Which is the best company for northern lights excursions in Reykjavík?

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.

Northern Lights in Reykjavík a few weeks ago - a photo I posted on Instagram

Northern Lights in Reykjavík a few weeks ago – a photo I posted on Instagram

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).

The first northern lights photo I ever took over the University of Iceland

The first northern lights photo I ever took over the University of Iceland

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.

The aurora we saw on the Glacier walk and northern lights tour with Icelandic Mountain Guides

The aurora we saw on the Glacier walk and northern lights tour with Icelandic Mountain Guides

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.

Nothern Lights during out boat tour with Special Tours. Image: Craig Downing - craigdowning@gmail.com

Nothern Lights during out boat tour with Special Tours. Image: Craig Downing – craigdowning@gmail.com

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.

Update:

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.

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18 thoughts on “Which is the best company for northern lights excursions in Reykjavík?”

  1. Heather says:

    we are doing the boat tour and like you said even if there are no northern lights that night (December) it’ll be cool to see the city lights from the water. Interesting blog 🙂

  2. Robert says:

    From my experience the reason so many more travelers want to do the guided tours rather than self-drive are the icy roads. So many people are not used to drive on icy roads as Iceland often have in the winter season.

  3. I’ve seen them a few times in Reykjavík, the last time was absolutely crazy. If you go to the park around the south end of Tjörnin the lights on the paths are usually off and you can get a great view of them dancing over the city. I even managed to get the Imagine Peace Light Tower in one picture. Another reason to explore Reykjavík at night.

  4. Sandra Holmes says:

    Saw the Northern Lights at the beginning of this year. I took a super jeep tour mainly for comfort and money well spent. The company supplied warm protective clothing, hot drinks and tripods and even helped me set my camera up. We were in a field which was on the way to Keflavik airport. I took loads of pics and found the whole experience rather wonderful. I would definitely recommend seeing the Northern Lights via a Super Jeep tour.

  5. Anna says:

    I have to disagree with you.

    Many of the tour companies that offer northern light trips let you come as many times until you´ll see northern lights, so if you have to go more than once (which is very likely) then in the end going with a bus is way cheaper than renting a car for many nights in a row and buying gasoline.

    Also the guides give you information about the lights and Iceland in general and tips how to take photographs.

    The guides are also used to look at the northern lights forecast and the cloud forecast so they can predict much better where the best place will be, than a tourist who just arrived

    You also have drivers who are used to driving in ice and snow in the dark, something that can be dangerous and many are not used to

    1. mm Auður says:

      These are all valid points but I still feel, from what I’ve heard and what I know, that some of these tours are simply not worth it and I feel it’s OK that people hear that side too.

      I avoid big bus tours if I can because for me that’s not an interesting way to travel. I also meet a lot of people that tell me they were let down by one of these tours and that they didn’t get any of the extra value you mention in your comment. The feeling they describe is like they got scammed (although I actually don’t feel anyone is being scammed) and that’s not a great feeling. The guides may have more experience in using the forecast but it’s still pure guesswork. They are also often restricted with time when it comes to the distance they can travel and that’s where renting a car is a clear advantage.

      I agree though with the drivers being more used to snow and ice in the dark and if you don’t feel comfortable driving in those conditions you shouldn’t do it. But I also feel that I would personally (and after all this whole blog is just my personal opinion based on my experience) get more out of going on a smaller bus or a super jeep company than a coach convoy. The northern lights by boat tour, by the way, also allows you to come back if there is no aurora on the tour.

      Thankfully though we’re not all the same and I’m happy you have had such good experience with these tours.

    2. michelle says:

      Hey Anna:

      Which companies let you go more than once?

      Thank you so much!

      1. mm Auður says:

        Most of them do if you are just booking northern lights – if you are booking activities that include the northern lights you might not be able to go again.

  6. clara says:

    Hi Audur

    I think it really depends on what people expect. I’ve just booked a northern light tour for tonight so reading your article made me laugh 🙂

    Last winter I was in Reykjavik and booked a couple of times with Reykjavik Excursions and I have to say that I was totally happy with those tours, because the guides were very interesting, telling us a lot about Iceland, northern lights, a lot about the icelandic culture… they really seemed to be happy to do this and it’s so important when you are a tourist 😉

    But I remember someone in one of those tours, who had been really disappointed by a tour she had made with another company. Not only because she couldn’t see any northern light (everybody knows it doesn’t depends on the tour company) but because the guide was not interesting. So… maybe it’s also a matter of luck.

    Northern light tours are also good for lonely travellers who are a little bit afraid of driving on icy roads in a country they don’t know.

    But I agree with you, the best thing to do may be to book a tour with a small group, and combined with something else.

    There is definitely not a company better than others to see northern lights. Just differents ways, depending on personnal expectations 😉

  7. Colleen says:

    Just back from magical Iceland for 7 days and missing it already :'( We are lucky enough to see the northern lights on the second day of arrival right outside the backyard where we stayed at Keflavik host house and last night at Grótta Lighthouse on Tuesday (Thanks for your helpful tips!), a very long dance of the lights. We stayed there to gaze at the lights for more than an hour having snacks in the car after some non stop shooting pictures session.

    We were in self-drive for the whole and really enjoying it because timing is flexible. We could pull over the car anytime on the road just to play with the snow on roadside, jumping on Icelandic moss, stacking rocks at the side, snapping picture of Icelandic horses and fluffy sheeps etc etc. But one thing that we can never beat, I believe guided tour providing more (interesting) informations rather than I have to read thru Google or Wikipedia 😉 Both have pros and cons.

  8. Winfried says:

    Hi,

    I was several times off with RE (Reykjavik Excursions) in the past years. I think the tour guys always did a good job. Sometimes I was lucky to see the lights sometimes not.

    Going out with a big company has advantages and disadvantages. An advantage is the lower price instead of going out with a super jeep tour and a smaller group especially when you want to go out several nights to see the NL during your Reykjavík stay. You also can repeat the tour with a big company on one of the next nights for free when the lights couldn’t be seen. An advantage especially for me is also that I’m happy that experts drive the car and not me. When you should have an accident on an icy road in the night I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of self-drivers. A disadvantage using big companies is that you are together with many people especially when all busses of one company and perhaps also from other companies meet on the same spot. This is horror!!! Last years I heard of one tour with around 500 people on the same spot. Another disadvantage is the high number of stupid people that want to catch the NL with a flash also when every tour guide said several times in advance “Please do not use any falsh”.

    Last year I tried several times to go out with a smaller company but unfortunately the number of required people didn’t came together. So I did respectively had to choose RE again.

    To my mind the biggest problem for Iceland in general and in particular for the NL tours is that in Iceland that the increase of tourists is growing too fast. I saw that this year RE goes out not only once at 2100 but starting this year they also offer an earlier trip at 1930 every night. Last year there were so many people and busses on a single spot I never saw the years before. And this definitievly makes less fun.

    This year I’ll also be in Akureyri and Reykjavík and I’ll try again for 2-3 days to catch a smaller company for the NL tour with the hope that enough people will make the same decision that it will take place.

    1. mm Auður says:

      What you’ve just described about all the buses being in one spot at the same time is exactly the same that made some of the people I’ve talked to unhappy about their tours.

      But I totally understand what you guys are saying about not feeling comfortable with driving, you have to be up for it and if you are not any tour is a better option. Fortunately most of the winter the ice and snow is not a great problem around Reykjavík but there are definitely times where it can cause some problems. That’s also why I put so much emphasis that people rent cars from respectable car rental agencies where tires and such things are tip top.

      1. Paul Wharton says:

        My last two trips to Iceland we have hired a car (I can’t drive) and went to our favourite spot of a small electicity sub-station near Hofn, a few miles south of Borgarnes. This year we set up our cameras and waited for a gap in the cloud when a tour bus pulled up and parked on the gravel near us, then another, then another! A total of 14 coaches parked next to us and most people were using flash! I go back in January with my wife who is also a non driver so we are using Reykjavik Excursions. Hopefully we go to Hofn but I hope there are not as many coaches this time!

  9. As a photographer who visited Iceland earlier this year I have some things to add. I found Iceland weather to be the biggest challenge to photographing Northern Lights in Iceland & beyond. I’ve spent time chasing the weather and driving 30+ mins in search of cloudless spots in the sky. I agree with others that you need to have your own vehicle. Without one you are stuck with the group and will go from your hotel to some place and back. Another advice is to have a sturdy tripod and to be next to it during Icelandic wind gusts. Sadly I’ve seen a tripod get knocked down with high end DSLR & pro lens get shattered.

    I was able to shoot for 3 consecutive nights of Northern Lights while in Iceland and across different locations. Hope to return some day and shoot some more

  10. Angela says:

    Thank you so much for the info on the northern lights tours. I think perhaps the whole getting on a bus thing is appealing because it’s so much simpler. The last thing I want to do is rent a car and drive on unfamiliar roads late at night. Really, I would happily pay double the car rental to just have someone pick me up a reasonable walk from my accommodations, whisk me off into the darkness, and bring me back to the same spot. I’ll probably enjoy sleeping in the next day much more if I don’t have to worry about returning a rental car or whether I’m going to be charged a fortune for that little ding that the person parked next to me made on the passenger side door. Nevertheless your perspective is very valuable as a local. Thanks!!

  11. Kirstin says:

    It’s really interesting to have a local’s perspective. I’m sure if I lived in Reykjavik I wouldn’t be seen dead on a bus tour either – just as I wouldn’t dream of taking one of those open top bus tours with commentary in Cambridge (where I grew up). However as others have said: renting a car can be stressful (I get nervous enough driving at home), plus add to that dark nights, driving in a foreign country with potentially icy weather and it’s just not worth it for me. I’ve just booked for 2 of us to go on a tour tomorrow night with Reykjavik Excursions- hopefully they’re not the bad company you’ve heard so much about! Cross your fingers for me and hope we see the northern lights 🙂

  12. Carol Sigafoos says:

    The smaller Super Jeep tour is appealing, but one member of our group is concerned about whether the ride is bumpy. He has some metal in his spine due to an old accident and bumpy rides don’t do him any favors.

    1. mm Auður says:

      The ride can be a little bit bumpy but if you are alone in the car or do a private tour you can maybe ask them to be mindful of that.

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