Hot Air Balloon Safari Guide – Prices & Why They’re So Expensive

Before we launched Kambu Campers, we contemplated developing specific hot air balloon safari packages in the Mara but we ultimately decided to work with other tour operators to offer our clients incredible hot air balloon safaris in Maasai Mara.

In this guide, you’ll learn everything there is to know about this safari type for you to really be informed of what to expect. From the preflight preparation to the in-air experience, we’ve outlined it all here for you.

What is a hot air balloon safari?

A hot air balloon safari is an outdoor activity in which a group of people takes a ride on a large, inflatable gas-powered balloon. The occupants are taken on a journey up into the sky and can observe views from hundreds of feet above the ground. The experience typically lasts for about an hour and provides travelers with stunning aerial views of the landscape and wildlife below.

The incredible sight of more than two million wildebeest making their way across the African plains is nothing short of majestic. But, personally speaking, it’s always been hot air balloons that have left me awestruck – they were mankind’s first successful venture into flight! On November 21st, 1783 Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes made an unprecedented 25-minute journey over Paris France thanks to the Montgolfier brothers’ innovative invention.

Read more about the history of a hot air balloon and its 240-year history on its Wikipedia page here.

Below is an image of a hot air balloon in the air;

This is an image of a red hot air balloon with 4 passengers.
This is an image of a red hot air balloon with 4 passengers. Credit: Wikipedia

How hot air balloons work:

A hot air balloon works by using an open flame to heat the air inside the balloon. This heat causes the air molecules to move around and push outward against the sides of the balloon, which increases its volume while decreasing its density. This decrease in density, in turn, causes the balloon to become lighter than air and gives it lift; hence why we can take off and fly in the sky. The balloon is then able to be steered by the wind or by altering its altitude, which will cause it to drift in different directions.

To make manned flight possible, a hot air balloon is equipped with a single-layered, fabric gas bag that has an opening at the bottom and is referred to as its mouth or throat. Hanging beneath this “envelope” is a basket, or gondola, which holds the passengers. Above it in the center of the throat sits a burner powered by propane stored in pressure vessels like those used for high-pressure forklift cylinders. The heater emits flames into the envelope heating up its contents and enabling all aboard to take off!

How far will you soar on the balloon?

Skilled pilots usually fly hot air balloons between 500 to 2,500 feet above the ground. Pilots can adjust the altitude using a burner but are unable to direct their balloon like an airplane pilot would. Therefore, they must rely on winds for travel; gentle breezes create a pleasant journey and strong gusts demand careful consideration of weather reports prior to takeoff in order to ensure optimal conditions.

You can expect distances of 10 to 15 miles (15-24 km) in a single flight, provided perfect conditions. However, typical journeys are considerably shorter as the wind can change direction throughout your journey.

It’s an early-morning adventure

The adventure begins at 5:00 AM when we’ll be transported to the launch site and take off. After a fulfilling bush breakfast followed by transportation back to your lodge or camp, you can expect this journey of complete exploration and relaxation to come full circle around 10:30 AM.

If you like to watch incredible sunrise, appreciate the beauty of the African savannah and capture amazing photos, this is an experience you’ll never forget!

Check out the incredible photo from a hot air balloon posted and obtained from the Maasai Mara Travel site.

This is a morning picture taken by a passenger aboard a hot air balloon.
This is a morning picture taken by a passenger aboard a hot air balloon. Credit: Mara Travels

How much is a hot air balloon ride in the Mara?

The cost of a hot air balloon safari in Maasai Mara for one person is around $400 USD, although prices can vary depending on the tour operator you choose. This price usually includes the flight itself, transfers from your hotel to the landing site, and game drives upon returning from the trip.

During peak season, the cost of a single ride may go up to as high as $700 to $1000 USD. It’s important to note that the cost of a hot air balloon safari may not include any meals, drinks, or other activities such as game drives, so remember to check with your tour provider before booking.

With only 7 operators licensed by the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority and 6 certified pilots, its no surprise that the cost of going on a hot air balloon ride in Kenya is quite high. I’ll explain later on the reasons why hot air balloon safari rides are super expensive.

You can book your safari from any of the following;

  1. Mara Gates – from as low as $410 and can carry up to 16 passengers. Watch their video here.
  2. Mara Travel – The 2023 rates range from $450 to $515 per person as per their website here.
  3. Shoortravel – Same details as Mara Travel booking.

Can I go on a family balloon ride in Kenya?

A family trip in a hot air balloon over the picturesque Maasai Mara is entirely doable! Several tour operators have crafted special packages for families, complete with discounted rates for those under 12 years old. With an average cost of $1,400 for four people, you can witness breathtaking sights and create unforgettable memories together at only 25% off per child. It’s certainly worth every penny!

To be clear, operators typically charge no less than $400 for adults and offer discounts to children that range from 25% to 50%. Fortunately, some operators extend their ‘kids’ discount policy up until 18 years old.

As a family, you have the option of booking either a 4-person or 8-person family balloon safari package as the airlines of operators such as Hot Air Safaris or this Mara Gates operator have 4,8,12, and 16-passenger flights suitable for groups.

If you have a kid or infant and thinking of a safari to Kenya, read this guide on going on safari with a baby.

Are hot air balloon rides safe?

While ballooning may not be suitable for certain groups such as infants, young children (under the age of 8 yrs), and pregnant women, this aviation experience is known to be a hundred times safer than skydiving and some online sources note that it is the safest form of aviation.

Since the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) began monitoring balloon rides in 1964, there have only been 137 fatalities associated with hot air balloon incidents across the United States. Consequently, it remains a safe and popular recreational activity for all ages.

According to this other PRNewswire Article, The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) claims that between 2002 and 2016, a minuscule number of 16 fatalities resulted from hot air ballooning–averaging only one death per year. Their investigative data even extends back as far as 1964, with 775 accidents occurring in the United States alone since then. Hot air ballooning is thus undeniably safe; don’t let outdated myths keep you grounded!

Hot air balloon operators in Kenya are subject to the same rigorous regulations as those imposed by the FAA in the US. Hot air pilots must be inspected every 100 flight hours, and they have to pass a comprehensive flight test at least biannually; plus there are other essential criteria they must meet before being safe and certified to fly.

As an enhancement to the Civil Aviation Act of 2013, a 2018 Regulation passed by the Government of Kenya was specific to the ‘Rules of the Air’ and touched on specific clauses that govern the operation of unmanned and manned balloon flights.

Schedule 3 of the regulations covers some regulations on balloons freely roaming. See the snapshot below.

Read the Kenya regulations on Hot air Balloons here (PDF)

The design and construction of hot air balloons have improved drastically since the 1980s, due to both updated regulations for safety as well as better materials. For instance, these days a special type of ripstop nylon is used in crafting them – this fabric is exceptionally resistant to tearing. Thanks to all these advances, modern hot air balloons are safer than ever before! Since its introduction in the 1980s, ripstop nylon has been a popular choice among those who need extra strength and protection without sacrificing lightness. This material is crafted with synthetic fibers which gives it remarkable resistance to tearing, allowing for safer takeoffs and landings than regular nylon would provide.

With Mara’s tranquil winds and consistent weather patterns, hot air balloons have been free of fatalities since the tourist peak season of July 2000. Some 22 years ago on July 12, 2000, ABC News reported on the unfortunate loss of 1 passenger who was on a hot air balloon flight operated by Transworld Safaris. Most other passengers and pilots were rescued and managed to get the needed medical care they needed to recover from the crash.

Read the ABC Reporting of the accident here.

Below is a snapshot from the ABC News Website page with the story;

When it comes to disasters like the one that happened 22 years ago, most incidents are linked to extreme weather conditions such as heavy rainfall, strong winds, or thunderstorms. These occurrences exacerbate the risk of a ballooning accident.

Additionally, it’s important to be aware of some potential hazards you may face during a hot air balloon safari in Maasai Mara. It is important to be aware of the fact that you may face certain potential risks associated with flying in hot air balloons, such as strong gusts of wind, extreme weather conditions, and even the possibility of an equipment malfunction. As such, it is highly recommended to make sure whatever balloon safari operating company you go with, is in full compliance with all safety regulations.

It is also important to note that hot air balloons have a limited range and the journey should end within a few kilometers or miles of the takeoff point. Additionally, it is wise to always maintain contact with ground personnel during the entire flight just in case anything.

While it is true that hot air balloon safaris are relatively safe, if you are planning to hop in one then make sure to do your research and only go with an accredited and fully licensed operator. Make sure you review their safety record as well as any insurance they may have in the event of an accident.

What to carry during your Maasai Mara Balloon Ride:

  • Binoculars
  • Camera
  • If you plan on traversing a grassy terrain after your plane lands, be sure to wear closed-toe shoes.
  • To adjust to the changing temperatures of the Masai Mara landscape, layering is key. Before sunrise, when it’s cool and dark outside, you can opt for wardrobe choices that offer warmth; then as mid-morning approaches and the sun rises higher in the sky, gradually strip off those layers so your body will stay comfortable no matter what time of day!

Riz Jiwa enlightens in this video that Kenya’s light flight pilots, ferrying people on their hot air balloons, have been able to expand by sourcing talent from countries with more rigorous regulations and better-equipped training facilities for improved safety.

Why are hot air balloon rides so expensive?

Hot air balloon rides are expensive because they require significant resources to operate safely and efficiently. Most hot air balloon companies must invest in aircraft maintenance, fuel, pilots, crew members, and most importantly, insurance. Additionally, due to safety regulations and the limited range of hot air balloons, many safaris have to launch from private land or rentals for the take-off or landing site. All these factors contribute to the cost of a hot air balloon safari.

To check on the rates of hot air balloon rides in other safari destinations such as South Africa, Tanzania, US, India, and others, I was surprised that Kenya’s rates are the highest. In South Africa, the top hot air balloon operators offer rides for as low as $167 as per the listings on Tripadvisor here. Check out this top-rated safari flight in S. Africa.

I found India’s rates to be around $190 to $300, still a discount from the high Kenyan rates. However, I found the rates for balloon rides in Tanzania in parks such as Serengeti to go for as high as $599 per ride as posted on this Serengeti website.

In an interview with Citizen TV, Pilot Riz Jiwa explained that the lack of certified pilots and balloon safari operators in Kenya gives a few operators complete control over prices. According to the reporter, there are only 6 licensed hot air balloon pilots and 7 companies operating mostly within Maasai Mara National Reserve – this creates an elite group who have exclusive power over pricing.

Are hot air balloon rides scary?

While hot air balloon rides may seem a bit scary and intimidating at first, they’re actually quite safe. Unlike skydiving, balloon rides have much lower risks of injury or death due to the slower speeds and gentler ascent/descent. In addition, with reputable operators, safety is their first priority and they have strict regulations in place to ensure that all passengers are safe during the entire duration of the flight.

What usually makes high-altitude activities scary is the unknown and especially the doubt that the harness or support you have may not hold you up or that you’ll come tumbling down any second. The fear of heights is strongly associated with the fear of falling, thus making hot air balloon safaris much less frightening than other high-altitude activities such as skydiving or bungee jumping. With experienced pilots, you can stay assured that your flight is safe and secure throughout.

Watch this video explaining how jet engines work;

Another source of great fear is the noise made by other aviation vessels such as jets which in contrast hot air balloon rides are incredibly peaceful and quiet. Jets use explosions of exhaust to push their pistons and compressors produce a lot of noise. In contrast, hot air balloons use heated air to ascend and descend.

By leveraging fundamental Physics principles, Hot air balloons are powered by automated burners that let you effortlessly adjust your altitude and take advantage of the atmospheric pressure outside to fly in the sky.

This makes hot air balloon rides incredibly peaceful and quiet, giving you a chance to truly appreciate nature from up above.

NASA has shared details about this here.

What can I expect on a hot air balloon safari? 8 Steps to taking a hot air balloon safari:

Step 1: Eat your breakfast in your lodge/tent:

Before you depart for the hot air balloon safari, make sure to have a good breakfast! A full stomach will help keep you feeling energetic and happy throughout your flight.

Step 2: Drive to the Launchpad:

You will be picked up from your lodge and driven to the launch pad. Here, you will get a chance to see the balloon being inflated and prepared for the flight. If you are staying at Kambu’s Mara Camp near Sekenani Gate, you’ll be a few miles away from the main launchpads operated by various balloon safari operators such as Hot Air Safaris.

Step 3: Pre-Flight Briefing and Safety Rules:

Before taking off, you’ll receive an introduction about hot air balloons from your pilot and be briefed on safety rules. Listen carefully as your pilot explains the process, and ask any questions you may have.

Step 4: Lift Off!:

Finally, it’s time to take off! Enjoy views of the wide plains of Maasai Mara and its incredible wildlife below. Take pictures for that perfect Instagram post after your flight lands!

Step 5: Flying for 1 hour:

Your hot air balloon safari will last approximately 1 hour. Enjoy the sights of wildebeest, gazelles, elephants and even leopards if you’re lucky!

Step 6: Landing:

After about an hour of your flight, it’s time to land. Your pilot will slowly lower the balloon and skillfully maneuver it to a safe landing site.

Step 7: Celebratory Toasts and Breakfast in the Bush:

You can now celebrate your successful flight with champagne, beer or juice depending on what you prefer! After that, you’ll be escorted to a special bush breakfast prepared by local staff at the landing site. Enjoy hot tea and coffee, pastries, and other delicious breakfast foods as you debrief your flight with your fellow passengers.

Step 8: Return to Your Lodge or Campsite:

Once you are done with the bush breakfast, it’s time to return back to your lodge or campsite where you began. Enjoy the views of Maasai Mara from ground level as you make your way back.

Let’s conclude:

While Kambu’s Mara Camp does not offer hot air balloon safaris, we work with several of the local operators to ensure that our guests have a comfortable and enjoyable experience. Hot air balloon safaris are an incredibly unique way to explore Maasai Mara’s stunning landscapes and wildlife from high up in the sky! With experienced pilots and safety protocols, you can stay assured that your flight is safe and secure throughout.

FAQs

Are hot air balloons dangerous?

No, hot air balloons are not dangerous when operated by experienced and qualified pilots. During a pre-flight briefing, you will receive detailed instructions on what to do in the event of an emergency. The calm winds of the Mara and the improvements in design, safety precautions and better regulatory framework has made ballooning safaris in Kenya safer with no fatal incidences recorded in the last 22 years!

Are hot air balloon rides worth it?

Yes, hot air balloon rides are absolutely worth it! Being able to watch the majestic wildlife from high up in the air is truly an unforgettable experience. You’ll also be able to get stunning aerial views of Maasai Mara’s vast savannahs, rivers and woodlands – a sight you won’t forget anytime soon!

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