Hot air ballooning had been on my bucket list forever, and I finally got to cross it off back in December 2022.
I floated high above an area near the White Tank Mountains in the West Valley on a chilly desert morning with clear skies. The balloon’s pilot was right beside me and would periodically use propane to fill the massive, colorful balloon above us with literal fire.
I could see the White Tank Mountains, expansive skies and other hot air balloons all around me in an open-air basket. We were up in the air for roughly 40 minutes. After landing—a somewhat bumpy, but not totally terrifying experience—we celebrated with a glass of Champagne.
I took the ride with the local company Rainbow Ryders. This ride was comped for me as I was on a trip with fellow journalists that Experience Scottsdale organized. Rainbow Ryders is the largest hot air ballooning company in the Southwest, with locations in metro Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Colorado. Hot Air Expeditions is another local company in Deer Valley.
If you’re looking to go hot air ballooning, here’s what you need to know.
Hot Air Ballooning Takes Time
If you’re considering taking a hot air balloon ride, just know that it’s a time-consuming endeavor. Generally speaking, hot air balloons take you up to either give the riders a prime view of sunset or sunrise. If you pick a sunrise ride, you’ll have to wake up in the early morning hours. I had to be in front of my hotel just after 5 a.m. to get picked up. By the time I was dropped off back at the office in north Phoenix, it was around 10 a.m.
After getting picked up, we drove out to Rainbow Ryder’s office in Scottsdale, which took around 40 minutes. After signing some waivers, we headed out to the launch site, which took about 30 to 40 minutes to get to. The launch site was just an empty plot of land with plenty of room to maneuver. Even though it was freezing—winter mornings in the deserts are chilly—we saw a spectacular sunrise that made the early morning wake-up call worth it.
Hot air ballooning is obviously weather-dependent, so be aware that your ride could be canceled due to inclement weather.
Pro tip: You’ll want to avoid drinking coffee or lots of any fluid prior to your ride. On the tour I took, the offices held the only bathrooms I saw during the entire venture.
What to Wear
Don’t forget to wear closed-toed shoes and bring your sunglasses since it can get bright. In the winter time, it can be freezing and you’ll want to wear a good jacket. Be mindful of the weather, and be sure to dress appropriately.
Who Can’t Fly
Rainbow Ryders and Hot Air Expeditions will not allow pregnant women and children under the age of 5 to fly. You must be at least 48 inches tall to fly with Hot Air Expeditions. You’ll have to be able to stand up for about one hour to participate. Baskets are not wheelchair accessible.
Rainbow Ryders doesn’t have a weight limit, but individuals weighing more than 300 pounds will have to pay the cost of another passenger. You will be required to give your weight prior to flight with both companies to ensure the basket has the capacity to carry everyone on board. Hot Air Expeditions does not charge an extra fee for individuals weighing over 300 pounds.
Service dogs may be able to fly in some instances for a private flight with an added pet fee at Rainbow Ryders. Hot Air Expeditions also requests that their customers not have any broken bones or recent surgeries.
According to the August 2023 calendar on the Rainbow Ryders website, adults cost between $159 and $209 each for a sunrise flight, with prices varying by the day. Children cost $99 each. A tip of 10-20% of the cost of the ride is encouraged. These prices are for shared sunrise flights.
According to Hot Air Expeditions’ 2023 pricing, adult tickets cost $219 per person for a morning ride (afternoon rides are only available from November to March), with children priced at $169 each. Hot Air Expeditions’ rides also include catered fare from Vincent’s on Camelback.
Private rides are available and cost more than shared ones ($600 per adult rider in the morning at Hot Air Expeditions, for example).
It takes a while for the crews to fill the hot air balloons with air. I tried to move around plenty to keep warm, and it was neat to see the balloons inflate gradually and then stand up right. Waiting did leave me more time to feel nervous about taking flight.
Once the balloon was inflated enough, it was time to step right up. When it came time to get inside, we had to literally climb over and into a basket that was maybe 4 feet tall. We had step ladders, holes in the basket for our feet, and staff members to help us get in.
I always assumed that the baskets were small—just like you see in the movies—but the basket I was in was huge. It had a total of five compartments. There was one in the center in which the pilot, propane tanks, and the pilot’s assistant stood. The passengers all gathered in the four other compartments.
There were four to five people inside of each compartment. We were packed in pretty tight and couldn’t really move around much—it would be tough for a claustrophobic rider. Every spot gives you good views, but if you’re by the edge of the basket, you don’t have to worry about other people getting in your photos. You also can ask others to take pictures with your phone, of course, if you trust them not to drop it.
My anxiety lifted away with the balloon as soon as it got off the ground. Gradually ascending as the ground falls beneath you is quite the experience. The basket didn’t sink underneath my feet. I didn’t feel weightless. It was just pure exhilaration as the balloon took off.
In the Sky
This was easily my favorite part. It’s so mesmerizing to be that high in the sky. I was totally captivated by the sight of everything all around me: the clouds, the mountains, the seemingly endless sky, the other colorful hot air balloons, and the rising sun in the open air. It’s the kind of sight that you could spend hours looking at and it still wouldn’t be enough time.
The ride itself felt so smooth. The wind didn’t jerk us around. Being right beside the pilot was a neat experience, too, watching him fire up the balloon.
According to a monitor posted on a pole in the basket, the inside of the balloon above was about 152 degrees—cooler than most oven temps. Seeing as it was a cold winter morning, this also made the ride pleasantly warm. The pilot was communicating with the nearby Luke Air Force Base over a walkie-talkie.
On the Rainbow Ryder’s website, the company states that most rides are roughly 45 minutes to one hour long.
Coming Back Down to Earth
When it was time to come back down to the ground, we floated over some neighborhoods and finally found an empty plot of land. It was neat to be high above a housing development, with countless pools and roofs. We could hear dogs barking and the sound of ambulances as clear as day. The pilot told me it’s because there’s little to no sound pollution when you’re that high up.
Sticking the Landing
The only part of the whole experience that was a little scary was the landing. As we descended, we all got into each basket and braced ourselves by getting into a sitting position with our knees at 90 degrees facing the interior of the basket.
Not looking at the ground really helped ease the fear of crashing into the ground. It was pretty bumpy with the basket leaning back quite a bit, but our pilot managed to keep us upright before we finally landed. Another woman I was riding with said she’s taken other rides, and the baskets can tip over.
Once we all got out of the basket, the pilot’s assistant led us all in a Champagne toast to commemorate the experience. After that, the staff packed up the balloon and drove us back to Rainbow Ryder’s office.
Overall, I’d say hot air ballooning is worth it. There is simply nothing else like it. Even though it is time-consuming and costly, the experience is incredible. The toughest journeys also tend to be the most rewarding.