The psychedelic light show that paints the night sky with multicolored neon streams, scientifically known as the aurora borealis, is an experience worth chasing for many. For the best chance of seeing the swirling spectacle, travelers should head to the northernmost climes on a cloudless night between late August and mid-April.
While it’s never a guarantee that the Northern Lights will be visible, one way to help stack the deck in your favor is to be on a cruise ship that can move in search of the lights, typically in the Arctic.
Beyond seeing Mother Nature’s kaleidoscopic display, passengers on these cruises will have the chance to spend their days adventuring in the polar regions, perhaps cross-country skiing, dog sledding across the tundra, riding a Zodiac near the face of a calving glacier, or meeting with Sami reindeer herders. In other words, if the lights fail to appear, you won’t be at a loss.
These are some of the cruises where you have a solid chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
Where do Northern Lights cruises go?
The auroral oval, a band that hugs the northernmost latitudes where auroral activity has the highest concentration, covers most of Alaska and Iceland, southern Greenland, and the northernmost parts of Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.
However, most Northern Lights cruises visit just Norway, Iceland, and Greenland because those countries have open waterway that aren’t frozen over.
Alaska’s cruise season only runs from May through September. While it is possible to see the Northern Lights display toward the beginning and end of the cruise season, it’s unlikely and no ships specifically target Alaska’s aurora season. Additionally, most Alaska cruises are concentrated around the collection of islands in the state’s southeast region, which is a little too far south for good auroral displays.
Aurora Expeditions’ “Northern Lights Explorer” cruise
- Cost: From $18,076 per person
- Days: 22
- Departure port: Kirkenes, Norway
- End port: Bergen, Norway
- Book now
It’s never a guarantee that the Northern Lights will appear—it’s all dependent on the strength of geomagnetic storms on the sun and how clear the sky is where you are. However, given that this sailing lasts 22 days and ping-pongs around remote Arctic sites in Iceland, Greenland, and Norway, your odds are pretty good of seeing the night sky ignited by ribbons of color at least a few times.
The sailing starts in Kirkenes, on the northern coast of Norway, and spends the first six days hugging the coastline, sailing past fishing villages and granite peaks, and making stops in the Lofoten Islands and other small towns. Then it’s on to the Norwegian island of Jan Mayen, just north of Iceland, which is also an excellent place for spotting whales and dolphins, before sliding over to the glacier-covered eastern coast of Greenland for four days of Zodiac excursions and hiking along the tundra. One of the highlights is visiting the Inuit village Ittoqqortoormiit, the region’s most isolated and northernmost permanent settlement, with its gregarious locals and scores of Greenlandic sled dogs.
From there, you’ll visit the Westfjords region of Iceland (the northwestern peninsula), with its colorful small towns, turbulent waterfalls, and fjords rich in bird-viewing opportunities. The final days before disembarkation in Bergen, Norway, will be spent in the Faroe Islands. There you’ll find traditional red-painted timber homes with grass roofs, lots of sheep and Faroese ponies, Viking history, and imposing sea cliffs.
Because it’s often chilly in this part of the world (especially at night), each passenger is given a waterproof polar expedition jacket upon arrival. The sailings will take place on the expedition vessel Greg Mortimer, which can hold 132 passengers in 79 cabins (most have private balconies for auroral viewing). The sailing runs from September 1 to 22, 2023.
Cunard’s “Norway and Northern Lights” cruise
- Cost: From $2,099 per person
- Days: 12
- Departure port: Southampton, England
- End port: Southampton, England
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While Cunard’s 2,081-passenger Queen Victoria offers oodles of nightly performances, hopefully, on these sailings, the most dazzling show is one Mother Nature puts on.
After departing Southampton, the first stop is in Ålesund, Norway, to spend a day exploring its art nouveau architecture. After another day at sea, guests will reach Tromsø, a city 250 miles inside the Arctic Circle with famously consistent Northern Lights displays. Guests can stop by the Arctic Cathedral (which resembles a geometric glacier), visit the Polaria Arctic Center, or perhaps take a cable car to the top of Mount Storsteinen.
The next day is in Narvik, a fishing village that can be traced back to the Stone Age but has only held township status since the early 20th century. There travelers can choose to ride the Ofoten Railway for a day trip to Sweden, hike to Frostisen Glacier, or ski at the Narvikfjellet ski resort. The final port town on the itinerary is Haugesund, where the 2,000-foot-tall Langfoss waterfall and hikes to the Instagram-famous Pulpit Rock are popular attractions.
Typically on these sailings, Cunard brings speakers, astronomers, and night sky photographers on board to add extra color to the sky-transforming glory of the Northern Lights. There are also plenty of spots on the 965-foot, 12-deck ship to find quiet areas to see the show. In 2023, Cunard will offer departures on October 27 and November 12. There will also be a March 16 departure in 2024.
Hurtigruten’s “Northern Lights Expedition Cruise From Dover”
- Cost: From $5,080 per person
- Days: 14
- Departure port: Dover, England
- End port: Dover, England
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Hurtigruten is so sure that guests will see psychedelic coronas of light in the night sky that the Norwegian cruise line offers a “Northern Lights Promise.” If you sail one of the Northern Lights chasing itineraries with Hurtigruten between September 26 and March 31 on a voyage of 11 days or more and don’t see an auroral display, it will give you a six-day southbound or seven-day northbound Original Coastal Express Class Voyage for free. Beyond the Northern Lights Expedition Cruise from Dover, the other auroral sailings (with the Northern Lights Promise) include the 12-day Roundtrip Voyage (the full scenic route that stops at all 34 ports twice, on the northbound and southbound route) and the 11-day Voyage of Discovery (which stops at most of the 34 ports twice).
For Hurtigruten’s Northern Lights expedition cruise, after departing Dover in England, the 530-passenger MS Maud sails toward Norway, with the first stop being Jostedalsbreen, Europe’s largest glacier. From there, the vessel visits old fishing communities (some dating back to pre-Viking times) and sails near the base of staggering peaks for Zodiac rides and hikes (this is an expedition cruise after all), as it continues north into the Arctic Circle and up to Alta. There, guests can take an excursion to visit a Sámi village and learn about the Indigenous and semi-nomadic reindeer herders. Then it’s back down to Tromsø, where guests can visit the Polar Museum, go snowshoeing, or try the world’s northernmost brewery, Mack Bryggeri. The next big stops are in Bergen, with its picturesque, UNESCO-listed Bryggen district, and Egersund, with its ancient ruins, before returning to Dover.
Each sailing has a professional photographer on board to help guests capture the lights display on their own camera. (And each room has an alarm, so guests know when the auroras are visible.)
Quark Expeditions’ “Under the Northern Lights: Exploring Iceland & East Greenland” cruise
- Cost: Starts at $10,256 per person
- Days: 14
- Departure port: Reykjavík, Iceland
- End port: Reykjavík, Iceland
- Book now
Northern Lights cruising isn’t what you would consider to be a mainstream cruise itinerary—there aren’t lots of options—but even within the limited field, Quark’s aurora-viewing sailing stands out for its unique destinations.
In Iceland, guests spend time in Reykjavík before motoring along the Westfjords, the rugged peninsula that makes up the northwest corner of the island nation. There guests spend their days scanning the dizzying cliff sides for puffins, guillemots, and razorbills, and their nights scanning the sky for signs of the aurora. The ship then crosses the Arctic Circle as it heads to Greenland, where it spends eight days patrolling the remote northeast coast. This wild tundra is home to reindeer, arctic hares, and 40 percent of the world’s musk ox population.
It’s also the site of Scoresbysund, the most extensive fjord system in the world, and the glaciers here are the birthplace of many of the icebergs you see in the Arctic. Because it’s an expedition sailing, guests typically get off the boat two or three times per day for excursions, be that for Zodiac rides between bobbing bits of icebergs, hiking among reindeer, kayaking in the fjords, or perhaps even doing a polar plunge.
Guests also have the option to extend their trip with a few days in Reykjavík, where Northern Lights displays are common in the winter. Quark is running this itinerary twice in September 2023.
Viking’s “In Search of the Northern Lights” cruise
- Cost: From $4,999 per person
- Days: 13
- Departure port: London, England
- End port: Bergen, Noway
- Book now
For those looking to check multiple countries off their list and see the Northern Lights, Viking’s 13-day sailing with stops in England, the Netherlands, and Norway may be a good option.
After departing London, guests spend a day in Amsterdam, where they can stroll along the canals, admiring the architecture and indulging in alfresco coffee and stroopwafel breaks. Then, after crossing the North Sea, the ship cruises the scenic Norwegian Inside Passage, a protected shipping lane that runs from the southern tip of Norway to Russia (though Viking guests will only go as far north as Tromsø).
The first stop where the Northern Lights could make an appearance is in Narvik, a small port city within the Arctic Circle where cruisers can participate in a Sami Northern Lights Ceremony, go snowshoeing in the mountains, or ride the cable car at Narvikfjellet. Then it’s on to Tromsø, Norway’s northernmost city, for two days of Arctic adventures, before sailing to Atla, a town known for its bluebird days (ideal for Northern Lights viewing later) and ancient rock carvings for two days.
In other cities, Viking offers late-night excursions that take passengers deeper into the countryside to darker spots with clearer skies to help increase the likelihood of spotting the elusive aurora. The following two days are at sea, taking in the beauty of the Norwegian coast as the vessel makes for its disembarkation city, Bergen.
If the lights appear during the night, the crew will play an announcement over the in-cabin TVs (meaning guests need to leave their TVs on all night to hear it). During sightings, staff circulates trays of hot beverages, like cocoa and toddies, to help guests stay warm on deck. Viking is running the itinerary multiple times from January through March in 2023 and 2024.