Bus versus boat tour to see the northern lights

The northern lights, or aurora borealis, are on many people’s wish list of sights to see. I am definitely one of those people, and when I confirmed we were going to Iceland seeing them was at the top of my list.

Luckily, a company with a rather novel idea, Tinggly, contacted me and offered us a voucher so that we could try them out. They have a unique gift-giving setup where people can purchase a voucher as a gift for someone, and the recipient can pick an experience from all over the world (experiences and memories over “stuff”!). Well, they just happened to have a northern lights tour in Iceland, so guess what we signed up for!

I think the majority of people taking these tours go by bus, but there are some tours that head out into the harbor outside the nation’s capital, Reykjavik. As you can imagine, there are pros and cons with the different ways to witness this amazing celestial spectacle.

Boat tours

There are definitely some advantages to these tours. For starters, you can relax inside the ship while the boat makes a short trip away from the city lights of the capital. It only takes about 20-30 minutes for them to arrive. As winter is the best time to see the lights, you’ll appreciate being able to remain indoors until the guide makes the announcement that the aurora has appeared.

The company we used provided warm overalls to wear over your clothing to help you stay warm outside on the observation decks.

Sometimes the lights dance in the sky for a while and other times they are like brief pulses of light. You just never know how long they’ll remain, but the guides are good at being able to notice a slight change in the sky so that you have ample time to head outdoors to witness them.


  • Shorter trip which means you get back to your lodging earlier.
  • More comfortable than a bus with plenty of room to stretch out.
  • Indoor bathrooms.
  • Space for napping if you’re traveling with children or suffering from jet lag.
  • Warmer clothing provided.
northern lights

This is what happens on a boat with long exposures.



  • Poor choice for photography. We were in very calm seas, but the boat rocks enough that the longer exposure required to adequately capture the lights also means a ton of motion artifacts. Even with a tripod, your shots will be suboptimal.
  • Can be a bit more crowded as the space is more limited on decks that outdoors on land. If you want to take photos, this is even more of a headache as you have to jockey for space, and the lights don’t always cooperate by showing up in the same spot.
  • Motion sickness for people who are more sensitive.
  • If you’re traveling alone and happen to nod off, no one is going to make sure you’re awakened to see the lights.

Bus tours

There are a ton of companies offering these tours. They usually include pick up and return from/to where you’re staying. The buses usually go out of town for about 45 minutes to an hour to find a good spot to wait. Usually companies provide some hot beverages and light refreshments.


  • Much better for photography—Your tripod won’t be bobbing up and down.
  • Trip is probably less likely to be cancelled as they are not as dependent on good weather. For example, if there are high winds but clear skies, the buses will go out while the boats may not (or you may wish they hadn’t).
  • Smaller group sizes.
  • Tour guide is more likely to make sure you don’t miss the lights if they make an appearance.


  • Longer trip, later return.
  • Probably colder.
  • Not as comfortable.
  • Outdoor toilets.
  • Sometimes more expensive.
northern lights

Outside our bedroom. I didn’t have time to adjust settings or grab a tripod.


Other things to consider

If you have your own transportation, are willing to go on a long walk at night (which is really quite safe), or are staying away from a city location you may be able to see the lights without booking a tour. Many hotels offer aurora wake-up calls. Just ask when you check in and have yourself added to the list.

We saw the aurora on the boat tour, but the most impressive show we had was while sitting in our bedroom a short walk from downtown Reykjavík.

If you decide to do a tour, it’s best to schedule it early during your stay. Not only are the lights fickle, but you need clear skies to view them, and winter weather is mercurial. Iceland is one of those places that says “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes,” and it’s true. On the day of our boat tour it had been sunny and clear all day. When we began our walk to the harbor, it was snowing heavily. By the time the ship made it out of the harbor, the skies were perfectly clear again.

Most of the tours will only go out if the aurora forecast is good, which means it’s likely they’ll have clear skies AND the solar weather necessary to produce a show.

Before booking, double check the company’s policy regarding repeat attempts as many of them will allow you to go out again without paying extra if your tour wasn’t successful.

Layers are your friend, especially with Iceland’s winds.

If you plan on photographing the lights, make sure to bring a tripod, or a monopod at a minimum.

Have you seen the aurora? If so, where?

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  1. Thank you very much for writing this nice, to the point pro/con article – just what we needed to help us decide between the boat and the bus options for the lights – we love photography so I think we’re going for the boat!

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    • **Oops, the bus I mean! 🙂

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      • Glad you corrected that. I was a bit confused. LOL Glad the article was helpful to you! Bus will should be MUCH better for photography. When are you going?

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  2. I did not know that a boat trip was even possible! I am desperate to get to Iceland for the lights and lagoons! 2017 hopefully.

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    • I didn’t before Tinggly. Definitely some different pros and cons to consider. Hope you make it soon! Iceland and the northern lights are just amazing.

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  3. I have seen the Aurora in Northern Alberta while driving home from the Rocky Mountains … simply stunning!

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  4. I think I’d definitely pick a bus tour. While the experience is obviously important, I’d be disappointed in not being able to leave with some great photos.

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    • I took the Grey Line Tour to see the Northern Lights. This option should not be used by people wanting photos of the lights. The buses were packed and were travelling together. When the lights came out, all buses stopped in the same spot. After 100 plus people emptied out, the camera flashes started en masse. The tour participants for the most part have little to no knowledge of how a camera works. The resulting photos were very disappointing.

      My recommendation is to book a private tour. Yes it is more expensive, but since trips to Iceland generally fall into the once in a lifetime category.

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  5. Oh Wow! We would love to see the Northern Lights one day. Just this week I was dreaming of a Reykjavik escape, checking out cheap airfares with Ryan Air. Thanks for the great tip, both the boat and the bus seem like good options. Since I’m cold most of the time I know I’d go for the warmest option, but my husband Simon would hands down chose the bus option so that he could play with the camera and tripod. It made me giggle that the best encounter that you had with the lights was from your bedroom window! I’m glad we’re not the only ones who have these types of things happen to them 🙂

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    • We had a good laugh about it because we were so darn tired during the boat tour (we did a different tour earlier in the day so had a long day already), and here we are sitting in our room when our host tells us to turn out the lights and look out the window, and it was INCREDIBLE. So much better than what we saw the night previously. We had a bus tour scheduled, too, but cancelled it since we had already seen the lights. Too funny!

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  6. I’m so jealous Talon, I’d love to see the Northern Lights so badly, one day I really must do it. Thanks for these tips, they will be handy for sure when the time comes 😉

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    • It really is quite an amazing experience. There’s just something so magical and breathtaking about them.

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