The Best Hot-air Balloon Rides
Delayed flights, long lines, TSA pat downs—flying isn’t what it used to be.
But stepping aboard one of these hot-air balloons is a guaranteed way to rekindle a love of air travel. It’s an opportunity to revel in the world’s most beautiful landscapes, high above the fray. And it’s the kind of worthwhile splurge that you’ll be talking about long after you’re back on solid ground.
There’s nothing quite like floating over the yellow grasses of the Serengeti while lions and zebras frolic just a hundred feet below. Or watching the first rays of sun paint Myanmar’s ancient pagodas and temples in hues of gold. On average, baskets carry four to eight people, so the ride can be as intimate and romantic as it sounds.
Festivals also celebrate ballooning as a lofty spectator sport. Fans turn out in droves each October to watch as hundreds of jaunty balloons ascend en masse into the cerulean skies above Albuquerque, NM, making it the world’s most photographed event.
Although ballooning is now popular in all corners of the globe, it began in France as the whim of two brothers, Jacques-Étienne and Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, who, in 1793, wowed Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette by sending a hot-air balloon aloft over Versailles with three passengers: a sheep, a duck, and a rooster. A month later, the brothers invited two Frenchmen to board, launching our love affair with exploring the wild blue yonder.
Whether you choose the birds’-eye view over a French château à la the Montgolfiers’ original flight or prefer to skim the treetops of the Costa Rican rainforest, your spirits are destined to soar.
Napa Valley, CA
The Kimball Family and Napa Valley Aloft were floating people above the Napa Valley long before it became a world-famous food and wine destination. Weather is best between April and October in Yountville, the launch site and picturesque town that’s home to the French Laundry restaurant. Soar over green rolling hills and small and large family vineyards—with views to the Sierras and San Francisco on clear days. Individual flights from $200 per person; group flights and private tours available; nvaloft.com
Lions, hippos, leopards, giraffes, and zebras thrive on the grassy plains of the Seronera River Valley, as you’ll witness on a Balloon Safari. Flights also catch sight of the estimated 2 million wildebeest that migrate from Kenya to Lake Victoria each year, often passing through the valley between May and early June and again from late October to December. One-hour flights are followed by champagne, an English-style breakfast under an acacia tree, and more amazing photo ops. $529 per person; balloonsafaris.com
This journey over Bagan defines awe-inspiring—especially when the sun’s golden rays light up the white surfaces of more than 4,000 pagodas and temples in what was the capital of the first Myanmar Empire. Since the monuments are scattered around an area of more than 15 square miles, an aerial view is an efficient way to take in the scope of this enchanting landscape. Book with Eastern Safaris for a dawn ride that begins with tea, coffee, and refreshments. From $320 per person; easternsafaris.com
Letchworth State Park, New York
Follow the Genesee River as it rolls through the Letchworth Gorge, flanked by towering slate cliffs, some 600 feet high. Balloons Over Letchworth is the only company operating within the park from May to mid October. The hour-long flight swoops over lush woods and the middle and upper falls. Visibility is great in July and August when the weather is warm and dry, while September sees the foliage at its Technicolor finest. $249 per person; balloonsoverletchworth.com
Greet the day, and Australia’s second largest city, from high above the glistening skyline with a one-hour Balloon Over Melbourne flight. You’ll take in views of the city’s central business district, its parks and gardens, and notable landmarks like Melbourne Park and Rod Laver Arena, site of the Australian Open. Back on terra firma, toast your adventure with an optional champagne breakfast. From $320 per person; balloonovermelbourne.com.au
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Each October, more than 500 colorful balloons take flight during early-morning mass ascensions at the International Balloon Fiesta, the largest such event and the most photographed event worldwide. The dedicated 365-acre Balloon Fiesta Park just north of Albuquerque also hosts special-shape balloon rodeos and the popular evening balloon glow, when pilots fire up their burners at the same time and leave the balloons tethered. If you’re feeling inspired, Rainbow Ryders operates flights from within the park during the fiesta. Prices range from $299 to $499 per person for a 60-minute ride; rainbowryders.com. Advance-purchase festival admission for adults, $12.
Twisted rock formations—the handiwork of 2,000 years of erosion—lend this Turkish landscape an otherworldly look best appreciated from above. Royal Balloon flies year round, though suggests dates between March and December for the most favorable weather. The 60- and 90-minute balloon rides soar up to 1,000 feet over spires and pillars known as fairy chimneys, plus subterranean churches and dwellings hewn into limestone. A prelaunch breakfast is also included. From $242 per person; royalballoon.com
Held over three days in September at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park, the Great Reno Balloon Race is a free event for the whole family. Expect food vendors, craft activities for kids, and popular morning glow shows—a predawn spectacle with balloons twinkling against the dark sky. More than a dozen specially shaped balloons are on display, including an 86-foot-tall Darth Vader (enter a drawing on the event’s Facebook page facebook.com/renoballoon for the chance to win a ride). It’s neat to watch the actual race, in which pilots maneuver toward targets and attempt to hit them with beanbags. Tethered rides for kids, $5; renoballoon.com
Colorado Springs, Colorado
The Colorado Balloon Classic has been held each Labor Day Weekend since 1977 and draws local, national, and international crowds to the foot of Pikes Peak to watch hundreds of jewel-toned balloons mass-launch in front of the 14,115-foot mountain. Balloon rides, evening concerts, coloring and photo contests, a children’s play area, and tons of local food and merchandise are the many ways the event raises money to share with local charitable organizations. Balloon rides during the festival are $295 per person; balloonclassic.com
Queenstown, New Zealand
Adventurists and adrenaline junkies descend on the Southern Lakes region of New Zealand for the rugged hiking and biking terrain, ski slopes, world-class golf, and gorgeous lakes and fjords. But thrills are also found in the skies above. Sunrise Balloons rises above the Queenstown area—better known to J.R.R. Tolkien fans as Middle-earth since many of the scenes in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were filmed here. Views of the Southern Alps, Lake Hayes, and Mount Tutoko in Fiordland National Park will keep your camera working overtime. Forty-five-minute flights culminate with champagne and pastries. From $386 per person; ballooningnz.com
Château d’Oex, Switzerland
Even in winter, the temperate microclimate of Château d’Oex allows for 360-degree panoramas over storybook villages and toward snow-capped Mont Blanc, the Eiger, and the Matterhorn. Individual flights are $444 per person, or watch from the ground during the International Hot-Air Balloon Festival, when the village welcomes nearly 100 aerostiers from around the globe to paint the Swiss sky in a kaleidoscope of color. ballonchateaudoex.ch; festivaldeballons.ch
Magalies River Valley, South Africa
At the northern reaches of the Cradle of Humankind UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safari is an elegant experience that begins at the custom-built clubhouse, where fresh coffee and hot-from-the-oven muffins are served while you watch the balloons inflate. One-hour rides slip through valleys and up more than half a mile into the sky; often the city of Johannesburg, 47 miles to the south, is visible. (The winter months of April to August are optimal.) After landing, it’s back to the clubhouse for bacon and eggs, smoked salmon, ratatouille, pancakes, fresh fruit, and a bottomless glass of bubbly. From $130 per person; balloon.co.za
Muelle, Costa Rica
Costa Rica’s lush jungle and never-too-hot, never-too-cold climate cooled by Pacific and Caribbean breezes is perfect for ballooning year round. Serendipity Adventures, the only hot-air balloon operator in Costa Rica and Central America, has just the flight of fancy. Its 75-minute sunrise flights are offered year round, but the summer season (May–August) is exceptional. Balloons dip low to the treetops where monkeys and birds chatter away, and if the winds are optimal, you’ll rise high enough to catch a glimpse of the smoking Arenal Volcano in the distance. $345 per person; serendipityadventures.com
An inflatable amusement park for kids adds to the appeal of the Montgolfières Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu International Balloon Festival, just 20 minutes from Montreal. This nine-day August festival invites local folk groups and international musical acts to perform on several stages at night. Watch balloons, some in unusual shapes, inflate and take off into the sky; check out the Balloon Interpretation Centre to discover the world of hot-air ballooning; or get into the action by reserving morning or evening flights online. From $170 per person; ballooncanada.com