Consumer drones are getting smaller and better (and cheaper). At the same time, drool-worthy aerial travel photos are filling up social media. It’s easier than ever to add a drone to your backpack or suitcase, so here are the best drones for travel and everything you need to know about traveling with one.
The best drones for travel and how to travel with them
Drones have taken off (haha, get it?) in the travel world. They are smaller, cheaper and easier to use. But at the same time, restrictions are increasing. With so many options, how do you choose which drone to buy? And what do you need to know about traveling with it? This guide covers all How Dare She tips and recommendations for picking the best drone for you and all the things you might not think about when it comes to traveling with it.
Note: there are affiliate links in this post. All opinions remain my own. For your reference, all drone images in the post are from my Mavic Pro.
Is a drone right for you and your travels?
Controversial opinion: not everyone needs a drone. The first question you should be asking yourself before deciding WHICH drone is right for you, is IF a drone is right for you. Just because you see that a lot of people have them, a drone isn’t always right for you. If you don’t want the weight, size or bother of having one, there is no pressure!
You can get lots of awesome photos during your travels without a drone (or you can paraglide or skydive and become your own drone). You should only travel with a drone if you have the time, money and patience to manage it. Traveling with a drone will make some destinations off-limits and add complexity to your travel.
Best drones for travelers – picking your drone
There are so many options for drones, ranging from pretty cheap to insanely expensive and from fits-in-the-palm-of-your-hand to bigger than a car. In the interest of time (and sanity), this guide focuses on only one brand and the more travel-friendly choices. This is not to say that there aren’t hundreds more to choose from, but I recommend DJI (see pros and cons below). If you want to look at other options, I highly recommend comparing everything via Amazon; they have a great range of drones.
If you’re looking at drones during the holidays, check out this post with the latest deals:
DJI Mavic 2 vs. Pro vs. Air vs. Spark
With DJI’s launch of their two Mavic 2 drones, they offer a great selection of drones for travel.
Starter-drone for travel: the Spark ($399)
The Spark is a great starter drone that takes surprisingly incredible quality footage and doesn’t even require a remote. You can buy the remote if you want (recommended), but can always start without it and add on later. Feedback has been that the Spark does not maintain strong connection if flown too far. While it has a smaller body, the arms do not fold, meaning that its travel size is about the same as its larger siblings.
Pick the Spark if you want a light, small and less-expensive option, that you don’t intend to fly far. Do not pick the Spark if you want to fly distance or in wind.
If you want to go super super budget and starter, check out the Tello, which starts at $99.
Better starter-drone for travel: Mavic Air ($799)
The Mavic Air takes the best of both the Spark and the Mavic Pro series. It has a smaller body like the Spark, but the arms fold in, like the Pro. Its size makes it incredibly portable, but that means it has less weight to throw around in the wind. Unlike the Spark, it comes with a remote, so you have a stronger connection to fly further, but the flight time is 21 minutes.
For its portability and image and video quality (it does take 4k), the Mavic Air is my pick for a starter travel drone or for those who travel light.
Best drone for travel: Mavic 2 ($1249) or Mavic Pro ($999)
For those looking to travel and want something sturdier than the Spark, the Mavic 2 or Mavic Pro options are the way to go. With a bit more body, they handle weather (wind) better. The arms also fold down, making it great for travel. The Mavic 2 series are larger, but feature better cameras, sensors and flight time. The Mavic Pro and Platinum are slightly smaller
The two Mavic 2 options are the latest in DJI’s portable drone family. They improve on the Mavic Pro and Platinum through increased sensors and flight time, but most notably, cameras. If you want an in-depth review of the Pro and Zoom, check out this article, but basically the Mavic 2 Pro has the better camera and the Mavic 2 Zoom has zoom (and dolly zoom).
So if you’re going for a sturdier Mavic for your travels, I’d recommend the Mavic 2 Zoom as my top pick (go with the Pro if you’re really looking for a camera upgrade).
While it can be tempting to go for the newest and best, the Mavic Pro and Platinum are still great options worth considering. Compared to the Mavic 2, they have a slightly smaller body size. Because they’ve been on the market longer, people know them better and all the bugs are worked out, or at least known.
For more advanced photography and video, you may want to consider a Phantom (~$1499): Phantom 4 Pro. With the bigger body and more advanced control, the Phantom series are better for those who can take on the pack size. There are two models – advanced and pro – and you can read about the differences here. Personally, I’m just too lazy to carry one this big and heavy. Will wait until I have an Instagram husband.
DJI for travel drones
DJI is the leader in consumer drones, owning about 60% of the market. The company is based in China, but has an incredible world-wide presence. I am recommending DJI because I personally have owned their products and interacted with their customer service.
The biggest advantage to going with DJI is their market penetration. Because they lead the market, this means that it is easiest to get parts, service and advice for DJI drones over any others. When you are traveling, you may need to get extra propellers and if you’ve chosen a random brand, finding those will be so much harder than for DJI, whose accessories are stocked in electronics stores everywhere. There are also more repair shops and even online forums for DJI drones over the others.
They are not known for great customer service.
The biggest drawback to DJI, in my opinion, is that they are not equipped to provide customer service to travelers. In order to get any service under warranty or DJI Care, you have to be in the region your drone was purchased (i.e., if you buy your drone in London, you have a European DJI warranty and it needs to be serviced in the Netherlands).
Accessories for traveling with a drone
There are a million drone accessories in the marketplace, but the vast majority of them are just not practical for travelers, especially if you want to fit your drone in your backpack. I have an entire gift guide for drone lovers here, which has all kinds of accessory ideas, but these are the most important.
- Extra batteries: Depending on how long your drone’s flight time is and how close you are to power outlets when you travel, you need extra batteries. I travel with 3.
- Extra props: Who knows where you will be when you crash or crack/chip your propellers. Always, always, always travel with extras so you aren’t stranded. I travel with 3-4 extra sets, and I go through them (I use the low-noise Mavic Pro props).
- Launch pad: I don’t travel with one, but many swear by them. Using a launch pad keeps your drone protected from sand and grass on launch and landing. Pro-tip, if you don’t have one, you can use the floor mat from a car.
- Power adaptor: Your drone may need its own adaptor, so make sure you have the one you need (or consider a power strip).
- Battery to power bank converter: If your drone battery style has these, they’re so handy. Need to charge your remote or your phone? Use your extra battery!
- Extra SD card(s): See below for thoughts on how to decide how many extras to have with you, but you should at least have one backup SD card. I keep a backup SD mini with a converter so that I have a backup SD card for my drone, GoPro and camera all in one.
- SD card reader: You can get an SD card reader for under $10 and it makes it so much easier than trying to connect the drone to your computer or use SD converters.
- External hard drive: 4k video takes up a lot of space and your computer will fill up quickly. Having at least a 1TB external gives you plenty of space to store your files and a handy backup. I travel with this 4TB external and would protect it with my life.
Actually traveling with a drone – what you need to know
Traveling with a drone in your bag certainly adds more complexity to your trip than any other carry-on item. It is important to understand all the considerations for traveling with a drone so that you are prepared to keep yourself out of trouble and keep your stuff safe.
Drones are carry-on only
You obviously need to check out the specifics on your drone and your carrier, but in nearly every instance, your drone is a carry-on only item (personally, I would never dream of checking my baby anyway, but this is important). More specifically, your done BATTERIES are carry-on only. Lithium batteries of that size cannot be checked. This means that however many batteries you plan to travel with (I bring 3), they are in your bag through security and on planes. Consider the weight and size this will take up.
Drone laws around the world
Drone laws will vary from state to state, city to city and in every country. More importantly, their enforcement wildly varies. Some countries like Cuba and Morocco have outright bans on them, meaning you could get arrested just for having one, even if you aren’t flying it. Some countries like the US and the UK have very clear and established rules that you can find and comply with. But the vast majority of countries have unclear or hard to access rules.
Remember that when you break drone rules you are not only putting yourself and your drone at risk, you put the entire hobby at risk. Please do not ruin my hobby because you can’t follow rules.
You should research the laws for where you are going and ask as many questions in advance. Websites don’t update as often as the laws do, which is why I recommend joining Art of Aerial on Facebook.
Drone insurance and protection
Adding an expensive piece of equipment to your kit always increases risk. There are a few things that you can and should do to protect yourself and your investment.
Protecting your drone
In terms of protecting the actual drone, you should take all precautions that you would with the rest of your valuables. It is wise to bring a lock with you and ensure you are leaving it in a safe place if you leave it behind. This means in a safe, locker or hidden. Personally, I keep mine in an unlabeled backpack that looks like a regular carry-on. I don’t want a big DJI label or a flashy bag giving away that there’s something valuable inside.
Drone insurance for travel
As far as insurance goes for drones, there are a lot of variables that contribute to deciding how you want to cover it. If you have renter or homeowner insurance, you should contact your agent to understand if your drone is covered as a personal belonging while traveling and exactly what is covered (along with your deductible and impact to rates if you have to claim). Travel insurance will usually cover theft, but not damage or fly-aways.
Important things to consider with any drone insurance:
- Does your per-item maximum cover cost of replacement?
- Is the deductible reasonable?
- Will your premiums go up if you make a claim?
- Do you need liability insurance?
- How does it work for theft, damage and fly-aways?
- Do you need to be in a specific region to get coverage/repairs?
- Always speak directly with an agent (on the phone) to ensure you fully understand how the plan works with drones; document it.
Personal safety with your drone
Traveling with any expensive equipment can make you a target, but drones add another level of complexity. You should be aware of your surroundings and how you carry your bags when in actual transit with your drone, but don’t forget about yourself when you are flying it.
Whenever you launch and fly your drone, your attention will be on it and on the screen. With the noise, you will often draw attention to yourself. I have never had an issue with this personally, but it is wise to be aware of it. Plan your launch away from crowds so that you do not have to worry about who is around you when you are looking at a screen. When you launch, make sure any other belongings are tidy and not easily snagged by someone waiting for you to stop checking your surroundings.
I love to share the flight experience with locals, as many have never seen their home from an aerial view. But it can be unnerving to have a crowd gather around you and your things. So while it doesn’t have to be scary, you should still take precaution knowing that your attention will be split.
Getting great travel drone shots
Like land photography, drone photography takes practice to get good at. Here are a few things to think about when trying to get great shots.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
Even the easiest of drones to fly take practice. Identify ONE skill to practice on each flight and plan practice sessions where you know you won’t use the footage – it takes the pressure off of learning AND makes your better for when you will use the footage. Don’t try to practice more than ONE skill at a time; be patient, they take time.
Unlike land photography and video, you have multiple elements at play – you are managing the image and the gimbal and flying the drone at the same time. This is why practice is so important. Learn to trust the remote and your screen, rather than watching the drone fly.
Watch drone videos or look at shots you think are great and practice imitating them. Learn the full capabilities of your drone: make a practice schedule aimed at learning your drone. Get a drone buddy – is there someone in your area also interested in drones? Schedule times to meet up and practice together.
Getting drone great shots
Contrary to what DJI or GoPro or any other manufacturer would have you believe, it takes more than just throwing a drone in the air to get great shots. Just like regular photography and videography, you want to account for multiple factors – when is the best light, when is the best traffic, is there a specific moment you are trying to catch?
The beauty of aerial videography is in the movement, and often the movement comes from the drone while the subject is still; it will take practice to get a feel for moving the drone up and down, and rotating it and rotating the gimbal at the same time, all without jarring movements.
Where to launch your drone
Your launch place and the subject of your shot are not always the same place! You want to launch from an open space, free from crowds, distractions and anything that may block your signal.
IMPORTANT: Launch from somewhere you can land if disconnected!!! If your drone has a return to home feature, it is going to go back where you launched it. If you launch from somewhere like a moving boat, the drone is going to land in the bottom of the ocean.
Weather conditions and drones
Never be afraid to abandon the shot. If it’s too windy, the weather is changing, you just aren’t getting it, etc. There’s nothing you can do about wind and rain, and there’s no hard rule for when to fly.
When thinking about if it’s too windy/rainy/whatever to fly, but you think you could get an epic shot, ask yourself this – is it $1500 epic? If it isn’t, it isn’t worth losing your drone.
Sun and water. Just like land photography, you want to plan the best light for your shots. And let the light determine where you’re shooting. For example, when you are flying during an incredible sunset, don’t forget to turn around and shoot what the golden light is lighting up.
Time of day is super important for water shots as you have to plan for glare. You need to take the angle of sun into consideration when shooting water (in addition to how it lights your subject, shadows, etc.). You can’t always control when you shoot, but you can control the angle.
Here are a few examples. The angle in the first shot is bad because of the glare, but what if you adjust it? The angle of the shot is changed, getting rid of the glare from the sun, which means instead you can see the beautiful colors of the water instead of a bright spot in the middle of the image.
Adjust your settings
Find the settings that can and should be adjusted to meet your goals (for example, to get more cinematic shots, you likely want to adjust the sensitivity of your controls to avoid any jarring movements)
Identify the best capture settings to meet your goals; examples:
- 24 fps if you want cinematic // 60 fps if you want to slow-mo (moving vs. still subjects)
- Do you really need 4k?
- Quality level streamed to your phone when controlling.
- Color and exposure settings.
- Shutter speed.
Managing your photos and video files while traveling
An easily forgotten logistics issue – what do you do with your files? You may not like to travel with a computer, which will leave you wondering what to do with your footage.
Drone pictures and video can fill up SD cards very quickly (especially if you shoot 4k), so you want to have a plan for what to do with your content. The three best options for you are to bring a computer, get extra cards or set up a system to move files without a computer.
IMPORTANT: Always keep in mind that with every flight, it is possible to lose your drone. If you do not have a good system for managing files, a lost drone will also mean lost footage.
Bring a computer
This is probably the easiest option, as well as the one that best allows you to protect and manage your files. This way you can connect the drone or the card to your computer and pull all the data off. You can store it on your computer’s hard drive, on an external and/or in cloud storage.
When traveling with my drone, I pull files off of the SD card every day that I fly. I do this for several reasons: (1) I don’t have a lot of backup SD cards if mine fills up, (2) I’m aware that at any point, I can lose my drone and I don’t want to also lose however many days’ worth of footage and (3) I usually want to edit and share images pretty quickly, so I pull them off of my SD card to my computer and then Bluetooth them to my phone.
Pros: Best way to protect your files; not dependent on anyone else; can see your files immediately (bonus: can run firmware updates and calibrations).
Cons: Added weight, size and risk to your bags.
Bring lots of SD cards
If you don’t want to bring a computer and don’t need to manage or interact with your files while you’re on the road, the lightest weight and effort option is to bring a lot of SD cards. Note: with most drones, you cannot manage the SD card from the remote, so every shot and video you take will stay on the card (for DJI, you can format the card, but not manage individual file).
This is the ideal choice if you are going on a short trip and don’t want the extra weight and have no need to see the files.
Pros: Nearly no additional weight.
Cons: No ability to manage files while on the road, cards can be pricey.
Bring an SD card reader and an external hard drive
This is a nice in-the-middle option for managing your files while traveling. If you don’t want to bring your own computer, it’s likely that you will come across other computers that you can use (either at your accommodation or at an internet café or library). If you have an SD card reader and an external hard drive with you, you can still manage and move your files using someone else’s computer.
This option works for a medium-length trip when you know you’ll have access to a computer. You may want to bring an extra SD card or two, just in case you don’t get to a computer. If you chose this, make sure your hard drive is formatted to be compatible with both PC and Mac so you aren’t limited.
Pros: Minimal additional weight, some ability to manage files while traveling.
Cons: May not have consistent access to a computer and dependent on other people for equipment.
Art of Aerial – a community for travelers with drones
There is no conclusive guide to traveling with a drone and with rules constantly changing, it’s better to be part of a community. The Facebook group Art of Aerial, a community for lovers of aerial photography and videography, aiming to have a space for inspiration and discussion, free from drone police. And check out the Art of Aerial Instagram page for inspiration and features.
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