Your Guide to a Great Time at Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Disclosure: Please note this post may contain affiliate links. This means – at no additional cost to you – we earn a commission if you make a purchase using our links. We only link to products and companies we use and recommend. The income goes toward supporting the free content on this site and community.

As the largest hot air balloon event in the world, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is a bucket list goal for millions! So we had high expectations it would be something special. And it was! Did you know you can even stay in your RV right by the Balloon Fiesta Field? It remains an event that lived up to – and exceeded – our expectations. We even included this balloon fiesta in our list of top “21 Things to Do” in our first book Living the RV Life: Your Ultimate Guide to Life on the Road. 

So yes, it’s popular. And if you want to camp on-site, you need to plan ahead to book a space. But you can buy your tickets to attend the morning and evening sessions on the day or in advance. Get our top tips for RVing at Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta here. 

erik_rocky_balloons_rfw Photo credit: Erik McCauley

We packed an incredible amount into our 9-day stay at our first time attending the Balloon Fiesta. And we took an INSANE number of photos and video footage. Narrowing down which ones to share has been an adventure in itself, but hopefully you’ll find our selection paints enough of a picture to inspire you to start making your own plans to get to Albuquerque. 

Fun Fact: Did you know the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the most photographed event in the world!?

Are you ready to find out what it’s like, and how you can see it for yourself? Let’s go!

erik_massascension1_rfw Photo credit: Erik McCauley

What is the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta?

First off, for those of you who may not really understand the magnitude of this event. And why we are raving about it from the first paragraph, allow us to enlighten you. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is an annual festival of hot air balloons that takes place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA during early October. The Balloon Fiesta is a nine-day event, attracting over 500 balloons and pilots from more than 20 countries each year. 

Since its humble beginnings in 1972 when 13 balloons were launched from a local parking lot as part of a radio promotion, the event has evolved to become what is now the largest hot air balloon festival in the world. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta draws crowds of over three quarters of a million people who travel from all around the world – it was estimated that over 800,000 people were at the first balloon fiesta event we attended!

dsc03557_crewlaunchballoon1_rfw

Why is the Balloon Fiesta held in Albuquerque?

There are certain weather patterns required for ideal hot air ballooning conditions and Albuquerque just happens to have them! The winds and currents of this city, combined with the early October weather – gorgeous sunny days and cool morning and evening temps – are just right for a balloon launch. 

The city also has a phenomenon known as the “Albuquerque Box”. This is a set of predictable wind patterns and geography that gives balloonists greater control over navigating the balloons. For example, at low elevations, the winds tend to be from the north. But at higher elevations, they tend to come from the south. When the conditions are optimal, balloon pilots use these winds to navigate in a vertical box shape. Balloons ascend slightly from the launch park, move south, ascend further, move north, and descend. Then they either repeat the box or land – which could be back in the launch park, in a field, park, or somewhere nearby. 

All of this adds up to make Albuquerque a great place to launch not one, but several hundred balloons!

dsc04681_balloonsbesiderocky_rfw

Why is the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta such a big deal?

Aside from the sheer vastness, beauty and magic of witnessing hundreds of beautiful, colorful and crazy shaped balloons all together in one place, the Fiesta can take a bow to some pretty amazing achievements, specifically:

  • It is the largest ballooning event on the earth
  • It is THE most photographed event on the planet (I can personally testify to this! LOL)
  • It is the largest annual international event held in the United States

As a non-profit organization, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is supported by over 1,000 volunteers who help make the event happen, by taking tickets, judging events, acting as balloon chase crew, and much more. I imagine that’s how they are able to keep the event so affordable. RV dry camping (with no utilities) starts at $50 a night. Tent camping is $35 a night. And session ticket prices to access balloon fiesta field cost $15 a pop (over the age of 12). So you really do get a lot of bang for your buck!

dsc03534_colorfulballoon_rfw

Why is the Balloon Fiesta so magical?

It’s hard to describe the feeling of actually being there, but there is definitely something magical and otherworldly about it! The Balloon Fiesta is sensory overload in the very best way, with so many colors, sights, sounds, and smells exploding all around you. Imagine hundreds of thousands of upturned, smiling faces, awestruck by the spectacular beauty of hot air balloons filling the big blue New Mexico sky. 

Watching the crowds milling about and kids playing, the orchestral teamwork of balloon crews preparing to launch. Hearing the loud whirring sound of huge fans inflating the enormous, colorful balloon envelopes as pilots shout instructions to their crew. Feeling the warmth of the propane burners blasting during the final stages of balloon inflation. Hearing the field marshal whistles blow, giving the OK for the pilot to throw off the ropes and start their ascent as onlookers cheer on. 

You look up and suddenly, you’re witnessing hundreds of balloons floating over you simultaneously – graceful, peaceful, majestic. It looks like confetti exploded in the sky. It’s such a special and moving experience that it can be quite emotional and even overwhelming.

erik_xscapersballoons_rfw Photo credit: Erik McCauley

Then at night, you hear the thrilling roar of hundreds of burners igniting simultaneously, transforming the park into a festive sea of colorful lightbulb-like balloons. The happiness and joy are palpable, sending tingles down your spine, and feeling such giddy excitement just to be there. Yes, it’s really that awesome.

erik_balloonglow1_rfw

What are the event highlights?

Fiesta event days are made up of two sessions – morning and evening – with several events within those sessions. And because hot air balloons can only inflate and fly safely under certain weather conditions, the events only happen when the weather is favorable. In fact, one of the reasons we’re so glad we stayed the entire 9 days as it enabled us to maximize our experience of the event, as some were canceled on a couple of mornings and evening glows were either canceled or cut short on a couple of evenings due to the weather. But the schedule is pretty standard from year to year and includes the following.

dsc03464_morningglow1_rfw

Dawn Patrol Show and Morning Glow

Around 5.45am on Mass Ascension days, 10-12 hot air balloons begin to inflate – choreographed to music – and launch at 6am right before sunrise. While on the ground and when up in the air, pilots fire off a “glow valve” lighting up their balloon envelope like a lightbulb, creating a morning glow – then flying until it is light enough to see landing sites. Aside from it being a beautiful early morning sight for spectators, the Dawn Patrol is also useful for other balloonists as they can watch the balloons and get an early idea of wind speeds and directions at different altitudes.

dsc03467_morningglow2_rfw

Mass Ascension

One of the biggest events of the Fiesta, the Mass Ascension is where all participating balloons launch in two waves starting at 7am and filling the sky with hundreds of balloons simultaneously. Launch directors – also known as “zebras” because of their black-and-white-striped outfits – serve as “traffic cops” coordinating the launch so the balloons leave the field in a safe, organized manner. Balloons are spread out along the 78 acre launch field – that’s 54 football fields all put together! 

And because the event has an excellent safety record, the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is one of the only balloon events in the world where attendees can walk around the launch field and be part of the action, seeing the balloons up close and meeting the pilots while watching the inflation and launch. It can take up to two hours to launch all of the balloons on the field. And nope, it never gets old.

erik_massascension_rfw Photo credit: Erik McCauleyerik_darthvader_rfw Photo credit: Erik McCauley

Special Shapes Rodeo

At the same time, many non-traditional, uniquely shaped balloons also launch. The special shape balloons are one of the big draws of the fiesta and it seems creativity knows no bounds! Some of the shapes we saw included a huge milk cow, the Wells Fargo wagon coach, a big pink and purple dragon, a fire hydrant, big green alligator, a pink elephant, flying pig – there was even a Darth Vader and Yoda balloon! Interestingly, we learned that the Darth Vader balloon envelope alone cost around $90,000 to make!

dsc04648_sidewaysyoda_rfw

Balloon Fiesta Evening Glow

This is one of the most popular and loved events of the Fiesta. Nighttime (weather permitting) sees hundreds of balloons inflated and illuminated by their propane burners. They don’t launch during the evening glow events – they’re simply on display for spectators who can walk around and admire them, getting up close, watching and hearing the burners flare up, lighting the balloons and the sky.

dsc03889_balloonpropaneblast_rfw

As you walk around you’ll occasionally hear a loudspeaker announcement “3-2-1… ALL BURN” which is the signal for all the balloons to fire their burners and light up at the same time – creating one of the most spectacular moments in all of Balloon Fiesta. On Thursday and Friday night, they host a Special Shape “Glowdeo” a night glow especially for the special shapes balloons, bringing joy to kids of all ages!

erik_balloonglow_rfw Photo credit: Erik McCauley

After Glow Fireworks

After the glow, there is a fireworks show to wrap up the evening. We were lucky enough to be able to watch the fireworks from our RVs and avoid the crowds most of the time. It was actually a pretty good show, but the one time we wandered over to watch it from the balloon field, we got sidetracked buying an Alpaca poncho to stay warm. So we only saw about 1% of the show, but caught 100% of the crowds leaving to return home! That’s when we decided it would make more sense to walk back instead of waiting in the long line for the shuttle bus.

dsc04054_rockyfireworks_rfw

Other Events and Competitions

While there are other special events as part of the balloon fiesta, such as America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race, where special long-distance gas balloons are inflated and then launched to see who can travel the farthest – historically, some balloons have gone as far as Canada and the US East Coast! There’s also Flight of the Nations ascensions, competition flying, chainsaw carving demonstrations and more – but we didn’t get to see any of those.

dsc03486_marcjulie_ballooncrew_rfw

Bonus: Balloon Launch and Chase Volunteer Crew

YES! You can crew, launch and chase a balloon and we highly recommend it! The Balloon Fiesta offers a “Volunteer Crew” signup station inside the event. But one of the benefits of camping with the Xscapers group was the opportunity to sign up as “balloon launch and retrieve” crew for a specific pilot, Fred Dinkler. He doesn’t mind having a ‘changing crew’ throughout the event. Fred is a highly experienced fixed wing, helicopter, and hot air balloon pilot, and his balloon “Thursday’s Child” was sponsored by Mexico Tourism Board. 

On the Thursday evening before the Fiesta began, about a dozen of us met Fred for a training session on the balloon launch field to learn the ropes. We had to move FAST due to an approaching storm and just narrowly managed to pack the balloon away in time to avoid getting it wet.

img_5617_thursdayschildtraining_rfw

Is there a fee for crewing on a balloon launch and retrieval?

It’s free to crew a balloon, and you don’t get paid either. But it does require getting up VERY early in the morning – about 5am. As you need to be on the Fiesta field by 6am to help launch the balloon. Even if you’re not a morning person (like me), it’s totally worth it! But it does get tiring, especially after a few days in a row, and if you’re trying to juggle work as well, as Marc had to do. So keep that in mind.

It also helps if you’re reasonably fit, healthy, and have some physical strength when volunteering as balloon crew. It’s not something we would recommend for those who are not physically able as some jobs are harder than others. Like holding the mouth of the envelope (balloon) open during inflation. And holding the crown line – that’s the rope at the very top of the balloon. These are definitely good workouts. Above all it’s FUN! Crewing was actually one of our favorite parts of the fiesta, so if you get the chance, DO IT!

dsc03564_marctravismouthballoon_rfw

It’s also a great team building exercise for everyone working together and bonding as we got the balloon inflated and launched. It’s so exciting seeing it take off into the blue sky, waving to the crew on board – which included the sponsors that first weekend – and knowing you were part of making it happen. It truly makes you FEEL like an integral part of the event, because you ARE!

dsc03605_balloonlaunch188_2_rfw

But our work wasn’t done! Next, we had to pack all the gear into the Balloon Chase Vehicle. Then start chasing the balloon, using GPS and visuals to track its location and meet them upon landing. We helped pack it down again and transport them back safely. This part of the crew duty was an absolute BLAST!  We all piled into Fred’s truck and began the chase through the back streets of Albuquerque, until we found them landed in a field. It definitely is the kind of job where many hands make light work, and so having a crew of six or more on any given day made it a lot easier for everyone, in particular Fred and his apprentice pilot Michelle.

The best way to get a real feel for the crewing experience is by watching our “Launch & Chase” video, which (if we say so ourselves) is one of the best videos we’ve ever created. We hope you enjoy it as much as we loved making it!

If you volunteer, will you get to fly?

That is entirely at the discretion of the pilot and to be honest, we would not count on it. The basket is not exactly roomy and can comfortably hold 3, maybe 4 people at a time. On the first weekend, Fred and Michelle took their sponsors up for a flight. And on other days, Fred was focused on giving Michelle one-on-one flying tuition. However, three of our volunteer crew (out of about a dozen) DID get to fly, and we believe it was largely because of the number of times we’d shown up to crew – on average 3-4 times each. And while that isn’t a guarantee, its simple math. The more often you show up as crew, the more likely you MAY be invited to fly. Just don’t count on showing up as crew once or twice and assume you’ll get to go.

If you REALLY want to be guaranteed a balloon flight, you will need to book a ride ticket. Several balloons are flown by Rainbow Ryders – the only company authorized to take the public up for a ride from the field. At a few hundred dollars per person, it is NOT cheap. But if this is in your budget – being a bucket list adventure after all – we can’t imagine a more exciting and fun place to go up for a hot air balloon ride, destination unknown!

julieflyinghotairballoon_rfw Photo credit: Stacey Calkins Quimby

Bonus Highlight: Yes, Julie got to fly!

I was lucky. I showed up to crew on Friday morning (day 7 of the event) while Marc stayed at the RV working. Just before throwing the ropes off to launch, Pilot Fred invited me to join he and Michelle to fly. It was an absolutely gorgeous morning with spectacular flying conditions and being “special shapes day” the sky was filled with hundreds of colorful, crazy shaped balloons.

img_5959_balloonflight_rope_rfw

We enjoyed a full hour’s flight before descending to an uneventful landing on a gravel road in between houses and horse barns, right as our chase crew pulled up beside us. It was incredible to gain a bird’s eye perspective of the Balloon Fiesta from so high up in the air. Watching the other balloons around us, and simply enjoying the peaceful, serene floating… with no sounds other than the occasional propane blast into the balloon.

julieballoonflight

img_6127_packdownballoonflight_rfw

The only thing that could have made it better is if Marc had been able to join me, but alas, he was back at the coach working 🙁

Marc and I both experienced our first-ever hot air balloon flight back in 2011 when he proposed to me during a hot air balloon ride over Boulder, Colorado. Naturally, this was an exciting and emotional experience and a wonderful flight. But the landing was somewhat more eventful. As we got close to the ground, a strong wind gust tipped over our basket, dragging it along the ground for about 50 feet. All four of us passengers and the pilot fell on top of each other. And we were all laughing and screaming (in a fun way), with dirt pouring into the basket as we catapulted sideways along the field. It was definitely an exciting way to end our romantic flight!

And while we jokingly call it a ‘crash landing’, it’s actually not uncommon at all for a balloon to have a sideways landing when wind gusts are higher on the ground. No-one was injured and we all walked away with a great story and fabulous memories.

marcjulieballoonengagement_may2011_rfw

A few more handy tips for the Balloon Fiesta

OK, we’ve covered a LOT of info in this post that we hope you’ve found useful. And it has inspired you you to get the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta on your calendar, sooner rather than later. 

Here are a final few tips and links that will help you hit the ground running and enjoy every moment!

  • Download the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta App on your smartphone for easy access and updates on each day’s events or access the event schedule online.
  • You don’t need to buy tickets in advance for morning and afternoon launch field sessions as they don’t sell out of general admission. You can buy tickets at the gate or as a 5-pack for a slight discount.
  • The food choices at the Balloon Launch field are your typical ‘fair’ type food ie. unhealthy, greasy options like corn dogs, funnel cakes, and donuts. But there’s also Mexican fare like burritos, tacos, coffee, and others. Given the crowds, you’ll almost always have to wait in line. If you value your health at all, or want to save time and money, consider eating before heading to the balloon field sessions. Or take your own food, water, and snacks.
  • There’s live music and plenty of vendors selling balloon souvenirs, hats, and decor. Plus a large corner tent that sells Alpaca ponchos, sweaters and blankets to keep you warm, as the nights get chilly.
  • The Albuquerque International Balloon Museum is also located near the launch field entrance and focuses on the last three decades of the festival, as well as the history of ballooning. We didn’t make it, but hope to next time.
  • Finally, remember the Balloon Fiesta is a high-energy, action-packed event with many early starts. So in the interest of self-care, after the event, try to keep your schedule light for a few days, to recover from the intensity and stimulation. Especially if you’re an introvert, like Marc!

More Useful Links and Resources

Have you been to a Balloon Fiesta? We’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.

11 thoughts on “Your Guide to a Great Time at Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta”

  1. Julie, you are right it is a once in a lifetime event. We were there in Oct 2016 for the Fiesta and it was awesome, we actually got to fly on Monday Oct 3rd. We have some friends that own and pilot a balloon and they let us ride. The festivities around the field were great, but the area around Albuquerque are also awesome. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

    Reply
  2. Julie, you are right it is a once in a lifetime event. We were there in Oct 2016 for the Fiesta and it was awesome, we actually got to fly on Monday Oct 3rd. We have some friends that own and pilot a balloon and they let us ride. The festivities around the field were great, but the area around Albuquerque are also awesome. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

    Reply
  3. Great article! do you have any sense of how often the mass ascensions get cancelled due to weather? For example, in your 9 day trip last year, how many days were no-flight days? Would be helpful context as we plan our trip!

    Reply
    • Hi Amy of course that will vary from year to year, but from memory, when we were there in 2016 I believe it was 2 or 3…. weather can impact the glows and evening shows too. When planning your trip, would recommend going for at least a week if you can. People who try to do it in a couple of days are really running a risk the weather will be perfect. And when you are there, go to the events every time you get a good day as you just never know if tomorrow will be. Hope that helps!

      Reply
  4. Thanks for sharing all of your experiences. I really enjoy reading your stories and viewing your videos.
    May God Bless both of you during the holidays!

    Reply
  5. Enjoyed your Balloon Fiesta experience. One our best RV adventures, too. Thanks for re-kindling great memories. We crewed as well, which we think of every time we see a hot air balloon overhead.
    Great photos. Great blog.

    Reply
  6. Julie, greetings. Sounds like yo and Marc continue to enjoy the life style that RV living provides – So happy for you.
    Just wanted to tell you that your narratives get better everyday, confirming that “practice makes perfect”.
    Keep up the good work, continue to enjoy life at its fullest and look forward to seeing you again (soon????)

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Pin It on Pinterest