Here we are again. Winter is upon us which means the return of those mystical green lights in the sky that everyone is always looking for. It also means my inbox is filling up with questions about the northern lights. Like the one in the title of this post.
First of all, I’ve already written a few posts on the subject that you might want to check out if you are new to the blog. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, just a bit of information on how to use the northern lights forecast and a guide on how to see them in Reykjavík but it might be helpful to you.
I must admit that before I started writing this blog (and before I became obsessed with photography) it didn’t really matter much to me whether there were northern lights out or not. If I happened to be outside when they were there I was happy to see them but I never went out specifically to look for them. And I’m still kind of like that. Occasionally I get this idea in my head that I need to go outside to get a good photo to share on Instagram but that’s basically it.
I could actually write a separate post on how Instagram is a really good motivator when it comes to exercise because it makes you go out and explore and how my eye for photography has vastly improved since I started using it but that is a whole different subject.
Back to the question that inspired this post.
I’m going to go out on a limb here, because I’ve never actually been on a northern lights bus tour, but from what I’ve heard some of them seem to be a bit of a hoax. Bold statement, I know, but hear me out. The northern lights is a natural phenomenon and it’s impossible to predict where they are going to show up or at what time. We have some things like the northern lights forecast to help us but it’s still very inexact science. Basically the only thing these tour buses do is to take you out of the city, where there is no light pollution, and hope for the best. If you have a rental car you can do the same with the same likelihood of being successful. These companies don’t know any secrets that you can’t find out about with the help of Google. Also, you can often see them here in Reykjavík so you don’t really need to leave the city (although getting out of the light pollution definitely does help).
I can’t argue that the bus companies are not providing a service. The service being a transfer out of the light pollution and back. However, with a going rate of 6400 -7500 ISK for the tour you could also rent a car, through Budget on this site for example, for as low as 4600 ISK for 24 hours (plus gas of course). You don’t have to be a genius in math to see that this is a much better deal, especially if there’s two of you or more. Plus you could use the car for exploring during the day too and get more for your money.
I like a good guided tour. I think a good guide can add to your experience in a way no guide book can and if this person is local to the place you are visiting they can also offer a unique insight into the local life which is kind of one of the reasons why we are traveling in the first place: to get to know new cultures and people. Unfortunately I don’t often hear people mention getting value out of the tour beyond what a self-drive northern lights tour offers.
Having said all that, I also know there are people that can’t or won’t drive. What about these people you might ask, are they just screwed? No. If you know what you are getting yourself into you can adjust your expectations and treat these tours as simply a way to get from A to B. Anything beyond that is an extra bonus. My advice though would be to aim for either tours with smaller vehicles, small buses or super jeeps, where you have the chance to interact more with the guide and your fellow travelers or a tour that combines looking for the northern lights with some other activity.
For this exact reason I liked both the Northern Lights by boat tour I did with Special Tours and the Glacier walk and northern lights tour I did with Icelandic Mountain Guides. In the former the added experience of being outside on a boat made it more than just a transfer from A to B. Seeing the city form the sea and the stars in the sky while we made our way out to the bay made the tour worthwhile. The fact we then saw lots of northern lights didn’t hurt either. In the latter the main emphasis was on the glacier walk itself and there was a dinner involved that gave you a great opportunity to get to know your fellow travelers before we headed out to look for the lights. When the sighting was a bit disappointing (the lights were very faint that night) it didn’t really matter because the tour had been great and we had to drive that way to get back into town anyway.
So to answer the question I was asked: I don’t know which company is best for northern lights excursions in Reykjavík. I do know however that an excursion is not necessary to see them.
After reading through the comments below I think I forgot to factor in just how uncomfortable some people are with driving in the dark and on icy roads. The fact that we’ve also had a fairly snow heavy winter here in Reykjavík so far the conditions have also been a bit more difficult than usual. Therefore I think I’ve changed my views on these tours a little bit. For someone that doesn’t want to spend too much money on a smaller tour and absolutely doesn’t want to drive themselves (which you shouldn’t do if you are at all uncomfortable or unsure of the conditions) I can definitely see the value in going on a big bus tour.
Sometimes you don’t see things quite the same way as a local because you get so used to things that others find strange or exotic. Although I would not chase the northern lights this way myself I think it’s unfair of me to call these tours a hoax. When I wrote this post I had heard many bad stories about one company in particular and I may have judged all the tours based on this. Instead of just deleting this post I thought I should be a bigger person and admit that I might just have been wrong about this. It happens, I’m only human after all.