It’s the Gail to my Oprah, the Will to my Grace, the red wine to my Olivia Pope: my laptop is my constant companion.
Because I’m earning a living on the go, taking my computer along is non-negotiable. But today, I meet tons of travelers who travel with a laptop out of choice. After all, if allows you to manage, edit and upload photos, watch movies, keep in touch with family and friends, plan onward travel, and way more. As internet cafes become obsolete, toting a laptop along — especially for longer trips — will only become more and more common.
Obviously, traveling with the most expensive electronic most of us are likely to purchase in our lifetimes can come with a side trip to Drama Land. Over the last five years, I’ve sobbed when my charger died on a remote beach in Brazil, I’ve banged my head against the wall when I’ve lost files on a fried hard drive in England, and I’ve searched for flights back home when a simple screen repair took six weeks in Thailand — and that’s just the start of it. While it’s been an adventure, I’d like to think I’ve learned a thing or two along the way.
After half a decade of learning the hard way, here are my top tips for traveling with a laptop.
Load It Up
The primary concern of most laptop-toting travelers seems to be theft. However, in my experience mechanical failure and physical damage can be a far more common threat.
Laptops, in spite of their portability, function best when they are cool, dry, and still. These are conditions that can be difficult to meet while bouncing down a dirt road in an open-air jeepney in the Philippines, or motorbiking down an unpaved path in Panama. Thus, it’s best to take a few other precautions.
Go solid. When purchasing a machine, consider a solid state hard drive — also known as a flash drive. The advantage of a solid state drive over a standard one is the lack of moving parts susceptible to shock, motion wear and magnetic failure. Once fairly unattainable to the average buyer, solid state drives have become more affordable over time and now even come standard in the latest round of MacBook Pro. If you’ve ever known the heartbreak of a hard drive failure after jostling around in a backpack for a year, you’ll know this is one of the wisest decisions a traveler can make.
Charge up. If you’re an Apple addict about to embark on an epic journey, save room in your bag for an annoying-yet-necessary item: an extra charger. Mac chargers are notoriously finicky, and mine always seem to fry in the most inconvenient of places: on an island in Indonesia a day’s travel away from the nearest shop selling a replacement (the day was saved when a handy local tech at my dive school managed to solder it back together for me — seriously), in Brazil where the cheapest replacement was a cool $215 (real versions sell for $70 in the US, though quality knock offs can be had for $35 on Amazon), and in Thailand where replacements are overpriced and under-performing (they rarely last more than six months). Recently, I vowed that I’ll no longer leave North America without a backup in my bag.
And while most travelers know they’ll need an adapter in order to charge their computer internationally, they many not realize a surge protector is also key. If you’re traveling somewhere with unstable electricity sources — ahem, Koh Tao — you could fry your computer in an outage, like one of my friend’s did. Look for a universal adapter with a surge protector built-in in order to travel light (I’m thinking of spray painting mine gold since I’m obsessed with everything I pack being adorable).
Case in. And how, exactly, to carry your computer? The first layer of protection is a laptop sleeve, which can go in my big oversize purse, pop into a backpack, or occasionally sit in a wheeled carry on. I love my Eagle Creek Afar Backpack because it has a secret laptop compartment that sits against my back under the straps — there’s no way prying fingers are getting in there while it’s on me! I do get stressed about bad weather sometimes when I’m in transit, and have a decidedly low-tech solution: old plastic bags given new life as electronic covers if the forecast calls for heavy rains.
Pimp out. And of course I never leave home without a wireless mouse and quality earphones (my Christmas gift two years ago!), though those have more to do with travel convenience than security. Other accessories I’m considering? A privacy screen (in gold!) as I hate when seatmates look at my laptop on the plane and a spare battery bank, though I’m not sure it’s worth the weight and cost for the few times a year I’m on a flight long enough to outlast my battery but annoying enough not to have plugs at each seat.
At one point I ordered a keyboard cover, hoping to prevent dust and tiny insects (ah, the tropics) from getting into my laptop, but I couldn’t get it to sit snugly on my keys. Maybe I got the wrong size? I’ve also weighed up various shell casings over the years and been tempted by some sweet designs, but ultimately didn’t want to add any weigh or bulk to my machine. Perhaps a cute decal, instead?
Lock It Down
Hotels usually have safes but I rarely stay in hotels — I’m more often in long or short term apartment rentals, guesthouses, or hostels, which rarely have one. So I bring my own. I used to take my portable safe but eventually got lazy about locking all my valuables into it and got sick of the bulk. So I switched to a cable lock and was super happy with that solution — until I upgraded to a Retina Screen Macbook, and realized Apple removed the locking port. Thank, Apple! So I had to switch to a slightly more cumbersome bracket version.
Still, it’s the absolute easiest and best solution for securing your laptop. You can lock to pipes and other stationary objects when leaving the laptop behind in a room, or even just sling it around a table leg when you’re working in public to prevent grab-and-run thefts.
When I’m in transit, I listen to my intuition regarding when its safe to flash my laptop. I usually don’t take it out on a bus that I’m going to be sleeping on, though this is less of an issue in say, Southeast Asia than it is in say, South America. If I’m going to be awake and alert the whole time, I go to town. But I try not to advertise my big ticket electronic before nodding off in la la land unless I feel super secure, and even then I’ll usually sleep with it on my lap or in my arms — never under the seat.
Back It Up
When it comes to potentially losing a laptop, the hassle of replacing it and the financial burden of doing so are certainly factors, but I think most travelers agree that the greatest heartbreak would be losing their digital data — photos, videos, documents, and more. Hence, I consider protecting data to be the number one priority when considering travel with a laptop.
The goal? To have as many backups as possible in as many locations as possible. Back when I first began traveling, the go-to advice was to burn CDs and mail them home occasionally as a backup. How quaint! Today, I focus on having a local hard backup and a remote cloud backup.
Local Hard Backup
My local hard backup consists of my trusty 1TB hard drive synced to my laptop with Apple’s Time Machine. Time Machine comes free on all Macs and basically creates a clone of your computer — files, applications, settings, everything — and saves it on an external drive. Once you go through the very simple set up process, just plug in your drive whenever you think of it and it will do its thing automatically. On the road, I try to keep my backup drive and my laptop separate in case anything should happen to either of them. If I have no choice but to leave my laptop somewhere I feel a little less than secure about, for example, I pop my backup drive into my purse for peace of mind. Don’t forget to stick a label on it with your contact information and the promise of a reward if lost or stolen. (If you wanted yet another layer of security, you could keep a duplicate backup drive at home, and mail home flash drives with your updated files as you go — though there’s a better remote backup arrangement that I’ll get to in a second. Personally I always keep a few flash drives handy for other reasons — to transfer files, watch movies on TVs with USB drives, etc. )
Over time, however, I grew wary of this arrangement. What if I was on a ferry that sank and I lost everything? What if my hotel caught on fire and I lost everything? What if my bus was hijacked and I lost everything? They seem like wild scenarios, but it was the last one actually happening to a friend of mine while we were traveling in Guatemala that finally pushed me to patch the final holes in my backup system. My business would be crushed by the loss of my data — and personally, I’d be devastated — and I just can’t afford to leave myself vulnerable to that.
Offline Cloud Backups
So after much research into the world of offline cloud backups, I settled on CrashPlan. Basically, it’s a cloud-based version of Time Machine. After struggling to do the initial backup over wifi, I coughed up the one time fee of $125 for CrashPlan to send me a seed drive in order to make the initial backup quick and easy. Now that that is out of the way, CrashPlan checks for data that is already backed up and ignores it, making subsequent backups much smaller because they contain only new or changed information. Anytime my laptop connects to wifi, CrashPlan is quietly working in the background to clone my computer to a secure cloud. I pay $60 a year for this service, which means that even if every single physical thing I own was stolen by a rouge gang of runaway unicorns, I could buy a new machine and restore my data from the cloud and it would be identical to the one I’d lost, right down to my screensaver and saved internet passwords. I’ve actually put Crashplan to the test a few times this year when I’ve inadvertently deleted folders full of photos — I open up Crashplan, dig around for the last saved version, and restore it to my desktop. Viola!
If all that sounds intimidating, don’t worry — it did to me too. But investing a little time in wrapping your head around it can prevent a lot of time nursing a broken heart down the road.
Have Your Back
Hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Even if you’re doing everything within your power to prevent your laptop being stolen or damaged, things do happen that are beyond our control. Thus I suggest a service plan, insurance and recovery software.
For mechanical failures, I highly recommend purchasing the longest available AppleCare plan or the equivalent protection for your machine. Your computer goes through a lot on the road and I have found it to be money well invested. Travel with your laptop’s precise specifications, including make, model and serial number, and a copy of your purchase order and warranty, and the phone numbers for your manufacturer in case you need to contact support — or report it lost or stolen. AppleCare is available over the phone and I have often used it when I’m in a location where the nearest service center is a day’s travel away.
I insure my laptop on my mom’s homeowner’s insurance (this is the address that I use to pay taxes and vote), and have read that this is also possible for those with renter’s insurance too. Because this is such an affordable and easy solution, I’ve never even considered other options, especially as many travel insurance plans offer extremely low electronic coverage that wouldn’t come close to covering the cost of a replacement for my top-of-the-line model.
So far, I’m thanking my lucky stars I haven’t had to use it. But when I almost did — a flight attendant dumped a drink on top of my open keyboard while I was working and it wouldn’t turn on for a week — they were super helpful and gave me no indication my claim would be held up. (In the end the airline also admitted liability and seemed willing to replace the computer, but it was all moot when a magician computer tech in Bangkok got it working again!)
Have you heard of Prey? If not, prepare to be obsessed. For a total run down of what Prey is and how it works, check out this comprehensive guide from Lifehacker. Basically, it’s a software you install that once activated can snap secret web-cam photos of the person using your computer, take sneaky screenshots of what they are up to, and track the location of the machine and more. I first heard about it when my friend Matt used it to track down and recover his own stolen computer! The best part? You only pay if you have to. So far, I’ve only installed the free version, though I can easily upgrade to a $5 paid version if any of my electronics get nabbed. Sweet!
One caveat — you can’t have your computer password protected because you want the thief to access the internet in order to let Prey do its thing. A simple solution is to create a password-free guest account so that the bad guys can get online without having access to any of your sensitive personal data. And to prepare for the rare-but-possible scenario of my laptop falling into the wrong hands by accident, I have a friendly lock screen message with my contact details and the promise of a reward should it be returned.
Finally, data encryption — another buzz word you’ll see come up often when it comes to traveling with a laptop. I don’t have any of my data encrypted, for the very simple and solid reason that I have no idea what having one’s data encrypted means. Good times!
These days, if my laptop were to break, get lost, or be stolen, the only thing I’d have to fear would be the hassle of replacing and reloading it — my data and financial investments would be safe and sound.
I still have progress to make. My files need to be infinitely more organized, I need to figure out what the heck a VPN is, and I could probably do more to keep my computer happy and healthy from a software standpoint. But overall, I travel confidently into the sunset with my trusty laptop, knowing I’ve taken great pains to keep it by my side for as long as possible.
What am I missing? How do you protect your laptop and data when you travel?