Vacation packages, such as yoga retreats and deep-sea-fishing trips, often promise to indulge travelers’ personal passions. Could drones be next?
A 2018 survey by Booking.com asked customers what their ideal travel activities were, and 27% of respondents responded “learning a new skill.”
One of these desired new skills may be drone flying, as several new travel offerings suggest.
The New York Times Journeys, a travel program run by the New York Times Co., has assembled its first-ever Drone Photography Journey.
The $7,600 trip, not including airfare, departs next June and promises to lead participants on an eight-day trek around Norway, taking in such sights as the dramatic Lofoten Islands and ancient Viking settlements.
Since this is a drone trip, every day also includes one or two drone-photography sessions, led by photojournalist Josh Haner, who frequently uses a drone to take photos that have been published in the NYT.
Guests with own drones can bring them, and new pilots can use one provided by the company.
The NYT offers dozens of so-called Journeys — mostly led by journalists — such as a culinary journey through India, led by a reporter from the food section, or a climate-change-focused Antarctica trip featuring two Times science writers. This is the first time that the New York Times has ever offered a drone-themed vacation.
The idea of using a vacation to experiment with something new or to try out a unique activity is apparently gaining traction with travelers. Expedia Group CEO Mark Okerstrom said the company generated “north of half a billion dollars in bookings” in 2017 across its Things to Do and Local Expert businesses, and grew its activities transactions by approximately 20% in the first quarter of 2018. TripAdvisor TRIP added 30,000 new guided experiences to its site last year, a 50% increase.
For people who want to learn more about drones without devoting multiple days to the endeavor, Airbnb Experiences, an arm of the home-sharing company that allows travelers to book customized experiences and tours with locals, offers a handful of drone experiences.
Elena Buenrostro is among the entrepreneurs offering a “drone experience.”
For $100, New York City visitors get an hour-long drone-flying lesson. Customers meet at the waterfront Grand Ferry Park in Brooklyn, which looks out on the Manhattan skyline. Buenrostro provides the drone.
Similar drone experiences hosted on Airbnb are offered in cities ranging from Singapore to Miami.
Other tour companies offer packages that, while not explicitly drone-themed, do welcome, and encourage, drones and their pilots.
Polar Adventure company Quark Expeditions offers a $7,500 trip to Somerset Island’s Arctic Watch, a world-famous beluga whale hot spot, and numerous visitors have arrived with drones.
Beluga whales come to Somerset Island’s inlet to shed skin in July, making it a dream for drone pilots, with the relatively shallow water creating a unique vantage for aerial photos.
Also on the itinerary is a lecture by Nansen Weber, one of the lodge’s founders and a world-renowned drone photographer whose work has appeared in places like National Geographic and on Netflix.
Legal hurdles around drone vacations
One of the major ways travel agencies are pitching their drone vacations relates to the local laws (or lack thereof) at the destination locale. Some countries have stringent drone laws that tourists may not know about, so tour operators have sought out regions where drones are easy to legally fly.
Norway doesn’t require a license, and rules are fairly lax: Don’t fly near airports, keep the drone in your line of site and keep it below 400 feet. The absence of a strict drone regulatory regime was a primary reason that the New York Times chose Norway for its Drone Photography Journey.
“Clearly, there are so many different legal issues and requirements that go into where you can fly a drone anyway, and we wanted to make sure we chose a country where flying would be feasible, and where it would also be an interesting place to feature,” said Victoria Hanson, director of the Times Journeys program.
Flying drones in a place like northern Somerset Island is appealing because there aren’t any people, trees or buildings to fear crashing your drone into. At Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge, the only sign of manned aircraft is a single dirt airstrip, removing the headache of having to coordinate with air-traffic control.
Some tour companies even use government restrictions to their advantage. In Namibia, drones aren’t explicitly banned, but there are strict rules. Drones, for example, cannot be flown near national parks or game reserves without written government permission.
Erindi, a private game reserve that offers luxury safaris, capitalizes on that requirement to target tourists hoping to fly drones over the savanna. Erindi offers a Fly Your Drone Safari, a three-hour drone-focused trek that costs an additional $225 per person on top of the safari cost, and requires that tourists use their own drones.
The other big problem with drone vacations: danger
There’s another hurdle to overcome with drone vacations: the element of danger. While a typical wellness vacation does have some element of danger — a yogi could always pull a muscle in locust pose — there’s a whole extra layer of danger involved in drone vacations. Putting a flying piece of machinery with spinning blades in the hands of an inexperienced tourist could result in a crash.
Even the most experienced drone pilot isn’t immune to crashes. Despite major technological improvements in recent years, drones are still known to occasionally “fly away” if they lose connection with the software in the controller, and they don’t often succeed in tough weather conditions.
Hanson said the potential dangers of drones did come up in conversation during the planning process of the New York Times drone trip. “If we didn’t think we could do it in a safe and legal way, we wouldn’t be doing it,” she said.
Since the trip was just announced, Hanson said she doesn’t know what sorts of customers will sign up, but she said she anticipates it will be a mix of people who are already experienced drone pilots and want the chance to learn from a New York Times drone photographer in a unique environment alongside people completely new to drones.
Hanson said that all guests need to go through an educational and safety briefing upon arrival, and they should be prepared for potential changes to any plans concerning drone flying.
“Even if they have been flying drones for many years, we want to make sure everyone goes in with a safe mind-set,” she said. “If something comes up, whether it’s weather conditions or something else, then we’ll assess the itinerary.”
Doing it yourself for less
Vacation spending represents about 2% of the total annual budget of a typical U.S. household, according to the personal-finance resource ValuePenguin, so an $8,000-per-person organized drone trip may not be in the cards for most Americans. Plenty of drone pilots are planning do-it-yourself drone vacations for a fraction of the cost.
Cher Brown packed up her car with camping gear and her drone, and drove from Jacksonville, Fla., Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina for the sole purpose of photographing the trip with her drone. She and her husband, she said, spent a total of $1,500 on the trip, which included a campground rental and new gear. She expects future similar vacations to be less costly, she said, since she has the gear now.
Drone pilot Jenna Cook spent less than $600 on her drone trip to Maine with the intent of using her drone to photograph a 5K and 10K race at the Maine Lobster Festival, including two nights at a hotel and two tanks of gas for her six-hour car ride from upstate New York.
Such budget-conscious drone tourists may be left skeptical of whether the highly planned trips are worth it.
“Photography trips have always been expensive because they sell people on the learning aspect of the trip, but I don’t know anyone who has gone on a photo trip purely to learn photography,” drone pilot Juneisy Hawkins said.
Hawkins said it’s better to get a drone and practice on your own, rather than get thrown into the activity while on vacation.
“If you don’t come from a photography background, learn the basics and practice that in addition to flying,” she said. “Then plan a trip around your own interests with accommodations and excursions within your budget.”
So why go on a drone vacation?
Of course, the multi-thousand-dollar trips do offer some money-can’t-buy perks. For tourists on the New York Times trip, it’s a chance to learn from a New York Times photographer. “We expect to have guests on the trip who love all things Josh Haner, and want to sit down and learn from his experiences,” Hanson said.
Hawkins also said there’s one compelling reason she would book an organized drone vacation: “If the trip was to fly in places that require permits that are difficult to get and that the tour organizers have secured,” she said.
“Assuming also, of course, that the place is of incredible beauty and you would have wanted to see it anyway.”
That’s exactly the case for the remote Quark’s Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge, home to the inlet where the beluga whales go to shed their skin and which is widely regarded as one of the best spots to view belugas in the world.
That spot is only accessible via a single, privately owned airstrip that typically only sees one flight a week — carrying Quark clients.