One challenge of being a traveling family is deciding what the littlest person in your family is ready to experience. With a nearly 4-year-old, we're trying to figure out a few things: Is she ready for the huge crowds of Tokyo? Is she ready to deal with motor scooters zooming every which way – even on sidewalks and staircases – in South Korea? Is she old enough to be completely mesmerized by the aurora borealis?
That last one is particularly on my mind. I've always wanted to see the Northern Lights, and I just haven't gotten around to it yet. I honestly do think the little person is ready – but a few serious issues remain. First, will she be able to handle a frigid northern latitude night, which is part of seeing the aurora? And then there's just getting there.
We live in metro Phoenix. Since I love long flights, my preference would be going back to Tromso, Norway (obviously not in summer, this time). But from here, that's a minimum of two legs aloft, and more likely three. Traveling with a small person adds some complications with that many legs.
Swoop Airlines – Is it the Ticket North?
Right now, though, there's a possibility of making it one leg. Swoop Airlines is flying from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport to Edmonton. And Edmonton is a solid jumping-off point to some areas with nice, dark skies that are perfect for seeing the aurora.
Swoop Airlines is owned by WestJet, which I flew a few years ago to Toronto. At the time, WestJet advertised itself as a low-cost carrier. While the fares were reasonably priced, the experience onboard was quite a bit nicer than legacy carriers. I've been looking for an excuse to give WestJet more business ever since.
Ultra Low Cost — But a Better Version?
Think of Swoop Airlines as the ultra-low-cost type of carrier. You pay for everything you want, and nothing you don't. That puts it right in the same classification as carriers like Allegiant and Spirit, which I absolutely refuse to fly.
Swoop's association with WestJet, though, makes me willing to take a shot at them. Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport increases our travel time to the airport from about 10 minutes to 30. On the other hand, it also changes the parking and security situation for the better.
I decided to get an idea of what a quick Northern Lights getaway on Swoop Airlines would take.
Swoop Airlines Pricing and Schedule
I priced two adults and our little flyer for a flight departing Dec. 22 and returning Dec. 26. Swoop Airlines only has two flights a week from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport to Edmonton, which limits possibilities. The base price of the tickets is $1,153 USD.
Unfortunately, we can't go any further from there to get an exact fix on price with seat choice and extras included; the website wants to enter traveler information at that point. I did backtrack a bit to the front page of the site, where the FAQs reveal a few optional fees. The food and snack options are reasonably priced, as are the fees for picking seats.
The same itinerary on American Airlines is $1,800 for economy class seats. These days, you don't get much on American Airlines. Economy class on American is pretty much an ultra-low-cost carrier dressed as a legacy carrier. American also flies a regional jet as opposed to the Boeing 737-800 that Swoop Airlines flies.
Just in case you're wondering, Phoenix to Edmonton is about 3-and-a-half hours.
On the Ground
I figured a simple keyword search like "edmonton aurora" or "edmonton northern lights" would get me started. But no. It seems like every sort of business in Edmonton is called Northern Lights Whatever ... Northern Lights Properties, Northern Lights Festival, Northern Lights Cemetery, Northern Lights Racoon Removal (I'm only slightly exaggerating here). Most other results were the sort of tourism and chamber of commerce stuff I disdain.
I really didn't find any recommendations for hotels our tours that made me say "a-ha!" But maybe I don't need to: This terrific blog post from Robin on the Cantankerous Mule blog is proof that seeing the Northern Lights in Edmonton is pretty easy to do yourself. This is exactly why I prefer getting my information with bloggers who share their personal experiences rather than commercial websites or anything like tripadvisor or travelpod.
Chasing the Aurora
Be ready for weird hours, have your camera gear packed and get moving! Robin even included some nice photography tips that I will keep handy. Apparently, the Aurora Watch website is also a must. Edmonton isn't a huge city at short of a million, so it should be easy to get to the darker outskirts according to what aurorawatch.ca recommends.
Aside from the aurora, I’d have to schedule around an Edmonton Oilers game. They were one of the teams I grew up watching during the rise of the Gretzky era. I consider Edmonton fans a serious bunch of hockey people, and it would be great to watch a game with that crowd. (And let me know if you have other ideas for what to do while visiting Edmonton in the winter.)
Is Swoop Airlines the Way to Go?
The price is more than competitive. I have high hopes for the onboard experience. The airport is further away for us, but might be a wash with security lines being shorter. It would be nice to have service more than two days a week. I am more than interested in trying Swoop, so we'll see if I can fit it into the plans when the time comes!
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