For many of us, leaving our computer at home while traveling is the equivalent of cutting off our right arm. Without it, survival seems impossible. Luckily, advances in modern technology allow for easy transport of our beloved laptop with minimal complications — if you know what you’re doing.
We’ve compiled a list of computer travel tips to ease any technical troubles that could arise on your travels. We’ve learned most of these tips the hard way — computer crashes at important meetings, batteries that bail out minutes into the second leg of a long flight, nasty viruses destroying precious files, and forgotten passwords that were so unmemorable and unhackable that we ourselves couldn’t figure them out.
We offer these computer travel tips in the hope that you can avoid the technological trials and tribulations we have faced in the past.
Firewall and Virus Protection: Many people load their virus protection and firewall onto their home computers, but forget to do so on their portable computers. A virus is a virus, no matter where you get it.
Software Components: Use the same software, even the same versions, at the office and on your laptop. Comfortable work habits are already difficult to maintain while traveling; you don’t need the added frustration of changing your routines for a different version — or worse, different brand — of software, especially for high-volume tasks like word processing and e-mail.
Important Note: Test any new software before you leave. Conflicts in your software or operating systems could arise, and the last place you’ll want to deal with them is on the road.
Adapter Plug Sets: If you are a frequent international traveler, it is wise to invest in a set of frequently used electrical adapter plugs. It’s no fun being all booted up with no way to plug in. For more information, see Electricity Conversion.
(Mental) List of Necessary Passwords: It’s a double-edged sword. The more complicated the password, the harder it is for people to figure out — and for you to remember! If you tend to save passwords instead of retyping them, you’ll need to either save them on your computer (in a password-protected file for greater security) or, even better, commit them to memory. Do not carry handwritten lists or print-outs of your passwords.
Contact Numbers for Technical Support: Bring phone numbers and bookmark Web sites for companies from which you may need technical support or downloads during your trip. It might be best to write these down in an appointment book or somewhere else that will always be with you, so you don’t have to travel with countless slips of paper.
Backup Storage: Bring along DVD’s, CD’s and/or thumb drives so that you can back up your files on the road. If your laptop crashes for some reason, you’ll still have your data.
Internet Accessories: Pack phone and Ethernet cables just in case your hotel doesn’t have wireless Internet access. And if your laptop doesn’t have a built-in wireless network adapter, toss a wireless notebook card into your laptop case too.
For more on what to pack, see Computer Accessories.
Tricks of the Trade
Perfect Packing: Never pack your laptop in a checked bag. Instead, bring it and all of its components (such as chargers, cables, etc.) with you in a carry-on computer case. This will protect your computer from theft, rough handling or misdirection by an airline.
Conserve Battery Power: Charge your battery fully before traveling, and recharge during layovers whenever possible. If you use the Windows operating system, activate the “stand by” mode before going to the airport. Your laptop will restart quickly and consume almost no battery power. Mac lovers should use the “sleep” mode. For particularly long flights, a spare battery may be a lifesaver.
Check Ahead for Connection Requirements: Contact your hotel to find out what the connection specifics are so you can plan accordingly. Ask about rooms equipped for business travelers; they often have high-speed Internet access (either wireless or via Ethernet cable) as well as fax machines and printers, making your stay a convenient and simple one.
Maintain Your Documents: When you return, copy any important or changed files to your desktop computer. It’s easy to inadvertently use the wrong file without noticing if there are only minor differences between versions. If you immediately copy all of the new or altered files back onto your desktop, and perhaps even delete the files from your laptop after the transfer, you can eliminate confusion and version conflicts later on.
Safety and Security
At the Airport: X-ray machines at airports pose no threat to your laptop, but the security checkpoint conveyer belt is a prime target for thieves who snag unattended equipment passing through machines. Don’t put your laptop onto the belt until right before you step through the metal detector — that way your computer isn’t out of your sight for long.
In addition, the TSA recommends that travelers label their laptops to prevent any accidental computer swaps in the security line.
If you want to leave your laptop in its bag while going through security, you may do so only when using a “checkpoint friendly” laptop bag. Checkpoint friendly bags have been specially manufactured to provide an unobstructed X-ray view of the laptop inside. These bags are widely available at travel supply stories.
On the Plane: Don’t put your laptop in the overhead bin; it could shift around during flight, or be stolen when you’re not paying attention. Instead, keep it in your lap or under the seat in front of you where you can see it at all times.
At the Hotel: If the idea of leaving your laptop unattended in your hotel room leaves you cold, hide it somewhere in your room. Smaller laptops may fit into your hotel safe. You may also want to consider locking your laptop case to make it less enticing to thieves.
In Transit: To prevent theft, disguise your computer while traveling. Traditional computer cases are red flags for thieves. Try carrying your laptop in an unconventional bag that doesn’t scream, “Valuable electronics in here!”
Laptop and Luggage Alarms: An essential investment when traveling with expensive equipment is a motion alarm. You attach the device to your luggage and the receiver stays with you. If someone attempts to steal your bag, an alarm will sound when your luggage reaches a set distance away from the receiver.
Data Protection: Keep your information safe by password-protecting your laptop, as well as any particularly sensitive files. Try to avoid transferring sensitive data over an unsecured Internet connection. If you can, save your online banking for when you get home.
Privacy: To keep other people from looking over your shoulder and seeing what’s on your screen, you may wish to invest in a privacy filter. Made by 3M and other companies, these are devices that allow only the person directly in front of a computer to view what’s on the screen.
Insurance: Call your insurance agent and make sure your laptop is insured against theft or damage on the road. You may need to purchase a separate policy.