If you're all about unbeatable views and bucket-list photo opps, chances are you've considered shelling out for a hot air balloon ride. That's what we set out to do during a visit to Albuquerque in April, toward the beginning of peak flying season there. We unfortunately weren't able to take flight, due to weather conditions and a tight itinerary, but here are some of our lessons learned -- as well as some tips that we got from Taylor Aldous, chief pilot and COO of Rainbow Ryders, which also operates in Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Mesa.
1. Timing -- and flexibility -- is everything.
Because rides are so weather-dependent, it's always a good idea to have a few alternative days for flying, as our experience clearly demonstrates. Aldous recommends scheduling a flight at the very beginning of a trip, so you'll have as many options as possible in case you need to reschedule. It's also good to know what months tend to have the best conditions in your destination. (In Albuquerque, peak months are March/April through the end of October, though the low season yields some great sunset rides, too.)
2. Be ready to get up early. Again, when it comes to safety, it's all about how stable the winds are -- and, in many destinations, they're most stable in the early mornings or the evenings. You might have to set the alarm for 5 a.m.; flights can be as early as 7 a.m., and it can take a little time to drive out from headquarters to the launch site.
3. Companies do a lot to make sure that you'll be safe. "We receive official weather briefing from flight service along with many other weather forecasting websites" -- includes the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) -- says Aldous. It's also fun to watch the pilots release helium balloons at the launch site, with the purpose of determining whether the wind speeds and direction are fit for flying. Fun fact: "Hot air ballooning is one of the safest forms of aviation, dating back to the first flight on November 21, 1783," Aldous says.
4. You should pack lightly. Space is limited in the balloon basket, so just bring the essentials. These include some layers, sunglasses, closed-toe shoes, and of course a camera. Especially if you're over six feet tall, consider bringing a hat -- for heat protection from the burner flames that fuel the balloon.
5. Once you're in flight, it'll be a pretty comfortable ride. Considering the altitude, many passengers worry about being cold. But Aldous reminds us: "You might lose a few degrees, but you also have added heat from the burner." And don't worry if you fear heights. Aldous points out that you're constantly in motion with the balloon, which moves at a nice and leisurely pace, so you won't have a fixed point below to cause that swooping feeling in your stomach.
6. Remember: There are no seats and no bathroom breaks. Each company will have its own age restrictions, but it really boils down to whether you can handle being on your feet for an hour or two. And there's no getting off mid-flight, so be sure you hit the restroom before you leave.
7. Not all hope is lost if weather conditions aren't initially ideal. Once everyone arrives at a launch site, pilots might spend up to an hour waiting to see if the weather stabilizes (though times depend on the forecast and conditions of the day). It's another reason to layer up; the mornings can be especially chilly.
8. Pricing is seasonal. How much a hot air balloon ride costs depends on everything from the destination and flight duration to the time of year and package details -- some experiences can include champagne, snacks, and more. But you can generally expect to pay a minimum of $150-$250 per adult.