The Decision: Helicopter or Airplane?
It's been coming to my attention lately that lots of you are struggling between taking a helicopter or an airplane tour. I've been there and I totally understand. However, there are big differences between them. So in the end, choosing isn't quite so difficult.
The first big difference is price. Helicopters are more expensive. In some cases by as much as 45 percent. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that helicopters only hold six people, compared to 19 for an airplane. Then there are fuel and maintenance issues. Suffice to say, when all added up, helicopters are simply more expensive to operate.
Then there's the sheer "sexiness" of taking a helicopter ride. Whatever you may think, the public at large find helicopters more thrilling than airplanes. And they are IMHO. For instance, helicopters can go to the bottom of the West Rim (planes can't). They can also bank, turn and hover. Again, planes can't. Indeed, choppers have a "wow" factor for which people are willing to pay a premium.
Let me pause a bit on what it means to land at the Grand Canyon. First, if you want to go below the rim and to the bottom, you've got to do that from Vegas and you've got to do it at the West Rim. If you are at the South Rim, helicopters are banned from doing this, and thus you have only aerial tours from which to choose.
But don't feel left out if you're a plane traveler. From Las Vegas, plane tours come with a ton of side trips, including helicopters to the bottom and boat rides on the Colorado. You can even bundle in the Grand Canyon Skywalk. And as I noted at the outset, these plane "combo" packages are significantly cheaper than their helicopter brethren.
And let's hearken back to capacity. Remember I said helicopters max out at 6 passengers? Well, that's good and bad. Good in the sense that you're sitting right next to the pilot with a small group of other lucky souls. However, such limited seating leads to sell outs, and they happen a lot during spring and summer (heck, they even happen in winter as I've discovered of late).
There are two ways to beat the over-capacity issue. The first and easiest is to book your heli flight in advance. I'd say do it at least two weeks ahead of time during high season (summer) and one week in advance during low season (winter). Avoid at all costs trying to book within 72 hours. You simply won't get on or you'll pay a fortune for whatever's available (most likely a last-minute aerial tour).
Just in Case
Or you can bump up to an airplane. Few travelers know this but because planes can seat 19 adults, there's usually seats, even within 72 hours of departure. Truth be told, I can't tell you how often I've recommended airplane tours in a pinch. And, overwhelmingly, all my reader/clients are very happy they did it, especially with the flight that lands on top of the West Rim.
Another issue is how to get to the South Rim from Las Vegas. Sure, you can self-drive across the desert for 5.5 hours or take a 40+ passenger bus (which is extremely popular!). But in my world the ONLY way to do this is by airplane. The flight is just 60 minutes and before you know it you're in a bus doing a 2.5-hour tour inside the National Park. Get really crazy and tack on a 30-minute rim-to-rim heli ride and you're cooking with gas.
Both types of aircraft are outfitted for sightseeing. The best helicopters boast forward-facing seats and a 180-degree windshield (technically speaking these are called EcoStar 130's and they are only available on deluxe tours). Planes, too, are customized and feature oversized viewing windows and wings that are attached to the top of the cabin so you've got a clear view of the action below.
So I hope I made it clear that there's a clear choice between taking a helicopter tour and an airplane flight. The big differentiator is price, with choppers being more expensive. Then there's the question of if you want to land at the bottom of the canyon (West Rim only). As for the South Rim, planes are the ONLY way to go in my book. So take my points into consideration. I'm sure after mulling it over a tad it will be clear which kind of tour you'll want to take.