Around the September I started working, my coworker and I chatted about vacations. I was very excited now that I had the financial means to travel. Hot air balloons somehow entered the conversation. We searched "world's biggest hot air balloon festival" and Albuquerque's annual Hot Air Balloon Fiesta was the first one to came up. Without any further thought, I said, "Done! I'm going to that." After doing a little more research, I found out the festival was a month away. "Okay, next year..." was my next decision. I started recruiting friends and family who also wanted to join me. October 2015 and BAM! Albuquerque! Here we come!
Now for the survival guide based on our experiences:
Tip #1: Volunteer to be on a chase crew
After volunteering, my cousins and I all agreed that the experiences would not have been as complete if we did not volunteer. Sure, you may have more time to wander around and check out all of the balloons if you don't, but by volunteering, you are trading that free time for first-hand experience on the procedures of getting a balloon in the air, what to do while it is in flight, and how to get a balloon down. It is also a great way to meet new people and learn about the local area since most of the balloonists or driver(s) have been to the festival before, or even about the balloonists' native country/city since some balloonists travel internationally to visit the festival.
Now let's be totally real for a second. Your experience volunteering with a chase crew will largely depend on the people whom you are teamed with. My cousins and I had slightly different experiences even though both of our pilots were from the same balloon crew. But, from what I have heard from the organizers and other volunteers, the majority of people have a really great experience. Plus, the perks outweigh the drawbacks.
Now you may be wondering .. what exactly does it mean to be on a chase crew? Let's start with the perks:
Free breakfast and sometimes lunch
Entrance into the crew area that have the only actual bathrooms
(Unless you are okay with porta potties, which there are plenty of)
Potential free balloon ride
(After some research, I learned that balloon rides for this event cost double, if not triple, the price of a balloon ride on an ordinary day. You also are not in flight for as long.)
Meeting balloonists from around the world
Okay okay. Now what about the not-so-pretty stuff:
Waking up before the rooster crows
Hot air balloons are heavy!
The people you end up with might not be very chatty (which is what happened in my case)
Now that you have weighed out the pros and cons, here is what you need to know if you still want to be a part of a chase crew:
Bring gloves to protect your hands when holding ropes and to keep them warm
Dress in layers
Comfortable closed-toe shoes, ideally waterproof
(You will be doing a lot of walking, and the grass is wet in morning. Save your feet from cold, wet sorrow!)
Backpack with snacks
Camera/device that can take wide angle pictures
(This is recommended whether you decide to be on a chase crew or not. There is also a photo competition where you can win awesome prizes like a new Canon DSLR.)
A day in the life of a chase crew member fluctuates based on the events of the day, but the timeline is usually as follows:
5:00 AM breakfast at the crew tent
6:00 AM wait for your balloon crew to finish with briefing
~7:00-8:00 AM balloons begin to go up. When your balloon take flight depends on the wind and assigned location of your balloon/truck.
Chase the balloon in a truck (explained more below.)
~11:00 AM pack up, eat, go home and take a nap
How to balloon like a pro:
Spread the balloon out flat in all of its gargantuous glory
Have 2 people hold the "mouth" of the balloon open while a giant fan inflates it
Slowly add "hot air" to tilt the balloon upright
Have one person (usually the balloonist) in the basket
Have everyone else hold the basket down with all of their might while awaiting take-off
After the balloon is in the air, have the chase crew hop into a truck and "chase" the balloon
The truck driver is usually a local already familiar with the area and is able to predict approximately where the balloon will be landing
There will be a crew leader up in the balloon and down in the truck communicating with walkie-talkies
When it is time to land, have the "chasers" (everyone in the truck) run through the fields and hop fences (not everyone.. but it did happen to my cousins) to hold down the balloon's basket when it touches the floor
At this time, the pilot will let out the remaining hot air/gas
Finally, put the heavy balloon back in its bag and onto the truck
Give yourself a pat on the back
Tip #2: Arrive early; even earlier Friday-Sunday
If you do not want to sit in the line of cars waiting to get in and park, plan on arriving around 5:30 AM. This way, you will get a closer parking spot to the event and avoid some serious road rage.
If you want to avoid driving altogether, consider purchasing tickets for the Fiesta Express Park & Ride. This shuttle service picks up at several remote lot locations and drops you right off at the Festival; and will bring you back once it ends.
(Link to shuttle info below.)
Tip #3: Free Souvenirs to Collect
At night, most crews have trading cards with a picture of their balloon and a bit of information about the balloon. Simply ask someone standing around each balloon. Oftentimes it will be kids who hand them out. Prepare a couple of jokes since that will be how you pay for some of them. Here is the one my cousin used: Holder of the Cards: "Tell me a joke." Cousin: "My life is a joke."
During the day, you will see "zebras" walking around - don't be alarmed, you'll get it as soon as you see them. They are the ones who let the balloonists know when they can take flight. When they are not busy conducting flights, ask them for a pin. There is a free collectible pin each year. Don't wait though! They do run out.
If you are volunteering for a chase crew, you can also see if they have any souvenirs. The one I volunteered for had pins, shirts and hats.
Tip #4: Best Days to Go
Want to see a whole lot of balloons up in the air at the same time? Saturday and Sunday would be the best days to go. This is when the mass ascensions take place.
Bringing young kids and big kids like me? Thursday and Friday are when the special shape balloons are launched. There are some very popular ones; for example, the bee couple who now has a child (Joey, Lilly and Joelly.) When the two parent bees are launched, they go up holding hands and turn to kiss. It is a must see! My favorites would have to be the astronaut (Cosmo 1) or Pencil Boy.
Want to let your colors burn? (Bad Katy Perry joke) The Sunday, Friday and both Saturdays will have a really impressive firework display at night. There were two sets of fireworks the night we went. I can honestly say they were the best fireworks I have ever seen.
How about seeing the balloons lit up, up-close? Any day when there are evening events, the balloons will light up on the ground so that you can see them up close while you are already on the hunt for their trading cards.
Monday - Wednesday do not have any evening events so if you are planning to only go for a couple days, these may not be the days for you.
Trying to get a free balloon ride? If you are volunteering on a chase crew and want to try to go up, try a day in the beginning of the week when it is not so busy. (This contradicts the previous bullet.)
So is anyone planning to go to the festival next year?
Stay tuned for more of New Mexico: where to stay, visit and eat .. Or not eat.
Post writing in collaboration with Chentina.
Photos are a mix of Chentina's, T. Dazzle's, Apple's and mine.