A good time to visit Fairbanks to see the northern lights is anytime between mid-August and mid-April. That is when we have dark skies at night. The best aurora shows are said to occur during equinox, fall and spring. These also happen to be the best weather months, as it is not too cold, and the roads are clear.
You can see the aurora in January, but the temps are brutal. You will take 1 or 2 photos and your fingers will feel numb without the proper gear. Then there is your camera freezing and the battery being drained. Keep all of this in mind when you come to Alaska. Have spare batteries, bring long johns, and proper boots. If you are a serious photographer and in need of camera protection, don’t rely on massed produced camera covers made for the lower 49. Get a Canadian made camera parka built for the arctic. Some tour groups provide gear/clothing. Plan ahead!
How cold does it get? It can and does get to -50F and sometimes colder, and does not let up for days, even weeks. The insides of buildings are warm. Your hotel, room, cabin, and stores are warm. Dress in layers to go from staying inside to being outside. When you are using your vehicle to watch auroras, leave it running when it is very cold (suggestion is about -20 or colder). The car may get cold fast and it is highly possible it won’t start.
The roads are snow-covered and icy from October to April. We as residents driving from home to the store do not generally use chains to drive. Some people have snow tires, and some don’t. Truckers and busses sometimes use chains. If you are uncomfortable driving on the ice, there are many ways to drive out to see the aurora if not seen in town. You can hire a taxi driver, a guide, or join a tour group. Ask your hotel if the shuttle driver can drive you away from light pollution. It doesn’t hurt to ask. As of 2017, there is no Uber or Lyft in Alaska.
The Fairbanks Visitor’s Guide, TripAdvisor, and others have good information concerning tours and trips, but use caution with visitors suggestions that are older than a year. There are a few wonderful advertisers on this website that can assist you. You can see the aurora from some hotels, B&B’s, and Air Bnb’s in the area, without having to drive anywhere. If you are looking to see the aurora in all it’s beauty away from city lights, then reserve a place far from town. Even 30 miles away is close when it comes to light pollution. In a darker location, you will see more structure, more color, and details in the shapes and lines of the aurora and in the stars. The milky way is easily seen away from town. If you see a “whitish”, “white”, “pale green”, or “faded” aurora, then you have not seen it properly. Get away from light pollution, you will see the colors and vivid brightness with your own eyes! Light pollution includes your car headlights and your smartphone!!!
The Fairbanks area sees the aurora almost nightly. If the weather is clear, you have a great chance of seeing it. But it is not always overhead. Look to your north, northeast, and low on the horizon if you can’t find it. Another trick is to find the Big Dipper star constellation. That will guide you in the right direction to look. Next time you see a photo of the northern lights, see if you can see the Big Dipper.
Traveling to Alaska by air is easy, but there few choices of airlines. If you are coming here for the northern lights, then you need to go to Fairbanks or further north. Anchorage does see the aurora but it is considerably LESS often than Fairbanks. If you are only going to Anchorage on your visit, then you should plan on taking a drive north and being out all night long. See Where to Go From Anchorage.
One tiny overlooked tip for seeing the aurora: you have to be awake. The aurora is out at night, typically in the middle of the night. Wake up calls are ok, but just plan on being awake! Take naps. If you are in a hotel, and get an aurora wake up call, what is your plan? To catch the lights while standing under the security lights? That is not fully taking it in. You came all the way to Fairbanks, see the lights away from the city. It is worth it. No picture can show you how wonderful it feels to see the lights in person. Update 2017: Fairbanks area now has Uber and Lyft in addition to taxis, aurora taxis, and tour vans.