What is it like to ride in a hot air balloon?
January 28, 2013 11:53 AM   Subscribe

My family of four will be taking a long road trip this summer, from Chicago to Yellowstone, and I had the idea to take a hot air balloon ride somewhere around Mt. Rushmore. It looks to be really really expensive, so before I start saving the money I'd like to get perspective on the experience. For those who have taken a hot air balloon ride: what was it like? How long did it last? Was it scary (for kids or adults with height issues)? Was it worth the money you paid?

Extra bonus question(s) - if you have done this in Yellowstone or Mount Rushmore or somewhere between, do you have any recommended operators? Is there way other than Google to find them?
posted by AgentRocket to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I've done it in Arizona, Sedona to be exact. It's fun, and very gentle. The basket is really stable and it really feels like you're in an open-air elevator more than anything. Our trip lasted about an hour, if I recall. We went up right around sunrise, which was a great choice. The light and landscape were incredibly beautiful and so different than anything you might see from the ground. Strongly recommended.
posted by Mercaptan at 11:59 AM on January 28, 2013

I went up in a tethered balloon a decade or two ago, and the primary things I remember from that event are that the flames were much hotter and louder than I expected. Technology or design may have made that less of an issue nowadays though.
posted by brentajones at 12:04 PM on January 28, 2013

Would you consider a helicopter ride? My family went on that trip when I was 7 (and the little bro was 4), and we did a helicopter tour somewhere in the Badlands area. It was awesome. It didn't last very long, but it was LOUD, and exciting, and we were in a helicopter, and we got to wear helmets and headsets and talk to each other, and it was great. Neither my brother nor I were scared, but then again neither of us is scared of much.

I mention it because it's comparable, perhaps even less (depending on what specials you've found), in price to the balloon ride.
posted by phunniemee at 12:16 PM on January 28, 2013

One thing to check on is the policy for refunds if the flight needs to be canceled by the operator, if they give you a credit towards a future flight you may never end up using it.
posted by yohko at 12:16 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I did it over Napa Valley on my honeymoon.

It's fun. You get to help set it up and when they're filling the balloon it's kind of scary/awesome because they're basically firing a flamethrower a few feet from you. Then everyone climbs in, they fill it up some more, and away you go.

Because you're moving with the wind, there's no feeling of motion. No breeze. You're just standing in a basket and you can look all around you. If you're in a beautiful area (like Napa), you can imagine what that's like.

If you're scared of heights that could be an issue, but you can opt to not look over the side of the basket. I love looking down, so if you're into that you can look over the side and you're looking a mile down to the ground below (or whatever altitude they're at) and it's pretty damn amazing.

I didn't find it scary, other then the somewhat unnerving feeling that I was a mile in the air in a basket hanging by some rope.

Landing is the only scary part. As you get lower your realize you're going horizontally at a decent rate and the only way to really stop is to drag the basket along the ground, occasionally sideways. If there's eight people in the balloon this can be kind of fun when everyone falls onto everyone else. In our case we smacked into what he called a "breaking tree" and then continued on our merry way. They have no control over where the balloon goes, other than being able to bring it up or down to catch different winds.

We launched in a group of about 20 balloons, so watching the sun come up with balloons all around was one of those "top ten" moments in my life.

One thing to keep in mind, launch is often very early. In our case I think we met the balloon guy before 6:00 AM for a sunrise launch. I think the ride was about an hour or so, with additional setup time beforehand. Then we had a champagne breakfast because balloon ride. They'll give you the details when you call.

It was worth the money, for me. If you have to scrimp and save you might be better off spending the money on other parts of the vacation. In our case it was our honeymoon so we thought it would be worth it for that once in a lifetime thing.

So yeah, it's a lot of fun. Not in a thrilling sort of way, more in a "this is neat" kind of way. In my case I like to fly in different things, so it's great to be able to cross "balloon" off my list. Anyone know where I can get a ride in a blimp or an auto-gyro?
posted by bondcliff at 12:18 PM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

I also did it in Sedona. It was a very good experience. I am _terrified_ of heights and was white knuckling the ropes for the duration of the flight (it didn't help that our balloon went up to very high elevation at the start, and I didn't get a gradual rise like the other ones that took off at the same time). That said, I enjoyed it and would do it again.
posted by bfranklin at 12:18 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Awesome. The landing can be a bit rough - every time it's something different - so not for small children.

I get a bit of vertigo, but for me there was no height issues. You're moving slowly and you're generally high enough that it's more like flying than being on the roof.

Also the sounds are amazing. When the burner blows you can't hear anything, but then when it's off you're moving with the wind so there's no wind noise. nothing. and you can plainly hear sounds from the ground. Very cool.

A highly recommended experience.

policy for refunds

This. Our trip was cancelled a few times before the winds and weather were just right. The weather window is pretty small so you need to discuss this with the operator.
posted by three blind mice at 12:21 PM on January 28, 2013

and you can plainly hear sounds from the ground.

Oh yeah! I totally forgot about that part. When the burner is off you can hear everything! Birds, people, bikes, everything. We even watched a rabbit running around in a vineyard. It's a very unique perspective on the world. It's not very often you get to be in the air, moving slowly, with nothing below you, and no windows to separate you from the outside. It's like being in a flying canoe.
posted by bondcliff at 12:26 PM on January 28, 2013

I've never been, but my mom did about 20 years ago, and one thing that surprised me was that it really triggered her claustrophobia. Even with nothing but open air all around her, she said all she could think of was the fact that she was absolutely stuck in that basket until she got back down on the ground - my dad joked that she would have felt better if she'd leapt over the edge.

She did go again just a few years back and said it didn't affect her nearly as much - apparently being mentally prepared for it helped, so if you or anybody in your family is claustrophobic, you might want to give them a heads-up.
posted by DingoMutt at 12:27 PM on January 28, 2013

Great fun. The basket was... cramped and the sides lower than I expected. If you do it in the morning it will probably be an early start and cold. It is noisy when the burner's on but quiet, a mesmerising quiet when you're in the air and just being taken by the wind.

Landings are... variable. Mine was a bit of a bump but otherwise over in a flash. I'd recommend it. If the balloon company are fine with it, no reason older kids (I.e 10+) can't go.

I did it in Oz and was treated to the sight of kangaroos running en masse away from the balloon. At one point we got sufficiently low a farmer's dogs all started barking and, clear as day, we heard saw him come out and heard him shout, "WHY DON'T YOU JUST F**K OFF!"
posted by MuffinMan at 12:34 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Riding in a hot air balloon is a lot of fun and is worth the cost to have the experience once, though I'm not sure I'd do it again unless the price point were a lot lower.

You're moving at the same speed as the air, which has the end result of feeling like you aren't moving at all. The height didn't bother me because my footing felt completely secure - but the person I was there with got freaked out about the height even though he'd been really excited about the trip while we were on the ground. I think that's the difference between fear of being in a precarious position and an actual fear of heights.

One thing to be aware of is that the basket is not big and they try to fill it up, which on my trip was eight passengers and the pilot. The claustrophobia may be as stressful as the height if anyone in your group is bothered by that. Furthermore, once the balloon leaves the ground you're stuck there for the next hour, which means everyone in your group needs to have the maturity to suck it up if it turns out the experience is pushing buttons for them.

Bring a camera and a hat (it's colder when you're high in the air, and the hat will also help shield your head from the heat of the flames) but don't carry anything else onto the balloon with you. Also, know that tipping the crew is standard practice for hot air balloon rides.

In the Philadelphia area, I see Groupon deals for hot air balloon rides pretty often. Since you have several months to plan, you might want to scan for deals every once in a while to see if you can get a discount that way, though I suppose going through Groupon puts you in an even worse position if your flight ends up being cancelled. Balloons can only go up in a pretty limited set of weather conditions, so cancellation is a very real risk.
posted by jessypie at 12:39 PM on January 28, 2013

I did it years ago in York, PA, which is (or was) apparently big ballooning country. Inflating the balloon is a huge operation, everyone pitching in to hold the balloon open while the burner inflates it. And yes, it's eerily quiet and calm up there. I think we were at about 2,500 feet, and the view was incredible. There were waivers we had to sign, and they made sure we were all aware that the gondola might tip sideways upon landing.
posted by emelenjr at 1:47 PM on January 28, 2013

It's really loud. Like really really loud.
That is what I remember the most.

When the fire wasn't on, it was pretty and interesting and not scary.
There aren't bumps or drops like turbulence on a plane.

But the burners are incredibly loud and that might be too much for kids under 8ish or so.
Also, if the kids are too short, they won't be able to see over the sides of the basket unless you lift them up and that can be terrifying (ask me how I know)
posted by rmless at 1:56 PM on January 28, 2013

I've ballooned twice in Albuquerque. The first time was just the pilot, my partner and I in a basket for 4. This was awesome-- we had a bit of space, and didn't feel like cattle. The second time was in a balloon for 6 with 6. This was also awesome, although I definitely felt like mooing. I know people go in baskets with 12, and that seems crazy. The fewer people in your basket, the more peaceful it is!

Others have mentioned the lack of wind. I also had a hard time telling when we were ascending/descending (we were over the river, & I thought we were still nearly touching the river as I was looking at the distant horizon-- but we had gone up about 100ft!), so definitely be aware of that.

The burner is hot and loud.
posted by worstname at 3:07 PM on January 28, 2013

I did it in Egypt once and it was really really amazing. I loved it. I have claustrophobia (I almost had a panic attack inside one of the Pyramids), but I personally did not find it claustrophobic, I think because of the open air and the view.

The basket goes up pretty high on your body, which is good because you feel safe, but if your kids are little, wait until they're tall enough to see out on their own.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 3:44 PM on January 28, 2013

I went up several years ago with my 70+ year old grandmother. She was not very steady on her feet and I spent most of the ride bracing her as she sat on a cushion on the tank. The landing was a bit rough (on a slight hill in a field of goats) and it was kind of hard getting her from the field back to the van but you may not have that issue.

My trip was free (my mom and her sister gifted the trip to Gran and then they realized that Gran couldn't go up on her own and neither of them could stomach the height) and once I have $300 to spare, I'd do it again.

No matter what season, you may want to slather on the sunscreen. Even for a sunrise ride in June, we both got a bit red. We also should have used a bit of bug-off and long pants since the balloon was inflated in a field with long grass and lots of bugs (HUGE spiders!)

We saw lots of deer in fields, the soccer teams all stopped to yell and wave, the view was amazing and since we flew over areas that I'd driven through, it was interesting to see how different roads, houses, fields etc looked from overhead.
posted by jaimystery at 3:45 PM on January 28, 2013

A couple things you'll want to find out ahead of time:
Since you want to take your kids along, check for passenger age (or any other kind of) limits.
You mention flights over Mt. Rushmore or Yellowstone --- check that they ARE allowed to fly over/near national monuments like that.
Make sure they have insurance (worst case, in event of injuries) as well as a refund policy if the flight is canceled or delayed.
Make sure whichever company you choose has a solid, safe reputation: this is NO time to be picking a (sorry for the pun) fly-by-night outfit.
posted by easily confused at 4:10 PM on January 28, 2013

I went at around age 8-10, with my mom and my grandpa (it was his gift), and it was really great -- I imagine I'll do it again sometime.

I don't know about ballooning near some great sight, though -- part of what was amazing was drifting over houses and yards and the strange perspective you get. It was very quiet (when flame not roaring, at least), but you could just about carry on a conversation with somebody on the ground without raising your voice -- interesting way that sounds carry. (Dogs go nuts when balloons pass overhead, so lots of bark samples.) You might get more bang for your buck, too, in a regular rural setting rather than a tourist trap.

Do make sure you have an idea of how you're going to land, so that small children are at the back, not the front (where everybody may end up on top of them). I distinctly remember that the balloon operator ended up on top. :)
posted by acm at 7:08 AM on January 29, 2013

For reference, my grandmother took a hot air balloon ride when she was in her 60s. This is a woman who, though she was the light of my life (and is now deceased), was easily startled, phobic about multiple things, and was not a physically adventuresome person. She loved it and talked about it as one of the best experiences of her long and wonderful lifetime. She said it felt as safe as sitting in an armchair.
posted by woot at 6:06 PM on January 31, 2013

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