We had booked the Icelandair Northern Lights tour, being led to believe that we would see the lights, if not available one night then you just go the next. There are many days when the weather or auroral activity isn't up to it, yet the tours still run because Icelandair and Reykjavik Excursions have been paid and there is heavy pressure is on RE not to cancel tours.
So you are collected from your hotel, go round the other hotels for half an hour, end up at the RE terminal and transfer to another larger coach. A word of warning here - you will be out for about four hours, often standing in the cold for long periods, which you would expect, but there are no toilet facilities on the coaches, or anywhere during the tour that you could use. This is not for those who can't last over four hours!
We were told by the driver that the forecast for auroral activity was excellent that night. This did not correspond with the auroral forecast on the Web. We had several people who had been on the one last night and not seen a thing, so were coming again - for one this was her third night. However it was a warm night (for Iceland) and a very cloudy sky, so we were not too hopeful, despite the assurances.
After about an hour, the guide started stopping the coarch and disappearing outside to see if he could see anything. We had several of these stops. Eventually he decided he could see something and we should get off, which we did, at the side of the road, by a streetlight. We were near Keflavick airport, and could see the airport lights.
The driver set up his camera and tripod and excitedly pointed to a 'band'. There was nothing to see apart from parts of the sky where the cloud cover was slightly less dense. You would see the same on any cloudy night anywhere. He kept insisting that everyone look at the 'bands' and that he didn't want anyone going back saying they hadn't seen the northern lights. This was repeated at another spot. There was an atmosphere of the 'Emperor's new clothes' developing, with a couple of young girls in complete hysterics. He then came down the coach showing us the photos he had taken on his camera, supposedly of tonight's viewing, though he admitted to someone who asked that one shot was five years old! He asked for all our email addresses so that he could send us his report. I'm afraid some of the addresses written down were not exactly genuine!
You can tell by the atmosphere on a homeward bound coach whether the excursion was successful. We returned in total silence, everyone was bitterly disappointed. We had seen nothing other than a dark cloudy sky, and yet were led to believe this was all the northern lights amounted to - we had seen them. I've had several friends completely blown away by their experience of seeing the lights, this was not it.
I think Icelandair needs to stop booking Northern Lights tours, they cannot guarantee a viewing, and it puts heavy pressure on the tour companies to deliver when they cannot. The smaller companies have stopped taking bookings for these tours, you cannot book in advance. If you want a chance at seeing the Northern lights, check the aurora forecast http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/Europe/2012/02/15 and the weather forecast. If the forecast is three or above and you have a cold, frosty clear night, then book a tour, you have a chance. But don't book it as part of a package, you will likely be very disappointed.
Iceland is a fabulous place, the glaciers, volcanoes, dog sledding, waterfalls, geysers are indeed breathtaking. Go for those, and if the conditions are right, book a northern lights tour a couple of hours before. But avoid the all in package, it mars what is otherwise a brilliant trip!
If you own or manage Reykjavik Excursions, register now for free tools to enhance your listing, attract new reviews, and respond to reviewers.