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Traveling with a Laptop


For the past two-and-a-half years, I've been traveling a lot with my laptop. Having spent many hours on line researching the best approach, I can tell you that some of the advice I've found there is wrong.

Here are the questions that should be answered before traveling extensively with a laptop:

What do you need a travel laptop to do?

This is a critical question. If you will be doing nothing more than checking your email and surfing the web occasionally, you may be able to get away with a small, lightweight chromebook, or even leave the laptop at home and use your smart phone. If you are like me, and you need major number crunching capability, you may have to carry a heavier laptop. You should ask yourself some questions. What is the the minimum capability that you can get away with while you are away from home? Can you perhaps delay some tasks until you get back or borrow a friend's laptop from time to time? Perhaps you have no choice in the matter, because you are forced to carry a monster of a work-supplied laptop? These are questions that must be answered before you make any other decisions.

How much extra weight can you carry?

If you are built like a linebacker, weight may not be a problem for you. For the rest of us, this is an important question to answer. I've found that if I carry more than about 30 pounds of luggage all day, I can start to feel physically drained, and I may experience significant back pain. Using luggage with wheels doesn't work for me, either, because I've been on plenty of flights on which airport personnel unexpectedly demanded that we check all carry-on baggage with wheels. I don't know about you, but I'm not willing to hand over my carry-on bags with whatever valuables are in them to airport baggage handlers. On more than one occasion, when I've been in a window seat at the very the back of the plane, I've been able to look down and watch baggage handlers prying luggage open with knives, rifling through bags, and taking things out. Check my bags? No thanks! I carry everything onto the plane with me--even if I'm planning on being gone for several weeks. I can tell you, this takes a lot of careful planning!

How good is your eyesight?

The quality of your eyesight determines, for the most part, the size of the laptop screen you need. In 2010, I bought an EEEPC with a nine-inch screen, thinking this would be big enough for anything I wanted to do with it. Unfortunately, I discovered than a nine-inch screen was just not big enough for me to comfortably surf the internet. This may have changed with current websites optimized for mobile devices. But, the best way to determine your level of tolerance to inconveniently small screens is to spend a couple of hours surfing the internet with a screen of the size you intend to buy.

Which travel laptop, if any, should you buy?

It seems that many websites recommend Apple MacBook Airs or other Apple laptops. Unless you're rich enough not to care about money, this is absolutely the worst advice you could take. The last thing you want is to travel with a new laptop that costs a thousand dollars or more. Here is the truth. You want to travel with the cheapest laptop that meets your minimum requirements, hopefully one you can afford to lose. In fact, if you are lucky enough to already own an old, lightweight laptop, this could be the best possible solution for you.

The reason you want the cheapest laptop possible is that laptops very often get damaged or stolen while traveling. Both events usually occur in ways you didn't expect. For example, two years ago, I was on the boarding ramp about to step into the plane when I heard what sounded like an explosion. This is not the sound you want to hear in an airport! When I had recovered, I realized that the plastic clasp on the strap of my laptop bag had broken. The bag had fallen in such a way that both laptops in it fell from above my waist to land exactly on their edges, transmitting the maximum possible force into the ramp. As you might expect, I was was a bit upset, but I didn't have time to check the damage until I arrived at my destination. I was surprised to find that, despite some damage to an express card ejection mechanism, both laptops still worked! I was lucky that time. But, I'm not counting on my luck continuing, and neither should you. Travel with the cheapest laptop you can.

How do you prevent your laptop from being damaged?

Unfortunately there is no cheap, lightweight gear that I know of that you can buy to thoroughly protect your laptop. No one makes it. I've looked, and looked, and looked. You can buy lightweight gear that protects your laptop from being scratched but not from being crushed. This leaves just one solution. Never let your laptop bag out of your sight. Don't even put it in the overhead bin on the plane. Put it under the seat in front of you. This is the only way to ensure that no one will be putting something massively heavy on top of it. Constantly watching your laptop bag for perhaps eight hours or more isn't fun, but there is no other way of minimizing the risk of damage. I wish I had a better answer for you.

How do you prevent your laptop or its data from being stolen?

You prevent your laptop from being stolen the same way you prevent it from being damaged--by never letting it out of your sight. Some websites recommend steel wire bags that you can use to lock your laptop to something solid when you absolutely have to be away from it. But, this is only a second-best solution.

Preventing data from being stolen is easier than preventing the laptop itself from being stolen. Encryption is the solution to this problem. In fact, if you have your employer's sensitive data on your laptop, you should be encrypting your hard drive or SSD anyway. An even better solution than encrypting your hard drive is keeping all your sensitive data on an encrypted USB stick. That way you can carry it in your front pocket at all times, the one exception being while you're going through airport security. So, even if your laptop is stolen, your data is safe in your pocket.

There is a lot to know about encrypted USB sticks, more than you probably want to know. So, I'll limit my comments here by saying that USB sticks can have either hardware encryption or software encryption. For maximum security, you want hardware encryption. There have been many reported incidents where software encryption failed--like when a USB stick went through the washing machine. Unfortunately, it's often difficult to tell whether any specific USB stick employs hardware encryption. Just because the manufacturer claims it uses hardware encryption doesn't make it so. I tend to trust USB sticks with numbered buttons more than sticks that claim to be hardware encrypted that don't have buttons. One thing you can look for is a "FIPS compliant" encrypted USB stick. However, with especially sensitive data, I don't take chances. I use Truecrypt 7.1a to create an encrypted container (i.e. an encrypted file) on my encrypted USB stick. This means my data is doubly encrypted--once by the manufacturer of the USB stick, and once by me. So, a thief would have to crack both layers of encryption to get my data.

What accessories do you need?

This is a question that everyone will answer differently. I tend to travel with as many small accessories as it takes to give me reasonably close to the same capabilities that I have at home (see picture of my travel gear below). Travel Accessories That means enough USB extension cables, an unpowered USB hub, many USB sticks, a micro flash card reader (the red USB stick in the picture), a 500GB external hard drive, and often a thin, external DVD drive. When I know I'll not have access to the internet, I sometimes carry a wifi hotspot that I've pre-charged with enough money to download a couple of gigabytes of data. Once, I needed to bring my Ooma phone device, but since I knew I wouldn't have an ethernet connection, I brought a GL-iNet GL-MT300N travel router (the yellow device in the picture) to act as a bridge between the wifi signal and the Ooma. It worked perfectly, even though Ooma recommends that you buy their more expensive gadget for this.

In keeping with my previous comments about traveling with old, used equipment whenever possible, I'll mention a couple of my devices. I bought the laptop, a Dell Latitude E6220, on ebay for $80. The DVD drive I found at a thrift store for $5. The laptop bag was $6 at a thrift store. And, I bought the wifi hotspot, used, for $40 on Amazon.


Traveling with a laptop can be inconvenient, but with some thought, you can solve most of the problems associated with it--one way or another. Remember, that the goal is to travel only with electronics that you can afford to lose. That means traveling with old, used equipment whenever possible. Leave the MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros at home.

Related Articles:

Know What You Need Before You Buy a Computer

Why I still Love My Dell Latitude E6220

Why used Computers can be such Good Deals


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