The romanticism of a hot air balloon flight is alluring to many and while you can probably take a ride in nearly all 50 states, there’s something special about the Southwest. This post will highlight rides in both Phoenix, Arizona and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
What Should I know about a Hot Air Balloon Flight?
So the basics are that hot air balloon flights typically take place during sunrise and/or sunset as that’s when the air is the stillest. I have experience with very early (yawn) sunrise rides. The way it works is that you book with a company and they will send one of their chase vehicles to your hotel to pick you up pre-ride. This is usually at the crack of dawn, say 5-5:30am. Yeah, early. Next, you’ll drive out to their launching site which could differ depending on the day and the direction of the wind but it is usually an open field. Once there, you’ll watch the crew—for lack more industry specific terms here—unfold and blow up the balloons. This is honestly an incredible sight to see, as it really puts into perspective how big these machines are. For the ambitious, the crew will often let you help with set up if you ask nicely.
The whole set up time might take 30-45 minutes or so. Then, you get in! Now if you’re thinking of a rickety old basket hanging from the balloon, think again, as the baskets in real life could not be more different. They typically fit anywhere from 6-12 people (depending on their size) comfortably. That’s a huge basket! And the baskets are broken up into compartments so there might be 2-3 people in each compartment rather than all of the riders together in one area. This is so the weight is evenly distributed and if something really cool is seen from one side of the basket not everyone tries to rush over there at once to see it beacause that could easily be a recipe for disaster.
Your pilot (yes, in America hot air balloon pilots are FAA certified with the same airman’s certificate you’d have to get to fly any other aircraft) shoots up a few good bursts of hot air and the crew lets go of the holding ropes and you’re off!
So what does this feel like for the flyer? This is by far the most common question I ever got from travelers who were weary of going up in a balloon—especially for those who get motion sickness. Let me be the one to tell you, it feels like nothing. Truly, being in a hot air balloon is completely motionless. If you were to close your eyes while you were taking off, I doubt you’d even realize when you were one hundred feet off the ground–it’s that still. And for those afraid of heights it naturally depends on the severity of your phobia but if you keep your eyes trained on the horizon it shouldn’t be much of a problem.
While in air, you’re able to view the incredible mountains around you and don’t be surprised if your experienced pilot takes you up and down in elevation. I personally enjoy being closer to the ground to see what’s happening on the desert floor. On some of my flights, I’ve seen jack rabbits and coyotes running around which has been a cool experience from a birds-eye view. I’ve also had my pilot talk extensively about operating balloons and show off a few gravity tricks (involving water) mid-air. Of course, not every pilot is chatty but most are willing to answer any questions and speak about their positions as pilots.
Landing can be adventurous. A still, soft landing can be as easy as touching the ground, lightly bouncing a couple of times and then touching the ground again. A rough landing might mean that the basket touches the ground, drags a few yards and topples over on its side. Before you land, your pilot will instruct you with the landing brace position you’re to be in while landing as to not incur injury and believe it or not, the rough landings are usually more fun.
When you land whether it be in the middle of a desert field or off the side of the highway, your chase team will fetch you and take you back to your hotel.
Often times, balloon companies will take landing one step further in creating a special moment for the flier.
My personal favorite, Hot Air Expeditions, will set up picnic tables for you wherever you land and set out breakfast (usually a small quiche, apple slices, cheese, and a croissant of some variety) and champagne. They will toast you with The Balloonist’s Prayer before giving you your flight certificate and sending you on your way. It’s a magical experience in the desert.
In Albuquerque, New Mexico I’ve flown with Rainbow Ryders who fly in multiple locations. One of the perks of the flight scenery there is flying over the absolutely gorgeous Rio Grande River. And if you happen to be in ABQ for the annual Hot Air Balloon Fiesta—an outstanding event that I’ve been lucky enough to attend twice while on tour—it’s great to couple a flight with your time at the event. Rainbow Ryders will also toast you with champagne post ride and present you with a flight certificate to commemorate your ride. They too provide post flight refreshments but it’s more of a selection of juices and granola bars—not a full picnic breakfast.
While preparing for your flight you should plan to wear closed toed shoes (for the possible rough landing) and I would always suggest a baseball cap or other hat to men especially who might be lacking thick hair. The closer you are to the flame, the hotter it will feel on your head. Now, this warmth is welcome in the winter months, as even the desert is cold at dawn during winter but the flame can be quite hot during summer months so take precaution. It is a hot air balloon after all!
In my experience, the average time spent in the air is roughly 45 minutes to an hour and the whole excursion usually lasts about three or so hours. So, if you’re choosing to do a sunrise flight you’ll be done and ready to carpe diem by the time you’d normally wake up.
What others are saying about Hot Air Expeditions:
What others are saying about Rainbow Ryders: