The aviation and ballooning world is divided in to those flying privately as a hobby and those flying paid passengers commercially. The licensing and insurance requirements for private and commercial hot air ballooning are very different. Private balloonists cannot accept payment for flights.
Choosing a company or an "operator" as they are called for a hot air balloon ride can be difficult. Below we give some general advice for those considering a commercial hot air balloon ride in the UK or worldwide as either a gift or for themselves. We hope that this will assist those looking for an amazing flying experience to get the best from their hot air balloon rides.
There are a large number of commercial hot air balloon ride companies in the UK, Europe and the US, most of whom are advertised on the Internet or the Yellow Pages. We cannot recommend any particular balloon ride operation but if you are looking for a balloon ride experience for yourself or as a present then we hope that you will find some useful information on this site. The following information is for balloon rides in the UK.
Hot air balloon rides are very weather dependent. If the conditions on your chosen day are rainy, have poor visibility or high wind speeds then your flight is unlikely to go ahead. In terms of ballooning winds at ground level above 10 mph or 16 kph can result in very unpleasant and potentially dangerous landings. There are other legal requirements on the minimum visibility and lowest allowable cloud level, which will affect the possibility of your flight going ahead. Conversely there can be days when it is lovely and sunny and not a cloud in the sky but the winds are too strong to go ballooning.
In the UK about one in two days at best have conditions suitable for ballooning. Even then some of these will be days when it is technically possible to fly but the conditions are dull, overcast and not very enjoyable. Therefore most operators will not only take the legal minimum weather conditions into account, but also whether the conditions will make for an enjoyable and safe flight. Occasionally we have seen some commercial balloons flying in low cloud and drizzle, which although perfectly safe, does not make for enjoyable experience.
For these reasons if you are buying the experience to enjoy on a specific date such as a birthday, wedding anniversary etc do be prepared for the possibility of cancellation.
Buying A Gift Voucher For A Hot Air Balloon Ride
Hot air balloon ride operators will usually issue you with a voucher which will be valid for 12 months from the date of purchase. This provides the holder with the flexibility to take the flight at a time that suits them. But bear in mind that the ballooning season is generally just 7 months in that 12 month period, from April to October. And don't assume the weather will be good in the summer. Recently we have found some of the better weather for ballooning happens in April and May. It is wise to check with the hot air balloon ride company the conditions that are attached to your voucher and if it can be extended at the end of the validity period and if there is a charge for this. You should discuss this with your proposed ride operator and make sure that you are happy with any time limits.
Arranging A Date For Your Balloon Ride
Check out how often the balloon company schedules flights from the county or location you are interested in. This should be easy to see on their web site but if in doubt call them. Remember, as flights may be cancelled due to weather this can become important.
Generally the onus will be on you to call and enquire about the next likely flying slot or to re-book the date for your flight on line. Some companies will actively try to organise alternative flights for you if one has been cancelled due to poor weather. Or they may offer a "standby" list and text you if there is short notice space.
Where Will You Fly From On Your Balloon Flight
Balloons can only travel where the wind takes them. So in this country with restricted airspace and lots of coastline, not to mention mountainous areas, balloonists often need a selection of launch sites to cover the possible wind directions in order to fly over a particular area. This means that sometimes you may not fly from the location you prefer, but from an alternative location. For example, a flight from Bristol may have to be relocated to a launch site towards Bath if the wind is coming from the east in order to stay out of Bristol Airport and the Severn Estuary. There are a few locations in the centre of the UK where you will always fly from one location in a country but this is not necessarily always the case. Some counties are very small and alternative launch sites may be outside your preferred county. Some operators may have so many launch sites you may get the impression that you can fly from somewhere within a mile or so from where you live. But in reality wind patterns may mean the majority of flights occur from the site furthest from you - If in doubt, ask! If a balloon operator is not forthcoming about this sort of information then think twice before you book with them.
Costs - cheap vs expensive
The cost of a balloon ride varies significantly between operators and season. Prices are likely to be higher for summer months and for weekend evenings, which are the most popular times. Some operators may offer discounts if you agree to fly mid week morning. It pays to shop around to get the best deal. Some operators have grouped together into umbrella networks, which can offer flights in many different locations. This can be an advantage if you are unsure where the person taking the flight will want to fly, so check if you are flying with a smaller owner operator who might provide an excellent service but only fly in one area or an operator with links to others.
Balloon Basket Size
Ride balloon envelopes typically vary in size from 105 thousand cubic feet to 400 thousand cubic feet and the hot air balloon baskets will carry anything between 4 and 18 passengers. In a smaller balloon the more personal your contact with the pilot and crew is likely to be. In a larger balloon the baskets are likely to be compartmented and specifically designed for passenger safety and landing which is a consideration for younger and older passengers. Some operators may even have seats for landing.
What to Wear
Warm and robust outdoor clothing with sturdy shoes is required. Natural fibres are preferred because of their better resistance to heat. You will need to be able to climb into and out off the basket and bear in mind that take off and landing may well be in a muddy field. Expect the air temperature to decrease with altitude. The temperature drop is approximately 3.5 degrees per 1000 ft, (you are unlikely to fly at more than 5000 ft).
Ballooning in the Morning or Evening
Unless your flight is in cold winter conditions your flight will usually take place during the first few hours after sun rise or during the last few hours before sunset. Balloon control becomes very unpredictable during thermal conditions and thermals decrease significantly towards dusk and over night. In the summer the early morning flights can mean a very early start with sunrise in Europe as early as 4 am. However, in our experience the morning flight have been some of the best that we have had. The early start is worth it.
Photographs and Pictures
Bring a camera as there should be many opportunities for interesting ballooning photos. It is recommended that you use UV filters on your camera to eliminate possible haziness. Make sure your batteries are charged, there are always many things to photograph from a balloon. Including parts of the balloon (e.g. the burner flame, or the inside of the balloon), or your fellow passengers in your photos may make the pictures more interesting. Don't forget to get someone to take some pictures of you in the basket before take off. Many ride operators now have remotely controlled cameras which hang on the outside of the envelope and can take pictures of the passengers in the basket whilst flying. Some passengers may find taking a map of the area the balloon may fly over or binoculars may add to the experience.