Delayed flights, long lines, TSA pat downs—flying isn’t what it used to be.
But stepping aboard one of these hot-air balloons is a guaranteed way to rekindle a love of air travel. It’s an opportunity to revel in the world’s most beautiful landscapes, high above the fray. And it’s the kind of worthwhile splurge that you’ll be talking about long after you’re back on solid ground.
There’s nothing quite like floating over the yellow grasses of the Serengeti while lions and zebras frolic just a hundred feet below. Or watching the first rays of sun paint Myanmar’s ancient pagodas and temples in hues of gold. On average, baskets carry four to eight people, so the ride can be as intimate and romantic as it sounds.
Festivals also celebrate ballooning as a lofty spectator sport. Fans turn out in droves each October to watch as hundreds of jaunty balloons ascend en masse into the cerulean skies above Albuquerque, NM, making it the world’s most photographed event.
Although ballooning is now popular in all corners of the globe, it began in France as the whim of two brothers, Jacques-Étienne and Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, who, in 1793, wowed Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette by sending a hot-air balloon aloft over Versailles with three passengers: a sheep, a duck, and a rooster. A month later, the brothers invited two Frenchmen to board, launching our love affair with exploring the wild blue yonder.
Whether you choose the birds’-eye view over a French château à la the Montgolfiers’ original flight or prefer to skim the treetops of the Costa Rican rainforest, your spirits are destined to soar.
1) Bagan, Myanmar
This journey over Bagan defines awe-inspiring—especially when the sun’s golden rays light up the white surfaces of more than 4,000 pagodas and temples in what was the capital of the first Myanmar Empire. Since the monuments are scattered around an area of more than 15 square miles, an aerial view is an efficient way to take in the scope of this enchanting landscape. Book with Eastern Safaris for a dawn ride that begins with tea, coffee, and refreshments. From $320 per person; easternsafaris.com
2) Letchworth State Park, New York
Follow the Genesee River as it rolls through the Letchworth Gorge, flanked by towering slate cliffs, some 600 feet high. Balloons Over Letchworth is the only company operating within the park from May to mid October. The hour-long flight swoops over lush woods and the middle and upper falls. Visibility is great in July and August when the weather is warm and dry, while September sees the foliage at its Technicolor finest. $249 per person; balloonsoverletchworth.com
3) Melbourne, Australia
Greet the day, and Australia’s second largest city, from high above the glistening skyline with a one-hour Balloon Over Melbourne flight. You’ll take in views of the city’s central business district, its parks and gardens, and notable landmarks like Melbourne Park and Rod Laver Arena, site of the Australian Open. Back on terra firma, toast your adventure with an optional champagne breakfast. From $320 per person;balloonovermelbourne.com.au
4) Napa Valley, CA
The Kimball Family and Napa Valley Aloft were floating people above the Napa Valley long before it became a world-famous food and wine destination. Weather is best between April and October in Yountville, the launch site and picturesque town that’s home to the French Laundry restaurant. Soar over green rolling hills and small and large family vineyards—with views to the Sierras and San Francisco on clear days. Individual flights from $200 per person; group flights and private tours available;nvaloft.com
5) Serengeti, Tanzania
Lions, hippos, leopards, giraffes, and zebras thrive on the grassy plains of the Seronera River Valley, as you’ll witness on a Balloon Safari. Flights also catch sight of the estimated 2 million wildebeest that migrate from Kenya to Lake Victoria each year, often passing through the valley between May and early June and again from late October to December. One-hour flights are followed by champagne, an English-style breakfast under an acacia tree, and more amazing photo ops. $529 per person; balloonsafaris.com
6) Albuquerque, New Mexico
Each October, more than 500 colorful balloons take flight during early-morning mass ascensions at the International Balloon Fiesta, the largest such event and the most photographed event worldwide. The dedicated 365-acre Balloon Fiesta Park just north of Albuquerque also hosts special-shape balloon rodeos and the popular evening balloon glow, when pilots fire up their burners at the same time and leave the balloons tethered. If you’re feeling inspired, Rainbow Ryders operates flights from within the park during the fiesta. Prices range from $299 to $499 per person for a 60-minute ride; rainbowryders.com. Advance-purchase festival admission for adults, $12.
7) Reno, Nevada
Held over three days in September at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park, the Great Reno Balloon Race is a free event for the whole family. Expect food vendors, craft activities for kids, and popular morning glow shows—a predawn spectacle with balloons twinkling against the dark sky. More than a dozen specially shaped balloons are on display, including an 86-foot-tall Darth Vader (enter a drawing on the event’s Facebook pagefacebook.com/renoballoon for the chance to win a ride). It’s neat to watch the actual race, in which pilots maneuver toward targets and attempt to hit them with beanbags. Tethered rides for kids, $5; renoballoon.com
8) Colorado Springs, Colorado
The Colorado Balloon Classic has been held each Labor Day Weekend since 1977 and draws local, national, and international crowds to the foot of Pikes Peak to watch hundreds of jewel-toned balloons mass-launch in front of the 14,115-foot mountain. Balloon rides, evening concerts, coloring and photo contests, a children’s play area, and tons of local food and merchandise are the many ways the event raises money to share with local charitable organizations. Balloon rides during the festival are $295 per person;balloonclassic.com
9) Magalies River Valley, South Africa
At the northern reaches of the Cradle of Humankind UNESCOWorld Heritage Site, Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safari is an elegant experience that begins at the custom-built clubhouse, where fresh coffee and hot-from-the-oven muffins are served while you watch the balloons inflate. One-hour rides slip through valleys and up more than half a mile into the sky; often the city of Johannesburg, 47 miles to the south, is visible. (The winter months of April to August are optimal.) After landing, it’s back to the clubhouse for bacon and eggs, smoked salmon, ratatouille, pancakes, fresh fruit, and a bottomless glass of bubbly. From $130 per person; balloon.co.za
10) Muelle, Costa Rica
Costa Rica’s lush jungle and never-too-hot, never-too-cold climate cooled by Pacific and Caribbean breezes is perfect for ballooning year round. Serendipity Adventures, the only hot-air balloon operator in Costa Rica and Central America, has just the flight of fancy. Its 75-minute sunrise flights are offered year round, but the summer season (May–August) is exceptional. Balloons dip low to the treetops where monkeys and birds chatter away, and if the winds are optimal, you’ll rise high enough to catch a glimpse of the smoking Arenal Volcano in the distance. $345 per person; serendipityadventures.com