These tried-and-tested tips will help you make the most of your experience at Albuquerque’s International Balloon Fiesta.
“WHOOSH, WHOOSH, WHOOOOOSH!”
This is the arresting soundtrack of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, accompanied by a shocking blast of light piercing the dark morning sky as the ”engines” of the hot air balloons fire up. Although it’s a rather rudimentary technology—fill enough hot air in a fabric enclosure, and it lifts off the ground—first utilized in 1783 by the Montegofier brothers in Versailles, France, there’s something magical and against-all-odds heartening about it.
Now, imagine that magic times multitudes as the sky is filled with giant, colorful balloons of all shapes and sizes.
It’s a carnival for the eyes and a tearjerker for the temperament.
With that in mind, it’s no surprise the balloon fiesta in New Mexico draws over a million people from around the world to witness the phenomenon every October. So yes, the Albuquerque balloon fiesta is worth it—even if you have to leave for the Albuquerque balloon festival at 5 am. Plus, you can actually ride in a balloon during the morning mass ascensions by booking with Rainbow Riders.
As the largest balloon festival in the world, the Balloon Fiesta hosts more than 650 hot air and gas-filled balloons launched by pilots from over 20 countries. In addition, there’s lots of family fun at the Balloon Fiesta Park, like the nightly Balloon Glows, where balloons are tethered to the ground, lighting their fire torches in unison to create a spectacular show, and the two-day Special Shape Rodeo. Over 100 character balloons in non-traditional shapes, like a sloth, Yoda, a merry-go-round, and an iconic Creamland dairy cow, take flight. Other activities include remote control hot air balloon competitions, live music, and nightly fireworks, plus balloon festival souvenir booths and concession stands. To get the most out of this uplifting experience, here are our 10 do-as-the-locals-do insider tips for the Albuquerque balloon festival:.
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Join the Balloon Launch Crew
You, too, can be part of an actual balloon launch crew—no experience required. Get in on the action firsthand by assisting pilots and crew chiefs in inflating, supporting, and landing balloons. As many former crew volunteers attest, being a regular ol’ spectator won’t do once you try being crew!
Some duties include: transporting the basket on and off the chase vehicle, crowd control during inflation, holding the crown line to ensure the balloon doesn’t topple over, and when it lands, actually chasing the balloon down (don’t worry, no running necessary—you’ll be in a chase vehicle).
Afterward, your hard work is rewarded with a post-landing champagne toast—a French tradition that began as a friendly gesture to make nice with local farmers to avoid a pitchfork in your balloon when you landed on their homestead. Registration for the 2023 Balloon Fiesta chase crew is from July 15 – September 2, 2023, sign up here. However, you can still sign-up onsite at the Chase Crew Headquarters before each morning and afternoon session.
Skip the Crowds With These VIP Views
Not only is the Anderson Abruzzo International Balloon Museum an eye-opening education in hot air balloon aviation, but it also offers a birds-eye view of the Albuquerque balloon festival with perks during the festival. Located at the edge of the fairgrounds, the Balloon Museum has a VIP experience—40% of your ticket price goes to funding the Anderson Abruzzo International Balloon Museum Foundation—on their second-story Observation Deck for the morning ascension or evening glow. It includes a New Mexican-themed breakfast or dinner, think homemade tortillas, green and red chili beef, guacamole, salsas galore and bizcochitos for dessert, New Mexico’s official state cookie. Observation Deck tickets ($75 – $200) also include tickets to the Balloon Museum and Balloon Fiesta Park; a 2023 collector’s pin; one complimentary drink at the cash bar; discounts at the museum’s gift shop; and a VIP parking pass (the most coveted perk of all—like an E-ticket at Disneyland) that allows you to skip the long lines of general parking for parking in the museum’s lot, which is literally a two-minute walk to the Fiesta field.
Prepare for Weather Cancellations
Hundreds of thousands of humans organize Albuquerque’s balloon festival every year, but Mother Nature is the real head honcho. Since calm weather conditions are crucial for pilot and balloon safety, and New Mexico’s weather can be famously temperamental—especially if there are freakish conditions affecting it, like in 2022 when Hurricane Ian’s aftermath resulted in cloudy skies and rain for Albuquerque and several events were called off—be prepared for event cancellations.
Plan your stay to include at least two mass ascensions and two night glows, the festival’s best events. That way, if one ascension or glow gets nixed due to stormy skies, there’s a good chance you’ll see the next one.
Events can also be delayed up to a few hours as officials wait for the weather to improve. Download the Balloon Fiesta app and check the ”Prepare for Weather Cancellations” tab for the most up-to-date weather updates and event status designated by flag color. Updates are also posted on their official Twitter account. A red flag means the event has been canceled; a yellow flag means officials are delaying the event in hopes of better weather; and a green flag means—yes, you guessed it, all systems go!
Where to RV, Camp, or Glamp in View of the Balloons
Like Burning Man, this festival draws outdoor enthusiasts. Have a Volkswagen bus or camper van? There’s a “Buses and Balloons” campsite ($5 per day) just for you at Alameda Little League Field. Watch the balloons overhead without ever leaving your campsite, or take a short stroll on a dedicated path to the Balloon Fiesta Park.
If you prefer a side of glamour with your camping, glamping tents are available for rent onsite. Balloon Fiesta glamping amenities during the minimum three-night stay include premium parking, a queen or two twin beds, a heater, linens, admission to the festival, and the best part—access to restrooms and hot showers.
New in 2022, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center now rents dry RV Camping spots ($50-$60 per night) and tent sites ($15 per night) on its campus during the nine-day event. Although this venue isn’t located right next to Balloon Fiesta Park, you’ll still be able to see balloons from the area. The Balloon Fiesta Park also rents RV spots but those usually sell out months in advance.
Skip the Balloon Fiesta Traffic
There’s nothing like sitting in congested balloon festival traffic to ruin your merry mood. Avoid the traffic buzzkill by purchasing park and ride tickets (from $22-$25 per adult and includes admission) in advance and online only for the event shuttles. Available at three locations around the city, you’ll be at the launch field in no time and, more importantly, back at your car quickly when you’ve had your fill of hot air balloon watching.
Another tip is to splurge on the ultimate VIP experience—the Concierge Program, among other perks, it includes a premium parking pass that allows you to skip the long lines of cars waiting to park. Otherwise, the cost for general parking at the Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque is $20; have cash on hand to pay at the entrance of each lot.
Bicyclists score big at the Balloon Fiesta with a free bike valet onsite. Routes Bicycle Tours offers 16-mile guided rides ($145 pp) from Los Poblanos Inn, including breakfast and admission. Free-to-Roam eBikingalso offers 6-mile morning and evening rides ($149 pp) from Canteen Brewhouse on e-bikes lit up like Christmas trees during New Mexico’s hot air balloon festival; ticket price includes breakfast, a beverage, and admission.
What to Bring and Wear to the Balloon Festival
So, what should you wear to the hot air balloon festival in New Mexico, so you’re prepared for changing weather? Layers! Especially in the early morning hours, temperatures can be below freezing. Bring gloves, hats, and scarves, and layer a few shirts and outerwear. Then you can peel off layers as it warms up with the sunrise. Warm wooly socks and sturdy shoes with tread, like hiking boots, to manage the potential mud on the field are helpful too.
Albuquerque’s balloon festival does allow one bag or backpack per person. You’re also welcome to bring food (something warm to drink in a thermos is highly recommended!), just no alcohol or glass bottles. However, bags and coolers will be searched. Folding chairs and blankets are also welcome and recommended if you don’t want to stand the entire event. Unless you have a service animal, your four-legged family member is not allowed.
Best Places to Watch the Balloon Festival (Without Attending the Actual Event)
For those in the know, you can score insane balloon-watching vistas sans crowds at certain rooftops and restaurants around Duke City. For example, Hotel Chaco’s rooftop restaurant, Level 5, provides a daily breakfast menu available at 5 am during the festival.
A favorite of locals and crew post-flight alike, Steel Bender Brewyard opens at 7 am for “Balloons and Brews” with breakfast burritos, mimosas, and beer for mass ascension sightings. The brewery is roughly three miles from the launch site. Excellent balloon sightings are nearly guaranteed.
Another local secret for early morning viewing is Tin Can Alley, a trendy two-story food hall near Albuquerque’s Balloon Park. Tin Can Alley hosts weekend watch parties beginning at 6:30 am from their west-facing upper deck and food and drink vendors like Cake Fetish and Santa Fe Brewing Company open at 7 am, selling nosh and beverages.
Word to the wise: Unless you camp out near the field where the balloons take off, seeing balloons up close from a rooftop or patio is very dependent on the wind. Always bring binoculars to New Mexico’s balloon festival.