-packed than some of the other options
- Considerably pricier than other other scheduled options
- Sometimes misleading – they often travel in convoys with other cars so the groups are not as small as you would think
- Depending on who you book with, it can be difficult to re-book in case of cancellations because of the limited availability of vehicles. This can especially become an issue when there have been a few days of cancelations in a row.
- Some of the jeeps are not super comfortable (especially the Land Rovers) so if you have any back issues you may not appreciate them.
- No toilet on board and limited options for bathroom breaks.
Super Jeep Northern Light tours worth checking out
I’ve done this super jeep northern lights tour myself and I really enjoyed it. Although you will travel in a convoy of vehicles (mostly Landrovers) – because there are only 4-6 people in each car it still has the small tour feel. I also enjoyed the convoy part quite a bit and felt like I was on some sort of special mission as I listened to the guides communicate over the radio. They also offer a second chance free of charge in the same sort of vehicles if you don’t see anything on your first try. It has happened maybe once or twice that they’ve not been able to rebook one of our guess because everything has been fully booked.
If a convoy of vehicles is not what you had in mind, or if you want to do a slightly cheaper super jeep tour, this super jeep northern lights hunt offers smaller groups. The downside to booking this tour is the fact that they don’t offer a second try if you don’t see any lights but they also don’t go out unless the conditions are good enough that the chances are quite high. If they don’t go out you can, of course, reschedule or request a refund. Another downside for solo travelers is that this tour has a 2 person minimum and you can’t book for just one person.
A private tour is a good option for small groups and families traveling together as they can be tailored to the needs of each individual group. So if you’re traveling with young children or anyone that needs to make sure a bathroom break is an option, for example, a private tour is ideal. For small groups, in particular, a private tour is often only marginally more expensive than booking schedule tours but if you are a solo traveler and you’re deciding between a private tour and a big bus tour, the private tours are obviously very expensive in comparison. The biggest drawback is the fact that some private tours don’t allow you a second attempt if you don’t see any lights on the tour which means you get less for your money but that’s not always the case.
- You get the whole vehicle and driver to yourself
- They can take you to areas away from the big tour groups which make the experience more intimate
- In many cases, a private tour is only marginally more expensive or even cheaper than scheduled tours if you’re traveling in a small group
- Great for families with children as you can make unscheduled stops such as bathroom breaks if needed.
- If you have any special requests (such as wanting to propose to your partner which is quite popular) it’s easier to accommodate them and make the evening special for you (by adding a bottle of bubbly for example) on a private tour.
- If your group is loud (because you have so much fun together, obviously) you don’t have to worry about annoying other guests and can just be yourselves in all your glory.
- More costly and they become pricier per person the smaller the group is.
- Since you’re essentially paying for the use of the vehicle and the time of the driver/guide and not a tour per se you will often not get a second chance if your tour is not successful.
- Because most companies have a limited number of vehicles they can use for private tours, it may become difficult to rebook if your tour gets canceled due to weather. This can especially become an issue if there have been a few days in a row where everything has been canceled.
Private Northern Light tours worth checking out
You can do the super jeep northern lights tour that I mentioned above as a private tour and if there are 6 of you traveling together the price is actually lower per person than if you did the regular tour. On the private tour, you will not travel in a convoy so it’s much smaller. This tour is also available in a luxury SUV for those who would not enjoy the sometimes bumpy rides of the super jeeps. The best thing about this tour is that they offer you a second attempt free of charge as a private activity.
Most of the private tours we offer through our partners are not available to book online so if you are interested in doing a private northern lights tour just send us a line with what you’re thinking and we’ll find the right tour for you.
Since I got you here…
Although anyone who reads this post can use the information to book or not book a northern lights tour with anyone they please, I hope you’ll at least consider booking through us if you are going to book a tour anyway and you’ve enjoyed the information on the blog.
No strings and no pressure – just a friendly reminder.