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nov 29 2011

Plan a Trip to See the Northern Lights

NASA predicts record northern light activity for this winter 2011—the strongest aurora borealis in a half-century.

Every 11 years or so, the typically green streaks of the northern lights tend to become visible far below the Arctic Circle, reports AccuWeather. Wherever you are during the winters of 2011 and 2012, be sure to look up at night. In October, the aurora borealis appeared as far south as Ozark, Ark.

As with spotting other natural phenomenon like rainbows, there are no guarantees to seeing the northern lights (caused by solar flares, or explosions on the sun, hurling particles into space that collide with the Earth's atmosphere, to fiery effect). You'll need luck to have a winter night with a cloudless sky and little moonlight.

For the best chances, go as far north as you can manage, now through March. A good post to pick is Fairbanks, Alaska, which has reliable enough viewing to attract scientists. Flights from Seattle were recently starting at $487 in mid-January. Many fine Fairbanks motels charge under $90 a night; drive a few miles away in any direction for good odds at clear viewings.

Another idea: Take a cruise in the Arctic Circle, enjoying brilliant sky views on the sea, unimpeded by ambient city light. Case in point: cruise line Hurtigruten is offering its Norwegian Coastal Voyage, with stops at charming Norwegian towns. (hurtigruten.com, seven-day packages from $1,100).

Alternatively, you could visit Iceland, where a tour bus run by Reykjavík Excursions will take you to the best viewing spots, which can change nightly. If you don't see any lights on your tour, you can re-take the tour the following night for free. (That said, the tour has gotten mixed reviews on TripAdvisor.) Note: Renting a car to drive in Iceland at night can be a more effective—but far more expensive and stressful—experience than relying on a guided bus tour (

" target="_blank">re.is, tour from 4,400 kroner or about $41 per person; flights from New York City from about $600 this winter)

Here's a video of what the northern lights look like from space, using found footage taken aboard the NASA International Space Station.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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