The ultimate guide to taking a Northern Lights cruise

·11-min read
Northern Lights cruise - cruise to see Northern Lights
Northern Lights cruises: An ultimate guideJørn Skeide - Getty Images

Always wanted to experience a Northern Lights cruise? It's never too early to start reading up on how to witness the extraordinary natural phenomenon at sea and to help you on your way to having an unforgettable holiday this winter, we've compiled the ultimate guide to taking a Northern Lights cruise.


With high demand for these special expedition cruises, spring or summer is the perfect time to do your research and secure a spot on a winter Northern Lights cruise.

As an incredible way to see the Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights cruises are certainly one of the best types of cruises, but they're not your average sailing. Northern Norway is where the majority of the trips go, taking you to hard-to-reach places with the clearest of skies for the best viewing opportunities.

Travelling on an expedition ship (try one from trusted Northern Lights cruise company Hurtigruten), you'll feel like a true explorer, with onboard experts available to tell you everything you need to know about the displays as you spot them along the way.

What's more, some travel companies are so confident that you'll see the Northern Lights at sea that they offer an aurora guarantee, which means that if you don't witness them during your trip, you'll receive another cruise for free. The Northern Lights promise aside, your best chance is to choose a cruise of ten to 14 nights to increase your chances.

Good Housekeeping has an exclusive 14-night cruise around northern Norway this September, October, November and December. As well as exploring the most beautiful parts of the region (Tromso, Alta and Lofoten) and chasing the Northern Lights with Hurtigruten experts, you'll have the promise of another free seven-day cruise if you don't get to see the lights.


To inspire you to try something different this winter and opt for a Northern Lights cruise, here's everything you need to know about the special winter sailings in our ultimate guide, including some questions answered by resident lecturer Dr John Mason at Hurtigruten.

What can you expect on your first Northern Lights cruise?

"On a Northern Lights voyage, apart from the chance of seeing the Northern Lights (to which I am now somewhat addicted), the coastal scenery is fabulous and ever-changing, the ships are very comfortable, the crews are incredibly professional, friendly and helpful - and the food is superb," explains Dr Mason.

"It is true that the Norwegian coastal weather is unpredictable, it can change very quickly – on occasions in a matter of minutes. I have seen a fierce snowstorm up on deck give way to a beautifully clear, star-studded sky with Northern Lights visible, and all in the space of just 20 minutes.

"Under normal conditions, the auroral oval lies to the north of Tromso, so the section of the voyage from Tromsø to Alta will generally be the best location for seeing the Lights, but I have seen them as far south as Bergen and quite often within the Arctic Circle."

Why is a cruise the best way to see the Northern Lights?

A Northern Lights cruise not only takes you to corners that you don't have access to on land, but the lengthier stay on board a ship heightens your chances of seeing the natural phenomenon.

Northern Lights cruise
Alan Dyer/Stocktrek Images - Getty Images

Dr Mason says: "Statistics collected in 2015 showed that if a guest stays just one night in the Arctic they have only a 14 per cent chance of seeing the Northern Lights, whereas if they stay for five nights their chances increase to about 90 per cent. But you must be ready to get up whenever the sky is clear – even if that is at three o’clock in the morning.

"On Hurtigruten’s voyages, you will be notified when the Northern Lights are visible at any point over the tannoy so you are guaranteed not to miss them."

When is the best time to take a Northern Lights cruise?

In the Arctic, the Northern Lights season runs from the last week in September to the first week in April, Dr Mason explains.

"During the late spring and summer months there is continuous daylight, which is why they are not visible.

Northern Lights cruise
Steve Fleming - Getty Images

"During the autumn and winter, you are very likely to see the Northern Lights whenever the sky is clear and dark, and they may often be glimpsed through thin or broken cloud on land."

Optimal conditions are usually when the weather is cold and dry during the autumn and winter months. Good Housekeeping has departures for its Northern Lights cruise between late September and mid-December, the perfect time of year to give you the best chance of a spectacular show.

How do the displays look from a cruise ship?

"Often, as night falls and the sky is clear and dark, one’s first view of the aurora is nothing more than a faint arc of light, usually to the north, which appears greyish to the naked eye, simply because our eyes are not good at seeing colour in low light levels," says Dr Mason.

"As the aurora brightens the first hints of colour, usually pale green, may be discerned. Then, if the display becomes more active, bright spots may be seen moving along the arc and rays may be seen shooting upwards into the sky. If the arc ripples and distorts, or if multiple arcs appear, the excitement mounts and there is the expectation of a fine show.

"The most active parts of an auroral display may last only a few minutes, so one must keep alert. In the grandest outbursts, the aurora may become all-sky, a breathtaking, rapidly moving kaleidoscope of colour, perhaps coming together in a magnificent ‘corona’ (when the stream of charged particles flow exactly in your direction) almost overhead.

"On a Northern Lights cruise, the kaleidoscope of colour circulates overhead, bringing an incredibly immersive experience on board."

What else can you experience on a Northern Lights cruise ship?

The ships used to take you to the Northern Lights are so much more than floating hotels and offer the utmost comfort and unique features. Hurtigruten's MS Nordlys, for instance, has a modern, Arctic-inspired design, with a few luxuries on board.

You can expect a bakery and ice cream bar serving up Scandi specialities such as smørbrød (open sandwiches) and ice creams in usual flavours (stockfish and brown cheese). The Panorama Bar at the front of the ship is also a great spot to have a hot drink as you soak up the views.

On Good Housekeeping's 14-night cruise to Norway, you will be based on the premium expedition ship, MS Maud. This ship has several features which make it exceptionally well-suited to Northern Lights voyages, including an outdoor Observation Deck and an advanced science centre.

When you're not searching for the Northern Lights, there is also a sauna, outdoor hot tubs on the deck, multiple restaurants to try, and a well-equipped gym.

One of the best things you'll find on board is the Expedition Team. Serving as a university at sea, this team of experts offer lectures, presentations and activities for you to take part in during the Northern Lights cruise to ensure it is an educational as well as a magical experience.

You may learn about the local wildlife, cultures and even other phenomena in the surrounding areas where you're sailing. The team will also introduce to the Nordic concept of friluftsliv, the notion of getting outdoors, and will encourage you to take part in hikes and outdoor activities throughout the trip.

Can you see the Northern Lights on a fjords cruise?

As spectacular as the Northern Lights are, they’re far from the only reason people travel to Norway. The exceptional fjords - narrow inlets of water formed when ancient glaciers retreated - are another of the country’s main attractions.

Good Housekeeeping's 14-night expedition cruise to Norway will take you into Nordfjord, where you’ll pass by Hornelen, Europe's highest sea cliff, and see old fishing communities dating back to pre-Viking times perched on the banks of narrow inlets.

northern lights cruise
Nordfjord, NorwayPaffy69 - Getty Images

A trip to Norway's fjords is an unforgettable experience, where you’ll see some of Europe’s most dramatic natural landscapes. So, can you combine a trip to these outstanding natural landmarks with seeing the Northern Lights?

Most of Norway’s best-known fjords, like the Njordford, the Sognefjord, and the UNESCO-listed Geirangerfjord, are located on the west coast of this long, thin country. As these fjords lie outside of the country’s 'aurora zone', there’s not much chance of seeing the Northern Lights here.

Essentially, the further north you go, the better your chances. One of Norway’s most famous Northern fjords, the narrow and mysterious Trollfjord, is north of the arctic circle, so a visit here, especially between September and March, means near-guaranteed sightings of the ethereal green lights.

northern lights cruise
TrollfjordAngie Cottingham / 500px - Getty Images

Fortunately, on Good Housekeeping's Northern Lights cruise, you don’t have to choose between visiting the western fjords and the north of the country. The cruise to Norway takes you to the famous Nordfjord on the west coast, and also all the way up to Alta, dubbed the 'Northern Lights City’, one of northernmost towns in the world and famed for its consistent Northern Lights activity.

Which cruise line is best for seeing the Northern Lights?

There are several cruise lines with regular sailings to Norway to see the aurora. It’s worth doing your research to make sure you’re travelling with a company who are experts in all things Norway, like Viking, P&O Cruises or Hurtigruten.

Viking, as you could probably guess from the name, has a strong Scandinavian focus, and offers several carefully curated Norwegian cruises, including a 13-day itinerary which will take you far north during winter, with two days spent in Alta.

Hurtigruten has been sailing in Norway for almost 130 years and offer several itineraries dedicated to chasing the Aurora Borealis.

You’ll be accompanied by experts, and the Northern Lights cruises depart in winter, when the short days, long nights, and reduced light pollution provide the best conditions for witnessing the Northern Lights from the observation deck of the expedition vessel.


And with the company's Northern Lights Promise, if there is no recorded sighting during your expedition, you’ll get a free six or seven-day Classic Voyage the following year.

northern lights cruise
One of Hurtigruten’s ships in NorwayHurtigruten

Australian company Aurora Expeditions also offers memorable expeditions to Norway. It has a 22-day Norwegian Northern Lights cruise, which takes you from Kirkenes in the north to Bergen in the south, with stops in Greenland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands.

What should you pack for a Northern Lights cruise?

One of our favourite Norwegian phrases is, 'there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing,' and this couldn't be more true when it comes to a Northern Lights cruise. You'll want to ensure you're protected from the elements and packing layers is key, with wool or silk base layers and two or three layers of fleeces or wools on top, and don't forget the thermals for your legs, too.

For your outer layers, a windproof jacket is essential, as are insulated trousers used for ski or other cold weather trips. If you're heading out on icy excursions, like snowmobiling the travel company should have a once-piece snowsuit for you to wear.

Two pairs of gloves (a thin pair and mittens to wear on top), durable snow boots or winter hiking boots, wool socks (not cotton), a wool or fleece hat, swimwear for the hot tub, plenty of lip balm and moisturiser to prevent dry skin are some of the essentials to pack for a Northern Lights cruise.

Book it

Want to experience a once-in-a-lifetime Northern Lights cruise? Good Housekeeping has partnered with Hurtigruten to bring you a unique cruise to Norway this winter. You will spend 14 nights discovering the magic of Norway’s fjords, villages, and coastal cities.

A real highlight of the trip is five nights above the Arctic Circle. You'll sail into the 'Northern Lights City' of Alta where you'll be directly beneath the auroral oval. As long as the conditions are right, you'll be in for the show of a lifetime.


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