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How to See the Northern Lights When You Fly

No remote trek to the Icelandic wilderness required.

No remote trek to the Icelandic wilderness required.


By Bridget Hallinan, Condé Nast Traveler

For most people, seeing the Northern Lights is a once-in-a-lifetime experience—but for Captain Sigríður Einarsdóttir, it's part of her commute. The Icelandair pilot has been flying over the Arctic for 34 years, and during her time in the air, she's witnessed the Northern Lights several times—recently, three times in four days, during routes near Iceland and Greenland. It made us wonder just how easy it was to see the aurora borealis from a plane, and how we could best see them on our next flight. So we reached out to Einarsdóttir and got her tips for Light spotting when you're 30,000 feet up:

Fly in the fall and winter

"I would recommend coming [to see the lights] toward the end of November. It's close enough to the winter solstice (shortest day of the year) to provide the ultimate blanket of darkness."
You don't have to go into the wilderness to see them

"There's a common misconception that there's a single optimal place to [maximize] your experience of catching the Northern Lights. However, you can find multiple spots by heading into Iceland’s countryside."


Sky > ground

"Seeing the Northern Lights while in the sky is a unique experience because the lights are brighter, and you can see a bit more of the subtle movements of the lights. The Northern Lights are amazing from any vantage point, but the sky is definitely something special."


It all depends on the routes

"Due to them being a natural phenomenon, they're never a guaranteed sighting and they are always different. I flew recently from London Heathrow, and we experienced the lights when approaching Iceland. Then, when I flew from Washington, D.C. two days later, we experienced the Northern Lights on our route just south of Greenland. This time they were very strong, dancing very wildly in the skies. Then the next day I experienced the Northern Lights again from my home in Reykjavik."


There's no 'right time' of day

"There is no best time to see the Northern Lights. The biggest factors are visibility and darkness, so any flight on a clear night with dark skies has a better chance of seeing them. With Mother Nature, nothing is ever guaranteed!"


But if you want to try timing it, there's an app for that

"The chances of catching the Northern Lights are much higher on nights with little cloud cover. Using a tool like the Icelandic Met Office, which is popular among locals and tourists alike, can be useful when determining how visibility will be on a given night."


If you succeed, it's pretty spectacular

"My favorite moments [from flying over the arctic for 34 years] are when I fly over Greenland (on my way home to Iceland) with the Northern Lights dancing in the sky and the first glimpse of the morning breaking through during sunrise (like yesterday, when I flew to Boston and when we had the sunset for five hours.)"
nature, aurora

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Travel Magazine: How to See the Northern Lights When You Fly
How to See the Northern Lights When You Fly
No remote trek to the Icelandic wilderness required.
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