ABQ Balloon Fiesta II -> Tips On RV Camping & Attending The Event
PRE-POST NOTE/ This is a loooong post, so breathe deep & get comfy before you read 🙂
When we first put Balloon Fiesta on our bucket list I really knew nothing about it other than it was a lot of balloons and I had to see it. It took us an additional 5 years to finally get here and in-between many of my RV buddies attended and provided tons of good info (see links at bottom of this post) which helped us learn and decide how to plan our own trip. So what I’m about to write here is not exactly original. However what I will try and do is sum it up in my own words and provide some extra practical tips from our own experience. Hopefully between this and my linked posts, it’ll help those of you who decide to attend in the future. Here we go…
How Many Days Should I Attend?
The Balloon Fiesta happens each year in early Oct and lasts for a total of 9 days. Initially we weren’t really sure we wanted to come for it all. Did we really want to see 9 whole days of balloons?? Wouldn’t we get bored? Thankfully we were encouraged by more knowledgeable RV buddies to commit to the whole thing and in the end I’m very happy that we did. Not only did the longer commitment allow us to enjoy the Fiesta at our leisure (a few days on the field, at few mornings watching the launch from the RV, a few days crewing etc.), but it ensured we got multiple days of really good ballooning conditions, and that’s perhaps the most important item.
You see balloons are very dependent weather and conditions need to be just right for flying. Too windy and they can’t go up, too rainy and they can’t go up, too little wind and they can’t go up either. There’s absolutely NO guarantee that the balloons will fly everyday! ABQ has pretty awesome ballooning weather, especially this time of year, but winds or rain can whip up without warning and cancel an event (TWO of our evening glow events were a total bust, for example). So, if you just come for a few days you may actually miss several days of ballooning.
Should I Stay On-Site Or Off-Site?
Probably the second question everyone asks themselves is whether they should stay on-site or off-site. The Balloon Fiesta has several large on-site parking areas for RVers, but they’re not exactly attractive (just large parking lots) and they do cost some $$. There are multiple RV parks around town which are much nicer (altho’ prices inflate around Fiesta time), and there’s even free boondocking at the nearby Sandia Casino. So, for this reason off-site can look pretty attractive. But…and here’s the major but…getting into the launch field from anywhere off-site can be a total nightmare.
During the big Fiesta events up to 80,000 people attend, so traffic backs-up on all the main arteries and it can take several hours to get in. We crewed with a two off-site ladies who had to leave their hotel 1.5-2 hours before each event to get into the launch field (= where the balloons take off) on time, and even then they sometimes had trouble making it. One day the park even closed the car parking areas, sending folks away because they didn’t have anymore space. On top of this, given that weather is a factor and events sometimes cancel last-minute, this makes the time spent getting in (and out) even more frustrating.
If you stay on-site you avoid ALL of this hassle. Even the “cheapest seats” (which is where we stayed) are close enough to the launch field that you never have to get into your car, and if an event is canceled it’s only 15 easy mins to get home.
Pro Tip -> Even if you’re staying on-site do NOT plan to drive anywhere during morning or evening events. Not only is traffic a nightmare, but the Police shut down roads and force you in ridiculous one-way circles (it’s almost impossible to get back into the Standard Lot once you leave). In-between events (after 10AM and before 4PM) the roads open up again and traffic is fine.
What Are The On-Site RV Parking Options?
One of the best things about Balloon Fiesta IMHO is that there is TONS of easy RV parking within walking distance of the launch field.
- On The Launch Field -> There are 3 main parking areas right at the the launch field. VIP West & East for $85.00** per night (dry camping with 2 entry passes included) and the Presidents Compound for $150.00** per night (Sites on a bluff overlooking the Launch Field with 30Amp/water hookups & 4 entry passes included). These are definitely the “prime” sites at Fiesta.
- ~1 Mile From Launch Field -> Just down the road from the launch field is the Standard Lot area where you can stay for either $65**/night (30Amp/water hookups) or $30**/night (dry camping) during event days. Costs drop to 1/2 price in the days leading up to Fiesta. These are the “cheap seats” of Fiesta.
**These are all 2015 prices. I was told by the check-in people that prices will probably increase slightly for 2016.
All the RV parking areas are basic “rally-style” parking lots where you park right next to your neighbor without any kind of privacy so the only difference between the “expensive seats” and the “cheap seats” are how far away you are from the balloon launch action. There are people who rave about the VIP/Presidents sections (you definitely can’t get much closer), but frankly I think the Standard Lot is just fine. For a fraction of the price, you’re only ~1 mile from the main field and given there are several free, quick, easy options to get from your RV to the field (see below) I think you’ll enjoy it just as much. You can see the balloons ascend (just further away) from your site and sometimes, depending on wind direction, you’ll even get balloons landing right in front of your RV (it happened at least 5 of the days we attended)!
As for hookups versus non-hookups, you can guess which way we went! In the dry camping area you’ll hear generators every morning/evening from your neighbors (sometimes very early AM), but that’s just part of the deal, and honestly the hookup areas are not much better. The hookup sites are right in the middle of the Standard Area and are all powered by huge generators at the end of the row, which means they still have to listen to generator noise even tho’ they are paying an extra $35/night. Also porta-potties (free), garbage (free), dump ($25) and water ($25) are all available on-site (for dump/water they come to to your site, so you don’t even have to move) which makes it super-easy, even for folks who’re not used to dry camping. The extra $$ for the hookups just don’t seem to be worth it to me.
Pro Tip -> RV camping price does not include entry fee to the launch field, so you’ll need to buy entry passes to the event too. These are $8/session (= all morning OR all evening events) on-site, or you can buy a “4-pack” from Costco which pushes the price down to $6/session. Kids 12 and under are free. Extra Pro Tip -> If you sign-up to volunteer crew you get a FREE entry pass for the entire week. I’ll write about this in the next post.
What About Joining A RV Group?
On top of the various parking options on-site you can ALSO choose to join a RV group. There are multiple RV groups that are “regulars” at the Fiesta and they typically stay in the same place every year. The Airstreamers have a regular group (they stay in the VIP area), the Monacoers have a group (also VIP), Escapees has at least 2 regular groups (the Boomers & the Hops -> both in the Standard area. This year Xscapers also had a convergence), plus there are a bunch of others. Some groups are highly organized and cater meals & outings in addition to the regular Fiesta events, whereas others are just social groups getting together at the event itself. Also, some groups offer a discount on the parking price (e.g. Boomers), whereas others actually cost more (e.g. HOPs -> you pay for the extra activities/catering).
In my opinion groups are great for the social aspect, and for newbies who’ve never attended and are looking for guidance, but I think it’s highly individual and it just depends how you’d like to attend the event. Do you want a more “organized” experience? Or a more “loose” one? Do you want happy hours every night? Or do you prefer to be on your own? This is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.
We joined the Boomers group which gave us a discount on the parking price ($25/night instead of $30/night), a small discount on dump/water, a very nice parking area (we faced the central field in a long row with no-one behind us) and lots of guidance (the group comes here every year and are very active in crewing). We loved our site & appreciated the guidance of the Boomers group, but I’ll admit that I spent most of my “happy hour” evenings hanging with the awesome Xscapers group just down the way (working-age crowd with great party/social vibe).
How Early Should I Book?
Fiesta is a BIG event, and like all big events booking early (~6-8 months ahead of time) is recommended especially if you want to stay in nearby RV parks, the VIP/President’s area or with a particular group. However there ARE options for “non-planners”, so don’t be discouraged if can’t plan ahead. The bookings website for Fiesta closes down around mid-Sept and although most of the “premium” RV sites may already be gone by then, there are typically Standard Lot sites available right up to the very last booking minute. Also, not everyone turns up so there are almost always Standard Lot sites available on a first-come-first-serve basis to anyone who decides to come last minute. I talked to the check-in folks on the last day of Fiesta and they told me they hadn’t turned down a single RV since the event started, even tho’ this was one of the biggest attendance years ever.
For Boomers (who have 40 sites total and are old “regulars” here) we booked in Feb and by around April they were full. However many of the folks we know who stayed with Xscapers (first time group at Fiesta) booked less than a month or so ahead. Also we know several RVers who just “walked in” last minute to the grounds and snagged a site without a problem.
Pro Tip -> The Fiesta people will park you as you arrive so if you want to park together plan to meet somewhere before-hand & arrive at the check-in together. We met Paul’s dad at the Sandia Casino & drove in together from there.
How Do I Get From Standard Lot RV Site To The Launch Field?
One of the GREAT things about the Standard RV Parking area (apart from the reduced price) is that it is ridiculously easy to get to the launch field, even if you aren’t particularly mobile. There are 3 options:
- Walk It -> Since it’s only ~1 mile from the Standard Lot to the launch field, it only takes ~20 mins walk there. If you start the walk and decide you can’t make it all the way, there are FREE Courtesy Shuttles from the corner of Alameda/Balloon Museum Drive that’ll take you the rest of the way.
- Shuttle It -> There are FREE school bus shuttles from the Standard Lot to the launch field that leave every 10-20 minutes or so, depending on time of day. The buses start pre-dawn and are allowed to by-pass traffic (they have their own special lane) so they never wait to get in. There are 3-4 “official” Shuttle Bus-stop tents around the Standard area where you can wait for a bus, but you can also just flag them down as they drive by your RV (they’ll always stop if they have space). To get home, you catch the bus right outside the launch field and then just tell the driver which row to stop and they’ll drop you right by your RV. The buses are wheelchair-friendly and take ~10-15 minutes to get to the field.
- Bike It -> This is actually my very favorite of them all!! Believe it or not there is FREE valet bike parking right by the launch field. Just show up, hand over your bike to the handlers, get the ticket and off you go. The valet parking is only open during morning and evening events, but it is secure and it is sooooo easy. In the AM they sometimes offer free coffee & breakfast bars too. What a service!!!
Pro Tip -> If you’re planning to bike alot consider bringing a few extra inner tubes. There are lots of goats head stickers around the Standard Lot area and they are flat-makers. We didn’t get any flats, but Paul’s dad got two.
Which Events Should I Attend?
There’s lots of events during the Fiesta, including competition stuff but there are three events which are “must do’s” IMHO:
- Dawn Patrol -> This happens right before dawn (around 6AM) and consists of a single row of balloons which light up the dark sky and ascend into the night. It’s pretty darn amazing and you must go at least once. Click HERE for more info.
- Mass Ascension-> This starts soon after Dawn Patrol (around 7AM, once it’s light) and involves everyone else. It’s basically hundreds of balloons taking off at once. Mass, beautiful insanity! Click HERE for more info.
- Evening Glow -> This happens at dusk (around 6:30-7PM). Hundreds of balloons get inflated on the field and glow/flicker in the dark. Special Shapes night is particularly cool. Click HERE for more info.
What About Doggie?
So for dog-crazy folks like us, here are the two biggest downers about Balloon Fiesta. First of all doggies are not allowed on the launch field (except service dogs) so you cannot bring paws with you when you go to your events (by the way this is yet another reason why staying close to the action is better = less time away from doggie). Secondly the Standard Lot parking area has lots of goats heads/stickers which are painful for paws. So, walking doggie around your RV can be a chore. The stickers got better as the week progressed especially in the trafficked area between RV rows, but they were awful on the central field.
In order to plan for this we got these Ultra Paws Durable Dog Boots for Polly which stayed on her paws nicely (even when running) and kept her mostly sticky-free (a few, rare big ones were able to stick through). Also, every afternoon between events we took her to nearby Wildflower Park which was only 5 mins drive away, had lovely green grass & was practically empty every time we went.
How Should I Dress?
ABQ is high desert and temps can vary quite a bit. Typically early mornings are cool (sometimes even downright chilly) while afternoons are warm (sometimes even downright hot). If you layer up it’s easy to brave the morning chill and take off layers as needed as it gets warm. Also wear comfortable walking shoes! The launch field is ~1 mile long and you’ll be walking back and forth like crazy to see it all. We walked an average of 3-5 miles everyday we went to the festival (5-8 miles when we crewed), most of it on the launch field!
What Camera Should I Bring?
I’ve always been of the opinion that the best camera for any event is the camera you have on you. So if you can’t lug it, don’t bring it!
If you have a nice big SLR you can definitely bring this to Balloon Fiesta, but you may need a tripod (especially for pre-dawn and post-sunset “glow” events) and then you need to be prepared to lug everything around as you walk miles around the launch field. I bought my “big” camera the first day, but found it too cumbersome and slow (shutter-speed-wise), especially for the low-light events so I ended up ditching it for my pocket camera (I recently upgraded to a Canon PowerShot G7 X). 95% of the pics on the blog were taken with this easy point-and-shoot. Not only did this allow me to walk around unhindered by heavy equipment, but I was able to crew & fly with my camera by keeping it in my pocket and just whipping it out anytime I needed it. Paul took all his pics with his iPhone.
How Do I Get To Crew? Or Fly?
That’s a whoooooole other blog post, so you’ll just have to wait in anxious anticipation for that one 🙂
Useful Links & Posts:
- Tips For Balloon Fiesta -> Excellent blog post written by Island Girl Walkabout last year. Helped us alot! Click HERE.
- ABQ Balloon Fiesta -> Watsons Wander’s multi-part series on their experience. Click HERE.
- ABQ International Balloon Fiesta -> Official webpage. Click HERE
- ABQ International Balloon Fiesta -> RV information. Click HERE.
Any other questions I didn’t answer? Any good blog links I missed? Please feel free to comment and add links below!