I thought I’d have enough room to squeeze my tips into the post about attending the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta but there are so many. They cried out for their own post. These are general tips and not related, for the most part, to staying in your RV onsite. That topic is a post unto itself I’ll share next week.

My Alaska Book Club joined me for the first weekend of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. Not only was it great to connect with them again, two years after I left Alaska. But some of their experiences gave me insight into the Balloon Fiesta from the point of view of those not staying in an RV onsite.

Biggest Tip

I have to start with something I mentioned last week. I cannot emphasize this enough. You must begin planning early. I cannot imagine you could do the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta on a whim simply because so much sells out ahead of time.

If you want to bring your RV onsite, those tickets sell out in less than an hour. I’m not kidding. I monitored the sales for 2020 and that’s how quickly they were gone. In fact, within a month or two of RV slots going on sale, they even close the wait list after about 1,000 names are added.

If you aren’t staying onsite, you have a little more time. But, seriously, don’t wait too long. RV parks and hotels do sell out. You’d be better off finding a place that doesn’t charge a cancellation fee, booking that and then cancelling if your plans change.

Group photo in front s a sign that reads 2019 Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta.
Past and present Book Club members at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. AARP had a booth and took photos for free, complete with a stuffed chili pepper and a lighted cactus.

My Book Club didn’t book their tickets to Albuquerque until a couple months out. So, I assume that if you are flying in, you don’t have to book your ticket crazy-far in advance. However, that said, they ended up flying in time slots they would rather have avoided (overnight) because the better flights were sold out. Only one person in my group rented a car which she did a few months in advance. But when she had to make a change, it was hard because, again, options were limited due to selling out.

The bottom line, if you can help it, do not wait until the last months. It’s too risky.

Second Biggest Tip

My second big tip is to stay as many days as possible. All nine days is best if you have time. I have a few reasons for making this suggestion. First and most obvious, the fun. Why have one or two days of a sky filled with balloons when you can have nine?

Second, the weather. You’d hate to get there, have a couple of days with yellow and red flags then leave without ever experiencing Mass Ascension. In my mind, you want to plan on being on the launch field a minimum of three mornings.

Third, one bonus thing about attending the Balloon Fiesta is there is a lot of down time. Basically, Mass Ascension is over by 9 a.m. and the next session doesn’t begin until 5 p.m. That leaves you with plenty of time to be an Albuquerque tourist. In an area with nearly a million people, there is lots to do from museums to food tours, from natural treasures to the botanical garden or zoo. And if you are willing to drive a little bit, you can make even day trips to Santa Fe or Taos.

In other words, your vacation can be so much fuller than just the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. And, believe me, the Balloon Fiesta alone is worth the trip. So, imagine all the bonus adventures.

Other Useful Nuggets of Wisdom

Getting In

The level of security I experienced was new in 2019 and in direct response to a couple mass shootings that happened just prior. What this meant was that getting in was similar to going through the line at the airport. Though the Fiesta was a lot more friendly. They hand-searched all bags. Plus, we went through metal detectors.

It was mentioned on their website so you can check for yourself the year you go. I tell you this because if it is the same when you attend, try to not need a bag and you’ll get in a lot faster because there was a separate line for those with no bags.

Tickets

Once you go through security. Then you walk a few steps farther to the ticket window where you wait in another line to get your ticket. Then, finally, you go in the last line to enter the event.

I mentioned this last week but since it means a 25% savings and avoiding one of the three lines to get in, it’s worth a second mention. Stop in at any Albuquerque Costco to purchase a 4-pack of admission tickets for $30 (instead of $40 for four tickets at the gate).

Arrive Early

My Book Club friends were parked and at security 10 minutes before 6 a.m. on that first day. Actually, the second day as well. The lines weren’t too bad that early but you could see the big wave of people on their heels. They arrived at the parking lot about 5:30 and, still, they waited in line along the streets of Albuquerque for an hour to get to the parking lot which meant they left that morning at 4 a.m.

Besides the wait time and long lines, I want to offer a couple other advantages you will have by arriving early.

Hot air balloons in various stages of inflating and launching.

Vendor Visits

Food lines are shortest early in the morning (about 6 a.m.) and then again after 9:30 when many people have left following Mass Ascension.

And if you want souvenirs, it’s so much easier to browse and pay for your items when you have a little elbow room which you’ll get early.

One thing to note is that from about 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (these are estimates as I never saw this written anywhere), the booths close down. I learned this the hard way. I thought I was so smart by walking over to the field in between the morning and evening sessions to do my souvenir shopping. Security was there and the gates were opened so I assumed everything was. Once I got into the event area, it was like a ghost town. Literally, I was the only one walking along Main Street. I wish I’d thought to snap a photo. I tell you this so, first, you don’t make the same mistake. And, second, so you understand that to visit the vendors, you will have to put up with crowds. So, the best you can do is try to visit them strategically.

One Food Vendor Strategy

If you are willing to be non-traditional, consider having lunch food for breakfast and breakfast food for lunch. When you arrive early in the morning, the donut and breakfast burrito lines are longest. Go have a taco, a turkey leg or alligator and the line will be a lot shorter. Then a few hours later, go have a donut or breakfast burrito and avoid the sandwiches, tacos and turkey legs.

Because I had the RV close by and because I don’t eat meat, I didn’t partake in the food. But tons of people do. And this was a strategy I made note of based on the line lengths at different times while wandering around.

Least Number of Attendees

Monday and Tuesday morning have the least number of people. If you hate crowds, these might be ideal days for you to attend. Though, keep in mind, least number of people is still a lot. Even so, vendor lines might not be as long and you should be able to walk the launch field a little easier.

Kids’ Days

ABQ public schools are closed for “in-service” days on Thursday and Friday. Both days are Special Shapes Day meaning all the shape balloons launch. Further, Thursday is Kids’ Day which means sponsors offer gifts bags to kids and there are activities on the field specifically for kids.

If you don’t like tons of kids running around, you might want to avoid those days of the Fiesta. However, Special Shapes Day is kind of awesome because the Special Shape balloons are kind of awesome.

Dark blue hot air balloon with a big smiling face and ears. Two other hot air balloons are in the shot. All flying against a blue sky.
No idea what this guy is, but he sure is cute. Seriously, how can you not go to the launch field on Special Shapes day?
Hot air balloon shaped like a dog's face with tongue hanging out, flying against a blue sky.
That tongue!
Hot air balloon shaped like a little chicken, flying against a blue sky.
Blue chicken with such a sweet face.

Altitude Sickness

I grew up at 7,200 feet in the third highest elevation town in the US. I’m not sure if this is why or whether I’m just lucky but I don’t seem to suffer the effects of altitude sickness the way many do. Albuquerque’s 187 square miles ranges from 4,500 to 6,500 feet above sea level. At that elevation, it’s possible you might suffer the effects of altitude sickness.

Watch for signs and know how to address the situation if it happens to you. Signs include headache, nausea, dizziness and generally not feeling well.

Combat altitude sickness by hydrating, avoiding alcohol, eating carbohydrates and resting.

If you already know high altitude affects you, one strategy might be to arrive a day or two early to give your body time to adjust before the festivities begin.

Balloon Rides

Large hot air balloon basket, also called a gondola.
The gondola of one of the balloons that gave rides. It’s much larger than the private gondolas which fit three of four people. These probably fit 10-15.

In Albuquerque, there are many companies that offer balloon rides. However, there is only one official balloon ride sponsor called Rainbow Riders at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. What their sponsorship buys them is exclusivity on balloon rides leaving from the launch field.

I learned there are 368 balloon ride slots each morning during Mass Ascension. For nine days. In case you are wondering, that’s more than 3,300 people paying for a ride. And, still, they are sold out months in advance.

One of my Book Club members tried to arrange a ride three months prior to the Fiesta and all the slots were booked. So, along with travel to Albuquerque, lodging and car rental, if this is something you want to do, book it early.

You will pay more than they charge the other 356 days of the year, about $70 more. But maybe it’s worth it because you’ll get views and photos unlike any other balloon ride because you are going up during Mass Ascension with all the other balloons. Plus, you’ll see the entire launch filled from above.

You can also check out other balloon ride companies around town. I didn’t hear if their prices go up during Fiesta but I bet they do.

A line of yellow hot air balloons in the process of inflating at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta launch field in the predawn.
See all the like balloons? Those are the big Rainbow Rider balloons taking people on balloon rides. They are assigned launch spots next to each other.

Get the App

The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta offers a free phone app to help you navigate the event. It’s pretty simple but includes the day’s agenda, the balloon names, numbers and pilot names as well as a launch field map and list of vendors. What I found particularly useful was the updates each day saying what color flag was flying and other related event updates.

Since it’s free, you might as well get it.

Facebook

Private Group

Okay, I have three great tips under this category. First, you’ll want to join the private Balloon Fiesta group. This is run by a person, not the event organizers. The handle is @fullofhotair or find it by using the search tool. After each annual event, he changes the name. So, the current group is called Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta 2020. Obviously, when I joined, it was Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta 2019. By changing the name instead of creating a new group, it means you don’t have to join year after year.

Because it’s a group, anyone can post or ask questions. It’s a great way to figure things out while there and to see wonderful photos that others capture each day. Like with all groups, you’ll want to keep in mind that since information is not from the official event organizers, it might not always be 100% accurate.  

Event Page

Second, you’ll want to like and follow the official Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta page, @balloonfiesta. It provides update, information, etc. from the folks in the know.

Live

Finally, I want to share something that happens on the official Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta page. It’s called Facebook Live which is a live broadcast. In 2019, they did 14 of them. Yep, one for every session. There were two hosts and they must’ve had three or four cameras getting live action shots.

Their cameras get places that attendees cannot. For example, one of their cameras is on the helmet of one of the sky divers. It’s neat to see them in the plane prepping for the jumps and then up-close views of the jump itself. I also enjoyed watching it on the days I didn’t go to the field. I simultaneously watched balloons overhead and on the computer screen.

The hosts are incredibly knowledgeable about ballooning in general and the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta specifically. I learned so much from their commentary. My favorite Facebook Live session was the start of the gas balloon race, America’s Challenge. They explained tons of details about gas balloon racing.

Blue and white hot air balloon in the air. Two hot air balloon inflated on the ground while lots of people wander around the launch field.
The last few balloons launching during Mass Ascension.

During the event, they had over 700,000 session views. It was also neat seeing where everyone was tuning in from. Literally, from all over the world. If I offered another tip it would be to pace yourself and, staying in the comfort of you RV or hotel, while still seeing the fun on your computer is a great way to do it. Plus, no crowds or getting up before the chickens.

The Live sessions are still up as a replay on the page if you want to look at any of the 2019 ones.

More Tips for Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta?

Have you been to the Fiesta? If so, please add to the list of tips if you think I missed any.

Links to Other Balloon Fiesta Posts:

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