Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Northern Lights March 2013 - Introduction

***This post is part 1 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

The northern lights is an often-referred-to item on people's bucket lists. The idea of seeing a canvas of glowing lights dance across the Arctic sky certainly stirs the imagination, and a quick image search on Google shows exactly why just about everyone wants to witness the phenomenon at least once in their lives.

If you really want to see the lights at its peak, you should wait until the 11-year solar cycle hits a maximum amplitude. The good news is that we are currently in the midst of a maximum this very year. The bad news, however, is that even with everything we know about our sun, it is still impossible to accurately predict beyond a few days when a solar flare will occur, triggering a brilliant display of aurora activity. Mix in weather uncertainties, and it is never a guarantee that you will actually see the lights.

With that in mind, there are a few general guidelines that should persuade you to book your itinerary on certain dates. Historical data suggests that March and September are the best months to see aurora activity, at least in Alaska. Those months combine the dark skies of winter with milder temperatures that are slightly more comfortable for travelers. In addition, check a lunar phase calendar to see when a new moon will occur, as the darker the sky, the better.

Taking all of the above into account, I decided on March 9-12 as my travel dates, and checked award seat availability on Alaska Airlines. I did this more than seven months in advance, knowing that it would be a very popular time for tourists. Unfortunately, even that far in advance, the best flights (one-stop from the Bay Area via PDX or SEA) were mostly unavailable.

I eventually settled on a two-stop itinerary from SJC to FAI and back via SEA and ANC. It was a bit of a trek, but thankfully the times were good and the layovers short. Total taxes and fees came out to only $10, along with 25,000 American Airlines miles. One of the great things about the AAdvantage program is the ability to make date and time changes without incurring any fees (as long as you keep the same origin and destination). Over the next few months, I tweaked my itinerary slightly as award seats on more convenient flights opened up.

For lodging, I initially focused on the usual chain hotels. There is a very highly rated Hampton Inn in Fairbanks, as well as a Holiday Inn Express and SpringHill Suites. However, since I was traveling on my own, I couldn't justify the expense of booking a room all to myself, even using points. Luckily, I came across Billie's Backpackers Hostel on TripAdvisor, which turned out to be one of the best parts of the entire trip. I will discuss all the details in a full review later in this report.

If you really want to see the northern lights without the light pollution and tourists, you should definitely rent a car and get out of the Fairbanks city limits. It may be a little scary driving along a frozen road in complete darkness, but trust me, the reward of having the entire aurora to yourself out in the middle of nowhere is more than worth it. Despite a relatively low amount of solar activity while I was there, the dancing lights still put on a spectacular show in the horizon. It was a sight I will never forget.

Aurora Borealis from the Steese Highway - March 12, 2013

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