Travel Disappointment: I Didn’t See the Northern Lights

celebrating New Year's Eve in Reykjavik

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I didn't see the Northern Lights

Travel is glorified online, in sleek blogs and colorful ~instagood~ photos, yet disappointments are a reality.

These anticlimactic letdowns are sometimes hidden from the Internet’s prying eyes. When I first started Blond Wayfarer in May, I made the specific decision to stay open and honest about my trips.

Yes, travel has empowered me in many ways. For example, I’m more confident and outspoken about my needs. As a solo traveler, if you want to know where to buy tickets or how to find the train station, you need to speak up or else you’ll wander in aimless circles.

However, in my experience, travel isn’t sunshine-flavored cotton candy 24/7. Museums unexpectedly close. Train workers strike. Tours are canceled at the last minute. Random heatwaves ruin a city’s charm. I don’t shy away from sharing travel disappointments.

I didn't see the Northern Lights

On my trip to Iceland, I didn’t see the Northern Lights.

Yup! My plans – booked tours and obsessive forecast watching – only resulted in cinnamon donuts and crushed dreams.

As you remember, I had wanted to see these beautiful and colorful lights because, guh, the pictures astounded me. I mean, do you know how many new Instagram followers I was bound to attract if I took just the right photo? Part of the reason I even chose Iceland in the winter was to see the lights. Full disclosure.

For accommodation, I had booked a bed at a funky biscuit factory (really): Kex Hostel. Kex Hostel isn’t only a place to sleep. The front desk and website also provide visiters plenty of information on various guided tours leaving Reykjavik. Iceland is seriously the land of day trips, I’m not kidding. Kex’s tour page directed me to Sterna and without researching other options on TripAdvisor, I booked my Northern Lights excursion.

Okay, time for some brutal honesty, readers.

Overall, I especially liked Sterna for their mid-afternoon Golden Circle Tour. A small group, maybe 8 women and I, rode around Thingvellir National Park in a minivan. We had ample time to visit all the main sites, such as Gullfoss Waterfall and the Icelandic Parliament, and enjoyed watching the 4 pm. sunset on our journey home. Sure, the vehicle slipped on ice every now and then, but the experience felt authentic and we learned a lot about the park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

On the other hand, I should’ve booked a Northern Lights tour with a different company. Sterna used big buses for our nightly hunt. Biiiiiig buses. I’m not a fan of big buses. Not to mention, our 50 person coach wasn’t the only vehicle on the tour. We had an entire bloody fleet, meaning crowds and delays happened throughout the evening! Plus fighting 200 tourists for cinnamon donuts and hot chocolate isn’t exactly fun.

If you want a quiet and personal night, viewing the Northern Lights in a secluded setting, this isn’t the company to book. An off-roading jeep tour might’ve been more expensive, but probably worth the extra cost in retrospect.

To clarify, I’m not blaming Sterna for not seeing the Northern Lights. It doesn’t matter if you spend $50 or $500 for a tour. The Northern Lights aren’t ever guaranteed, full stop. If a tour company promises a spectacular view, they are lying to you. So, yeah, no lights =/= Sterna’s fault, but I would’ve liked smaller groups.

If only I knew what was to come.
If only I knew what was to come.

Moving on!

ATTEMPT 1: Our buses sped around the Reykjavik area until after two in the morning. We even made a pit stop at the Keflavik Airport in the hopes of the cloud coverage clearing in an area that supposedly had “borealis” activity nearby. My travel buddy took several pictures of the sky and while her camera caught a very faint green glow, verified as the Northern Lights, we couldn’t see them with the naked eye. When we finally pulled back to Kex Hostel, tired and cranky with only cinnamon donuts to sustain us, our guide told us that we could “rebook” the tour at no charge. Sweet!

ATTEMPT 2: Sooo, yes, I actually tried to see the lights again! Using my “free tour,” my new travel friends and I hopped on the big bus and compulsively checked the aurora forecast on our phones. Everything looked great. There was apparently high activity (a 6!), as well as a big gap in the clouds over the peninsula. Fastforward an hour or so, and we stared at the crystal clear stars. As we snapped our cameras, faint green danced behind a section of clouds in our photos. And yes, our guide confirmed the Northern Lights were nearby. We waited. Our teeth chattered. We waited some more. My fingers turned to ice under my gloves. We waited. Nope, the lights refused to budge from behind the single. damn. cloud. and toward the clear patch in the sky. We shivered for close to two hours and then hid on the bus. Then MORE CLOUDS ROLLED IN. No lights for us! We returned to Reykjavik around one in the morning. Talk about a royal tease!

I didn't see the Northern Lights

How to Handle Travel Disappointments

  1. Remember: there’s always next time. I don’t think Iceland or Aurora Borealis is vanishing soon. Nor am I barred from re-entering the country. Now I’ve an excuse to return to Iceland or another northerly country in the winter months. Northern Lights, we’ll meet one day!
  2. Be graceful. Don’t lose your temper especially if your travel disappointment was no one’s fault. For example, on my first tour, a man on the bus flipped out on the guide because the bus didn’t have chargers for his camera. Um, it’s your responsibility to charge devices. Don’t bitch that you had to “lug this camera all the way from New York.” As for me, I wasn’t about to blame the Sterna tour guide for the cloud coverage.
  3. Keep things in perspective. It’s fantastic you had the money and time to even go to a place most people only dream of visiting. Don’t whine about “your stupid trip being ruined!!” on facebook. You’ll only sound like a brat, and will end up losing a million friends. If you’re a travel blogger, keep it professional. Complaining puts us all in a bad light.
  4. Think about everything that went right. My trip to Iceland was awesome. I snorkeled in Silfra, bathed in the Blue Lagoon, went into a lava cave, and rocked New Year’s Eve. For starters. Travel isn’t an endless parade of canceled flights and long lines; think of the delicious food in that “hole-in-the wall” cafe and the view of an aqua lake tucked into a mountainous landscape. Don’t sulk or dwell.

Time to share your travel disappointments in the comments! We all have them! The more, the merrier!