Some photos and tips I learned from planning and attending this past International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque.
1. Plan a Year in Advance
Plan A Year in Advance - Seasoned travelers may find this a no brainer, but we were no such gurus. We ended up booking our campsite in August that was located 20 minutes north of Albuquerque in Bernalillo. Clean, large camping pads, and running water, it fit our needs. For those interested in hotel bookings, book NOW. We met several people at the festival who booked rooms as early as October of last year, and some who booked as late as March. If you are serious about going and are not much of a camping person, be prepared to book now or plan for higher prices the later you wait.
2. Wake Up Early
Wake Up Early - This point mainly speaks to the morning session, but I will say it is worth the yawns to make it to the whole show in its entirety. Not only do you get better parking (see #4), but you also get to see the sun rise. As an incentive to wake up, the park is prepared for your arrival with food booths, large coffee stands, and some of the best breakfast burritos that will keep you warm and happy until the Dawn Patrol starts. Krispy Kreme is also a sponsor, so if you like sugar with your morning, they also have donuts.
3. Go to the Morning and Evening Sessions (if possible)
Go to the Morning and Evening Sessions (if possible) - The festival offers two sessions, a morning session that includes the "Mass Ascension," and an evening session that includes a "Twilight Twinkle Glow™." Buy your tickets ahead of time for both (and give enough time for the paper tickets to be delivered to your house), so you don't have to wait in line. The tickets are $10/each and work for any session (note #4 on evening tickets). The morning Mass Ascension is a sight to see by itself and is therefore the main attraction for many balloonists and photographers. At the same time, the evening Twilight Twinkle Glow™ is worth a peek. While the balloons do not ascend at the evening show, families can stake their lawn chair, grab a bite to eat and watch the captains coordinate their flames that makes for a spectacular light show. After the glow, there is also fireworks and a laser light show worth staying for. Both sessions are equally exciting, and have just as many people attend each, so plan to see both if you can.
4. Arrive Early, Avoid Parking Costs
Arrive Early, Avoid Parking Costs - Slide pesky parking fees by arriving early (this tends to be my motto for this event). The park visitors center suggests to get to the park by 4:30am for the morning session, and we found that we didn't have to get there any earlier. This time stands to not only to get a good parking spot near the entrance, but to also avoid parking costs which they start charging $15 to later arrivals. Once the front parking lot fills up, extra parking is located on the hill nearby and is about an extra 10 minute walk to the field. For getting parking at the evening session, bring a picnic lunch (since concessions are closed until about 5pm) and wait out the crowd to get a good seat. The park is open to the public between shows and we arrived at 3pm on Saturday to find that they didn't charge for tickets or parking. While the food stands are closed, most of the event tents are open for show. Cool off in the shade and check out the exhibits and crafts displayed until the crowd starts to thicken, then stake your claim on a close patch of grass.
5. If you Can't Do a Full Day, Try a Half Day
If you can't do a full day, try a half day - We didn't get into Albuquerque early enough to get to the morning and evening shows the same day. Instead, we arrived in the afternoon on Saturday to see the Evening Glow and woke up early the next morning to see the Morning Ascension. This may be a helpful strategy for people who are traveling from out of town nearby, or who may want to divide their weekend doing something different for the other half of the day.
6. Bring a Lawn Chair
Bring a lawn chair - if there's any baggage you bring with you, it should definitely be a lawn chair, or if you prefer, a blanket to sit on. There is limited seating in the park and benches fill up fast before each session. So unless you have a large group that can save seats, be prepared to bring your own. Depending on the weather and your current baggage load, also consider bringing an umbrella for shade, since covered areas are also minimal.
7. Don't Forget Your Camera!
Don't forget your camera! I know it's kind of a given, but when we stopped by the Canon booth we were shocked that they had sold out of two of their models already! For more serious photographers, bring two (or more) sets of lenses. I have sometimes hesitated to bring both lenses on quick trips, but this is one where I was glad I brought both! Also, remember to set your camera to RAW (for professional photographers). Again this is Photography 101, but in the flurry of getting the best shot with the right lens, it can be a small detail to forget. There are so many angles and distances that you'll want to zoom in or out, and you want it to be the best possible quality, so bring both lens sets and you will have better photos and no regrets!
For more information about the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, visit their website at http://www.balloonfiesta.com/.
The fiesta offers many other fun activities other than the events listed here, so be sure to check out everything this event has to offer. I hope this post offered some helpful insight. Until the next adventure!