Cruises are considered by many to be the trip of a lifetime, the pinnacle of vacationing. Combine an arctic cruise with seeing the northern lights, and for most vacationers, two big items can be crossed off their bucket lists simultaneously. While watching the northern lights in person may very well be the experience of a lifetime, simply planning to see them does not guarantee it will happen.

The northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, are naturally occurring phenomena by which brilliantly colored curtains of light dance high up in the night sky. These fantastic light shows result from the interaction between the earth’s magnetic fields (which are around the poles) and electrical matter expelled by the sun. It is widely accepted that the northern lights are best viewed near the arctic circle.

Cruises afford unparalleled opportunities to view the aurora borealis for several reasons:

  • complete darkness is absolutely necessary to see the northern lights, and being out on the open water will take passengers away from the bright lights of urban centers that would otherwise make them less visible
  • the best vistas tend to be remote locations within the auroral oval (more on this later) that would likely be difficult to access over land, whereas ships can sail over great expanses of arctic waters (and even into fjords) to access incredible viewing spots
  • cruise ships provide a comfortable platform from which to view the northern lights while in or near the arctic circle (prime aurora borealis viewing occurs during the fall and winter months)

These arctic cruise options provide the best opportunities to view the northern lights:

Northern Europe Cruises

Northern Europe is the mother lode of northern lights cruises when it comes to aurora borealis themes or itineraries that align perfectly with viewing locales and opportunities. In particular, Scandinavia is a popular destination for cruise passengers seeking to experience the northern lights, with Norway at the top of the list.

Cunard – Norway, and Northern Lights

Departing Southern England and crossing the North Sea, Cunard’s Queen Victoria sails along the Norwegian coastline and travels as far north as Tromsø, which lies approximately 250 miles inside the Arctic Circle. With its late autumn/early winter timing, this cruise falls well within the recommended window of opportunity for viewing the northern lights.

The Queen Victoria is one of the larger vessels making the Northern Europe excursion, measuring almost 1,000 feet in length and accommodating over 2,000 passengers and nearly 1,000 crew members. As far as taking in the aurora borealis, this voyage not only puts guests in the right place at the right time, it also does so on a grand scale and with a level of comfort matched by only a few others.

While viewing the northern lights would certainly qualify as one of the highlights of this cruise, operators and travel sites do caution that the appearance of the aurora borealis during the voyage, however likely it may be, is not guaranteed. Fortunately, if ever there was a surefire way to get over the disappointment of missing the northern lights, it would be a week and a half aboard Cunard’s Queen Victoria.

Duration 13 days
Vessel(s) Queen Victoria
Departure Port (Embarkation) Southampton, England
Return Port (Disembarkation) Southampton, England
Month(s) of the Year November

(Source:  Cunard)

Hurtigruten – Roundtrip Cruise of the Norwegian Coast

This cruise line specializes in Norwegian excursions and operates ships year-round. As Norway is considered by many to be the capital of northern lights viewing, Hurtigruten offers several cruises highlighting the opportunity to experience the aurora borealis.

This Norwegian cruise line is so committed to ensuring that its passengers see the northern lights and confident it can deliver on this commitment, it even offers a guarantee – either the northern lights appear during the cruise (October 1st through March 31st departures only), or Hurtigruten will provide a 6 or 7-day cruise free of charge.

With over half of its 34 Norwegian ports of call located north of the Arctic Circle (which is entered on the fourth day of the voyage), the odds would seem to be in favor of Hurtigruten not needing to pay out on its northern lights guarantee.

Duration 12 days
Vessel(s) MS Finnmarken
Departure Port (Embarkation) Bergen, Norway
Return Port (Disembarkation) Bergen, Norway
Month(s) of the Year October through March

(Source:  Hurtigruten)

Seabourn – Norway, Northern Lights & North Cape

For those seeking an ultra-luxurious northern lights experience, Seabourn Cruises offers its Norwegian excursion aboard its yet-to-be-launched Seabourn Venture (inaugural voyage in December 2021). Featuring all-suite accommodations (132 suites), each passenger onboard the Venture will enjoy a private veranda and expansive ocean view.

With a modern approach to cruising, Seabourn has appointed the newest member of its fleet (the Venture, which will also have a sister ship) with high-tech amenities like e-bikes for passengers and even two submarines to provide travelers with once-in-a-lifetime views of underwater seascapes.

The limited number of cabins ensures that voyages aboard this vessel are intimate affairs, emphasizing service, and luxury. As far as viewing the northern lights, the Seabourn Venture’s itinerary includes ports of call inside the Arctic Circle like Bodø, Svolvaer, Andenes (home to a northern lights research center), the North Cape (the northernmost part of Europe), and Tromsø.

Duration 12 days
Vessel(s) Seabourn Venture
Departure Port (Embarkation) Greenwich, England
Return Port (Disembarkation) Tromsø, Norway
Month(s) of the Year December

(Source:  Seabourn)

Viking Ocean Cruises – In Search of the Northern Lights

Perhaps there is no more fitting cruise line on which to experience the northern lights in Scandinavia than one named after the Norse people of the Middle Ages whose legacy extends throughout Northern Europe and beyond.

Viking Ocean Cruises operates a cruise program aptly named In Search of the Northern Lights that embarks from London, England, and sails across the North Sea to Norway. There are six ports of call that await passengers, including four that lie north of the Arctic Circle.

Among the stops along the Norwegian coastline are Bodø, Tromsø, Alta, and Narvik’s seaport towns, all of which satisfy the prerequisite conditions for viewing the northern lights. In particular, Tromsø is well-known among aurora borealis aficionados for its clear skies and relatively mild winter climate.

The same can be said for Alta, which lies even further to the north. With its location within the Altafjord, Alta not only provides an ideal opportunity to experience the northern lights, but it is also a visually stunning and memorable destination in and of itself.

Duration 13 days
Vessel(s) Viking Venus
Departure Port (Embarkation) London, England
Return Port (Disembarkation) Bergen, Norway
Month(s) of the Year January through March

(Source:  Viking Ocean Cruises)

Iceland, Greenland, and Eastern Canada Cruises

Roughly a thousand miles from Scandinavia and Northern Europe are Iceland and Greenland, both of which have caught the attention in recent years of travelers seeking to experience the northern lights. These island nations lie within the Arctic Circle between Northern Europe to the east and Eastern Canada (the Canadian Arctic) to the west.

Albatros Expeditions – Into the Northwest Passage

Another major hub of northern lights activity within the auroral oval is the Canadian Arctic, Greenland, and Iceland area. There is less cruise traffic here compared to Northern Europe. Still, for the adventurous tourists seeking to experience the aurora borealis, the Greenland/Canadian Arctic voyage offered by Albatros Expeditions may present the best opportunity to cross this item off the bucket list.

The Ocean Atlantic is a smaller vessel measuring just under 460 feet in length with an onboard capacity for 198 passengers. Intimate may be an understatement when describing the accommodations, but there are not enough superlatives to describe the arctic adventures that await. With the late August departure date, nights are extended this far north, which means increased chances of viewing the northern lights.

Aside from the aurora borealis, this cruise immerses its passengers in the complete Arctic experience, with an itinerary that includes navigating past massive icebergs and sailing into deep fjords. This voyage is one of a few that cruises within the Canadian Arctic archipelago, with no less than four ports of call on Canada’s Baffin Island.

Duration 14 days
Vessel(s) Ocean Atlantic
Departure Port (Embarkation) Kangerlussuaq, Greenland
Return Port (Disembarkation) Kangerlussuaq, Greenland
Month(s) of the Year August

(Source:  Albatros Expeditions)

Lindblad Expeditions – Iceland’s Wild West Coast to East Greenland

Of all the cruises operating in Arctic waters, Lindblad’s Iceland and Greenland voyage may be more aptly referred to as an expedition, and its passengers as true adventurers. Of this cruise’s 13 days, no less than 8 represent great opportunities to view the northern lights whether from Iceland’s western side, Greenland’s eastern coastline, or the Denmark Strait that separates them.

The National Geographic Endurance has but 69 cabins and a maximum passenger (adventurer) capacity of 126, which seems better suited for a university research team than a cruise manifest. Despite the modest size of the polar-rated vessel, this cruise does not skimp on the pampering and provides in abundance all the amenities one would expect from a two-week excursion.

While the nights will be spent scanning the Arctic sky for northern lights, days will be filled with once-in-a-lifetime adventures which include:

  • visiting the largest national park in the world – Greenland’s Northeast Greenland National Park
  • navigating (should ice conditions permit) Scoresby Sound, the longest and largest fjord system in the world
  • sailing past majestic glaciers, massive icebergs, and seemingly endless ice sheets (of which the Greenland ice sheet is the second-largest in the world)
  • seeing iconic Arctic wildlife in their natural habitat, including polar bears and whales
Duration 13 days
Vessel(s) National Geographic Endurance
Departure Port (Embarkation) Reykjavik, Iceland
Return Port (Disembarkation) Reykjavik, Iceland
Month(s) of the Year September

(Source:  Lindblad Expeditions)

Quark Expeditions – Under the Northern Lights

This two-week voyage that begins in Reykjavik, Iceland, not only provides prime northern lights viewing opportunities but does so among some of the most stunning vistas on the planet. Eight of the 14 days are spent exploring Greenland’s eastern coast, which is home to the most extensive and arguably the most beautiful fjord systems in the world.

The Ocean Adventurer is a 1A polar-class vessel that operates with a crew of 87 and can accommodate 128 passengers. Cabins are fairly straightforward in their amenities. This voyage is certainly not one for those seeking to lounge around in the lap of luxury; if you’re one who puts more stock in the adventure that awaits at the destination than the comfort of the journey to get there, this is right up your alley.

Speaking of adventure, this may be the only cruise line operating in the Arctic that has a polar bear plunge scheduled on each of its northern voyages (weather conditions permitting and captain’s discretion allowing, of course). Other activities include Zodiac (sturdy inflatable boat) excursions for close-up views of icebergs, whale watching, and guided Arctic hikes across the frozen tundra.

Duration 14 days
Vessel(s) Ocean Adventurer
Departure Port (Embarkation) Reykjavik, Iceland
Return Port (Disembarkation) Reykjavik, Iceland
Month(s) of the Year September – October

(Source:  Quark Expeditions)

Silversea Cruises – Arctic & Greenland Cruise

This 15-day voyage provides an intimate view of Icelandic life before venturing across the Denmark Strait and exploring Greenland’s eastern side for 8 straight days. All the while, each night aboard the Silver Wind provides an ideal setting for viewing the northern lights in comfort from the passengers’ private verandas or in the company of other aurora-seekers on the ship’s observation deck.

Silversea’s Silver Wind has the sleek look of a modern luxury cruise ship, only on a smaller scale. Outfitted with a newly strengthened hull to take on Arctic seas with ease, the Silver Wind boasts a nearly one-to-one ratio between passengers (274) and crew (239), resulting in an Arctic voyage that has a level of personalized care and attention like no other. The Silver Wind is an all-suite vessel.

While the exploration and appreciation of Iceland and Greenland’s incredible natural features are major themes of this voyage, these areas also serve as habitats for whales, walruses, and polar bears, so passengers will be treated to rare, up-close views of these creatures as they are rarely seen. All told, this is one cruise that is guaranteed to provide the individual experiences that will make up the trip of a lifetime.

Duration 15 days
Vessel(s) Silver Wind
Departure Port (Embarkation) Reykjavik, Iceland
Return Port (Disembarkation) Reykjavik, Iceland
Month(s) of the Year August

(Source:  Silversea)

Alaska and Western Canada Cruises

Rounding out the best regions to view the northern lights from within the auroral oval and Arctic circle is the area comprised of Alaska and Western Canada. While the aurora borealis can certainly be seen from a cruise ship navigating the waters around Northern Alaska, by many accounts, the best viewing is done from the inner part of the state around the Fairbanks area.

Fortunately, many cruise operators offer inland excursions as part of their cruise packages.

Holland America Line – 14-Day Double Denali

This voyage begins in Fairbanks, Alaska, with a 4-day land tour that provides opportunities to view the northern lights right off the bat. It is said that the aurora borealis appear in the Fairbanks area on average, an incredible 243 nights per year (that is nearly 7 out of 10 nights that the northern lights can be seen). What better way to begin a dream vacation than by witnessing nature’s greatest light show.

Although the chances of seeing the northern lights lessen as one gets further away from the Arctic Circle, Alaska is far enough north that sightings are not uncommon from places like Denali National Park (days 3 and 4 on the itinerary) and even Anchorage (days 5, 6, and 7). This voyage has the potential to stack successive nights of northern lights appearances one after the other.

By day, the 14-Day Double Denali program has all the makings of a dream Alaskan vacation. The Noordam is a full-fledged luxury liner measuring over 900 feet in length with accommodations for nearly 2,000 passengers. For those staying up until the wee hours of the morning taking in the spectacle of the northern lights, there are onboard amenities galore to gather one’s senses and recuperate for the next night’s hunt for the aurora borealis.

Duration 14 days
Vessel(s) Noordam
Departure Port (Embarkation) Fairbanks, Alaska
Return Port (Disembarkation) Vancouver, Canada
Month(s) of the Year September

(Source:  Holland America Line)

Norwegian Cruise Line – Denali/Valdez Explorer

Alaska is the only U.S. state from which the northern lights can be regularly seen. Although the absolute best time of year is the dead of winter, the tail end of summer and the beginning of fall affords visitors ample opportunities to view the aurora borealis. This voyage consists of a 7-day cruise and a 7-day land tour of Alaska’s interior.

The cruise begins in Vancouver, Canada, and winds its way through Alaska’s Inside Passage, where passengers are treated to stunning views of the Alaskan coastline. A full day is spent at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, where 3.3 million acres of glaciers and mountains provide breathtaking scenery by day and an incredible backdrop for viewing the northern lights at night.

The land tour departs from Seward, Alaska, and treks inland to Fairbanks, which is widely considered to be Alaska’s prime location for seeing the northern lights. Just venturing a few miles outside of Fairbanks city limits immerses visitors in complete darkness, which, if combined with clear skies, all but guarantees an aurora borealis sighting.

Duration 14 days
Vessel(s) Norwegian Jewel
Departure Port (Embarkation) Vancouver, Canada
Return Port (Disembarkation) Anchorage, Alaska
Month(s) of the Year August

(Source:  Norwegian Cruise Line)

Princess Cruise Lines – 11-Day Tour FBX (Fairbanks to Vancouver)

This is another Alaskan voyage that begins in Fairbanks with a 4-day land tour before working its way to Anchorage. Princess Cruise Lines offers among its many mini-excursions, an organized aurora borealis viewing in the outskirts of Fairbanks. This 4 ½ hour tour sets off in the evening hours for a prime viewing location complete with an experienced guide and even a cozy tent should things get a bit too chilly.

As for the cruise portion of the package, this being one of the more popular cruise lines around, there is a greater emphasis on pleasing the masses than creating an intimate experience. However, the itinerary is first-rate, with stops in Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan, and scenic cruising through the Hubbard Glacier region and Glacier Bay National Park. All told, lots of frills, great value, and those northern lights.

The Grand Princess is a stately vessel measuring 950 feet in length, with 17 decks and over 1,300 guest cabins. At maximum capacity, this ship can accommodate 2,600 passengers and 1,150 crew members. As far as onboard dining and entertainment, Princess Cruise Lines is a brand known for almost overwhelming its guests with plentiful options.

Duration 11 days
Vessel(s) Grand Princess
Departure Port (Embarkation) Fairbanks, Alaska
Return Port (Disembarkation) Vancouver, Canada
Month(s)of the Year September

(Source:  Princess Cruise Lines)

Things to Know Before Booking a Northern Lights Cruise

Sage advice from seasoned travelers urges booking a northern lights cruise based on the destination and ports of call and not solely on the expectation of experiencing the aurora borealis. There are various reasons to heed these words, and chief among them are:

  • The visibility and intensity of northern lights are dependent on current solar activity and conditions (e.g., solar flares and solar wind).
  • Although they can be viewed in their full glory with the naked eye, the northern lights are roughly 50 miles above the earth’s surface, and many times they are even higher in altitude. As such, weather conditions like clouds, rain, fog, and snow, can hamper the visibility of the aurora borealis, if not make it downright impossible to see them.
  • Weather conditions within the arctic circle can be highly unpredictable, with perfect northern lights viewing conditions one moment and shelter-seeking conditions the next. (The reverse is also true: absolute white-out conditions can unexpectedly clear and be immediately followed by crystal clear skies.)
  • The aurora borealis is actually active all year round, but because of the midnight sun (24-hour daylight) in the arctic circle during the summer months, it does not get dark enough to see them from May through July.

(Source:  Luxe Adventure Traveler)

Here are some additional facts that aurora borealis hunters should know:

Simply Being Within the Arctic Circle may not be Enough

Rule number one for viewing the northern lights is that the location must be within, or at least near, the arctic circle. To be more precise, the vantage point should be within the auroral oval, which is an irregularly shaped oval that encircles the earth’s magnetic pole (this is not the same as the geographical north pole).

It should be noted that the southern hemisphere also has a magnetic pole and auroral oval.

When viewing the northern auroral oval from space, it would include parts of:

  • Alaska
  • Canada
  • Finland
  • Greenland
  • Iceland
  • Norway
  • Russia (Siberia)
  • Sweden

For those who are fortunate enough to find themselves within the auroral oval, at the right time of year, and under favorable weather conditions, these are the types of northern lights that they may witness in the night sky:

  • Arcs – these are the simplest form of aurora borealis, characterized by simple streaks of light (slightly curved) with smooth bottom edges.
  • Bands – this shape has distinct irregularities along the bottom edge consisting of jagged and uneven fringes.
  • Corona – when a group of rays converges on a single point off in the distance, the resulting corona formation creates an illusion of perspective, much like railroad tracks running off toward the horizon.
  • Curtain – this variation combines bands and rays to form a curtain-like shape with folds along the bottom that twist and wind as if being blown by a gust of wind.
  • Patches – where arcs and bands are linear in shape, patches are simply blobs of glowing light in the night sky.
  • Rays – these vertical beams of light produce a spectacular display that traces the lines of the earth’s magnetic field.
  • Veils – if the night sky were a black canvas, veils would be bright splashes of light painted with the broadest strokes imaginable.

(Source:  Sky & Telescope)

Scientists are Getting Better at Predicting Northern Lights

It was not long ago that experiencing the northern lights in person was a hit-or-miss proposition where a successful excursion was more the result of happenstance than employing anything remotely resembling the scientific method.

Today, however, scientists have made great strides in:

  • Understanding the causes of the northern lights
  • Predicting when and where they will occur
  • Predicting the intensity of those occurrences

For instance, the Space Weather Prediction Center, managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, provides 30-minute aurora forecasts for both the northern and southern hemispheres, along with percentage probabilities of viewability and predicted intensity.

Based largely on measuring waves of solar energy as they track toward the earth’s magnetic poles, the scientific community has effectively taken the guesswork out of venturing to the auroral oval to catch a glimpse of the northern lights (now if they could only do something about getting the weather to be more cooperative).

(Source:  Space Weather Prediction Center)

As with so many things in the modern world, when it comes to predicting the visibility of northern lights in the auroral oval, the best advice is to keep a smartphone handy because a real-time northern lights forecast is just a few clicks away.

Final Thoughts

An Arctic cruise is an ideal way to see the northern lights. With a little bit of research and proper planning, a dream vacation can become the perfect setting for a quintessential bucket list experience.

Although the aurora borealis can be elusive and Mother Nature has lots to say about whether they can be seen, these cruises make it more likely than not that a spectacle like no other awaits.