There’s something you should know about me. When my friends say, “Oh, you know I’d really like to do that,” I am the first one to say, “Let’s do it!”
So, when my friend Tiffany said she wanted to take a hot air balloon ride before she moved back to Florida, I was 100% onboard! We went with Monticello Country Ballooning in Charlottesville, VA, and I’ve got my full review right here for you!
For a little geographic clarity, Charlottesville is about 2.5 hours southwest of the D.C. area, and it’s the location of three presidents’ homes: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, James Madison’s Montpelier, and James Monroe’s Highland. It’s a great destination for a daytrip or a quick weekender from D.C.!
*Most of the photos in this post are mine, but our chase-car driver (who is also a balloon pilot!) graciously took photos for us and gave me permission to use them. Thank you, Dave!
More here: A Brief History of Flight
Know Before You Go
If you’ve been reading my blog for long, you know I like to be as prepared as possible, and I like to help you be prepared, too! Here are some quick facts to help you plan your balloon ride.
- What to Wear: Wear clothing appropriate for walking in farmland. Heels are not a good idea! I wore my Sperry boots, jeans, a light sweater, puffy coat, and scarf for our flight. (The links here are affiliate links with Amazon, meaning that if you click the links to shop with me, you’re supporting my small business at no extra cost to you!)
- Baskets can hold various numbers of people. For ours, the maxiumum was five people, plus the pilot.
- Windspeed matters: Windspeeds vary by location, time of day, and more. As a reference point, our pilot, Scott, told us the maximum windspeed for takeoff is around 8 mph, and about 23 mph aloft (up high). Your pilot knows how to check this for you!
- Weight: You will have to give your party’s combined weight to your pilot for safety purposes.
- Bathrooms: There is no bathroom at the meeting site, on the balloon ride, or at the landing site! Go before you go!
- Trip length: From pick-up to drop-off, the whole experience was about three hours.
- How you’ll get back: There will be a “chase car” and crew (that was Dave for us!) to meet you at the landing site. They’ll help the pilot land, deflate the balloon, load up, and take you back to the starting point or your hotel.
More here: How to Be a Prepared Traveler
Balloon rides are very dependent on the weather and season, but under normal conditions, tours happen just after sunrise and a couple of hours before sunset. Once you take off, your flight will last approximately 45 minutes to one hour.
Read on: The World’s Best Travel Experiences
Pick-up times also vary by season, and your pilot will let you know the official pick-up time a day or two before your flight. For our morning flight in November, the pick-up time was 6:30am. This is mighty dignified, in my opinion, because the other two hot air balloon rides I’ve taken (Cappadocia, Turkey; and Cairns, Australia) both required pick-up times in the 3:00am hour! Balloons go later in Charlottesville because of the tendency for the wind to be stronger right before sunrise, which is not good for a safe take-off!
Read on: How to Practice Self Care on Travel
Launch sites will vary. For example, we took off from a nearby family farm, up on a hill, but some other balloons took off several miles away in another field. Your pilot will know where to go!
Once you get to the launch site, your pilot will fire up your balloon, which takes about 20-30 minutes, and you’ll be off and floating as soon as you can! You might even get to help prepare the balloon if you want!
Once the balloon is inflated, you’ll climb over the side of the wicker basket using the provided footholds. Just remember, as our pilot told us, there are no extra points for grace! Just get in as well as you can. To get up in the air, your pilot will increase the flame, which will take you up, up, and away!
More here: 5 Habits of Flexible Travelers
Once you get going, you’re at the winds’ discretion! Air currents change at different altitudes, meaning that wind speeds are different as you go up or down, and they can even change direction. You’re truly at the mercy of the winds! Your pilot can raise or lower the balloon as needed throughout your flight. Just enjoy being along for the ride!
During your flight, your pilot will point out landmarks and answer any questions you may have about hot air balloons or the Charlottesville area. Scott Cohrs was our pilot, and between his decades of experience and multiple thousands of flight hours, he was an amazing pilot! We had so much fun with him, and it ended up just being the three of us for the flight (Scott, my friend Tiffany, and me). We had so much fun, in fact, we all went to breakfast together afterward!
Our landing with Scott was the softest of the three hot air balloon landings I’ve had! He just set us right down in the middle of a soccer field, light as could be. In both of my other experiences, passengers were instructed to crouch and hold on in a “brace” position for a “controlled crash.” This was much better!
Speaking of landing, the landing site will vary, too! It all depends on where the wind takes you. We landed on some empty soccer fields, but it could be a farm, open field, or somewhere else with enough open space to land and deflate the balloon. Your chase vehicle and crew will be in communication with your pilot via radio, as well as be tracking you via GPS. They won’t have any trouble meeting you there!
Read next: 9 Habits of Successful Travels
Traditional Champagne (or Orange Juice) Toast
If you know me, you know I love to learn the history of traditions! Hot air ballooning has a pretty fun one, actually: a Champagne toast after the flight! This tradition started in the 1780s, when manned flight was still thought to be the stuff of fiction.
A balloonist in France took a bottle of Champagne with him with the intention to sip on it during the flight. Instead, he ended up offering it to a terrified farmer on whose property the balloon landed. This smoothed things over with the farmer considerably, and possibly saved the balloonist’s life! At first, the farmer wasn’t quite sure what this thing was that had fallen out of the sky with a man inside, as you might imagine. Ever since then, balloonists and guests have kept the Champagne toast tradition alive at the end of every flight.
If you’re like me and you prefer something non-alcoholic, don’t worry, they had alternatives to the Champagne. We all chose orange juice!
More about drinking and dining traditions are on my World Foods Page!
Prices vary by day of the week and either sunrise or sunset, but the range is $225-$300 per person. If you’d like a private flight, perhaps for an impressive date or special occasion, that will run you $900-$1,000.
Is it worthwhile? Travel Experiences Worth the Splurge
Make a Reservation
Ready to take flight? Request your reservation on the Monticello Country Ballooning Schedule Page, and they will be in touch to confirm. All the balloonists in Charlottesville help each other out, so if there is no space available, they may offer to get you in touch with another balloon company in the area!
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