How to travel with a drone

After I posted my review of the Iceland Trip, the main question that I got asked was about how I filmed the video at the top. So I decided that I'd take a break from pretending to know about all these great places to travel to, and instead talk about something I know a little bit more about - the technology of taking cool photos and videos.

Drones are certifiably the coolest thing right now. As prices decrease and they become more capable it feels like we're entering the same sort of market as very-early stage smartphones. Back then, the iPhone convinced the non-nerd population that smartphones were Something Worth Having. I think that we are very close to having that same revolution in the drone industry. Expect drones to keep getting smaller, cheaper and start showing up everywhere. 

But in the meantime, let's talk about why I travel with a drone, which drone I recommend you bring with you as you backpack across Europe, and what I've learned from traveling with a drone.


I'll leave my treatise on travel photography for another day (subscribe at the bottom of the page for an email once I write that), but the condensed version is that when I take photos while traveling I'm not doing it to remember landscapes or sights, but to remember emotions and feelings of the place. I've found that my drone let's me capture the majesty of a location in a way that I could never do from the ground. Take for example the image at the top of this post. I made this image while making the Iceland short film (if you watch the film you can see it in motion - it's my favorite shot of the whole thing). There's no way for a not-rich travel-photographer to get this shot, other than with a drone. That's why a drone has earned half a shoebox worth of space in my packing.


What drone to buy for travel?

So drones get fantastic photos and video. But they're kinda big. If you see somebody flying a drone down at your local beach, chances are it's one of DJI's Phantom series. The Phantom drones are by far the most commercially successful, effectively owning the consumer-but-not-a-toy market. It has a great camera, can go really high, has a battery that lasts about 25 minutes and is easy to fly. But it's also kind of huge. In fact, in order to transport it you pretty need a separate backpack. That's not gonna fly if you're trying to cram everything into your carry-on for a weekend away.

So we need something smaller. There are plenty of small drones on the market, just head into any RC or toy shop and you'll probably find a shelf lined with them. The problem is - most of them are kind of crappy. They're easy to break, incredibly difficult to fly, can't handle wind, and don't have good video quality. One exception might be the Parrot Bebop 2. While the first iteration of the Bebop had a pretty rubbish camera and got blown around a lot, the Bebop 2 reportedly fixes a lot of that. It's also small, very light and has a 25 minute battery life. It's a pretty good option for a traveling photography drone, and won't break the bank (in comparison to the other options).

But, if you can save for a little longer, I'd recommend upgrading and going for the DJI Mavic Pro. The Wirecutter (my favourite review site) reviewed it as the best drone for 'most aspiring aerial photographers'. I like it a lot because it's:

  • Small - when people ask me how big it is, I describe it as two cans of Coke stacked on top of each other
  • Light - about 750g
  • Got a great quality camera

Sure - there are some trade-offs. The camera on the Mavic is slightly worse than the camera on the Phantom 4 and can't even touch the Phantom 4 Pro. But it's so much smaller. You'll be able to bring it with you on a hike, which can't be said for almost all all the other drones of this quality on the market.

The other tradeoff, which I have been lucky enough not to have faced, is that from various reports DJI's customer support is pretty slow. I've never had to get in touch with them myself, but that's something to keep in mind.


Traveling with a drone

Now that you've picked the drone you want to use for travel, how do you get it where you're going? If you're traveling by air, things get a bit complicated.

There are few rules and regulations around flying with drones, so I recommend checking out the airline that you'll be traveling with. When I fly with a drone, I follow these rules:

  1. Pack the propellers in my check-in luggage. They're small plastic knives. You don't want to have that debate with airport security.
  2. Discharge all of the batteries entirely. Sure, it's not great for the cells, but it's better to be safe than sorry.
  3. Bring the batteries in your carry-on. Many countries won't let you pack them in the hold.
  4. Take all the SD cards out of the drone. There's always a slim chance that it's going to get confiscated, and if you can't get the drone back it's better to have your footage than nothing at all.

You're going to want a bag for your drone. If you're a photographer, chances are you have a good camera bag - that will work perfectly for your drone. If you haven't yet bought your drone, do a bit of research to find a bag that's comfortable to wear, will fit your drone along with a few other bits and pieces. Since the Mavic Pro is so small, I'm able to fit it, the controller, extra batteries, my camera, two extra lenses and lunch inside my Peak Design Everyday Backpack (throw my first name into the coupon field at checkout for a discount). But a post about bags is a post for another day.


What I've learned

I've been traveling with my Mavic for a few months now, on airplanes, trains, cars and buses. I've watched dozens of drone videos, showing off fantastic landscapes. But at the end of the day, to me, a drone is just a tool for making video and taking photos. Sure, it's fun to fly and every 6 year old and their parents are going to immediately come over and ask you a billion questions. But if you can't take good photos, or tell a story in your videos, the footage and images that you create will end up sitting on your hard-drive forever. 

So get a drone. But don't become just another person who uploads a 7 minute video flying across fields or a beach - find a story and use this crazy new technology to tell it.

Some links in this article are affiliate links. I only use affiliate links where I personally own or have used the product and can give a positive recommendation.


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