Getting ready to chase northern lights & stars in Iceland
Seeing Northern Lights is probably on everyone's bucket list, it has been sitting on mine for many years and 2018 is my opportunity to finally see them! But where to start? Well I checked the list of countries in which I had the most chances to see northern lights and picked the one I wanted to visit the most. I chose to visit Iceland, the land of Ice and Fire because it always fascinated me and has so many wonders and a beautiful nature, even in winter!
The initial plan
2018 seemed like the perfect year to go chase northern lights since I had some holidays left, a budget and I spotted a few good deals to benefit from. All that was left to decide was when to go and I decided to try my luck at the end of November. I wanted to make sure to visit Iceland at least once during winter days when the night is the longest and the sky is the clearest, that's when you have the most chances to spot northern lights (as well as stars and planets for astronomy fans). I also thought that giving myself multiple nights to see the lights would be smarter as solar activity changes every day so I booked my flight and hotel from November 26 to November 30 to have a full 4 days/nights on site. For a first trip in winter it seemed fine :) Worse case scenario, I don't see any lights but I'll have done amazing activities during the day and would need to come back for more!!
Picking a hotel
My primary goal in this trip is to see northern lights which only happens during dark hours but I still need to occupy my 4 days in the country. I've been reading a lot about what to do in Iceland, where to stay, roads to take, and honestly with only 4 days a lot doesn't seem feasible. I would actually need more days or to drive a lot to accomplish everything I have in mind. As such I made the decision to book a hotel in Reykjavik and thus to be based in the capital for the entire stay. Hotel wise, my preference went for the 41 A Townhouse Hotel which is located on the main shopping street of Reykjavik which means that supermarkets, restaurants, bars, shops and bus stops are all at walking distance. I benefited from a crazy non-refundable deal on Booking at 412€ for the full stay for 2 people which sounds really nice in comparison with prices if you check them now. They literally tripled!
With my flight ( Wow Air) and hotel booked, the next step was to occupy my days and nights! I found a bunch of excursion providers that offer tours departing from Reykjavik so options were legions, just needed to make up my mind which was a very difficult task. I always want to make the most of my stay when I visit a new country but I think I might have been a bit too ambitious in this case...The trip will be very tiring.
Choosing a tour operator
After reading reviews about many tour providers, I decided to go with "Arctic Adventures" which seemed more reliable than others in terms of cancellation policy, refund and tour cancellation by the operator. They are however very slow to answer you by email...Sometimes it can take weeks to get a reply, that's why I also use messenger to contact them, it's much quicker.
Note: An important thing to know is that in Iceland, the weather can vary a lot. Within the hour it can rain, snow, hail or be sunny which means that tours can be cancelled last minute due to the weather, in which case you want to book your tours with an operator that offers 100% refund if they cancel your tour (and to check reviews to make sure they do refund their customers).
I booked a total of 3 tours with Arctic Adventures and got a 10% discount on the total amount. These tours include the Golden Circle, South Coast, Jokulsarlon & Diamond Beach, and finally the Tour in Silfra and in a Lava cave (Black and Blue if I am not mistaken). Here is what the schedule looks like:
So yes as you can see, my days will be quite busy and at some point I wonder when I will be able to check stores and surroundings or if adding a night excursion is wise or not... I am certain however that my nights will be very short and that I will sleep as much as possible during the pick up and breaks we'll have. I also strongly believe in meal prepping to save up time and money since Iceland can be pricey (20€ ~35€ for a meal/pers).
Iceland is expensive - the budget so far
Budget wise, here is how my trip looks like for 2 people and 4 days in Iceland:
Flight costs per person: 178€/ pers (includes seat, suitcase, priority boarding etc)
Hotel price for 4 nights: 412€ for the full stay for 2 so 206€/pers
The South Coast excursion > 130€/pers, it is a 15h tour
The Snorkeling tour in Silfra + Lava cave tour > 170€/pers with dry suit, hot chocolate, cookies, equipment to visit the lava cave, etc.
The Golden Circle Tour > 87€/pers for a 9h tour
The Northern Lights Tour on Day 1 with Reykjavik Excursions > 43€/pers
The Northern Lights Tour on Day 2 with Reykjavik Sightseeing > 40€/pers with map of the sky, binocular, tripod, WiFi, etc available :)
The total costs per person: 854€/pers for the full trip...
I know what you're going to say, damn it's an expensive little escapade and I have to agree, it is due to the excursions. However, visiting Iceland during winter and seeing northern lights was a dream I was ready to pay for. I must add that I am planning to go back sometimes next year but during Spring or Summer in order to enjoy some sunlight and blooming nature. But for that trip, I think I'll be renting a car for a change!
What to pack?
Now that this trip is booked, I needed to sort of prepare for it. Iceland in winter can be quite cold and humid. As explained above, within 1 hour it can rain, hail, snow or be sunny so acquiring some equipment was necessary. The more I read blogs and the more I realized that my enemies were numerous! I needed to get ready for a cold, wet and windy weather which meant buying some wind/waterproof pants, jacket and shoes. And since I am always cold, I thought about warm patches just in case. Here is what I will pack for my 4 days, most of this equipment was bought in Roermond to enjoy good brands at an affordable price:
2 sets of thermal underwear from Columbia (I need this for snorkeling, under the dry suit);
A ski pant;
A Gortex over pant to put on top of my normal cloth;
2 fleeces tops from Décathlon;
Some normal warm winter clothes;
A warm jacket wind/waterproof from Wellensteyn;
A pair of warm gloves;
A pair of waterproof and warm shoes from Columbia;
Additional but not mandatory:
A pair of ice-grips for shoes to not slip on ice;
A thermos to always have a hot drink with me;
A lunch box and plastics bag for snacks
I will let you know if it was enough to survive the Icelandic winter weather, although I think I'll be fine. I am certain to only be cold during the snorkeling activity but hey that's only 1 hour out of the entire trip.
Now all I can do is look forward to the trip and enjoy it as much as possible! I can't wait :)
Here is what I've been doing that might help ensure the trip goes well:
Keep an eye on the weather forecast, as changing as it might be, in order to pack all the necessary items.
Check the Northern Lights forecast and manage your expectations, I know I may not see anything even 4 nights in a row;
Check out the neighborhood you'll be staying in. I made sure to know exactly where the closest bus stops are for the excursion pick-ups (and confirmed it with the tour operator) and where I can find a supermarket or a restaurant;
Keep an eye on your emails in case your tour operator cancels the tour or changes pick-up hour/location...It does happen and if you're not at the meeting point, you might not get a refund;
Batteries tend to die faster when you use them in cold weather so a hand warmer might save you and your phone/camera;
Download a good map of the sky or an app to be able to make the most of the night! You might just be able to see constellations and more;
I think all in all, I am as ready as I can be. I'll let you know how the trip turned out: how were the flight, the hotel and the excursions I booked, whether I made the right choices or not and how the trip could be improved.
If you have been to Iceland during winter and have tips to share, please drop a comment below ;)