Albuquerque for Balloon Fiesta 2016, on Points!

Balloons come in all shapes at the Fiesta!

Patty and I got back earlier this week from the most photographed event on Earth – the Albuquerque, New Mexico Balloon Fiesta.

The fiesta is a week-long series of events, with mass ascensions of balloons, fireworks, laser light shows and more.

I’ll share some photos and a video from our trip, details on the event and give you the scoop on how we traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico and stayed in the area for only a few dollars in taxes.

Fiesta, Fiesta!

Balloon Fiesta is billed as the world’s premier balloon event.  This year marked the 45th iteration of the international event.  Set on a huge grass field slightly north of downtown Albuquerque, it draws nearly a million visits!

Each day of the event is broken into a morning and evening session.  Your admission ticket gets you in for one session though I believe you can stay from the morning session into the evening session.

THG Tip: Buy your admission tickets at a 7-Eleven and save a small amount.  Instead of paying $10 per ticket at the box office we got our tickets for $8.75 each.  You avoid any line at the event site.  The savings aren’t huge but if you’re buying for multiple people and going to multiple sessions it can add up.

The Morning Session Kicks the Day Off

Weather permitting, morning sessions usually start out with a small number (perhaps 6-10) of balloons launching to gauge the winds of the day.  This event and group of balloons are dubbed the Dawn Patrol.  They inflate and light up against the predawn sky, making for some incredible views.

The morning session starts out with the Dawn Patrol balloons rising in the darkness of predawn.

After Dawn Patrol lifts off, follow-on events commence.  Depending on the day the schedule varies somewhat.  There are sometimes laser light shows or “morning glows”.  The biggest morning draw though is the mass ascension.

Just prior to the mass ascension starting, the majority of the balloonists begin setting up their rides.  One of the best aspects of the event is the freedom – you can walk among all the balloons and talk directly to the balloonists.  In a day and age in which security is usually stifling and you’re constantly warned that getting physically close to an attraction will get you prosecuted this is an excellent change of pace.

gondola-burner-firing-at-albuquerque-balloon-fiesta-2016-300wSetting up their rides consists mainly of laying out the balloon’s envelope and positioning the gondola.  Some pilots test-fire their burners, throwing flames ten to twenty feet skyward.

The balloonists attach the envelope to the gondola and position a fan nearby.  When the organizer proclaims that it’s go time, the fan is turned on filling the envelope with air.  Of course that air is at ambient temperature so it doesn’t provide any lift.  The lift comes from the hot air generated by the flames from the burners.  The pilot fires them and the balloon starts to rise.

This general process is being followed by hundreds of balloon teams simultaneously.  As they’ll all lift off within minutes of each other, the event is dubbed the mass ascension.  It’s a sensational, rapid progression of balloons temporarily besting gravity to go airborne.  The sight of hundreds of balloons filling the sky at once is awesome, literally.

We attended a morning session for which the skies were overcast, so the balloons went aloft against a white background of clouds.  It wasn’t quite as beautiful as it would have been with bluebird skies but it was still very impressive.

One word of caution: The traffic for the Saturday morning session was horrible.  It took us about an hour to travel 15 miles from our hotel to the event parking lot.  So you’ll want to leave plenty of time for the trek to the event.

Mass ascension begins! On the right side of the photo you can see two balloons still inflating on the ground.
There were balloons representing states (Colorado) and pirates!
Doughnut lovers were represented as well!
There were even lovable Mr. and Mrs. Penguins!

Video of the mass ascension:

The Evening Session Offers Glowing Balloons and Fireworks

The evening sessions vary a bit each day but there are two staple events: an “evening glow” and the fireworks.  On many evenings the laser light show goes off as well but we did not find that to be anything special.

The evening glow is really striking.  The glow of the balloons against the dark sky is beautiful.  On the Friday evening we visited the evening glow event was focused on special shape balloons.  There were rocket ships and animals and human-like characters.

The evening glow event on the night we attended was a static event, meaning the balloons were inflated and burners ignited but they intentionally didn’t launch.

As the sun set, some of the balloonists began inflating their crafts.
The Creamland balloon, not surprisingly, sports a cow skin pattern. The light of the burner flame shone bright through the white areas of the envelope.
This USA rocket ship balloon joined with the Uncle Sam balloon in bringing some patriotism to the event.

After the evening glow event ended, the ho-hum laser light show commenced.  To us, it was merely a filler until the second major attraction of the night – fireworks – started.

The fireworks show was very impressive.  It was one of the top five fireworks shows I’ve seen.  I’m not a fireworks aficionado so that may not be saying much but we really enjoyed it.  It lasted about ten minutes, with fireworks launched from two different areas of the field.

The fireworks show kicked off with some beautiful purple and white explosions.
The colorful bursts of fireworks last for about ten to fifteen minutes.

Southwest Got Us to ABQ and Back

Southwest Plane 320
Southwest Airlines operates more than half of the flights into/out of ABQ.

Balloon Fiesta’s location in Northern Albuquerque is a quick ride from the Albuquerque International Sunport (their “witty” name for a sunny airport).  Without traffic backups it’s about a fifteen minute drive from the airport to the event field.  The airport is serviced by six major airlines but over half of the flights to/from ABQ are with Southwest Airlines.

We were able to book nonstop flights on Southwest for both the outbound and return legs.  I used 45,334 Rapid Rewards points for my roundtrip and then made companion bookings for Patty.  Yet again, Southwest was our free (other than a total of $22.40 in taxes) transportation for a vacation.  We booked relatively close in to the event so we had to use more points that I would generally for a Southwest flight.  I had acquired the Southwest Rapid Rewards points via my Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus card which is currently available with a 50k point signup bonus.

We Rested Our Heads at the Hyatt Place Albuquerque Airport Hotel

There are many hotel options in Albuquerque but with our relatively late-in-the-game booking some of the area hotels were sold out.  We ended up going with the Hyatt Place Albuquerque Airport.  It doesn’t have a trendy location downtown or anything really unique to offer but it fulfilled our needs and it came at a great points rate.  We were able to book it for only 5,000 Hyatt Gold Passport Points per night.

The hotel is nice.  It appeared to be relatively new.  The staff was helpful and kind and the room was spacious and clean.  It served us just fine though it wasn’t fancy per se.

I had been able to transfer points I had racked up with my Chase Freedom, to my Ultimate Rewards account and then on to my Hyatt Gold Passport account.  This made our hotel stay entirely free!

Summing It Up

The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is a unique event that’s definitely worth checking out at least once in your life.  The close proximity of the event to the Albuquerque airport makes it very convenient.  This is even more so the case if flying on Southwest is preferable to you, as many of the direct flights to/from ABQ are on Southwest.

There are many hotel options worth considering, including ones such as the Hyatt Place Albuquerque Airport, which are bookable with points.

If you have Southwest Rapid Rewards and some hotel program points you can enjoy a weekend at the Balloon Fiesta for only a few dollars out of pocket!

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus Card 50,000 50k Point Offer Image The Honeymoon Guy

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Have you ever been to Balloon Fiesta?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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