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Everything You Need to Know to See The Northern Lights This Year

By Kelsy Chauvin
updated September 29, 2021
Northern Lights Over The Lofoten Islands Norway
© Biletskiy | Dreamstime.com
They’re high in the sky and high on many travelers’ bucket lists – and now’s a great time to plan your trip to view the Northern Lights.

Winter is coming, and it’s bringing with it the magnificent aurora borealis. More commonly known as the northern lights, the cosmic phenomenon is among nature’s most mesmerizing light shows. The visuals are mysterious and bewildering, and sometimes planning a trip to see them can feel the same way.

But trekking to the far north in winter doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive if you know what to expect and plan accordingly. Here are a few of the key elements to remember when building an Arctic adventure of your own.

1. When to go

Winter is prime northern lights season because the sky is at its darkest and days stay darker longer, especially near and in the Arctic Circle. Generally, the aurora borealis (which translates from Latin as “northern dawn”) is visible September through April, with the strongest lights glowing from November through February. Of course, no one can predict the weather, and cloudy skies are a big reason spectators may miss the lights.

The other big variable involves the sun, where the lights originate. The simple scientific backstory goes like this: the sun releases electrically charged particles that are carried across the galaxy via solar winds. When those particles reach earth’s atmosphere (really, its magnetosphere), they collide with oxygen, nitrogen, and other gases to form lights that appear to our eyes as gray, green, purple, red, and other colors. They’re strongest around the North and South poles, though some say that the northern lights have been seen as far south as Florida.

So the vital part of any aurora viewing vacation is to plan ample time in a destination to account for cloudy nights and times when the sun is less flared up. Most agree to a minimum of five days, but eight might be wiser.

2. Where to go

A trip north in winter can be surprisingly affordable thanks to lower hotel demand and cheaper airfares. Just aim for a smaller town or park with minimal light pollution. In North America, start your search in cities with nearby airports, tour operators, and lodging options. Along the Arctic Circle, consider Fairbanks, Alaska; Whitehorse in the Canadian Yukon; and Churchill in northern Manitoba (where Hudson Bay can yield some great watery reflections). Dark-sky delights also await in Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta; Torngat Mountains National Park in Newfoundland; and Nunavik Parks in Quebec’s Arctic region.

If you’re game to travel farther, consider the lovely small city of Tromso in Arctic Norway, which is more affordable thanks to Norwegian Air’s budget-friendly airfares, and a weaker Norwegian kroner exchange rate. The island nation of Iceland is another wallet-wise destination thanks to Icelandair deals. Plus both Norway and Iceland have infrastructure for winter tourism that makes it easier to find the right hotel and tour company.

Tip: Buy your ticket around two or three months out to lock in the best airfares.

3. Where to stay

Lodging in remote locales is easier than you may think, especially if you’re fine with a no-frills hotel that offers comfy beds and powerful heaters. Just aim to book six to eight weeks out (or longer) for the best rates, and remember that hostels may yield irresistible bargains. If you’re seeking more memorable accommodations, check into an igloo or panoramic dome with sky views, like the ones offered by Fairbanks’s Borealis Basecamp. Or try the glass-fronted chalets at Whitehorse’s Northern Lights Resort & Spa.

4. What to pack

Upon planning a subzero January trip to the Arctic, I once asked a Norwegian for packing advice. His reply: “Bring a sweater.” I second that wisdom – especially for a hearty wool sweater – and also recommend investing in some serious thermal baselayers that you can wear every single day of your trip. (Tip: Uniqlo makes great lightweight, affordable long underwear.)

Other winter travel essentials include: wool or thermal socks, heavy gloves or mittens, insulated hats (that won’t blow off in the wind), a thick scarf or buff, and waterproof boots for high snow and powerful winds. Goggles or sports glasses are smart too, to help protect your eyes from blustery snow and wind. And it goes without saying that a waterproof, heavily insulated coat is mandatory if you want to be outdoors longer than 15 minutes.

Winter in the Arctic is no joke, so plan for the most intensely cold temperatures of your life.

5. Photography forethought

For many, capturing the northern lights on camera is a core part of the experience – and the ultimate souvenir. The best photos require a DSLR or smaller camera with manual settings, because to capture the aurora you’ll need a wide-open aperture and super-slow shutter speed (my best shots took about 30 seconds each to snap). Manual focus, adjustable ISO and f-stop, a shutter timer, and high-resolution image settings also are key. Plus you’ll need a sturdy tripod.

But more than anything, always dress as warmly as possible for outdoor aurora photography, because you can spend hours pursuing the perfect shot, and it only takes a few minutes below zero to start losing finger sensation.

Tip: Set your camera up in advance with recommended northern lights–shooting settings, so you don’t have to fumble around with them on the spot (where it’s usually pitch dark and freezing).

6. Rely on local experts

The most successful northern lights adventures come with the help of expert local guides. So building on tip No. 2, consider destinations where seasoned tour operators know how best to predict the locations and timing for awesome light shows. On the bright side, since most of the best aurora views are from small cities, you won’t have to comb through tons of listings to find good local guides.

Upon booking, look for companies that offer multi-night tours (in case no lights are seen on the first night or two), and ones that will drive safari-style to more than one location, since cloud cover could limit views in different spots. You might also double check that the tour will travel to areas far from urban light pollution, like parks and remote hilltops. Some may even offer basecamp-style huts or lodges with skylights, so you can stay warm indoors, perhaps with a mulled wine or cocoa, while gazing skyward.

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Travel Tips

Booking.com Predicts These Surprising Destinations Will Trend Next Year

Booking.com’s 2020 Travel Predictions have been released and it says that 70% of global travelers say that they want to go somewhere that offers experiences they’ve never had before in 2020. To help inspire travelers to achieve this ambition, the travel search engine has delved into global booking trends to reveal the top emerging travel destinations for 2020. Seogwipo The second-largest city on South Korea’s Jeju Island, Seogwipo is a bustling coastal city surrounded by natural wonders of the volcanic coastline. Ideal for active travelers, its clear blue waters will prove popular with scuba-diving enthusiasts, while nearby Mount Hallasan is a great option for those looking to lace up their boots and take a hike. Stay at Heyy Seogwipo Hotel, which is within walking distance of Cheonjiyeon Waterfall and nearby walking trails. Świnoujście Located in northwest Poland, Świnoujście is a beautiful port town on the Baltic Sea that’s a perfect destination for water lovers. Travelers can immerse themselves in the town’s history and visit the Museum of Sea Fishery, which features model vessels and astonishing sea creatures, before continuing the sea theme and taking a walk to the 19th Century Lighthouse for panoramic scenery of the harbor from the observation deck. Houseboat Porta Mare III is the perfect accommodation for sea-loving visitors. Zabljak Travelers looking to go off-grid with their 2020 travels should head for the mountains in Zabljak, a small town in northern Montenegro at the center of the Durmitor mountain region. The must-see list includes Durmitor National Park, Black Lake and the Djurdjevica Tara Bridge, a concrete bridge that was once the biggest concrete arch bridge for vehicles in Europe. Holiday Home Vile Calimero offers a family- and pet-friendly stay with views of the surrounding mountains. Yerevan For history lovers, Armenia’s capital Yerevan’s past and spectacular architecture makes it a must-experience destination. Take in the spectacle of the St. Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral, and explore the ruins of the Zvartnos temple located within the Ararat Plateau, enjoying views of the surrounding mountains. While sightseeing in the city, don’t miss the Cascade, a giant stairway made of limestone which features fountains, sculptures and a tranquil garden courtyard. Stay at Panorama Resort & Suites, which offers panoramic hilltop views of Yerevan city and Ararat Mountain. Salta Bright colonial architecture with colorful and unique landscapes nearby, Salta is located in the heart of the Argentine Andes. Whether taking in the colorful cityscape with a visit to San Francisco Church, a historic church and monastery that dates back to the 1600s or exploring the nearby colorful landscape of The Hill of Seven Colours and Salinas Grandes, a trip to this beautiful part of the world will leave a colorful impression. Sociable Hostal Prisamata is for travelers looking to mingle with other like-minded adventurers.

Travel Tips

Zipcar, Turo, Car2Go: Which Is The Best Carsharing Service?

Travelers today have no shortage of options when it comes to renting a car. In particular, the rise of carsharing services has revolutionized the way people get around. As of May 2019, carsharing was available in 59 countries, according to an industry analysis by movmi and the Carsharing Association (CSA), with 236 carshare operators in 3,128 cities. But why choose a carsharing service over a traditional car rental company like Enterprise or Hertz? Pam Cooley, executive director at CSA, says it often boils down to cost: ‘Carsharing is usually cheaper than car rental companies,’ she says. Indeed, by some estimates carsharing prices are about 30 percent lower than car-rental rates. Still, ‘if you’re a traveler, you have to research what businesses operate at your destination,’ Cooley adds. To help you narrow down your carsharing options, we’ll look at three of the biggest players in the industry: Zipcar, Turo, and Car2Go. Here’s how these services stack up: Zipcar How it works: Zipcar customers pay a monthly membership fee in exchange for a Zipcard, which they scan on a device under. the windshield of their chosen rental vehicle to unlock and lock the car at the start and end of each reservation. Each vehicle has a reserved parking space (called a ‘home location’), where it must be returned with at least one-quarter tank of gas. Members book reservations through Zipcar’s website or mobile app, which they use to locate the rental car. What it includes: Zipcar covers the cost of gas, insurance, and maintenance. It also offers dedicated parking spots in many areas. All reservations include up to 180 miles of driving per day. How much it costs: Membership fees start at $7 a month or $70 a year. In return, Zipcar members can rent cars from $7.75 an hour or $69 a day. (Rates vary depending on the type of vehicle.) Each car rental includes a complimentary gas card, so customers pay nothing at the pump to refill their ride. Where it’s available: Launched in 2000, Zipcar is the largest carsharing service in the world. The company operates in more than 500 cities and towns and on more than 600 college campuses around the world. Fleet: Zipcar offers members vehicles from more than 60 different makes and models, including Audis, BMWs, Mini Coopers, Prius hybrids, minivans, pickup trucks, and cargo vans. Turo How it works: Unlike Zipcar, where customers rent vehicles from the company, Turo users rent cars directly from local car owners. The owners have the option to set their own rates, or they can have Turo set their car’s price based on local market data. Customers make reservations through Turo’s website or mobile app, and they set their pickup dates and times to suit their plans. To exchange keys, owners will deliver the car to custom locations around town or nearby airports, or allow travelers to pick up the vehicle at the owner’s chosen location. What it includes: Depending on the vehicle, insurance is provided to the driver from Turo or the car owner. Car owners choose how many miles or kilometers they want to include per trip; this can be a daily, weekly, or monthly limit. Turo provides 24/7 roadside assistance. How much it costs: In addition to the car owner’s rental rate, each rental charges a trip fee (that varies depending on the location), a security deposit, and taxes. (Some car owners also charge a delivery fee.) The car owner may also ask the renter to pay for additional post-trip costs, such as cleaning and tolls. Typically, renters pay for their own gas. There is no membership fee for car renters. Where it’s available: Though Turo operates in a number of cities around the world, its primary marketplaces are in the United States, the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Fleet: Looking for an exotic or luxury vehicle? Although car offerings vary depending on location and availability, Turo makes and models often include Teslas, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Maseratis, and more. Economy cars, SUVs, mini-vans, and pickup trucks are also offered. More on Carsharing: Getaround Makes the Car Rental Experience Personal car2go How it works: A German rental car company, car2go’s business model is simple: customers use the service’s mobile app to search for available cars in their area. The vehicles are located on the street or in designated parking lots. Customers access the car using the app (with no reservations required), drive it for however long they want to, and then park it in any approved legal parking spot in the vehicle’s designated home area, such as within a city’s limits—meaning there’s no need to return the car to its original location. (That’s a nice convenience.) What it includes: Car insurance is provided by car2go. The company also provides roadside assistance around the clock and free parking spaces in certain areas. How much it costs: There are no annual or monthly fees or membership costs. Cars can be rented by the minute, hour, or day. Rates vary depending on the vehicle model, city, and time. To give you a benchmark, though: a one-hour car2go rental in Washington, D.C. starts at $16. Some pickup locations, such as airports, may charge an additional fee. Also, customers are subject to a cleaning fee of $50 for stains, smoke, and pet hair. Where it’s available: The company operates in major cities in the U.S. and Europe, including New York City, Seattle, London, Rome, and Paris. One big caveat: in October 2019 car2go announced it is pulling out of five North American cities: Austin, TX; Calgary, Alberta; Portland, OR; Denver; and Chicago. Fleet: The company offers three types of vehicles: a smartcar (a tiny two-seater that’s ideal for squeezing into tight parking spaces), the Mercedes-Benz GLA (a hatchback that offers extra cargo space), and the Mercedes-Benz CLA (a stylish four-seat sedan). The verdict The best carsharing service truly depends on your needs. If you do a lot of traveling and rent cars frequently, paying to be a Zipcar member might make financial sense, since the company offers relatively low rental prices. If you only need a vehicle to get you from point A to point B, car2go is a great option, since you can leave the car wherever you choose. Turo, meanwhile, offers a number of sports cars you can’t find from the other carsharing providers.

Travel Tips

How to Save Time and Money on Thanksgiving Travel in 2019

If you’re one of the more than 54 million Americans who are predicted to be traveling over the Thanksgiving 2019 holiday, you already know your journey won’t be as easy as “over the river and through the woods.” But even with long lines at airport security and bumper-to-bumper traffic on major thoroughfares looming ahead, there are a number of data-driven tips that can help you search out deals, avoid the worst crowds, and arrive at your holiday destination with your appetite and enthusiasm intact. Get started soon The good news is it’s not too late to save time and money on Thanksgiving travel. In fact, now through the end of October is the ideal window to research flights. To take some of the uncertainty out of the process, AAA recommends that you consider consulting a travel agent and purchasing trip insurance. If you’re planning to fly for the holiday, the folks at the global travel search engine Skyscanner.com suggest that you set up price alerts now (as in, stop reading this for a second and set up price alerts on your preferred flight booking app), and that you consider price alerts for a range of dates, as prices can be significantly higher or lower as one gets closer to Turkey Day itself. (See “How to Choose the Best Travel Days,” below.) The best time to buy airline tickets “Holiday travelers should make their plans now and begin booking their flights for Thanksgiving and Christmas for the best deals and availability,” says Paula Twidale, vice president, AAA Travel. The ideal window for getting reasonable prices (under $500 round-trip for domestic flights, according to AAA) is between 30 and 60 days prior to Thanksgiving. A quick look at the calendar will alert you that the time is literally now: Book by October 27. (AAA makes its predictions and recommendations based on an analysis of flight booking data for domestic US travel for Thanksgiving from 2016 to 2018.) It bears mentioning, however, that AAA predicts that it is possible to nab airfares averaging $482 by waiting until the last minute (in this case, purchasing your ticket seven to 13 days before Thanksgiving, or November 11 to 17). But purchasing at the last minute will always be a game of chance, so be forewarned. “Procrastinating travelers may be able to find last-minute deals on flights close to the holidays, as airlines look to fill their last few remaining seats, but flight availability for these peak travel weeks will be very limited by that time,” says Twidale. How to choose the best travel days Which days you choose to fly will have a major impact on your airfare and your airport experience. Traditionally, the Monday before Thanksgiving is the best day to fly for both airfare (averaging under $500 round-trip this year, according to AAA) and for lighter crowds than later that week. AAA notes that the Sunday before Thanksgiving is the best day for travelers who seek the lightest possible crowds and don’t care about spending a bit more. The biggest airfare savings will be found by flying on Thanksgiving day itself, averaging around $450 round-trip. Those who have flown on major holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas often enjoy not only the savings but also the elbow room and festive vibe. The busiest and priciest days to fly are, of course, the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Over the years, research has consistently suggested that if you can delay your return flight until the Monday after Thanksgiving, you’ll save money and airport hassle. (That strategy, of course, is often most practical for retirees or adults traveling without school-age kids.) If you’ve ever wondered how many of your fellow Thanksgiving travelers share your best-day-to-fly preferences, Skyscanner.com recently crunched the numbers on domestic Thanksgiving bookings over the past few years and reports that nearly 60 percent of Americans prefer to fly midweek, departing on the Tuesday or Wednesday before Thanksgiving and returning between Friday and Sunday – that certainly explains the massive airport crowds. Conversely, only 20 percent fly on Thanksgiving itself, and only 10 percent are “week-long travelers” who leave for their Thanksgiving destination on the Saturday or Sunday before the holiday. Secrets to a successful Thanksgiving road trip When it comes to hitting the road for the holiday, the same days that are best – and worst – for flying apply to driving as well. If you can pack up the car and roll out before the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and return the Monday after, you’ll have a relatively relaxing drive. If, like so many of domestic travelers, you can’t avoid driving on Tuesday or Wednesday and returning Saturday or Sunday, consider driving at night or in the very early morning – and let your relatives know that you may need a catnap while they’re watching the Lions' game.

Travel Tips

6 Affordable Winter Vacations You Need to Book Now

For many travelers winter is prime vacation time. Those extra days off for the holidays mean that you can sneak in a week-long escape. Whether you’re looking for a warm-weather escapade (we’ve got our eye on you, Florida) or a chill Chicago getaway (bundle up!), we’ve got you covered with a few trips that won’t break the bank. But remember, booking your flight and hotel arrangements early will have its benefits on your wallet. Plus, you’ll have more time to look forward to that dreamy winter getaway. And if post-holiday travel sounds like the right fit for your schedule, remember that flights and hotel prices start to drop the second week of January. Chicago, Illinois Chicago may not be your quintessential warm winter getaway, but the food, art and culture scene may sway you to escape there this winter. Plus flights and hotels are extremely inexpensive, for example room rates at the Godfrey Hotel Chicago can be booked for $89 per night from December to February. The best part? They have a rooftop winter wonderland with clear-domed, heated igloos for guests to cozy up and enjoy the fire pit and of course some gooey delicious s’mores. You can’t go to Chicago without checking out the museum scene, catching an architecture tour by boat (don’t worry, you’ll be indoors) or heading to Millennium Park for a legendary snow-dusted selfie at Cloud Gate aka, “The Bean”. There are endless food options, but we’d recommend Publican Quality Meats (a butcher shop, cafe and bakery), Frontera Grill for the best Mexican and Roister, a casual restaurant that’s made its way onto almost every “Best of” list. Lastly, since Chicago is a convention destination, make sure you check out this schedule to avoid higher price tags. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Brazil is an ideal winter escape because their summer is our winter in the states. Bonus: Brazil has waived visa requirements for visiting citizens from the US, making travel to the country easier and more affordable. And while you may think an international destination like this is going to cost big bucks, rooms at the Sheraton Grand Rio Hotel & Resort are well under $200 per night. Situated between the chic Barra da Tijuca neighborhood and famed Ipanema Beach, the resort is set above a white-sand beach looking out at the tropical South Atlantic. You may want to lounge out after a busy year, but if you’d like to explore the city there are plenty of exciting options from local souvenir shopping to exploring the street food vendors (try the pão de queijo, aka cheese bread). Sugarloaf Mountain is a popular peak where you can take a cable car ride to catch some epic views. Or take a car for about ten minutes away to explore Copacabana Beach, a famous shoreline dotted with restaurants and bars and some of the best people watching out there. Lake Chelan, Washington Located three hours east of Seattle, Lake Chelan transforms into a snow-covered wonderland with seasonal recreation, award-winning wine country (sign us up), with festival fun and small town charm. Nestled among the snow-capped hilltops of the Northern Cascade Mountains, Lake Chelan celebrates 300 days of sunshine a year, making it a great retreat in the winter. Also, because winter is during the off-season, the area is less expensive. For accommodations, the family owned and operated Campbell’s Resort offers story like lakeside guest rooms for $84 a night. The location is the perfect launch pad for area winter activities, including snow tubing and snowboarding at nearby Echo Valley, wine tasting at over 30 wineries and two fantastic winter festivals – Winterfest in January and Red, Wine and Chocolate in February. Oranjestad, Aruba Aruba’s calling our name! Take a quick and affordable flight to this sunny destination where everyone is welcoming. How can you go wrong with a place that’s dubbed “One Happy Island”? This Caribbean escape is exactly what the doctor ordered. Let’s talk hotels. There are a variety of hotels at all price ranges throughout the isle, so finding reasonable lodging won’t be a problem. Oranjestad is the capital of the city and has a range of hotels close to the airport, but there are different neighborhoods to explore throughout the island. Explore the Natural Pool (formed by rock and volcanic stone) and the Arikok National Park on a UTV or make a day of it and captain your own motor-powered boat on the open sea. Aruba is a big travel destination, so consider booking your trip as early as possible to secure the lowest rates. Waterville Valley, New Hampshire Waterville Valley is a resort community nestled in the heart of the White Mountain National Forest, just two hours north of Boston. The town is the epitome of what you think of when imagining the setting of an epic ski trip with friends. The good news is that skiing is actually made affordable here. The Waterville Resort has a handful of lodging deals that run throughout the winter, like the “Ski & Stay” package that starts at $98 per night. This deal allows you to mix and match to get the lodging and tickets you need for a perfect ski adventure. The package also includes the Freedom Pass at no extra cost, which includes access to other activities like ice-skating, the White Mountain Athletic Club pools, saunas and hot tubs, indoor tennis and dare I say more? Crystal River, Florida While droves of people flock to Florida in the winter (hello, snowbirds), why not visit a city just off the beaten path this year? Considered to be the “Original Florida,” Crystal River is a coastal city located about 90 minutes from Tampa without the massive crowds. Locals and tourists alike enjoy beach hopping, kayaking and just about any other warm weather activity. Stay at the Plantation hotel for as low as $119 a night. Onsite activities include boating, fishing and golfing. All of these physical activities will probably give you a big appetite, so check out the seafood options at local restaurants, some of it is so fresh that it’s coming right off of the boat!