The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is the largest hot air ballooning event in the world and is said to be the most photographed event on earth! Each October, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is held in Albuquerque, New Mexico and hundreds of balloonists and thousands of tourists from around the world flock to the Land of Enchantment for a chance to witness nine days of spectacular hot air ballooning events. Events include the mass ascension of hundreds of balloons, a gas balloon race, balloon glows, balloon competitions, and more! This is a dazzling event of colorful beauty and one of my favorite festivals in the world. I have had the pleasure to attend the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta both in 2009 when I was living and working in Albuquerque and then again in 2016, so this post has been significantly updated with information from both visits! Interested in attending the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta yourself? We’ll cover all the logistics, give you some tips for planning your time at the festival, share our own experience, and provide loads of photos from our own time attending the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta.
Information on Attending the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta
When is the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta?
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta takes place each October. It begins in early October every year and usually runs for 9 days. The dates change each year so be sure to check the website. In 2017, the Balloon Fiesta will run from October 7th to October 15th.
Where are the Balloon Fiesta events?
All the main events of the Balloon Fiesta take place at the Balloon Fiesta Park in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Balloon Fiesta Park is located in northern Albuquerque. The park is located west of I-25, approximately 12 miles north of the Albuquerque International Sunport airport, 7 miles north of downtown Albuquerque, and 5 miles east of Rio Rancho. You’ll have to follow signs to park once you get close to the park, but if you need an address for your GPS you can use: 4401 Alameda Blvd NE, Albuquerque, NM 87113. Latitude: 35° 11.8 N Longitude: 106° 35.8W
How many days should I attend the Balloon Fiesta?
I would plan to come for as many days as you can spare as the events are all weather-dependent. Some people just come for one day and hope for the best, but I would advise to come for at least 3 days so that you have a good chance of being able to see the balloons launch. If you can be around all week, that would give you the best chance. If you come for the full festival and the balloons go up early in your visit, you can then spend your time exploring Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and other nearby attractions.
What are the Main Events at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta?
Dawn Patrol Show – This is where at least one hot air balloon (often several) will take off before sunrise and fly to check on weather conditions and visibility of landing conditions. It is both practical as well as a tradition. Generally takes place around 6:00am.
Morning Glow – This is where a number of balloons will line up and use their propane burners to light up in the morning before sunrise while still tethered to the ground. The pilots will do synchronized burns and such. These balloons will later launch with the rest of the balloons after sunrise.
Mass Ascension – This is where hundreds of balloons all launch in the same morning, generally over a 1.5 to 2 hour period. They will launch in two waves so that for almost 2 hours there will be balloons being set up, inflated, and launched from the field. Visitors can walk around the launch field to see the balloon preparations and get different views as the balloons launch. For many people, this is a highlight of the Balloon Fiesta. If the weather is good, the first balloons generally start launching a little after 7:00am after the singing of the National Anthem.
America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race – This annual long-distance race starts from the Balloon Fiesta Park where pilots in specially designed gas balloons compete to see who can go the furthest distance without coming down. They have to take all their clothing, food, fuel, and gear with them on their flight. Pilots could spend one to four days in their balloons and can go as far as the East Coast of the U.S. or Canada!
Evening Balloon Glows – Taking place just before dusk, pilots inflate their hot air balloons and keep them tethered to the ground. Then once dark, the pilots will periodically ignite their propane burners so that the balloons light up and glow. They will do synchronized burns called “all burns” where all the balloons will light up at once. The evening balloon glows (also called twinkle glows, and night magic glows, etc. but all the same thing) are generally followed by fireworks and laser light shows. The fireworks are generally very good and worth staying to watch!
Special Shape Balloon Events – In addition to the traditional and most common inverted teardrop shape balloons, there are numerous special shaped balloons. These balloons can be shaped as cartoon characters, beer mugs, carousels, Star Wars characters, animals, hearts, people, etc. Special shape balloons are included in most of the other events but there is usually a day where only the Special shape balloons take off in the morning and do the evening glow. These are popular events for visitors and locals alike as it is fun to see all the shapes at one time. Each year people come to check out the new shapes and see the old favorites!
Flying Competitions – These events have balloon pilots test their skills as they compete doing tasks against other balloonists. Events may include fly-in tasks where they must drop something on a specific target and events where they must toss or grab rings from various poles.
Music Fiesta – A music concert held at the Balloon Fiesta Park that typically features rock and/or country music performers. Attending the Music Fiesta requires an extra ticket that can be purchased in advance.
Other Events & Activities – Typically there are also other attractions or events scheduled each year that take place in the afternoons or evenings at Balloon Fiesta Park, such as dance performances, chainsaw carving competitions, music events, car shows, carnival games, children’s rides, etc. The Balloon Discovery Center is an educational center located on Main Street that offers guests the chance to learn about the sport of ballooning. In 2016, there was also a giant Canon tent and they were allowing the public to try out cameras, taking free souvenir photos, and even offering free cleaning of Canon DSLR cameras and lenses.
What are the Best Days to attend Balloon Fiesta?
There is generally no best day to attend the Balloon Fiesta, but the most popular event is the morning mass ascensions which generally take place on Saturday and Sunday mornings and one of the weekday mornings. In the evening, the Balloon Glows are beautiful and generally followed by some great fireworks. Another popular favorite event is the Special Shapes Rodeo and balloonists generally attend the Flying Competition events where balloon pilots test their flying skills against other pilots. Be sure to buy Music Fiesta tickets in advance if you wish to attend that event. You should look ahead at the schedule (available about a year in advance) to make your plans as different events take place each day. To avoid crowds, come on a weekday as they are much less crowded than weekends, and one day usually provides special activities for children and familes. I would recommend planning to attend at least one morning session and one evening session as they are quite different in nature. Oddly, we found many first-time visitors we talked to had little idea what events were happening when and just sort of assumed that all days were the same. Do a little research beforehand so you know what you are most interested in seeing!
How do I get to the Balloon Fiesta?
There are a several ways to get to the Balloon Fiesta Park, and probably the best option for most visitors is the Park & Ride shuttle buses as these are easy, convenient, and include your admission into the park in the cost of the ticket. However, there are several other options as well and all should work whether you are going in the morning sessions or evening sessions:
Drive Yourself. There are large parking lots located in and around Balloon Fiesta Park for visitors and the cost (as of 2016) was $15 per car or motorcycle. Parking is paid as you enter the park (cash only), and is first come, first serve. If you are planning to attend a lot of sessions, you can purchase an all-session parking pass through the Balloon Fiesta Gift Shop in Albuquerque (call 1-888-422-7277) in advance. If you require special handicapped parking or assistance, please contact the Balloon Fiesta staff in advance. Note: The public parking lots often become completely filled on weekends so plan to arrive early or take a shuttle bus to avoid not getting a parking space. Also traffic can be terrible in the morning and some visitors report waiting 2 hours in traffic to enter the park and end up missing part of the mass ascensions. Early is the key; we left where we were staying between 4:15am and 4:50am each morning and did not have any issues.
Park & Ride shuttle Bus. Shuttles to Balloon Fiesta Park leave from several locations in the city where you can park your vehicle (or walk) and take the shuttle into the park. Then after the event you’ll get in a line for your shuttle return location and a shuttle will drop you back off. Prices for the shuttle include your Balloon Fiesta Park admission and they drop you off close to the field. Purchase Park & Ride tickets in advance online for best prices ($15 for adults, $12 for Seniors, & $7 for children in 2016) as same day tickets are much higher ($22 for adults, $20 for Seniors, & $10 for children in 2016). Note: These shuttles typically do NOT run on the less busy days of the Balloon Fiesta which are normally Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays so be sure to check in advance.
Rail Runner & Shuttle Combo. On certain days, typically the weekends of the Balloon Fiesta, the New Mexico Rail Runner (local train) operates on a special schedule and you can take the train to a specific station (usually the Los Ranchos/Journal Center stop) and a shuttle will meet you to take you to the park. Combo tickets should be purchased in advance that include your rail, shuttle, and Balloon Fiesta admission. Tickets prices were $25 for adults, $20 for Seniors and $5 for children in 2016. Be sure to pay special attention to the schedule as normally there is only one shuttle going to and from the park for the morning and evening sessions each day. This is a great option for those staying outside of central Albuquerque. Note: The Rail Runner option is typically only available on Balloon Fiesta weekends so be sure to check the schedule.
Taxi and Uber Rides. You can also book a Uber or taxi ride but be aware that they will be stuck in the same traffic as you would be so book in advance and head out early! Note that rates will be higher than normal during the Festival.
Bike to the Park. A healthy and free way to reach the park is to ride a bike. If you are staying nearby, this is a good option and there is a complimentary bike valet operating in the morning and the evening. There are bike trails that run across much of Albuquerque and you can ride your bike to the Bike Valet point just off Balloon Museum Drive and a volunteer will tag your bike and store it in a safe location while you enjoy the Balloon Fiesta. Just note that you will most likely be riding to or from the park in the dark so you’ll need to have or rent a bike with headlights, reflectors, taillights, etc. to be able to drive safely in the early morning and evening hours. Find more bike valet information online.
RVing or camping. The Albuquerque International Balloon is very popular for RVers and there are hundreds of spots available each year around the launch field. Spots range from dry tent camping spots to premium spots with great views next to the launch field and the highly-prized President’s Compound spots (bluff overlooking the launch field with good views & hook-ups). The vast majority of RV spots are dry camping spots (no hookups), but porta-potties are free and readily available on-site and you have access to dump and water services for an additional fee from third-party folks who will come to your site. RVing at the park allows you to walk, bike, or take a complimentary short shuttle ride to and from the launch field. Parking in the spots is first come, first serve. Current prices for RV spots range from $35 to $175 for spots. Most RV prices do NOT include admission tickets to the Balloon Park. Find out the latest RV information and book your RV spot here. Note: Reservation bookings for RVs spots begins the week after the last Balloon Fiesta and many spots are already selling out for the 2017 Balloon Fiesta, so be sure to reserve your spots as soon as you want to go! If spots are all sold out when you try to book, you can add your name to a wait list.
Walking. Walking is probably the best way to get to the park if you happen to be staying close to the park. This is a popular way for RVers staying at an on-site spot.
Hotel Shuttles. A few hotels and casinos will also have their own private shuttles taking their guests to and from Balloon Fiesta Park so be sure to ask just in case they do.
Parking Tips for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
As noted above, arrive as early as possible if you plan to drive. Be sure to closely follow signs as you approach the Park as if you get in the wrong lane, it can waste a lot of time trying to backtrack. Then once inside the Park, parking volunteers will wave you in the right direction to get you parked. Parking is first come, first serve so the earlier you get there the better your chances of getting a spot closer to the field. Bring cash to pay for your parking. If you come too late, you may not get a spot at all as the lots do sometime fill completely. We recommend considering Park & Ride, especially during morning weekend sessions as these are the busiest days of the Balloon Fiesta.
How Early should I arrive for the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta?
No matter how you are getting to the park, with the exception of walking, be sure to arrive early! For morning sessions, the park generally opens at 4:30am and we’d advise trying to be inside the park by 5:30am (events begin around 6:00am most mornings). But really the closer to 4:30am the better. It will be busy, especially on weekends, and you do not want to risk waiting in traffic or in a line and miss some of the events. The parking lots do fill up, especially on weekends, and if you are heading to the park late you risk not getting a spot at all. A couple of visitors recently told us that last year they left late to get to the Balloon Fiesta morning mass ascension and the parking lots were already full so they were stuck in traffic for 2 hours and they missed it. Don’t be these people!
The evening sessions are not as crowded normally as the morning sessions, but generally it is advised to be at the park about 2 hours before the evening events begin to avoid heavy traffic, On one evening, we got there and parked about an hour before the Balloon Glow started and the traffic was heavy but there was still plenty of parking available. However, better to be safe than sorry and it is more enjoyable to be in the Park walking around and eating than sitting in traffic!
How do I Purchase Balloon Fiesta Admission Tickets?
Admission tickets are $10 per person, per session (there is both a morning and evening session on most days, so if you leave the park after the morning session, you’ll have to pay again to enter in the evening). Tickets can be purchased in advance online or at the entrance to the park. Admission costs are included if you arrive on a Park & Ride shuttle bus. If there is a special ticketed event happening during the Balloon Fiesta, such as Music Fiesta (an special concert), tickets are sold separately. See website for pricing and schedules.
Are there upgraded experiences available?
Yes, you can buy tickets to join the Chasers’ Club or the even more upgraded Gondola Club. These give you access to upgraded experiences such as premium viewing areas, dedicated bathrooms, hot meals, beverage services, cocktails, parking passes, etc. You can also get tickets to some of the great events held at the Anderson Abruzzo Albuquerque Balloon Museum during the Balloon Fiesta which has a viewing gallery and balconies that looks onto the Launch Field and a dedicated parking lot. Past events have included catered breakfasts held during the morning mass ascensions, dinner during the evening balloon glows, wine and painting events, and events designed for children and families. The Albuquerque Balloon Museum is just south and adjacent to the launch field.
What about food, drinks, and bathrooms?
There are plenty of vendors selling all kinds of food and drinks with an emphasis on hamburgers, burritos, hot dogs, pizza, nachos, and donuts. It is said that the first breakfast burritos were first sold at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta in the 1970’s. Whether it is true or not is hard to know, but the breakfast burrito is sort of the unofficial morning food for festival goers and a good time to try green and or red chiles if you have not done so already. There are also lots of hot drinks like coffee and hot chocolate available which are very welcome in the early morning.
There are hundreds of port-a-potties placed around the Balloon Park that are free for guests to use. If the bathrooms are busy (or you want to try to find the cleanest ones), consult a map and head towards the ones furthest away from the entrances and Main Street (towards 2nd Street). These are typically much less used and have fewer lines than those just off the Main Street and around the concession stands.
What’s up with the Souvenir Pins and the Balloon Trading Cards?
Every year, new official Balloon Fiesta merchandise is made and sold at the festival. The most popular item associated with the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta are the collectible lapel pins and many people collect the new pins each year. These pins include official event pins, commemorative pins, special events pins, individual balloon pins, race pins, etc. There is even a scheduled Trading session held each year for those who collect the pins to meet up and trade their pins during the Fiesta. You can buy the latest pins at the Fiesta at any of the tents selling official Balloon Fiesta merchandise, but the quantities are limited each year. You can also buy some of the official merchandise online at any time. There is also tons of other official and unofficial merchandise from sweatshirts to earrings to posters sold at the festival. I bought a pair of earrings at my very first Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta in 2009 and have since purchased other hot air balloon related jewelry here and there.
You may also see or hear people talking about Balloon Cards which are paper cards that include a photo of each individual balloon, the name of the balloon, pilot, and information about the annual balloon fiesta. A number of kids seem to go around collecting these cards from pilots. Pilots generally carry some on them each year and will hand them out to people who ask, and you can sometimes buy packs of them in the booths.
Tips for Booking Accommodation during Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta?
The two weeks in October around the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta are the busiest and most expensive time to be visiting Albuquerque. Hotel prices and RV rates double and even triple during the Balloon Fiesta. Prices for rental cars, flights, etc. are also going to be higher than normal. We were in Albuquerque a month before the Balloon Fiesta and the hotel rooms more than doubled in price on our return and the cost of a rental car had almost tripled in price per day. No matter what you do, you’ll likely end up paying a bit more than usual although luckily Albuquerque is not normally an expensive city. Albuquerque offers a wide range of lodging options, including classic motels, Airbnb apartments, bed-and-breakfasts, luxury hotels, hostels, and RV campgrounds. Compare hotel prices (we like to use HotelsCombined to compare prices across booking websites) and book early for best prices and to guarantee getting the date and places you want. Also consider the distance from where you will be staying from either the Balloon Fiesta Park or the nearest Park and Ride parking lot.
If you need to book more last minute and are not having luck finding anything, don’t despair! Think about lodging alternatives to what you have tried (sleeping in a hostel, apartment, or motel – more ideas for lodging alternatives here). Places near the Sunport airport are often the last to book up and offer better prices since they are further from downtown and from the Balloon Fiesta; however, there is a Park and Ride parking location now at the airport (do confirm this is still the case before booking!) and this would be convenient if you are doing Park and Ride. You can also consider options just outside Albuquerque. Rio Rancho, Corrales, and even Bernallio are communities adjacent to Albuquerque and near the Balloon Fiesta. Often if the balloons head north, they land in these cities.
How do I know if it the Fiesta is going to be cancelled due to Weather?
The hot air balloons are highly weather dependent and will not go up if conditions related to the wind, clouds, rain, or visibility are not right. The evening balloon glows and fireworks also are weather-dependent but have fewer restrictions. This is perhaps the most frustrating thing about Balloon Fiesta, even more so than the traffic, as you may get up at 4am and be at the park by 5:00 and then learn at 7:00am that the event is cancelled for that morning. Generally the balloon pilots learn around 6:30am at the Pilot Briefing if there will be a weather delay or cancellation. Delays can last for a couple of hours and you won’t be sure if they are going to go up or not. They will periodically make announcements on the field, but a couple of other good places to learn about the latest Balloon Fiesta launch info is Albuquerque’s TV station KOB channel 4, KKOB 770 AM Radio, and the Balloon Fiesta official Twitter account. Note that in some cases, pilots may be told they can launch at their own discretion and some will decide to go and others will not. Generally in these cases, pilots carrying passengers will often not go given they have the safety of the passengers to consider as well as themselves. If an event is cancelled, the Balloon Fiesta Park will stay open unless the weather is hazardous and some balloons may even inflate but not take off. The concession stands will also stay open.
Cancellations due to weather happen each year and the number of cancellations and delays vary each year so they are fairly impossible to predict in advance, but if you go to the Balloon Fiesta with this knowledge, then you’ll be prepared to return another day. I would check the weather forecast and try to plan to go on days when sun and clear skies are predicted.
What happens if a Balloon Fiesta event is cancelled?
Generally, with the admission tickets and upgraded experience tickets, you can not get a refund but you can re-use your ticket for the next session or the next day. It is therefore important to keep hold of all your tickets in case an event is cancelled. Generally with Park & Ride tickets, if you keep your ticket for a cancelled event you get a discounted rate to ride for another session and free admission for the next session or day. Be sure to check the latest rain check policy when you purchase your tickets.
Can I Ride in a Hot Air Balloon during the Balloon Fiesta?
Yes! You can pay to ride in a hot air balloon during the Balloon Fiesta. Rainbow Ryders is the only hot air balloon company that is permitted to take guests and launch during a mass ascension from the Balloon Fiesta Park. I have not personally ridden with them but they are a long-standing company with a great reputation and safety record which is why they have been chosen as the official balloon operator of the Balloon Fiesta. However, note that the experience of going up during the Balloon Fiesta is expensive and their normal rates double or triple during the festival. Normal rates are about $149 per person the rest of the year, but rates last year during the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta were about $429/person for a group ride and up to $750/person for a private ride with less than 4 persons. For many people, being able to go up in a balloon during a mass ascension with hundreds of other balloons is a once in a lifetime experience worth splurging on! Be sure to book well in advance to get the dates you want.
If the above prices are out of your budget, but you really want to ride in a hot air balloon during Balloon Fiesta, consider booking with another hot air balloon company during the Balloon Fiesta. Several other companies provide balloon flights in Albuquerque (as well as Santa Fe) and will generally offer lower rates (although still much higher than normal). Companies include Air Carriage LLC, APEX Balloons, World Balloon, Aerogelic Ballooning, Private Balloon Flights, and Viator. While these companies can launch their balloons in the city at the same time as the Balloon Fiesta, they are NOT allowed to launch from Balloon Fiesta Park. This means you will not get quite as close to the other balloons, but you should still see the other balloons in the air.
For lower prices, consider booking a balloon flight before or after the Balloon Fiesta when prices return to the normal rates. During most of the year, hot air balloon rides in Albuquerque range from about $140 to $200/person for a group flight. In addition to companies, you may also come across individual pilots offering private balloon flights if they have their own balloon, just note that the pilot needs to have a commercial balloon license (versus a private one) to take paying customers. You may not get to see hundreds of balloons in the sky, but you could save hundreds of dollars and you still get the same city and mountain views without the traffic!
No matter when or where you choose to fly, be sure to spend some time researching and comparing companies on pricing, length of flight, number of passengers, inclusions (e.g., glass of champagne or breakfast), and what other customers have said (e.g., positive reviews). You’ll also want to inquire about the safety record of the company and know their refund policy if there is a weather related cancellation which happens fairly often. Balloons will only go up when weather conditions are safe to do so, and those carrying customers are going to obviously need to be cautious. If your flight is cancelled, you need to know if you will receive a full or partial refund or do you get a rain check voucher and option to go on another flight (if so, when?)? If you plan to ride during Balloon Fiesta and you book to go on a mass ascension morning, be sure to know what happens if that flight is cancelled and you have to reschedule to a day there is no Balloon Fiesta event, do you get some of your money back? Know what you are buying and what happens in the event of a cancellation. This also means that it is generally NOT a good idea to book a hot air balloon flight on your final (or only) day in Albuquerque as you won’t have the chance to reschedule in the event of bad weather.
Can I volunteer during the Balloon Fiesta?
Yes! Every year a few thousand volunteers are needed in addition to a small team of professional full-time staff to help with the event. These include people needed to help with parking, managing the RV lots, taking registrations, mailing posters, directing traffic, and even being members of the balloon chase crews. In addition to helping with the success and safety of the event, volunteers also get a number of advantages such as free parking and admission throughout the event, access to complimentary meals and snacks, and Balloon Fiesta goodies. If you volunteer and are coming from out of town, you may also be eligible for discounted hotel rates. To quality as a volunteer, you need to be available the entire length of the Balloon Fiesta, do a short training, and be willing to do at least three shifts. You can find out more and sign up to volunteer online.
Can I see the Balloons from outside Balloon Fiesta Park?
Yes, you have a good chance of seeing them from many spots all over the city as the majority of the balloons will leave from the Balloon Fiesta Park but land outside of it. I used to see them floating along on my way to work when I lived in Albuquerque. The most magical sights are probably from in and around the Balloon Fiesta Park but you can still see them all over the city. Many people, especially locals who have already been to the Balloon Fiesta, will avoid the crowds at the Park and just head to a spot in the city (or just sit in their backyard) where they can comfortably watch them and hopefully see a few land as well. The problem with this is that it depends on the winds where the balloons will go and land, so you won’t know which way they are heading until several are up in the air and then even then winds sometimes change direction.
We had fun watching them fly over and land one morning in the Corrales and Rio Rancho area where we were staying which is a preferred area for many balloonists as there are fewer people and more landing spots, but even that day some of the balloons went in the complete opposite direction. We were very lucky as we were with local fellow blogger Leslie from New Mexico Nomad who knows the area very well and she knew some great spots once we figured out where the balloons were headed. People watch from spots all over the city, in nearby communities like Corrales, along the river, and even from Sandia Peak (although they are going to be very far away). The best advice I would have is to ask around about preferred viewing and landing spots near where you are going to be and head there in the morning, and then have a back-up place to go if the balloons head in the opposite direction. Just be sure not to park on or alongside roads as you’ll likely get a ticket, and be sure to stay out of locals’ driveways. I would advise this plan for those who have already seen the balloons from the park or for those who absolutely hate crowds. Seeing the balloons up close and together is really, in my opinion, the highlight of Balloon Fiesta and from inside the Park is the single best way to do this.
How do I Find Out More Information?
The best place for information about the event is to check out the very comprehensive Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta website, which provides the full schedule, allows you to purchase tickets in advance, gives information on how to get there, sells Balloon Merchandise, etc. It also allows you to learn more about the history of the event, gives you photography tips, and info on planning your trip to Albuquerque during Balloon Fiesta. You can also contact the Balloon Fiesta team directly by calling them at +1 (505) 821-1000 or toll-free at
1-888-422-7277 or email them with general questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Once you know when you are coming for Balloon Fiesta, I would then head to the Visit Albuquerque website to help plan the rest of your time in the city.
Some Tips for Making the Most of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta
• If you want to go, start planning and booking early! Albuquerque is not an expensive place by any means, but this is the most popular time to visit the city and things do fill up and rates are at their peak during this time of the year. So if you really want an RV spot or to stay in a particular hotel, you should book sooner rather than later. Same with flights and rental cars. If there is a single rule of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, it is to try to BOOK EARLY!
• Some visitors plan a trip for just a couple of days, don’t do this. Most of the events are very weather dependent and the events can be cancelled for more than a day in a row depending on wind, storms, etc. Don’t come all this way to be disappointed by weather cancellations. Besides, there are several different types of events at the fiesta and there are lots of other fun things to do in Albuquerque and nearby Santa Fe.
• Show up as early as you can for the events. Gates generally open around 4:30 for the morning events and 3:30pm for the evening events. Come as early as possible as it’ll be less crowded and you won’t have to worry about missing the first balloons take off. People often underestimate the amount of time it will take to get to and into the Park.
• Weekends are much busier than weekdays so plan accordingly. It is wise to use Park and Ride services on weekends rather than trying to drive and park yourself.
• Save money by purchasing the Park & Ride tickets in advance, and you can also save time in line by buying admission tickets in advance. But be sure to take a look at the “rain check” policy for any tickets you buy.
• There are several different types of events of interest (Special Shapes Rodeo, America’s Challenge, Glow Balloons, etc.), but don’t miss seeing one of the mass ascensions where hundreds of balloons go up at once in the early morning. If you go to just one event, make it that one.
• Bring a jacket and dress in layers. It is generally chilly in the mornings and late evenings and you’ll want a light coat and perhaps a hat. We both wore layers, light coats, and hats in the morning and enjoyed cups of hot cocoa and coffee at the beginning of the morning mass ascension. However, we noticed lots of not well-prepared visitors who apparently thought Albuquerque was a year-round hot destination, don’t be one of these people!
• You can bring folding lawn chairs, coolers, umbrellas, food, etc. although they will be inspected by security upon entry. Glass, weapons, and alcohol are NOT permitted in the park. Do check the latest guidelines if you plan to bring along larger items as security rules do change. Mobility scooters, wheelchairs, strollers, and wagons are available for rent at the park. If you are planning to bring a lot of stuff with you, note that many people spend a lot of their time walking around the launch field to see the different balloons and then walking along Main Street where all the vendors are located. With the crowds it can be annoying to lug around a lot of stuff so only bring things you know you’ll use.
• Within the parking areas, RV parks, and launch field area are free courtesy shuttles that are available to help transport people around the Park. So if you have mobility issues or just get tired you can use these to get from place to place.
• Pets are not allowed in the Park although service animals are of course welcome. Please keep any animals away from the balloons as they can tear the fragile envelopes of the balloons.
• Smoking is not allowed in the Park during the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. This is mainly for safety reasons as a lit cigarette can ignite the balloon’s propane tanks and stray ashes can burn or melt the balloon envelopes! Please keep any cigarettes at home or in your car.
• One of the special things about the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is that you get so close to the hot air balloons and can chat with the crews and see them set up and launch. Just be sure not to walk on or touch the envelope (the nylon balloon part) as the fabric can be easily torn and is very expensive to fix or replace. Be especially mindful of children as they can get hurt or burnt and follow all instructions by the crew and the officials dressed in black in white (affectionately called zebras) so that balloons can safely launch.
• Bring your camera, extra batteries or charger, and lots of memory cards or film. You’ll be taking lots of pictures! Best times for photos are generally at and around sunrise and sunset so you get the best light, but it is honestly difficult not to take some beautiful photos at this event!
• If you have more time than money, you might consider volunteering at the Balloon Fiesta. Those who volunteer not only get an inside scoop on the festival but they also get free entrance tickets, parking passes, and free meals during the Balloon Fiesta. You may also get discounted hotel rates. If this sounds appealing, read the earlier section on volunteering.
• There are a few new terms you’ll likely hear about when you attend the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Here are a few explained: 1) Zebras is the nickname for the launching officials on the field dressed in black and white. You may see some of them in some strange outfits! These folks are volunteers and help ensure that launches are coordinated safely and efficiently. 2) The Albuquerque Box or The Box is a weather phenomenon where the lowest winds are moving in one direction and the higher level winds are moving in another. So in a perfect example of the Albuquerque Box, the high winds are from the south while the low winds are from the north. This is beneficial to ballooning because then the balloon can take off and land in almost exactly the same spot. Albuquerque is an ideal place for this phenomenon in October although it is still fairly uncommon to see it in its perfect form. Keep an eye out for it! 3) Gondolas are another name for the balloon baskets, often made of wicker or rattan. 4) An Envelope is the name for the fabric balloon part of a hot air balloon, typically made of nylon. If you come across other words or terms you are not familiar with, just ask someone! Staff and crew members are generally more than willing to explain ballooning stuff to newcomers.
• Make time to visit the Andersen Abruzzo International Balloon Museum which is located near the launch field. It is a great place to spend some time in between events or before the beginning of the Balloon Fiesta to learn more about hot air ballooning. The exhibits explain the history of hot air balloons, the role of balloons and airships in war, pleasure, and sporting, famous figures in hot air balloon history, and the history of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. For instance did you know the first hot air balloon passengers were a duck, a sheep, and a rooster?! There are also a few hands-on exhibits to help you better understand the mechanics of hot air ballooning.
• October is a busy time in Albuquerque so in addition to making your travel plans well in advance, it is a good idea to think about what you want to do in the city before you arrive as all the main attractions and museums will be busier than usual, especially in the afternoons before and after Balloon Fiesta events. Some of the busiest places will likely be the Sandia Peak Tramway, Sandia Crest, Old Town area, Nob Hill area, ABQ BioPark (zoo, aquarium, botanic garden, Tingley Beach), Petroglyph National Monument, and the city’s museums. I would consider visiting these places near opening or closing times to avoid crowds and ensure the shortest lines. Also if there are nicer restaurants you would like to go for dinner, consider making a reservation to guarantee a table. Even places within an hour or two of the city such as the Turquoise Trail stops, Tent Rocks, and Santa Fe are also going to be much busier than usual. Santa Fe’s lodging prices also rise during Balloon Fiesta.
• October not only brings the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, but it also means the end of the New Mexico chili pepper growing season. You’ll likely run across them being roasted somewhere in the city. So it is a great time to try some New Mexican cuisine with the last of the fresh chilies. If you’ve never had them, try them! I especially love them on burritos (any kind), in green chili chicken stew, and on burgers. There is green chile and red chile, and if you want some of both ask for it “Christmas style”.
Our Experience of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta
As I said earlier, I have been fortunate to have been able to attend the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta twice, the first time while I was living in the city in 2009 and then again in 2016 with Laurence. I have attended the morning mass ascension three times from the Balloon Fiesta Park, taken off in a balloon during the Balloon Fiesta, spent one morning watching and chasing the balloons from outside the Park, and attended one evening session. We seem to also just be attracted to hot air balloons as we’ve also helped crew for hot air balloons at other balloon fiestas elsewhere in New Mexico (there are several smaller festivals and invitationals) and I have flown in a hot air balloon three times so far (Laurence four times!).
The first time I attended the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta in 2009 I attended with my former boyfriend Ethan when we were both living in Albuquerque at that time. I was not covering it as a travel blogger then, I was simply just enjoying it like everyone else! That was such a wonderful experience, that I convinced Laurence that we needed to return in 2016. We attended as Media which meant that we got free admission, parking, and access to a Media Tent. It also allowed us the opportunity to be put on a list to potentially go up in a balloon during the Balloon Fiesta and we were very lucky to have gotten that chance!
Morning Mass Ascensions at Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta
Mass ascensions are generally the highlight for most people who attend the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, but they require getting up very early! The night before my very first morning mass ascension in 2009, I went to bed early and then woke up at 4am. Ethan (an ABQ native and my then boyfriend) was not a happy camper and as a local did not understand my strong excitement about attending the balloon fiesta. You’ll find that locals like to complain about the Balloon Fiesta and the crowds, increased traffic, and blocked roads. However, they almost all seem to greatly enjoy seeing the balloons and take pride that the event is hosted in their home city. Not to mention the huge economic impact of the event on the local economy! We were on the West side of Albuquerque and had pre-purchased Park & Ride tickets for the shuttles leaving from the Cottonwood Mall. There was plenty of parking and we were put on the second shuttle of the morning. We highly recommend this as an option for anyone near a Park & Ride location. In 2016, we had a regular parking pass given to us as Media and we could not use it for Park & Ride so we ended up just making sure to try to be at the parking lots by around 5:00am each morning. But we would have rather used Park & Ride if that had been an option for the morning weekend sessions.
Once we got there, there was not too much to see so we walked around, ate breakfast burritos, and nursed cups of steaming hot cocoa and coffee. Along the so-called Main Street are a number of concessions selling food, drinks, and souvenirs. It was chilly and windy and the Dawn Patrol event did not take place that morning in 2009 because of the winds. We were fearful the mass ascension would not happen either. Luckily, the weather cleared and the balloonists soon started filling their balloons and getting ready. You get to walk around the field and get right next to the balloons, see them being filled and fired, and watch as they take off. Some crew members are chatting and happy to chat, while others are preoccupied and busy with preparations. The balloons during mass ascensions launch in waves, typically two, so different balloons will be in various states of being unpacked, inflated, and launched for about 2 hours.
Generally the first thing you’ll see is a few balloons headed off as part of the Dawn Patrol if you are there around 6:00am. Then just before the balloons start launching closer to 7:00am, someone will sing the National Anthem and everyone will briefly pause for this and then resume the festivities. During our two mornings in 2016, they also had a morning Balloon Glow where about a dozen inflated balloons lined up in a row and pilots used their propane burners to light up their balloons while still tethered to the ground. After the Morning Glow, these balloons then wait to go off with the other balloons at sunrise.
It was so exciting to see the first balloon take off during my first mass ascension and almost as equally exciting the second and third times! The next 2 hours were filled with hundreds of balloons taking off in a sort of organized chaos. During this time you can wander around the field taking photos and watching the balloons go up. Several go up at a time over the course of approximately 2 hours and the sky is then literally filled with hundreds of hot air balloons of all colors, shapes, and sizes!! I’ll let the pictures fill in the rest as there are really no words that can aptly describe it.
Riding in a Balloon during a Mass Ascension
Laurence and I were lucky enough to be able to be able to ride in a hot air balloon during a morning mass ascension during the 2016 Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. Each morning, a small number of pilots agree (in return for a fee) to take up members of the press and media so they can get photos, shoot video, and gain information for news stories. Laurence and I were lucky enough to go up with experienced pilot Frank Hunter in his balloon Aimless Drifter. It was just the two of us and the pilot and it was a great experience taking off from the landing field with hundreds of other balloons that morning. The views from above the field are absolutely stunning and we were able to get some great photos! Normally when you go for a hot air balloon ride, there are only a couple other balloons (if any) in the sky with you and it really is a great experience and photographic opportunity to be able to see so many other balloons in the sky!
Our ride only lasted about 30 minutes as Frank was keen to try to get a landing spot as we were drifting in a less than ideal direction where there are fewer landing spots than if we had gone north. Normally though if you are paying for a ride (which we were not), the rides last at least 1 hour, sometimes 2 hours+, depending on the company. Once Frank landed us safely, the balloon chase crew arrived and help deflate and pack away the balloon. We helped with this which took about 30 or 40 minutes and then were driven with the pilot back to Balloon Fiesta Park where we returned to our car. We were invited to hang out with the crew that afternoon for some tailgating and food in the park but we decided to go as we had to meet a friend, but if you get invited do stay as balloonists know how to celebrate!
Seeing the Hot Air Balloon from elsewhere in Albuquerque
We were lucky in that we were in the city for five days of the festival and we had planned to attend the Balloon Fiesta on three of those days, and the balloons went up on all three! So on the third day, we decided to try to just see them from near where we were staying (in the northwest area of the city). We got lucky because many of the balloons ended up floating north that morning. We met up with local blogger Leslie of New Mexico Nomad (check out her blog & social media channels for some great New Mexico content!) who knows the area well and we took photos and chased the balloons around the northwest part of Albuquerque and nearby communities of Corrales and Rio Rancho. This is a nice area to see the balloons as they drift over the Rio Grande River, bosque (forested area around the river), horse farms, and even vineyards. Many of the balloons headed this way will land in parks, fields, and parking lots in this area. Of course you never know for sure where they’ll go or if you’ll get any good photos. This was a great way to spend our morning, and although the views were not as good as within the Park, it was great to see the balloons in a different way and to not have to deal with the traffic at the Park. We also got to have a nice breakfast together afterward!
Evening Balloon Glows & Fireworks
On several evenings, there will be an evening session of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta that will typically include a Balloon Glow and fireworks show. There are fewer balloons in the evening sessions than at a morning mass ascension because all the balloons need to be inflated and set up at the same time. Once it gets dark, the burners are lit to make the balloons light up after sunset. They announce each of the balloons and have them light up and do synchronized “all burns” which are awesome to see. There was also a laser show before and after the fireworks where they shine lasers onto the balloons and into the sky. During the evening sessions, the concession stands and vendors are open as well so you can also eat and shop for souvenirs and there are sometimes other things happening as well. I would definitely recommending going to one of these if you haven’t before as they are great to see. The fireworks shows we saw were really great.
If you ever have the chance to go to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, I would highly recommend going. I loved the experience both times and we hope to have the chance to return a third time! If you have any questions about the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta or anything related to Albuquerque, just ask us below. Also if you have attended the Balloon Fiesta, we’d love to hear about your own experiences!
**Disclosure: In 2009, I paid for all my tickets, parking, and food at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. This post was initially written in 2013 about only my 2009 experience, but then was significantly updated with my 2016 experiences. In 2016, we were provide parking passes, admission tickets, and given access to the Media tent as media attending the event. However, as always, this article contains only our own honest thoughts and opinions.**