Seeing the northern lights should be on everyone’s bucket list. However, doing that on a budget is a challenge. Top destinations to see the northern lights are in Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Getting to these destinations come with a cost. While there is likely no true budget option, there are ways to lower the costs and see this amazing phenomenon.
Abisko, Sweden is a small town in the Lapland, roughly 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It was recently chosen by Lonely Planet as the best place in the world to view northern lights. Known for the Abisko Aurora Sky Station, this area is incredibly dark at night and a hot zone for aurora activity. We travel on a budget and thought to view the northern lights would be too expensive for us. We found a way to lower costs and check this off our bucket list. Here are ways you can too.
Abisko is very isolated, with few options for accommodation and food. There are only a few hotels, most expensive, yet there is one budget option. Abisko Hostels owns both the Winterday Hostel and Hostel Haverskog. They are located side-by-side in Abisko, with dorms and private rooms available. Both have kitchens as well as a shared sauna open from 8pm-9pm.
Accommodation in Abisko
There are only a few options for places to stay in Abisko. Most of the accommodation is expensive, but luckily for backpackers or those on a budget, there is a hostel as well as a couple more affordable options:
Winterday Hostel is the most budget-friendly accommodation with dorms, but it can get very loud, especially on the ground floor.
Dorm Bed in 6 Bedroom: $250 SEK per night per person
2 Bedroom Private Room: $600 SEK per night
Abisko Guesthouse is another great option with private rooms for $500 SEK per night
Hostel Haverskog is another budget option, though slightly higher prices than Winterday. To confirm pricing and for reservation inquiries, contact them at www.abisko.net.
Winterday Hostel Rentals
Clothing rental: 150 SEK per stay
includes heavy-duty boots, mittens, and full 1-piece snow outfit
Cross-country ski rental: 150 SEK per stay
Dog sledding is available for 1,500 SEK, which includes cross-country skis and clothing rental for the duration of your stay.
Food in Abisko
One block from Winterday is Coop, the only supermarket in Abisko. Sweden is very expensive and Abisko is very expensive even for Sweden standards. We searched for deals and stuck to eggs, beans, toasties/sandwiches, and pasta. Items such as beer and meat get very expensive.
Abisko National Park, 2 km from Abisko town, offers great exploring by cross-country skiing or snowmobiling. As mentioned, ski rentals are available from Winterday. Snowmobiling is available from $1200 SEK per person for a 2-hour tour.
Viewing the Northern Lights
Aurora Borealis, or northern lights, are only active during the winter. Auroras are best between November and March. Auroras are not predictable, they can last for minutes or sometimes for hours. They typically are the most active between 10 pm and 3 am.
To see the northern lights, the darker the surrounding area is the better. From Winterday, there are two options for viewing. There is a helicopter landing area, 5 minutes walking distance, above the hostel. The other option and best in Abisko is a 20-minute walk down to the frozen lake.
If there was one thing to splurge on, The Abisko Aurora Sky Station is the best option for the viewing the northern lights. The price is 745 SEK per person, which includes the round trip gondola and warm clothing to view the lights. They have a café area where you can stay inside as well as an outdoor viewing platform.
EU aurora forecast has a 3-day forecast as well as a short-term 1-hour forecast. Check the long-term forecast and find the time in the evening when the forecast is high. Then watch the short-term forecast for increased activity. In addition, watch the Abisko Aurora webcam which has updates every few minutes.
Forecasting is all done through an estimated KP Index rating. KP Index is between 0 and 9, showing the strength of the geomagnetic storms, which result in seeing northern lights. The stronger the storm, the further south in latitude you are able to see the northern lights. There is a great map and information on how to read KP Index here: http://www.aurora-service.eu/aurora-school/all-about-the-kp-index/
Websites on Aurora Forecasting
Europe Aurora Forecast: http://www.aurora-service.eu/aurora-forecast/
Abisko Sky Station Cam: http://www.auroraskystation.com/live/
How to Get to Abisko
Scandinavian Rail via:
Kiruna – 3 hrs
Stockholm – 18 hrs
Narvik, Norway – 2 hrs
There are two stations, Abisko Tourist Station and Abisko East. Winterday is located at the Abisko East station.
Train Ticket Costs
TIP: Purchase your train ticket 90 days ahead of time. With less time, the cheaper ticket options sell out. There are regular class tickets with seats that only slightly recline and electrical outlets. There also are sleeper trains with 6 beds, fully stocked with electrical outlets and a large table. Book the top bed.
Stockholm to Abisko
Under 90 Days: fares start from $100 USD
90+ Days Booking: fares start from $60
Kiruna to Abisko
Fares start from $8 USD
Tromso, Norway to Abisko
Fares start from $14 USD
What to Bring to Abisko
Abisko is in the Arctic Circle. Be ready for cold weather during the day and extremely cold nights. The most important thing is keeping your feet, hands, and head warm. Bring thick winter boots, or rent from Winterday hostel. Bring wool socks (2 pairs even better), warm gloves, and a warm hat. Also, bring something to cover your face. Just in case you do forget something, Winterday has a large lost and found bin with clothing. We grabbed some really good wool socks and an extra pair of thick clothing. Here is a list of what to bring:
Long wool socks
Wool shirts for layering
Down jacket or lightweight bubble jacket
Ski pants/jacket for outer layers
Gloves (best for thin gloves and a 2nd pair of thick gloves over these)
Extra camera batteries
Remote for camera
How to Shoot The Northern Lights
Taking pictures of the aurora takes patience. Sometimes the aurora only lasts a minute, while other nights it lasts several hours. The brighter the aurora, the easier it is to take pictures. It is critical to use a tripod because you need to shoot long exposure to capture the lights.
ISO: Keep your ISO as high as possible (i.e. 100 ISO), but depending on your camera you will have to find the right ISO setting. For example, on a lower-end or mid-range DSL, you will likely have to shoot a minimum of 1600 ISO. Any higher than 1600 ISO the picture can become grainy, so try not to go higher than this.
Shutter Speed: This completely depends on your ISO, the brightness of the aurora, and how fast/slow it is moving around (dancing as they call it). We found 5 seconds to be a good shutter speed, which captures the light and is not too long where the aurora just becomes a big glob of color. If it is not moving, I would try shooting longer exposure, around 10 or 15 seconds.
Trial and Error: While it is tough to play around with your settings during a situation you anxiously are trying to shoot as fast as possible in the hopes it does not go away, this is the only way to figure it out. We had to play around with our settings a lot to try to get the right lighting and the right amount of exposure.
Seeing the Northern Lights is really special, make sure to stay up and enjoy the show!
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Visited on 02/28/16 – 03/01/2016.