All you need to know about the IceHotel in Sweden, Northern Light trips, visiting Abisko and day activities
This is repost of my TripAdvisor review after visiting the IceHotel in Sweden on 27–30/1/2012. It’s pretty long, which is what you get when you end up on a 3 hour flight without any movie to watch…
This long review is intended for anyone looking for the specific details about planning their short visit to the area.
OUR ITINERARY IN A NUTHSELL:
Friday — LHR to Kiruna via Stockholm with SAS arriving 3pm. 15 mins bus transfer to Jukkasjarvi to the ICEhotel. Stay in traditional warm cabin. Walk around town, buy snacks at the minimarket (open till 9pm). 7–11pm Northern Light snowmobile trip with dinner as part of the trip. Have a drink at the Ice Bar at the end of the day.
Saturday — Wake up late, have buffet breakfast till 10am. Walk around the ICEhotel. Leave at 3pm on unbelievable overnight dog sled expedition. Stay in a remote cabin, have a romantic dinner with wine, the works. Have an amazing sauna for two and roll in the snow. Watch the Northern Lights and feel lucky to be alive.
Sunday — Wake up at 8am, say hi to the dogs and head back. Return at 1pm to ICEhotel. Chill or walk around town. We could have visited Kiruna town, the mine or do the ice-carving or car driving experiences but we just wanted to chill. Have dinner at the Homestead restaurant. Stay in Art Suite and survive a night sleep at -5C degrees.
Monday — Wake up at 7am. Go for breakfast and a walk around, chill and send a postcard home. Leave at 12pm, returning 5pm to LHR.
COMING FROM THE UK, SHOULD I BOOK IT DIRECTLY OR WITH ‘DISCOVER THE WORLD’?
Summary: Book directly. Book via Discover the World if you really case about flying non-stop from LHR, don’t have the time to plan your trip properly and want the standard package.
Coming from the UK, we originally planned to book it with Discover The World (DTW). They’re a travel agency with direct SAS chartered flights from LHR a few times a week.
We chose to book everything directly for a few reasons:
1) DTW have no direct flights on Friday, so their 3-day trips returns Tuesday. We both work so we preferred taking Fri and Mon off rather than Mon-Tue.
2) The two DTW people we speak didn’t really know much about the ICEhotel and the activities (they’ve never been there). By the time we finished our research, we knew more about the activities and itinerary than the people we spoke with. The only added value booking through them is therefore the direct flight.
3) We booked our trip just 2 weeks in advance and many of the activities and the art suites were unavailable in the week of the DTW trip. This is probably because in the weekends of DTW packages the ICE hotel is running full occupancy. Booking direct means finding a weekend when it’s not as full and you have more of the place to yourselves.
4) We checked the moon cycle and it was full moon in the weekend of the DTW package, which meant less chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
5) The quote for our itinerary booked through DTW was £800 more expensive than booking directly for two people. In other words, flying direct (and DTW’s commission) cost £400 more per person, which we don’t think is quite worth it.
We booked our flight with SAS, taking the Friday 7am to Stockholm, with a one hour connection to Kiruna arriving around 1pm. We flew back on Monday 1:25pm from Kiruna arriving 5:25pm in LHR. Don’t worry about the connection time, you’ll make it.
We booked all the accommodation and activities in advance via ICEhotel. You can email them or call them — they were very helpful.
ABISKO VS. KIRUNA / ICEHOTEL — SHOULD I SPEND A NIGHT IN ABISKO?
Summary: If you haven’t seen the Northern Lights by the last day of your trip, do book a same-day trip to Abisko.
The problem with seeing the Northern Lights (assuming there’s enough solar activity) is light pollution and cloudy nights. You can solve the former by taking a night excursion away from the ICEhotel and getting away from the city lights, but if it’s cloudy, you won’t see a thing.
Strangely Abisko does seem to have much clearer skies, as evident in their real-time live camera. It’s not just their website’s sales pitch, is actually true, if you check out their real-time web camera.
You can either arrange a night trip to Abisko, leaving the ICEhotel at 7pm and returning at anything from midnight to 2am, or you can stay there the night.
Our recommendation is to have an option of going to Abisko at your last night, if you haven’t seen the Northern Lights by then. We lucked out and saw the aurora on our second night, so decided not to make the trip. Had we not seen it, we would have just booked an overnight trip.
Note that renting a car to go to Abisko isn’t cheap — Budget charged $120 for 24 hours. It will probably be cheaper to rent a car and drive from ICEhotel to Abisko but it will be a bit of a mission. An organized trip to Abisko cost about £400 per person including a meal and entrance to the Abisko Sky station, so that’s a big price difference.
SHOULD I RENT A CAR?
In retrospect, if it wasn’t for the money we would have rented a car for the duration of our stay, just to have the flexibility of doing what we wanted. If money isn’t an issue for you, do it.
Airport transfer to the ICEhotel are £15 pp, each way. So that’s already £60. If you can get a deal of say £150–200 for three days rental it’s probably going to be worth it — especially if you end up going to Abisko.
WHICH ICEHOTEL COLD ROOM SHOULD I STAY IN?
Summary: Stay in a warm room the first night (or in Abisko). Do an overnight activity in the second night. Book the cold night as your last night.
ICEhotel has warm rooms (regular rooms) and cold rooms. It’s a bit hard to understand the difference between the different cold rooms from the ICEhotel’s website. There are four types:
1) Snow room — the most basic. Just a ‘bed’ in a small room.
2) Ice room — like the snow room, slightly larger, with two ice chairs.
3) Art suites — much larger, themed rooms, beds in various shaped, with artistic ice sculptures
4) Deluxe art suite — the super-duper art suite, double size room
We wouldn’t recommend staying in the snow room or ice room — the art suites are definitely better. The price difference to upgrade to an art suite isn’t massive and it’s a much more special and spacious room.
If an art suite isn’t available in your last night but only in your first night, definitely book it. It’s just that it’s not fun to come off the plane straight to a cold room.
HOW EXACTLY DOES STAYING IN THE COLD ROOM WORK?
In all cold rooms, you’re not supposed to take your stuff to the room as it will freeze. If you’re staying in an Art Suite you’ll get a small individual dressing locker to keep your stuff and get changed. If you’re staying in a snow room or ice room you just get a luggage locker and you get dressed in the public dressing room. That’s annoying. You can pay 200 SEK/£20 to rent the small dressing room that comes for free with the art suites.
This does mean you have no room to relax or shower. You use the dressing rooms which have a dry sauna (separate men/women) and showers.
When you want to go to sleep, you receive an arctic sleeping bag and liners. We took a double sleeping bag with two separate liners — this setup is supposedly the warmest. You walk to the room with your snow boots and snowsuit. It’s -5C in the room so hopefully you’ll manage to take off your shoes and snowsuits and quickly jump into the sleeping bag quickly to keep warm!
IS STAYING IN THE COLD ROOMS WORTH IT?
Summary: of course!
It’s definitely a once in a lifetime experience and if you’re spending £2000 to schlep all the way to Lapland then of course you should do it! Plus if you enjoy cuddling with your partner here’s your chance — it’s way warmer when you do cuddle!
Some people wrote they had a really warm night sleep. I wouldn’t go as far as that, but I’ll see you will definitely not freeze. Taking my socks off was fine for the first few hours of the night but I woke up with frozen feet. Keep them on.
I wouldn’t say you’ll get a comfortable sleep, but once you wake up it’s a real good laugh thinking that you just slept in a -5C igloo.
You should consider switching the double sleeping bag for two singles — it may be more comfortable if your partner tosses and turns all night.
The reindeer skins you sleep on may be a bit stinky. If they’re too stinky, tell the reception and they’ll replace them for you. Take it as part of the experience. We found some of the rooms to be more stinky than others — not sure why!
Don’t drink too much before going to sleep, or you’ll have to schlep from the bed to the toilets outside and back, which is not fun. The only bonus of going to wee is to see the folks who couldn’t survive the night and decided to go back and sleep on the benches in the dressing room — yep, this happens!
Don’t forget to write your name near in the cold room reception to get your ‘I slept in -5C diploma’ when you check out.
IS THERE FREE INTERNET IN THE ICEHOTEL?
Yep, Internet access is free (just ask for the password) and available in the public areas. It’s pretty fast, too.
If you didn’t bring your computer you can use their slow Windows XP computer at the cold rooms reception.
WHAT’S THE NOT-SO-GREAT STUFF ABOUT THE ICEHOTEL?
Every hotel has room for improvement and the ICEhotel is no exception.
It feels like the ICEhotel has a no-nonsense service policy, given that people come first and foremost for the experience rather than the service.
I’d say the service would be considered good if this was a wilderness camp charging £50 a night, but it falls short of what you’d expect from a place charging £250–500 a night. A more guest-focused experience would be a welcomed change.
1. Moving from warm to cold rooms:
The process of swapping from the warm room to the cold warm is not well thought out. Warm room check out time is strictly 11am. Until you go to sleep in the cold room, you literally have no room to shower, relax or have a nap. Even if you go an activity, you don’t have a room to go back to. Similarly, cold room check out time is strictly 7am. Until you leave (or, re-enter your warm room), you have to wait till check-in time of mid-day or later, unless a room is available. If you’ve got £200 spare, you can book a night in the warm room in addition to the cold room. Ideally they should be much more flexible — when we stayed there they were in low occupancy so there was really no reason not to let us stay in the warm room until late that day.
2. Room swap in overnight excursion: really not well thought through. We had to insist on getting a locker room. Once we received it, it was slightly better. Given that we paid £550 each for an overnight activity, we would have expected a much better arrangement. Again, this would be fine if they charge £100. Not when you paid those sums of money.
3. Aurora alerts: the staff is pretty nonchalant about whether or not the guests see the Northern Lights. Given that most people come for the unique experience of seeing the lights for their first time, they really ought to have some type of an ‘aurora alerts’ that you could opt in to (e.g. call your room, make an announcement at the restaurant or something like that). Especially during the night excursions, they could take a page from the way safari companies work, alerting one another for sightings. We had to be very active ourselves to ensure we did see the lights. Others weren’t lucky because they took a more passive approach and missed them.
4. Breakfast buffet: was ok, identical every day, and nothing to write home about. Bring a Nutella jar from home.
5. Cash advance for tips: we really wanted to tip our fantastic dogsled guide and didn’t have any local currency. It was our bad. The reception wouldn’t do any cash advances and there’s no ATM in town. It’s really annoying and we would have been OK to pay them 10% commission to withdraw some money. Definitely take out £50–100 for tips in cash before arriving in the ICEhotel.
6. Library books in English:
It would have been really simple to purchase 20 English books and have a decent library. There are only a few books in Swedish. Shame.
7. Homestead restaurant:
Our meal was ok. Dishes (£20 for entre) were medium size (UK size) or small (US size). White chocolate mousse, pasta, shitake mushroom soup and white fish salad were ok nothing to write home about. Maybe we ordered the wrong dishes.
8. No spa: This is a nice-to-have but my wife did wish they had an option to get a massage after the eventful-but-not-really-comfortable night in the cold room. I have no doubt they’ll add it sooner or later — it makes lots of sense and could easily generate nice incremental income.
9. Reception staff attitude: courteous, but slightly disaffected. I don’t think it’s due to the Swedish culture. We are not big fans of Pan-Am style fake enthusiasm, but slightly more warmness and smiles in the welcoming and servicing of guests would have been really nice, especially as we arrived with lots of enthusiasm. This is a subtle comment — no one was rude or anything like that. Note that the activities staff were super nice and enthusiastic, so this feedback is specifically about the reception staff.
WHICH ACTIVITIES ARE WORTH DOING?
Summary: overnight dogsled expedition, Northern lights snowmobile tour, and possibly Abisko night trip and car driving experience.
The overnight dogsled expedition was by far the highlight of the trip. It was an unbelievable experience.
We lucked out and were the only couple in the trip, which was already awesome. Each person has its own sled of 4 dogs. Being a musher is really easy and not scary at all (though not recommended to under-16 or over 90 y/os). The dogs are so sweet and beautiful — we wish we could take them back with us… (warning: if you hug them they will be just a bit smelly after running for 20 miles!)
Our guide and chef was Anna, who was absolutely amazing.
After meeting the dogs, we headed for a two hour dog sled trip to the camp, which we had all to ourselves. We had an awesome wet sauna. If you’ve been in Japan it’s very similar — you wash with hot water bucket, use shampoo and all. You can roll in the snow and run back in — it’s scary, weird but awesome. Because we were alone, we had all the privacy needed to walk around naked, etc…
We had our own cabin with bunk beds and a nearby toilet.
Anna (our guide & chef) cooked a phenomenal meal catering to my wife’s dietary restrictions plus she arranged tons of snacks in the dressing room near the sauna.
To top it all, because the cabin is remote, we had no light pollution and watched the Northern Lights for good two hours until we got tired (see below)!
At a price of 5,650 SEK per person, it’s not cheap but it works out cheaper than paying for one night’s accommodation and taking the usual four-hour dogsled trip that other people do — not to mention the fabulous meal, sauna for two and best of all — not being rushed to return to the ICEhotel and missing a chance to see the aurora.
We also did the 7pm-11pm Northern Light snowmobile tour. It was awesome. If your partner doesn’t like driving fast, you should consider getting your own snowmobile… Wrap up warm because at 30–60kmh it does get freezing! It comes with a 3-course meal at the cabin that was tasty.
The one thing I’ll say about the trip is that it’s not really ideal for Northern Light watching. Thing is, it takes an hour to get to the cabin, a half-hour to get back, plus the meal takes an hour — which means you really have about half hour to enjoy the lights, assuming it’s not cloudy. So you could instead do a day snowmobile tour and go for a long walk (or drive to Abisko) to find the lights, or book instead an overnight snowmobile tour, so you’re not rushed.
We didn’t do the reindeer sled experience because we heard it’s awesome but not as fun as the dog sledding. If you can fit it in — do it.
We didn’t do the horse riding experience because there’s no opportunity to canter and we were not in the mood for a leisurely walk or trot…
Lastly, you should check carefully in the ICEhotel’s website what’s the availability of the tours. They don’t run them every day, which is a bit annoying. If you book the snowmobile tour too late, the 7pm group might be full in which case they’ll either add a 6pm group (which has less chances to see the lights, as it’s not as dark outside) or you’ll have to miss it. Plan well in advance what you do in every day and night, to avoid disappointment.
HOW TO MAXIMIZE THE CHANCES OF SEEING THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?
1. Ignore the weather forecasts. I was checking websites every day for a week, winding myself up that it’s going to be 100% cloud coverage for the duration of our stay. I used four different weather websites (weather.com, wunderground.com, plus Google and a local Swedish one) and they all were completely useless, including in the days when we were actually there! So pray for good weather and just ignore what the web weather sites tell you.
2. Use the Abisko Real time Sky camera. Their website shows you how clear the skies really are and last night’s aurora in 15 minutes increments. If you tried seeing the Northern Lights near the ICEhotel and couldn’t check the following day if they were sighted in Abisko. If so, consider taking a night trip there.
3. The Northern Lights look like bright ‘clouds’ in the night’s skies. Only that they’re not clouds but rather the interaction of the solar wind with the oxygen (green aurora) and nitrogen (the rare, red aurora) in the atmosphere. Only when taking a 15 second exposure with a camera do they look as bright green as they are in the photos — usually you’ll just notice massive long ‘clouds’ that move in the skies.
4. Look towards the nofirstrth and slightly above the horizon — this is where the Northern Lights would probably appear. If you know how to find the plough and northern star (high up in the skies as you’re close to the Northern pole) use that as a guide. Otherwise remember where the sun set (southwest) and look the other direction.
5. When we had the overnight dog sled tour, I checked every 10 minutes whether or not the aurora started, from about 7pm onwards. They started at 10pm and we just sat out till midnight enjoying the view that kept changing. They get brighter for a few minutes, then not as bright. Stay out until you get the photo you always wanted.
6. Pray for good clear weather, walk away from light sources, and stay up till 1am — you’ll see them eventually!
HOW TO TAKE PHOTOS IN -25C DEGREES?
Buy 4–8 extra batteries (if your camera uses AAs) or bring 1–2 spare dedicated batteries. Our 2900mAh rechargeable batteries lasted maybe 20–30 long-exposure shots. A 30 seconds video was almost all we could take with a couple of brand new Energizer AAs we bought.
It’s obviously camera-dependent but just make sure you’ve got enough batteries.
Get a mini-tripod (costs only £5 on Amazon) — you won’t regret it, plus it will be much easier to take it out of your pocket with gloves on and to take photos with self-timer.
Replacing batteries in the cold is annoying — prepare to get some frozen fingers!
WHICH CLOTHES SHOULD I TAKE?
You get an amazingly warm snowsuit, great boots (the men’s are comfier than the women’s) and ok gloves.
Bring: thermal long johns, great thermal socks (you need great socks instead of 3 layers of ok socks that won’t warm your feet), thermal shirt, fleece jacket, balaclava (as the one they give you stinks a bit) and fleeced scarf. Bring your ski goggles if you’ve got them (for the snowmobile). If you have an amazing pair of gloves bring them. None of our ski gloves was warm enough, so we ended up using theirs.
SHOULD I BOOK BUS TRANSFER WITH THE ICEHOTEL?
Yes, it’s a bit of a rip-off at 150 SEK (£15) for a 15 minute bus ride, but just book it. Taxi will cost you 450 SEK so it’s cheaper if you’re a party of four.
Yes, have an awesome trip! Going to the ICEhotel was one of our best 3-days excursions. You won’t regret it.