One of the top pieces of advice I always give to people starting out flying drones: always start on a cheap practice drone. You don’t want to fly your new, $2,200 DJI Mavic 3 into a pool.
Flying a toy drone from Target into a tree is a lot less painful — even if the drone is gone for good.
Cheap practice drones are often more difficult to learn how to fly than expensive, higher-end drones that have automated control software that enables the drones to takeoff and landing. And that’s a good thing.
Even something like a $340 DJI Mini 2 SE, which is my favorite camera drone if you’re on a budget, can basically fly itself, able to takeoff and land automatically, hover, and return-to-home. They even fly pre-programmed flight paths like go in a circle or take a dronie (where the drone flies backward and upward, with the camera tracking you) at the push of a button.
But it’s important you know how to fly a drone yourself. And you want to train for the hardest scenario.
You wouldn’t get in the driver’s seat of a self-driving Tesla without first learning how to drive in your mom’s old Honda Civic, right? Same goes for drones. Even if a drone can fly itself, be prepared in case you need to take control. And the best way to prepare is with cheap practice drones.
Most of the cheap practice drones in this guide actually don’t have helpful flight features like hover in place — and we like it that way. We want you to learn for yourself how to fly, without relying on software to do it for you.
The one thing all the drones in this guide have in common: they cost less than $160.
Table of contents
The best overall practice drone under $160: Tello
The Tello is the winner of the best, cheap practice drone. At $159, it’s the most expensive drone in this guide. But I picked it because it’s high quality and will serve you well in your drone career. In fact, it’ll very likely have value in once you’ve upgraded to a better camera drone.
Tello is made by a company called Ryze, but it explicitly uses DJI’s parts. That’s something no other toy drones can say.
While most of the drones in this guide are pretty much only good for the duration of your training, Once you’ve mastered the practice drone and graduated to a “real” drone, you likely won’t pull out that training drone again (other than maybe a fun party trick).
The same can’t be said for the Tello. The Tello has a life that extends beyond just a training tool for newbies. It has a decent camera, so you might actually find yourself bringing it with you to parties to shoot a group selfie. It can shoot 5-megapixel photos, which is a hair lower quality than most standard iPhones today. Another neat feature called Scratch teaches you how to code. Scratch is an MIT-developed coding system where you can program your drone to fly, making it one of my favorite educational STEM tools, too.
This drone is fairly easy to fly, thanks to auto takeoff/landing and a smart vision positioning system that facilitates precise hovering. (It’s made with DJI flight technology, so what would you expect?!). If you want to master precise drone flight, this might not be your pick, for that reason. But if you know you want to “graduate” to a DJI drone, you might want to go for the $159 Tello. That’s because the flight experience closely mirrors the experience of flying something like a Mavic.
Now for the bad news: it appears that Tello might be discontinued. In late 2024, the Tello drone was listed as sold out on DJI’s stop. On third-parties such as Amazon, quantities are limited (mostly to used versions only). At one point, there was even a limited edition Iron Man version of the Tello drone (also out of stock).
The Drone Girl reached out to DJI for official comment, and only got a vague answer.
“Currently, the Tello series is still being sold in the United States, and we will continue to provide technical and after-sales support to the customers,” a DJI spokesperson told The Drone Girl. “We have been working hard to provide global users with drone products that meet different needs. We will continue to launch new products that are accessible, easier to use and meet entry-level or educational needs, so stay tuned.”
Buy Tello now if you want one. Otherwise, it may be gone for good.
Flight time: 13 minutes
The best practice drone under $40: Potensic Upgraded A20 Mini Drone
If you’re on a tight budget, it’s nearly impossible to go wrong with the Potensic Upgraded A20 Mini Drone. At just $35, there’s not a lot to lose — even if you lose it in the pool.
As a budget pick, this drone has no camera and no bells or whistles period. But if you’re looking simply for a training drone to get comfortable behind the sticks, this is it.
That’s not to say it has no features. It does offer one key take-off and landing, as well as an auto-hovering function. The Potensic Upgraded A20 Mini Drone also gives you the option to switch between flying in three different speed modes (start with low speed, and when you get comfortable flying, graduate to high speed).
Plus, you can still toggle between flight modes like headless/compass mode. Those are similar to mode options you might have with more expensive DJI drones in. Given that, it’s great to get that practice in here.
Price: $34.99 (currently on sale for $29.99)
Flight time: 15-18 minutes (with all three batteries combined)
Runner-up for the best practice drone under $40: Tomzon Mini Drone
Go for the Tomzon Mini Drone if the Potensic Upgraded A20 Mini Drone is sold out. It’s the runner-up for just one reason: it’s usually a hair more expensive (without offering anything significantly better).
Similar to the Potensic recommendation, this drone has no camera. View it as a training drone to practice flying. However, Tomzon does try to make it fun and distinguish it from other drones with LED-enhanced propellers and a cool RGB color-changing effect while flying.
Flight time: 8 minutes (comes with 2 batteries, for a total of 16 minutes)
Getting started with cheap practice drones: other tidbits to know
No matter what drone you’re flying, make sure you’re comfortable and familiar with drone flying basics before takeoff.
If your drone weighs less than half a pound (which is true of all the drones in this guide), you DON’T have to register with the FAA. But you still need to adhere to other rules, like only flying in unrestricted airspace.
Once you’re a pro at flying and you want to get serious about aerial photography, you’re ready to upgrade! Check out my guide to the best camera drones of 2024. What if you want a better-quality camera drone than the sub-$160 cheap practice drones here? Assuming you’re still on a budget, check out my guide specific to the best DJI drones under $500.
Or, if you’re shopping for a child, check out my best drones for kids of 2024.