Drones are all the rage these days. Once reserved for the military (with a pretty bad rap,) they’ve now definitely entered the consumer space.
Travel is no exception, with both professionals and enthusiastic amateurs increasingly adding these flying cameras to their packing lists. The end result, at least for those who know how to use them, is the kinds of shots we’d only ever see on the big screen in the past.
Love them or hate them, drones seem to be here to stay. If you’re ready to invest in one, these are our current recommendations, plus a few challenges to bear in mind when taking them on the road.
Note that all of our recommendations are made with travel videography in mind. As a result, you won’t find any that are too large and heavy to travel with, or that don’t have an inbuilt camera.
- Weight: 8.8 ounces (249g)
- Dimensions: 5.5×3.2×2.2 inches (folded)
- Flying Time: Up to 30 minutes
- Top Speed: 29mph (47kph)
- Max Video Resolution: 2.7k
- Weight: 1.4 pounds (635g)
- Dimensions:11.4 x 7.8 x 3.1 inches (folded)
- Flying Time: 7-8 minutes
- Video: 720p
- Weight: 3.1 pounds (1.4kg)
- Dimensions: 10.2 x 10.2 x 3.5 inches
- Flying Time: Around 15 minutes
- Top Speed: 25mph (40kph)
- Max Video Resolution: 1080p
- Weight: 20.1 ounces (570g)
- Dimensions: 7.4 x 3.8 x 3.3 inches (folded)
- Flying Time: Up to 34 minutes
- Top Speed: 42mph (68kph)
- Max Video Resolution: 4k
Best Overall: DJI Mavic Mini
DJI is the market leader in consumer drones, and for good reason: it’s been turning out high-quality models for many years. If you’ve ever watched and loved a travel video with drone footage, there’s a very good chance it was shot on a DJI.
The company unveiled the Mavic Mini last year, and it quickly became the firm favorite of new and mid-level drone pilots looking to shoot quality video without the size, weight, or price tag that usually accompanies DJI gear.
The Mavic Mini is tiny: at just 5.5×3.2×2.2 inches and 8.8 ounces (249g), you’ll easily fit the drone into a jacket pocket. That second stat is actually the more important: as outlined below, flying drones is now a regulated activity in many countries, but models under 250g are often exempt.
Despite its small size, though, the Mavic Mini is far from being a toy. You’ll get up to half an hour of flight time, which is better than anything else of a similar size and weight. It also flies better than most other small drones, although strong winds will still be a problem.
Range is a solid mile and a half or more, with an automatic “return home” feature if the drone loses signal. Video quality is good, as long as you’re happy with 2.7k resolution: there’s no 4k video option here. There are also no collision-avoidance sensors, so be extra careful in crowded areas.
The three-axis gimbal helps keep the camera stable even when the drone is on the move, making for much more watchable footage. Low-light performance is also surprisingly good.
The drone comes in two configurations: the base drone, and a 'Fly More' kit that typically costs $100 more. The extra batteries, spare parts, and carry case are easily worth the extra money, so it’s worth picking up the kit if you can.Buy on Amazon
Best for Beginners: Snaptain A15H
If you’re a total newbie looking to fly a drone for the first time, this Snaptain model is the ideal choice. One of the most affordable drones out there, the A15H is a full flying camera, rather than just a flying body that can hold a camera as with many budget drones.
Its body is pretty rugged and can stand a beating, vital when you’re just learning how to operate a drone. Despite that solid body, this drone folds up for travel and remains reasonably light, tipping the scales at 1.4 pounds (635g).
The A15H has more features than we’ve come to expect from a budget drone, and the app is better than many as well. You can trace a path on your smartphone screen, for example, and get the drone to follow it. Basic voice control is included, and it’s even compatible with certain VR headsets.
Useful extras like one-touch takeoff and landing and automatic collision avoidance help keep beginning pilots out of trouble. Even so, you’ll want to be careful in windy conditions, since that’s when problems are most likely to occur.
The 720p camera and roughly 8-minute flying time are pretty standard for a low-cost drone like this. There’s a spare battery in the box, along with extra blades and propeller protectors. Inexpensive and easy to operate, the Snaptain S5C is our pick as the best drone for beginners.
Buy on Amazon
Best for Value: Potensic D80
Ready for a higher-quality, yet still beginner-friendly drone? Then the Potensic D80 is for you: a solid choice with excellent features, at a budget-friendly price.
The D80 has GPS built-in, and will automatically return “home” when the battery runs low or it loses connection with the controller. There’s one-touch takeoff and landing, and the app has several useful shooting options for better footage.
You can set the drone to follow the controller, or a preset path that you’ve drawn within the app. You can also set a limit on where it can fly, to avoid accidentally going out of range or into restricted airspace.
The camera records in 1080p HD and can tilt to 90º, offering several points of view with smooth, lag-free image transmission back to the app. Your phone mounts on the controller so you can easily see what’s going on.
Battery life is better than many in this price range, at around 15 minutes. The drone flies at up to 25mph (40kph) and is highly-maneuverable, so there’s plenty of scope for getting those perfect shots.
The D80 comes with a hard case, ideal for storing the drone and accessories and avoiding knocks and damage in transit. The only real downside is the size and weight: while it’s not the biggest drone you’ll find, there are definitely smaller, lighter models out there.
Buy on Amazon
Best for 4K Video: DJI Mavic Air 2
A big upgrade from its predecessor, DJI’s latest model is also its most impressive. While we still slightly prefer the Mavic Mini for travel thanks to its tiny size and lack of regulation, the extra features of the Mavic Air 2 make it a close-run thing. If you want to shoot 4K video, it’s a no-brainer.
Now capable of rock-steady 4K video at 60fps thanks to its three-gimbal stabilization system, the Air 2 also improves on the earlier model in other ways. Battery life has had a boost, and you can now expect up to 34 minutes of flight time. The top speed has increased as well, to 42mph (68kph).
Collision-avoidance sensors at the front and rear help keep your investment safe, which is made even more important thanks to the Air 2’s extra range. You can control this drone from up to six miles (10km) away. Sensors on the base of the unit help ensure a safe landing as well.
The Air 2 will return “home” automatically when it loses connection or runs low on battery, and reroute itself around obstacles even in crowded environments. North American models also get Airsense, which uses signals from commercial aircraft to show their location on an on-screen map.
You get a wide variety of control options, including several automated settings like object tracking that take much of the hard work out of capturing professional-looking footage. Still photographers haven’t been forgotten, with everything from HDR to low-light capture and shooting in RAW.
Although it’s noticeably bigger than the Mini, this is by no means a large drone, especially given what it can do. At 20.1 ounces (570g) and 7.4 x 3.8 x 3.3 inches when folded, it’s smaller and lighter than anything with comparable features.
As with the Mavic Mini, the Air 2 comes in two variants: either the base drone or a Fly More kit with a carry bag, extra batteries and propeller guards, neutral density filters, and more. Again, if you’ve got the money, the Fly More kit is the way to go.Buy on Amazon
What to Know Before Traveling With a Drone
So you’ve joined the ranks of drone owners, and want to take one along on your next trip. It feels like it should be as simple as unpacking it, letting it loose, and capturing amazing footage, right?
Not so fast. Drones are being increasingly regulated, with limits on where they can be used, whether you need a permit to fly them, or if they’re allowed at all. Ignoring the rules often means fines and/or confiscation if you’re caught.
Both the United States and United Kingdom have introduced licensing requirements for drones and/or the people that fly them, while Australia is planning something similar.
In Colombia, only drones under 55lb (25 kg) are permitted. Portugal, on the other hand, only allows drone flights during the day, and never over groups of more than 12 people. In Singapore, drones can’t fly within 3.1 miles (5 km) of any airport.
Countries like Argentina allow drones to fly freely if they have been registered, and a fee paid, before entering the country. Others, including India, Madagascar, and Paraguay, demand you obtain permission from the relevant authority. Certain countries or regions don’t allow drones at all, like Antarctica and Vatican City.
These restrictions are for recreational use only. For commercial use, drones almost always need to be registered before entering the country.
All of the above is just a sample, and rules change all the time. For a more complete, regularly-updated list of drone regulations, check out this excellent guide by Anil Polat. iOS and Android app versions of the guide are also available.