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Northern lights cruises: A guide to chasing the aurora borealis at sea

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Witnessing the elusive northern lights flickering across the sky might cause you to gasp because it’s actually that cool. The colorful ribbons of green 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 as the aurora borealis, is a bucket-list experience for many travelers. Cruise ships can take you to destinations where your chances of catching Mother Nature’s special light show are improved.

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Remember that seeing this phenomenon doesn’t involve a cruise director flipping on a switch. Witnessing the northern lights requires clear and dark skies, late-night viewing hours, enough solar activity for the colors to appear and a big dose of luck. Keep that in mind before you invest all your cruise vacation hopes in this one experience.

Where can I see the northern lights on a cruise?

Northern lights shine brightly above a mountain and lakeCruise lines operating in Alaska have northern lights sign-up sheets so you don’t have to stay up all night. PATRICK J. ENDRES/GETTY IMAGES

The lights are best viewed in the Northern Hemisphere and especially in locations on the so-called auroral oval, a ring zone over the polar regions. In cruising terms, that means prime viewing is in northern Alaska (which is easily accessible on cruisetours), Norway, Iceland, Arctic Canada and parts of Greenland.

Just off the auroral ring is the rest of Alaska. If you are on a cruise in the Inside Passage before April 21 or after Aug. 21 and are willing to be awake in the middle of the night (the lights tend to appear in Alaska after midnight), there’s a chance you’ll see the aurora borealis.

Cruise lines operating in Alaska — including Holland America, Princess Cruises and UnCruise Adventures — have northern lights sign-up sheets so you don’t have to stay up all night, every night, hoping to see the display. Put your name on the list, and you’ll receive a wake-up call or knock on your cabin door if there’s aurora action. Plan to put on your clothes or bathrobe quickly, as the lights might only appear for a few minutes. (They could also last considerably longer.)

Related: Peak solar activity is forecast for 2024: Here are the best places around the world to see the northern lights

If you’re interested in where to see the northern lights outside Alaska, the Arctic city of Alta, Norway, calls itself “The City of Northern Lights.”

Alta’s credentials include the world’s first permanent observatory for viewing the aurora borealis; it was built there in 1899. A whole industry has sprung up around the lights, including such extravagant shore excursions as an overnight in a tent with viewing windows at a Sami dog-sledding camp. Alta is also home to the Northern Lights Cathedral, an architectural landmark.

Tromso is another Norwegian destination known as a hub for aurora borealis viewing. In late January, there’s a northern lights arts festival featuring top artists in various musical genres.

Cunard Line and Hurtigruten are among the lines that visit northern Norway in the fall. However, the peak viewing season is from November to March (see below). Viking also visits but in the winter.

Iceland, Greenland and Arctic Canada appear on many expedition ships’ itineraries during northern lights season, mostly early in the season in August and September. Lines with ships there include Quark Expeditions, Aurora Expeditions and Lindblad Expeditions.

When can I see the northern lights on a cruise?

Northern lights over brightly lit homes and a peaceful lake in NorwayAlta, Norway, calls itself “The City of Northern Lights.” NITROGLISERIN/GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTO

Because of the late-setting and early rising midnight sun, it’s way too light during the summer to see the northern lights in the destinations mentioned, but solar activity does take place year-round.

If you have a goal of seeing the aurora borealis in any of the destinations discussed here, you’re best off booking as far into the fall as you can find a cruise. Norway is the only prime northern lights destination with winter cruises.

The lights like to appear in the wee hours — particularly between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. — in Alaska. An advantage in Norway is that it’s dark enough to see them for a longer period during fall and winter.

Do cruisetours in Alaska improve my chances of seeing the lights?

Cruisetours in Alaska can improve your odds of seeing the aurora because they get you to Fairbanks and other inland destinations in Alaska that tend to have more cloud-free skies than in the Inside Passage, where cruise ships sail.

While you might see the lights from Denali National Park and Preserve during the viewing season, venturing to Fairbanks and points farther north will increase your odds.

Fairbanks tourism folks like to brag that if you visit for at least three nights between Aug. 21 and April 21, your chances of seeing the aurora borealis are more than 90%. (That assumes you are out actively looking during the late evening hours.)

Since your cruisetour might not visit for three nights, consider booking extra hotel nights before or after your cruise. Other things to do in this laid-back city (human population: about 100,000; moose population: 16,000) include riverboat tours, gold panning and yoga with reindeer.

You can also see the lights in Canada’s Yukon Territory, including in the gold rush town of Dawson City, which is visited on some Holland America cruisetours.

Related: What’s the best way to view the northern lights? We tried to see them by air, land and sea

Should I go on a cruise just to see the northern lights?

Yes, but remember that the phenomenon is dependent on the weather (clear skies required) and hard to predict, despite scientists’ best efforts.

Viking has wintertime cruises to Norway from London specifically designed to track the lights in the Norwegian Sea during the peak viewing season — throughout the cruise but especially above the Arctic Circle in Tromso and Alta (where the sailings stop overnight). It’s dark in these locales in winter, increasing your chances.

Hurtigruten is so invested in its northern lights experiences that it has hired famed northern lights astronomer Tom Kerss as its “chief aurora chaser.” He will serve as an onboard expert, offering talks and workshops for passengers.

The line is so sure you will see the lights on the October-through-March sailings of its year-round 11- and 12-day Norwegian Coastal Express itineraries that the company has a guarantee called the Northern Lights Promise. If the deck’s officers don’t announce to all on board that the northern lights are happening, you can get a six- or seven-day Norwegian Coastal cruise for free.

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