Napa Valley can be explored by bus, bike, segway, and even tuk tuk, but none of those modes of transportation can compete with the mountain and vineyard views you’ll enjoy — and the photos you’ll capture — from an adventurous, sunrise hot air balloon ride. Soaring over Napa Valley at up to 3,000 feet is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that should be at the top of your Wine Country bucket list, so here’s everything you need to know before you lift off.
Hot air balloon rides take place very early in the morning, for that’s when the winds are calmest. You will be up before sunrise. The good news is that you’ll literally get to rise with it; the lighting is truly incredible and it won’t cut into your wine tasting plans for the day. Some companies offer transportation to and from your hotel and also provide coffee and tea upon arrival. Each balloon company takes off at a different spot throughout Napa Valley, so you may want to choose based on your hotel location (anything for a few extra minutes of sleep, right?).
Your hot air balloon experience will typically last between three to four hours, but the actual flight duration is roughly one hour, give or take. Hot air balloon rides are unpredictable and completely dependent on that day’s flying conditions. Most experiences have the option to add on a post-flight, sit-down brunch, complete with sparkling wine.
Note: Hot air ballooning is not recommended — and sometimes not permitted — for infants and young children (kids must be 48 inches in height or at least six years old), women who are pregnant, or persons with pain, disability, or injury, for you’ll need to be able to stand in the balloon.
A hot air balloon ride is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, which unfortunately means it doesn’t come cheap. Standard flights start at $200+ per person. Thinking of popping the question? A private flight will cost you $2,000+, but your effort will most certainly be rewarded with a “Yes!”
Hot air balloon rides are weather dependent and it’s not uncommon for them to get cancelled due to rain, heavy fog, or strong winds. Safety is of the utmost importance and the company you book through will call you the morning of if it’s cancelled and then usually give you the option to rebook for the next day. Some companies also have additional Northern California lift-off locations outside of Napa Valley that you can take advantage of in the result of cancellation.
The best strategy is to schedule your balloon ride at the beginning of your Napa Valley trip, that way you have the rest of it to keep rescheduling in the case of inclement weather. Last minute reservations are often available, but to be safe, book a few weeks in advance, especially if it’s during peak tourist season (August – October).
Layers, layer, layers. Napa Valley has chilly mornings, so no matter the time of year, you’ll want to dress in layers for your ride. In winter it can be downright frigid, sometimes down to the 30s and 40s, in which case you may want to bring a hat, scarf, and gloves. The coldest part of the experience is on the ground before take off. During the flight, the burners that go off in the basket every so often help keep passengers warm. Sunglasses can help lessen the sun’s rays as it rises and it’s advised women don’t wear dresses or skirts, as they have to climb over the basket to get in and out (plus, wind, duh).
Your camera is probably the single most important item to bring. One with a strap is ideal, for obvious reasons.
Most of Napa Valley’s hot air balloon companies have been around since the 1970s and 80s and were not only flying some of the first balloon rides in Napa Valley, but also in the entire country. They offer competitive pricing, but slightly different packages and experiences. You really can’t go wrong, but here are a couple to consider:
Owned and continually-operated by the Kimball Family, Aloft maxes out their passenger count at 12, so you’ll likely get a more intimate experience than some other balloon companies. The standard Aloft balloon ride is $250 per person, but they also offer private flights for two people (starting at $2,000). A post-flight champagne breakfast will cost an extra $28 per person. If you’re worried about a possible cancellation, Napa Valley Aloft is a good company to roll the dice with. Though they typically launch out of Yountville at V Marketplace, they have access to a secondary launch location in the secluded Pope Valley, which is prone to less fog than other parts of the valley.
This is the only company that launches from an actual winery. The standard package price is $275 per person, which includes the balloon flight and free round-trip transportation, but they also offer a hot air balloon ride with a Napa winery tour included (starting at $394 per person). A private flight and brunch for two guests costs $2,200 and the company also offers a slew of wine and hotel packages to help customize your Napa Valley visit. If you’re staying Upvalley (like St. Helena or Calistoga) you might consider booking with their partner company, Calistoga Balloons. A private flight for two will cost you $2,200.