Air New Zealand recently offered passengers the “chance of a lifetime” to see the Southern Hemisphere’s version of the aurora known as the “southern lights.” Led by Otago Museum director Dr Ian Griffin, this was the first aurora-viewing charter flight out of New Zealand and the first of its kind that I’d ever heard of.
The flight took passengers from the town of Dunedin located on New Zealand’s South Island close to 9pm and flew them on a 767 all the way down near the edge of Antarctica. The total experience was an eight-hour journey. Economy tickets went for $1,400 and business class went for $2,800.
Personally, I don’t think I’d pay that much for this type of experience and it’s not because I don’t think the northern lights are fascinating. I’ve actually had the experience of viewing them both from the ground and seeing them from an airplane, and I can say from experience the latter does not compare to the former.
When I viewed the lights on an Iceland Air flight from Boston to Reykjavik, it was an exciting experience but could hardly compare to my time spent in Norway chasing the lights.
The main reason is that it’s not easy for your eyes to adjust to the light in order to get a great view of them. I actually had to throw a jacket over my head and suction myself to the plane window to even get a slight glance at the northern lights (lights from the wings still interfered with my view).
And even then, I only saw the faintest shade of green and it mostly looked like a large cloud, although as you can see from the image below my Canon 6D did a great job of capturing the color my eye couldn’t.
Some passengers on this expeditionary flight weren’t thrilled by what they saw with the naked eye. According to Stuff.co.nz, one passenger stated:
“Was pretty disappointing. Unless you had a three thousand dollar camera couldn’t take a pic of anything. Could barely see it with your eyes, didn’t get told any of this before the flight either. Was guttered when after 5 hours on a plane it just looked like a cloud. Honestly felt it was a massive let down,” the commenter, identified as MrSafetyCatch, said.
And that doesn’t surprise me considering how faint the aurora is to the naked eye, especially from a plane. It’s possible that Air New Zealand may have done something to enhance the experience like blackout the lights in the cabin and that could’ve helped some, but I’m not aware that they did.
The other issue is that if you don’t have a DSLR or even if you do but don’t know how to properly use one, it would be difficult to get quality photographs of the lights. I consider myself to be pretty experienced with low light settings, and it was tough for me to get any photos of the aurora from a plane that were worth anything, so I could imagine how poor many photos turned out from people taking photos with lower-end point and shoot or camera phones.
The fact that some paid at least $1,400 for an 8 hour economy ride to capture subpar images of the aurora had to sting for some.
While I wouldn’t do it, I could see how this could be worthwhile for some. If you just really wanted to see the aurora for the sake of seeing them or to check that off your bucket list, then I could see how this would be enticing. Or if you’re skilled enough in photography, this could be worth it as well, since you could come away with some stunning shots like the time lapse below.
Considering how difficult it could be for many people to get to Norway or Alaska from New Zealand, this could also be one of the more practical options for many to see the lights.
While you can see the aurora from the southern tip of New Zealand you’re still only near 45º south which would put you in a similar location as being in the northern US, which definitely is not ideal since you typically need strong solar storms in order to see the lights at that latitude. Plus, in many instances you only get a view of the lights along the horizon.
This type of tour is still a cool concept, however, and one that I was not familiar with. I think the cost of the ticket is still too high for me considering that I could probably fly roundtrip to Tromsø, Norway in economy for that price. But I think it could be worth it for some people, as long as they’re made aware of what to expect.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC.