One of the most common questions I get asked is "Should I book an aurora tour?"
While there are some easy yes or no questions in aurora chasing, like, "I'm going to Fairbanks in June will I be able to see the aurora?" (the answer is "No" in case it isn't obvious...), whether or not you need a tour does not have simple answer.
Let's find out if an aurora tour is right for you by analyzing the pros and cons of hiring a guide to take you to see the lights!
Why should you book an aurora tour?
Reason #1: It's the safest option!
Since aurora chasing usually takes you out of cities and into in the wilderness, whether you're in Norway, Finland, Iceland, or Alaska, being out in the wild can be dangerous and challenging, especially during the winter when temperatures plummet. Besides needing the appropriate gear, cell service drops off quickly in remote areas, so in the case of an emergency, you may be stranded for hours without knowing what to do.
All reputable tour operators carry with them satellite phones and are experienced survivalists. Vehicles used on aurora tours are also usually specially winterized to endure harsh conditions. Some even have mobile Starlink systems that give you a WiFi hotspot while you're on the move - a nice touch!
Furthermore, while wildlife encounters are rare if you're just out for a night or two, they can happen! Aurora tours are usually equipped with firearms or wildlife deterrants (e.g., bear spray) to protect you from animals that get a little "too friendly." Guides will also know which areas have more wildlife than others.
Finally, if you don't know how to drive on winter roads with ice and snow, do NOT attempt to go out on your own. Trust me! The amount of aurora tourists I have personally pulled out of ditches in Fairbanks is too many to count. Hire a guide and only travel around town on marked roads if you are not comfortable driving. If you feel confident after getting used to the icy surfaces, attempt some short excursions on your own, but don't overdo it. Caution is key!
Reason #2: They know the best spots!
Having a local with you will know what locations usually don't have clouds and have nice open areas for stargazing. During the busy months of February to April (peak aurora chasing season in Fairbanks, at least), they will know what areas aren't too busy, are far enough away from light pollution, and have interesting foregrounds for photography! Experience is invaluable when it comes to aurora chasing, and a guide is an invaluable asset to have when finding the perfect location for a magical northern lights experience.
For example, even though I've lived in Fairbanks for more than a year, I am still adding new aurora spots to my list as I drive around the backroads. If you're a tourist just arriving somewhere to chase the lights, without the help of a local guide, you might find some of the most popular spots online, but never those "secret" spots that really blow people away!
Professional guides will know what spots are best on specific nights, too! For example, most people going to Fairbanks don't know that Wickersham Dome is usually 10-20 degrees warmer than low-lying areas around town. However, the warmth doesn't come without a tradeoff - Wickersham is very windy, meaning the trees are almost never covered with snow! Someone trying to get a photo of snow-covered trees with the aurora would be let down if they chose Wickersham on a clear night. A guide would ask you what kind of photo you wanted with the aurora and would avoid Wickersham if you said "something with snowy trees."
Reason #3: It's an easy, relaxing experience!
I'm not sure about you, but when it's 5 or 6 am after a long night of chasing the aurora, it is hard not falling asleep at the wheel on the way back home. Luckily, every aurora guide I know is fully nocturnal, sleeping from 8 am - 2 pm on most days. For them, 5 or 6 am is a late night, but nothing crazy, and sometimes on low activity nights, you really do stay out that long! When I am running my aurora workshops (I have an annual workshop in Fairbanks every March), we usually stay out from 9 pm to 4 am.
Being able to kick back, relax, text your aurora pics to your friends and family, and even catch some zzz's while riding in a heated van is a MUCH better experience than slapping yourself to stay awake trying to get home.
How about the flip side, are there any reasons for NOT booking an aurora tour? Definitely...
Reason #1: You can chase at your own pace!
Driving out on your own or with your small group can be a nice change of pace from aurora tours which sometimes feel rushed and like they're on a schedule. If you're a hardcore photographer, this can be super annoying, especially if you want to shoot timelapse which requires a lot of time in the field with your camera set up. If you decide to aurora chase by yourself, you are your own boss... You can decide how long you want to stay at certain locations, where you want to go, and if you need to adjust things on the fly, it's no big deal. You don't have to deal with other guests with priorities that may not align with yours.
Reason #2: It's cheaper!
I get it... flying to Norway or Iceland or Alaska can be expensive already, and pair that with the costs of hotels and AirBnB's during aurora season, and the average week-long trip may set you back $1000-$2000 not accounting for a rental car, fuel, food, or other activities. Choosing an aurora tour every night is going to be pricey. The average cost per person per night is usually $200-$400 depending on which operator you go with. Private tours could set you back up to $500. These costs are all pre-tip. You should definitely tip your guide especially if they work for a large tour company. Aurora chasing on your own could save you hundreds or thousands of dollars depending on how many people are in your group.
Reason #3: There are times when it is not worth it!
While it's rare, the auroras can be strong enough to see right in downtown Fairbanks in the midst of even the heaviest light pollution, and this can happen in other major cities within the auroral oval, too! During strong geomagnetic storms, I've seen pictures of the aurora from downtown Reykjavik and Anchorage, even!
Most times I barely go out of town to see the aurora in Alaska, and some nights I can see it right in my own backyard... During high activity nights when it's crystal clear outside, you don't need a tour to see the aurora - you can see it right from your hotel or a few miles out of town. When the tours matter are on the low activity, partly cloudy, or overcast nights. That's when you will want a dedicated guide to drive you to where they know it will be clear. Having an expert with you in that situation will maximize your chances of seeing the aurora.
Obviously, if you book your tours months in advance (which you should do if you are traveling during the high season of aurora tourist season), there is no way to forecast when those high activity crystal clear nights may be, but if you're in Fairbanks, Tromso, Reykjavik, Anchorage, or wherever you travel to and don't have a tour yet, take some time to check the cloud cover for your area and auroral activity during your stay. If there is one night that looks particularly clear and all signs point to a banner aurora night, maybe try and see if you can stay closer to your hotel to catch a glimpse of the lights!
Reason #4: You can learn how to photograph and forecast the aurora on your own and even find good aurora chasing and photography locations through careful research!
There is no way to match the experiential knowledge of an aurora guide as a tourist, however, the principles of aurora photography, aurora forecasting, and even some of the best locations near where you are staying can be researched. Also, there are many great resources on wilderness survival that will teach you how to travel safe in the backcountry, how to dress for cold weather, and what to do in emergency situations. For example, you can download offline phone maps to avoid pockets of dead cell reception or rent a satellite phone, and tour or not, you should always tell people where you are going. It is possible to aurora chase safely by yourself, it's just not usually recommended because tourists think they can do the leg work before their trip, but procrastinate and never do.
... Then they wonder why they are stuck in a ditch two hours out of Fairbanks with no help on the way due to zero cell service.. (definitely not speaking from my experience with aurora tourists (that was sarcasm, by the way)).
If you find the right resources from the right people, you can at least prepare yourself to go aurora chasing. Standing outside in the cold, driving on icy roads, and being in the field are things you can't research, but if you're flexible, resilient, and like a challenge, aurora chasing by yourself can be a great time!
As an experienced aurora chaser and someone who lives in Fairbanks seeing aurora regularly, I know a thing or two about this stuff. Besides riding along on some aurora tours for fun, I have always been a DIY aurora chaser and I encourage others to be as well. It's just important to know your limitations and be safe, but with the right resources, you can chase aurora on your own, no problem!
If you're looking for aurora tours in Alaska, check out my website for availability in Fairbanks and Anchorage!
Whether you're going out on your own or with a dedicated guide, I wish all of you clear skies and great auroras on your next Arctic adventure! If you have any specific questions about your upcoming aurora chasing trip or need some advice planning a future trip to see the lights, don't hesitate to send me an email at email@example.com!