Sky High In Albuquerque To Find Balloons and Mountain Peaks
Visiting for the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta had been on my travel list for a long time. We were normally in Europe in the fall so never quite had been able to make this October event. But this year, we were in Vancouver for the fall and were able to do a 4 day hop to Albuquerque during the Balloon Fiesta.
We were surprised to find that in early September we could still get flights and hotel rooms to travel to Albuquerque. When we found a flight and hotel combo on Expedia, we booked it without really thinking about the regrets we have had when we did not book directly with the airlines or hotels. This trip would be yet another reminder!
Checking out of our Vancouver Airbnb condo, we booked into an airport hotel to make it easier for an early morning flight. Since we were only going for 4 nights, we packed light – or light for us! With one rolling bag and one personal bag we were set to handle both the very cold early mornings and the mid-day heat.
It was a great getaway long weekend to Albuquerque for the Balloon Fiesta. There are a few things you should keep in mind when you plan this dream trip!
9 Tips To Enjoy Being Sky High In Albuquerque
1) Enjoy the Flight to Albuquerque
Our flight to Albuquerque took us over the most amazing terrain and gave us a glimpse of the Grand Canyon.
We had a very short connection time through the Phoenix airport. With one hour to change planes, we walked at a brisk pace for 25 minutes from what felt like two extreme ends of the airport hauling our bags. With barely a chance to grab takeout food and put my Roam Mobility SIM in for US phone and data service, we were back on board the final plane with bags gate checked. While in the past I have found gate checking to be fast, it took us over 20 minutes to get our bags after the plane landed. We would plan for this long walk and slow gate check time for our return flight.
The final hop to Albuquerque was short and scenic. We knew we were close as we were sky high in Albuquerque and saw Albuquerque and the Rio Grande spread below us.
2) Pre-Book A Rental Car
We had booked a hotel that on paper looked like it was close to the Balloon Fiesta Park so decided not to pre-book a rental car. David did his research and we took a Sunport hotel shuttle from the airport for a reasonable cost ($29 for two people). When the shuttle driver had trouble finding our Quality Inn, we should have known this was a sign. With a location on a one way freeway access road, this hotel would not be an easy in and out spot. When we saw that the hotel was located nowhere near anything else, the second alarm bell went off.
The final alarm bell rang when it very soon became evident that there was no way we would walk the “short” distance from the hotel to the balloon park on the other side of the interstate. This was NOT a hotel to stay at with no car!
Kicking ourselves for not getting a car at the airport, we went online to get a car close to the hotel. Twice we booked a confirmed reservation and twice we were told when we called for pickup that the site had no cars. The second time that reservation was even made with the assistance of the rental car company escalation line. It was now clear that the online system had no idea what cars were in which locations. We were not going to head back to the airport with a 3rd reservation, only to find no cars available at the airport either. With the help of some social media intervention and excellent intervention from an Enterprise Area Manager, we were finally able to get a car the next morning but not until after we did a very scary walk in the pitch black down the highway access road to find dinner!
3) Gondola Club Tickets A Great Way To Enjoy the Balloon Fiesta
Since Gondola Club tickets were discounted if you attended multiple sessions, David spoiled me with Gondola Club tickets for one morning and one evening session of the Balloon Fiesta.
The Gondola Club tickets give you a ringside seat with a great view of the balloon field, a “gift”, a meal and preferred parking access.
If you wanted a great overview vista you could stay in the Gondola area or you could wander out in the field for a closer look. The “gift” this year was a balloon pin and a set of low end binoculars. The buffet meals were ok, the hot chocolate (spiked with Baileys) were a great way to warm up and when we were there for dinner, people were taking full advantage of the “free” bar.
Once we got our rental car, getting to the park and parking was easy. Be sure to either get your pass mailed to you before you leave home or pick up your pass before your first booked session. This will give you a car pass that gets you into the park the easy way with little line ups and lets you park very close to the Gondola Club seating. Getting out of the park after the events was always a bit hectic as the many roads were closed down but at least with preferred parking the line ups to exit the park were much less.
4) If you don’t plan to drive to the Balloon Park, plan your transportation
Since we did not have a car for our first morning session, we had to scramble to find alternate transpiration from our hotel. While there were park and ride areas around town serviced by a whole army of school bus shuttles ($12 per person including park entrance), unfortunately none of them were close to our hotel and without a car we could not even drive to the park and ride lots.
We were finally able to book with Tour New Mexico. They would transport us between the hotel and the balloon field for a much greater cost than the public shuttles ($32 per person if you already had an entrance ticket) but they did give you a much shorter time on the field. But this saved us on our first morning before we got our rental car.
If you are coming for the Balloon Fiesta and don’t plan to rent a car, be careful picking a hotel that is either close to a park and ride lot or offers another way to the park.
5) Don’t Just Go To The Balloon Park Once
The Balloon Fiesta offers a completely different set of events in the morning as it does in the evening. For the greatest experience, you really should go to both Balloon Fiesta sessions.
The morning session starts off with Dawn Patrol as the first set of balloons lift off just as the sun starts to rise. As the sun gets up, the field comes awake with balloons filling up. The Mass Ascension of balloons is awesome as hundreds of balloons launch and fill the sky.
The evening session has two major components. As the sun sets, the field of balloons start to inflate and as the flames are fired, the balloons “glow”. We were there on the nights when the “Glowdeo” was predominantly the Special Shapes. This was a magical view of individual balloons glowing and a few times when the balloons were simultaneously set to glow.
The second major event in the evening session were fireworks. The fireworks were set up around the field and provided a great colourful show to end the night.
While most of the events were balloon related, there were other things to do at the Balloon Fiesta Park. There were chain saw carving demonstrations, motorized parachute races and acrobatics, a music stage and a Main Street loaded with food and souvenir vendors.
6) See The Balloons From Multiple Perspectives
With Gondola Club tickets we had a great seating area that offered a wide view of the field. You could sit in your chair and enjoy both the morning and the afternoon major events. If you are mobility challenged, you will get a great show from your seat.
But if you can move around, take some time to walk onto the field and see the balloons close up. There is nothing quite like standing right under a 70 feet high balloon towering above you as the flame blasts to fill the balloon. If you do head onto the field, you will not be alone. There are no fences around the balloons or no holding back the guest from wandering right up to the balloons as they are inflated or standing tall.
The visitors stay out of the way of the people holding the ropes of the balloons and scramble out of the way when the balloons are coming up or down. While this was a wild site during the day, wandering with the throng of people after dark with the balloons glowing above you was not to be missed.
If you plan it in advance, you could also take a balloon ride during the Mass Ascension and be sky high in Albuquerque and see the balloons from above. Another option would be to book a helicopter ride to see the balloons.
If you wanted to get a free view of the balloon sessions albeit at a distance, there are many spots where you can park with the locals and get the broader perspective. The police patrol the closer roads to make sure there is no stopping but we went to a couple of spots east of I-25 and got a great long distance view of the sky just full of balloons.
If you are staying at a hotel out closer to the Balloon Fiesta Park, you can sit in the parking lot (or maybe even from your room) and get a partial view of the balloons. If the wind happens to be blowing your way, you may even see the balloons floating above your head as they aim for a landing spot.
7) Climb High Into the Mountains
If you have never been to Albuquerque before, one of the first things that will strike you is the extreme contrast between the high mountains running on the east side and the flat plains that house both the city and the balloon park. While the Balloon Fiesta can fill many days with excitement, try to take a trip up into the mountains and get a great vista view.
If you do not want a long road trip, you can head out to Tramway Road around the Balloon Fiesta Park and get a gondola ride up on Sandia Peak and be sky high in Albuquerque. With restaurants at the bottom and the top, you could plan to enjoy a morning or evening ride with a broad view of the balloon park and the balloon events. But make sure to plan for the long lines when the Balloon Fiesta is on and check the weather as several days we were there the peak was fully engulfed in cloud.
You can head to Hwy 14 and take the Turquoise Trail from Albuquerque and to Santa Fe. Along the way, take the detour and head up the the Sandia Peak. You could stop at the ski hill and take the chair lift up for a mid-level view. If you drive to the end you will be at the highest point of Sandia Peak with a great panoramic view. From there you could even walk down the trail to the point where the gondola restaurant is.
8) Head Out of Albuquerque
If you go to Albuquerque during the Balloon Fiesta, you may ultimately get a bit blasé about the balloons and want to see something else. Santa Fe is an hour north on I-25. If you want a much more scenic trip you can take the Turquoise Trail and plan a few stops along the way.
Santa Fe will offer you a great break. The red adobe buildings are a delight to see. The downtown stores and art galleries will keep you busy for many days of slow wandering. And if you want to do sight seeing, the towns many churches are beautiful.
There are many other places to visit in New Mexico that we have left for another trip – maybe even when we pass this way on our long road trip home from Vancouver to Toronto. But if you see a sign pointing to “Las Vegas”, beware that this is not tinsel town but the original town in New Mexico.
9) Plan Your Escape From Albuquerque
The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is a major tourist draw (about 800,000 in 2014 and growing each year). If you are not really thinking about your escape and stay to the end of the festival to fly out on the last day, remember you will not be alone crowding the airport. Plan your trip to the airport, expect delays and don’t be surprised if planes are overbooked. Not only were we leaving on the last day of the festival but we compounded our risk of problems by flying in the last weeks of the US and American Airways merger. By some as yet unexplained error, our flight home got cancelled by the airline. Two hours of cell phone time later, we got us our seats back but we still had numerous delays on our trip back to Vancouver.
We enjoyed our quick visit to Albuquerque. While the Balloon Fiesta consumed much of our attention, we did manage to get our and do a little exploring. We look forward to visiting again!
Did you visit for the Balloon Fiesta? Did you explore being sky high in Albuquerque? What else did you do while you were in Albuquerque?