You may be in for a ride you never bargained for
In recent months, many nearly-identical websites have materialized offering ballooning gift certificates and attempting to book reservations for balloon rides.
They appear to be representing a balloon company in your local area and make claims that they have the highest safety record, use the best equipment, have been serving the local area for a long time, offer the least expensive balloon ride, and have the closest flying location to major metropolitan areas.
However, these websites are actually nothing more than a middle man or reservation agency which costs you money. Be leery of their many misrepresentations!
To help you determine if a website represents an actual balloon company:
Does the website provide a business address for the company?
Does the website include specific information about their pilots, crew, staff and/or balloons?
Does the website include specific information about their launch facilities such as location and driving directions?
If you're still not sure if they're legitimate, call the 800-number and ask where they are located. If they cannot answer immediately without asking where you are calling from, then you have reached the middle man!
You might be asking, "Why not go through one of these agencies?"
1. Deceptive business practices: They employ a series of cookie-cutter websites which offer the exact same facts and pictures across the country, but claim to represent a local balloon company. In most instances, the images featured on their websites are used without permission of the original author. This is copyright infringement! There are many victims of this illegal practice. Many copyrighted photos can be found on their template websites - without permission from the content creators.
2. Location and distance: The agent will only book you with a participating balloon company. Sometimes the nearest participating flying location in their network is several states away! They certainly don't want you as a customer to be aware that there are other balloon companies outside of their network that are much closer to you.
3. Bogus fees: "Convenience Fee," "Poor Weather / Re-Schedule Fee," "Return Transportation Fee," "Pilot Fee" (gratuity), "Champagne Fee," etc. are all tacked on after you have already paid over the internet and arrive for your appointment. You may initially only pay $159 over the internet, which is often slightly cheaper than the flight fares respectable companies charge. However, after you arrive and add up the fees, your bill can quickly exceed $250 for the flight alone. This is most commonly-known as the classic "bait and switch" scheme. All of these fees go directly to the booking agency and in most cases, the pilot never even knows this is going on. These fees are all redundant - the ride back to the launch site, champagne, and everything else is included standard in the price of a normal balloon ride - but these companies prey on the general ignorance of consumers.
4. Low budget operations: Usually, the balloon company in the area who is participating with these booking agencies is so small and low budget that they are unable to advertise for themselves. And if they can't afford marketing, how can they afford good pilots, quality equipment, or have properly maintained aircraft? There is never a real guarantee of pilot experience, safety record, or aircraft airworthiness.
The experience of a balloon flight is one you will remember and cherish forever. It is important that this experience be performed by a competent, safe and professional company. Choosing to make a reservation with an agency which makes claims of, but has no control over, safety, pilots and equipment quality is literally throwing caution to the wind. Do your research before you fly - your safety and enjoyment depend on it.