How to See the Northern Lights on the Cheap

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There are few things in the world that can accurately be described as "magic," and the Northern Lights are arguably one. The ancient Chinese regarded the Lights as fire-breathing dragons, while indigenous Greenlanders believed they were the spirits of children who died at birth. The Menominee Indians of Wisconsin saw them as the torches of friendly giants fishing at night. And an Icelandic folktale warned pregnant women not to look at the aurora lest their baby be born cross-eyed. Today, we know that the Northern Lights are caused by solar winds interacting with charged particles in the earth's magnetic field. The result is flashing, glowing streaks and rivers of light moving across the sky in hues of green, yellow, purple, white, brown, and red. Gazing at the Northern Lights sits atop many bucket lists, and for good reason. But some of the most famous aurora-viewing destinations, such as Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, are also some of the most expensive countries in the world. Fortunately, there are several destinations where the aurora is visible even to those on a limited budget. Still, there's no guarantee you'll see the Northern Lights on a given night. It's a bit like chasing a rainbow. A number of factors come into play, including timing, location, weather, light pollution -- and luck. But familiarity with a few tips and tricks for aurora hunting can increase the odds of getting your money's worth.

KNOW WHEN TO GO

Although the Northern Lights occur year-round, they are visible only in dark skies. Late September through late March is the best time to see them, because that's when nights are darkest in the northernmost parts of the planet. The Lights also appear more clearly when the weather is colder; generally speaking, the dead of winter (November through January) offers the best viewing. The Northern Lights correspond to sunspot activity that follows an 11-year cycle. At the peak of the cycle (solar maximum), the Lights are about 20 percent to 30 percent more active than during the solar minimum. The most recent solar maximum peaked around 2011-2014, which means we are now on the declining end of a period of heightened activity.

KNOW WHERE TO GO

The best aurora-viewing destinations share some common elements. An area surrounding the earth's magnetic north pole known as the "auroral oval" is where the Lights' show is the most spectacular; the ideal spot is within 10 degrees to 20 degrees of the magnetic north pole. This is also where Arctic winters provide long, pitch-black nights and cold temperatures to optimize aurora viewing. Latitude affects whether the Lights appear high overhead or low along the horizon where the view can be obstructed. The best landscapes for watching the skies are either flat with few trees or from elevated viewing points such as ridges and mountains. Skies free of clouds and inclement weather are critical. Arctic weather is notoriously unpredictable, but some destinations offer better meteorological odds than others. Light pollution hinders the aurora display, so get as far away from city lights as possible. The Dark Sky Finder identifies areas with low light pollution. The following four budget-friendly destinations (excluding travel costs) earn gold stars for all of the essential aurora-chasing criteria. If you can't make it to see the Northern Lights this winter, check out the AuroraMAX project, where the Canadian Space Agency broadcasts a live feed of the Lights over Yellowknife.

ICELAND

The magnificent glacial landscapes of Iceland make for excellent 360-degree views and photo opportunities of the Northern Lights. They're visible throughout the country, even in the capital of Reykjavík on a clear night. But what really makes Iceland an ideal destination for seeing the Lights on a budget is Icelandair's stopover program. Travelers booking a flight from North America to Europe on Icelandair can add a stopover in Iceland for up to seven days at no extra charge. Airfare is often the most expensive part of a trip, so the opportunity to combine two destinations for the price of one is a real deal. One of the most popular areas for glimpsing the Northern Lights is the Golden Circle, a 30-mile loop northeast of Reykjavik. The Snaefellsnes Peninsula is another popular day trip from the capital for the Northern Lights spectacle. For clearer views with fewer crowds, head north to the volcanic Reykjanes Peninsula, recently voted one of the "10 Best Under-the-Radar Romantic Destinations" by USA Today. The free Aurora Forecast from the Icelandic Meteorologial Office is helpful when planning a trip. Budget travelers should avoid the ubiquitous prepackaged tours. Rental cars cost about $40 a day and camper vans start at $90. Camping is possible anywhere as long as there are no signs prohibiting it. Cheap dorm hostels for $20-$40 a night and Airbnb lodgings are other options.

ALASKA

Alaska is the best stateside spot to catch sight of the Northern Lights. Fairbanks is within the auroral oval and is generally considered the top viewing locale. The Fairbanks Visitors Bureau claims a three-night stay affords an 80 percent chance of seeing the Lights. There's no need to spend lots of money on a tour. Just get away from the city lights, find a high lookout, and gaze upward. Ester Dome, a mountain west of the city, is unlit at night and offers sweeping sky vistas, no purchase necessary. Within city limits, the Ranch Motel's second parking lot is a favorite local viewing site. At $15 a pop (ages 18 and up), it's possible to watch the skies (and stay warm) by relaxing in the outdoor natural rock lake at the Chena Hot Springs Resort. The Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks posts daily aurora forecasts. Budget hotels or B&Bs in the area run about $80-$150 a night. Rustic, public-use cabins found in state parks are dirt cheap; those in the Fairbanks area cost $35-$60 a night, and some can sleep up to nine people.

RUSSIA

Travelers who value the isolation of the Arctic wilderness should head to Russia's far north, where viewing opportunities rank alongside those in Scandinavia but come with fewer aurora-chasing tourists. For about six weeks in December and January the sun disappears and the days and nights are pitch-black. During this polar night, the only light appearing in the sky is the Northern Lights. The Kola Peninsula, north of the Arctic Circle, sees aurora displays about 200 times a year, and some shows last for days. This is the most popular viewing spot in Russia, and budget travel options are more plentiful than in more remote locations. Murmansk, the largest city on the peninsula and in the Arctic Circle, is relatively accessible. Sleeper trains from St. Petersburg and Moscow are frequent, cheap, and fairly comfortable and provide arresting views of the vast, barren landscape. The nightly train from St. Petersburg takes about 29 hours and costs $25-$55. A flight takes five or six hours and runs roughly $140-$210. Hostel rooms can be had for less than $25 a night and budget hotels cost $25-$100 a night.

CANADA

From British Columbia to Nova Scotia, there's no shortage of premium aurora viewing opportunities. The celebrated "Northern Lights capital of Canada" is Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. Its claim to fame reflects its location within the auroral oval, global coordinates that posit the lights directly overhead, a flat landscape, and cloudless skies most nights. Northwest Territories Tourism estimates a 90 percent to 100 percent chance of seeing an aurora display on a clear night between January and early April -- better odds than nearly anywhere else. Budget hotels run $80-$150 a night and Airbnb options average $80-$90 a night, though some nightly accommodations are as low as $50. Best of all, travel to Canada for the celestial sights is cheaper than setting out across the seas.