Tripologist: Waiting for the northern lights to shine

In early August 2013, my wife and I intend to compete in the Master's Games in Turin, Italy. This will be at the height of the 11-year solar cycle but a few months before the usual time for seeing the northern lights. Is there anywhere we could head (Iceland, Sweden, Norway) for the best chance to see the northern lights and what would the chances be?
- P. Halliday, Gungahlin, ACT.

The next "solar max" is expected in 2013-14, with an increase in sunspot activity, and that augers well for a spectacular northern lights show. The season for aurora borealis runs from August through to April, and - mythbuster coming - you don't need cold nights to experience this wonder. What you do need is darkness, which makes it all but impossible to see aurora borealis during the long summer days experienced in far-northern latitudes. I've seen the phenomenon in September off the coast of Greenland, but in August, you would probably want to time your visit for the end of your European trip rather than the beginning.

Pretty much anywhere in the far north of Scandinavia is the sweet spot; I'm going to nominate Tromso, in Norway. After Murmansk, this is the largest city north of the Arctic Circle. Air connections with the rest of the world are excellent, and there's a good choice of accommodation, too.

Since the city lights are going to dull the wattage of the northern lights, you might want to stay somewhere with a dark night sky.

The website for Visit Tromso allows you to locate accommodation on a map, and either a holiday resort, with staff primed to wake you if the lights work their magic, or a cabin outside the city would be perfect. Perhaps even with a view across open sea or a lake to the north, where aurora borealis might just cast its dancing, mirror image across the water.

Resources aplenty for Thailand on a budget

Two friends and I will be travelling to Thailand early next year. Could you please give us information on doing Thailand on a budget? We will fly between Bangkok and Koh Samui but want to drive between Koh Samui and Phuket. Could you please advise on car hire and accommodation options in both Koh Samui and Phuket?
- L. Bolt, Newtown.

This is a big topic, and the internet has all the answers. Travelfish is a wonderful place to find information on Thailand, with heaps of backpacker-friendly advice on getting around, places to stay, best beaches and suggestions to keep you sane and safe at the full moon parties.

Another source is Lonely Planet's travel forum, Thorn Tree, which has a wealth of helpful feedback from travellers on the ground.

You can travel from Koh Samui to Phuket either by air or a combination of ferry and minibus. Unless you're an experienced driver and used to getting behind the wheel in Asia, steer clear of the self-drive option in Thailand, it's asking for trouble. A seat in a minibus will cost about 1000 baht ($30) a person and take from five to eight hours. You can pick up a minibus from Don Sak, on the Thai mainland, where the ferry from Koh Samui docks.

Travel agencies in the Chaweng Beach area of Koh Samui can make the arrangements for you.

Long route is smartest

My husband and I have kept a small house on the island of Curacao, in the Caribbean, where we once lived. Flying from the Netherlands to Curacao was easy. As we recently moved to Sydney, we have not travelled from here and there is no direct connection as far as I know. Can you advise me of the best connection in time, in money and to see something more than just the inside of airports?
- P. Bellert, Kellyville Ridge.

There are no direct flights between Australia and the Caribbean and it has never been easy or cheap to get there. You can fly via the US or Europe. On the TripAdvisor flight search, the best deal I can find via the US is with United Airlines. This flight stops in San Francisco and Newark.

For departure in March next year, the total cost is $2485. The outward journey is 37 hours, but the return is a massive 49 hours. In the same month, KLM can fly you from Amsterdam to Curacao for $821, says Momondo, a direct flight of just over 10 hours.

You could fly Sydney to Amsterdam with a discount carrier such as China Southern for less than $1600.

If you have people to see in Europe, this seems an ideal way to go. The price is about the same as flying via the US and travel time is less.

Egypt a worthy alternative

I am doing Islamic studies for my undergrad degree and wish to learn more about Arabic culture with a visit to Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. I would like to do this on my own but this is not easy for a single female traveller. I am finding it difficult to locate any tour operators for these areas. Do you have suggestions about how I could do this trip, keeping safety in mind but not being restricted to an ordinary tour?
- V. Uttam, Forest Lodge.

I put this to Richard Mole, a tour operator with extensive experience in the Middle East who also lectures on Islamic art and architecture.

"Bahwan Travel, based in Muscat, is a reliable and well-established tour operator that could handle all her requirements," he says. "If she doesn't want to join an ordinary tour, she would need a private car/driver, which will be pricey, especially in Oman, one of the most expensive places to visit in the Arab world. I strongly recommend she consider Egypt.

"It has a far greater supply of Islamic monuments, including the oldest university in the Arab world - Al-Azhar - a world-class Islamic museum and some excellent scholarly books ... Cairo University offers undergraduate courses in Islamic studies so the university bookshop also has a wealth of material. Although she might be worried about the situation in Cairo or Egypt, there is no real cause for concern. I've been in and out of Egypt three times this year without any problems."


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