Hot Air Balloon Rides:

Up, Up & Away in Albuquerque

By Marianne Schwab | Best Travel Deals Tips Blog

Did you know that long before the Wright brothers piloted their first plane that the hot air balloon was the first successful human-carrying aircraft? Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francoise Laurent d’Arlandes are credited with the first manned flight on November 21, 1783, in Paris, France.

A hot air balloon ride has been on my bucket list for over 25 years and I’ve dreamed of going up, up, up and away in a beautiful balloon since I first heard that famous song by the Fifth Dimension. I actually had an invitation from the legendary hot air balloon icon, Buddy Bombard, himself to take an amazing vacation floating through the Swiss Alps in a balloon when I was a producer for Runaway with the Rich & Famous. Buddy Bombard’s gaily-decorated balloons are a dimension unto themselves and he plans European itineraries where you drift slowly just above centuries-old castles, chalets, vineyards, lakes, forests and villages low enough to speak to the villagers just beneath your balloon.

It’s been one of the biggest regrets of my life that I decided not to go on this magical vacation because the Persian Gulf War broke out a few weeks before my scheduled departure. In my younger years, I was not comfortable with air travel during a war, but with 20/20 hindsight I know everything would have been fine.

Fast forward twenty years later and last fall, I found myself planning a trip to Albuquerque for Thanksgiving for a family holiday. Albuquerque is synonymous with hot air balloon rides and my brother, Mike, was totally on board with the idea and generously offered to pay for the voyage. So we set the wheels in motion to research the best company for the adventure.

Locating a Hot Air Balloon Company. As you might imagine, there are a lot of companies that offer hot air balloon rides in Albuquerque, but sifting through the best ones was no easy task. Just Google “Hot Air Balloon Rides” and the city you’re visiting and you’ll get several options. Rainbow Ryders was recommended by my niece, Sarah, as she’d been on two balloon rides with them so that’s where we booked our reservation. If you want to give a Hot Air Balloon Ride as a gift like my brother did for me, Cloud 9 offers them in cities around the country.

What You Can Expect to Pay. In addition to researching companies in Albuquerque, I’ve also researched them in the Los Angeles area as well, near where I live. You can expect to pay a range of $150 to $300 per person depending on whether or not you are going with a large group or opt for a private flight. We had opted for a private flight with just the three of us (my brother, his wife and me) plus the pilot, which was about $50 more per person but very worth it in my opinion.

What to Expect the Morning of Your Flight. Balloon rides start very early in the morning at sunrise because that’s when the winds and thermal activities are the most calm and conditions are the most favorable for balloon flight. For us, that meant that we had to be on site at 6:45am. Many companies also offer to pick you up at your hotel for a small additional charge. Our adventure began when we meet our Rainbow Ryders crew at the launch site.

When you get to the launch site, you will probably be given an opportunity to assist in the inflation of the hot air balloon like my brother, Mike, and his wife, Melissa, were. It was fun to be involved as “hands on” crew members with our pilot, Neal Langford, who has piloted balloons all over the world including Russia, Sylvania, Croatia, Dubai and Mexico. In the United States, a pilot of a hot air balloon must have a pilot certificate from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and a commercial pilot certificate in order to carry paying passengers for hire.

The inflation of the balloon is a great time to take pictures like I did as the gentle giant balloon comes alive before your eyes. Once the balloon is inflated, it’s time to climb in the basket and get ready for lift off.

Up, Up & Away in Our Beautiful Balloon. Lifting off was exhilarating as we gently drifted up, up and away. Within moments we were floating a couple thousand feet above the world below and taking in breathtaking views of the majestic Sandia Mountains and Rio Grande Valley. During a hot air balloon ride flight, you will probably fly anywhere from ground level to a couple thousand feet above. Also, depending on the weather, some pilots in Albuquerque have been known to skim the surface of the Rio Grande with the bottom of the basket of the balloon.

During part of our journey, we were floating just a couple hundred feet over homes. Many of the residents that were out in their yards would wave at us and the site of our magical aircraft as we waved back sending greetings to the earthbound folks below.

My sister-in-law, Melissa, admitted she was a little nervous before our flight because she’s afraid of heights. I think anyone might be little apprehensive floating several thousand feet above the ground hanging in a small basket tethered to a balloon. One thing is certain, if you think about it too much during your flight, you might get a wee bit freaked out…so just don’t think about it. Enjoy the view and take lots of cool photos. The day we went on our balloon adventure, there were two other balloons taking off with us and I was able to capture some great photos of these balloons in flight.

Hot air balloon ride flights will probably last anywhere from sixty to ninety minutes. A chase crew will follow your balloon while you’re flying and meet you at the landing site. Every flight is different and that means landing sites vary since a balloon flight is dependent on wind speed and direction. We landed on top of a mesa and were actually greeted by one of the organizers of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta who was out walking his dog. After we landed and took a few photos, we were invited to help with the packing of the balloon as this is a big job. The balloon was loaded into the truck and trailer, we got in the van and headed back to the launch site.

Every Hot Air Balloon Ride Flight Ends with a Glass of Champagne. After landing the balloon and returning to the launch site, we had the traditional champagne toast with the other balloon riders from the other balloons. Our hosts from Rainbow Riders told the story of the how enjoying a glass of champagne became a tradition that started in France after the first hot air balloon flight in 1783. At that point in history, no man had ever flown before so it was thought to be impossible and those witnessing the spectacle may have thought the balloon occupants were not of this earth.

The pilots could not easily control where the balloon would land and the early hot air balloons were filled with smoke and would even catch fire when they landed. Traveling landowners and their workers would see a blazing object fall from the sky with black-faced pilots scrambling around on their land. In order for the balloonists to save themselves from getting lynched by the mob, the pilots would offer a bottle of champagne from the King's court to appease the landowners who's land they had trespassed on with their balloon landing. This usually worked and a grand hot air balloon landing champagne tradition was born.

Getting Great Photos. For most of us, a hot air balloon ride may very well be a once in a lifetime experience. For me, travel souvenirs are all about the photos and photos are your record of a balloon ride adventure. If you’re traveling with anyone who is not going on the flight, let them take the photos before the flight, as you lift off and at landing. My sister, Trina, stayed behind on the ground and shot video of our ascent and rode with the chase crew to meet us at our landing site.

How to Dress for the Flight. Make sure that you dress you appropriately. In summer, it will be hot, but for our November flight, it was a chilling 15 degrees. I’m so glad that in my head I thought it was in the 30’s since I hadn’t looked at an updated weather report the day of our flight. Now the burners in the balloon will heat the basket area a little, but dress for the weather conditions. I had a hat, scarf and gloves with my wool coat and I was rather chilled during the flight (forgot to double up on the socks). My brother, Mike had thought the burners would make the ride much warmer than it was and unfortunately, he was freezing during our voyage as he wasn’t wearing a coat. In reality, the temperature in the balloon is a few degrees warmer than the surrounding air, despite the increased altitude. It is recommended that you wear warm clothing and dress in layers if you are taking a balloon ride in the fall or winter.

Just as I love snorkeling reefs all over the world, I think my new must do adventure every where I travel will be to experience the location from a hot air balloon ride.

You know, your vacation can take a year to save for and only a second to ruin. Before you go, you may want to purchase travel insurance through Travel Guard. Starting at $30.

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