Laptop Travel Tips

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2528, 2007-07-13, as the cover article, in both their print edition (on pages 14 and 16) and their website.

Travel to another city, and especially to another country, has always been fraught with difficulties, expenses, and risks. For domestic air travel, the individual faces escalating ticket prices and possible lost baggage and canceled flights. For international air travel, the complications worsen, with US passport and foreign visa requirements, and the possibility of a medical emergency in a foreign land, or even attack by thieves or terrorists.

Traveling with a laptop computer invariably adds to the expenses and potential problems. Any technical challenge that you face, when you are either at your destination or in transit, is exacerbated, because your installation CDs are at home or in your office; your favorite technical reference materials are not at hand; you may not even have access to the Internet, for downloading installation programs, drivers, or malware detection updates.

If something goes wrong with your laptop or the software that you rely upon, usually the best situation is if you are at one of your employer's satellite offices, because there you will have access to the Internet and the local technical support staff. The worst situation is if you are in flight, or stuck in an airport, or in a foreign country — especially one with a poor technical infrastructure, such as limited public Internet access points, or unreliable electrical power.

Fortunately, there are steps that you can take ahead of time, as well as during your trip, to dramatically reduce the chances of something going wrong, or to recover as quickly as possible should your preparations still not prevent some sort of digital disaster.

Built to Last

The first step in minimizing the odds of a laptop mishap caused by rough handling of the unit — either by you or a baggage clerk, for example — is to choose a rugged laptop that will have the best chances of surviving an impact against a hard surface (or multiple hard surfaces, should you be so unfortunate as to be at the top of a flight of stairs when the unit goes into free fall). Even though your laptop will be in its protective case during much of its transit, it is still vulnerable any time it is outside its case, such as when being charged up at an electrical outlet.

If you have not yet purchased a particular laptop, then beforehand search the Internet for up-to-date product studies, in which independent testing firms or technical publications put the latest laptops through their paces, and evaluate them for physical durability. Pay particular attention to any impact tests, and details on the thickness of each laptop's shell — especially its edges and corners.

Check the laptop manufacturers' websites, and other online resources, to find out what durability features they include, and any testing performed to confirm the value of those features. For instance, Panasonic ToughBooks are some of the most resilient laptops on the market. This is partly due to the extensive testing done in the manufacturing plant, in Kobe, Japan, where Panasonic destroys thousands of the units every year, subjecting them to pummeling, water, heat, electromagnetic radiation, and electrical shock — in other words, what you can expect on your next flight.

On the Case

Your shoulders and arms should be grateful that a laptop shell does not have to be made out of armor to survive a trip to the other side of the earth. During most of your trip, except for when you are seated, your laptop should be well protected inside of a case — either one specifically designed for laptops, or some sort of backpack or travel bag that allows you to pad all sides of the laptop with soft material, such as clothing that will not shift during transit. Just don't take the hotel's towels.

As more students, mobile business people, and other travelers choose laptops over desktops, the demand for highly functional laptop cases is growing all the time. There is an impressive variety to choose from. For example, the Maloo Wrap, made of felt and Velcro, is not even a bag, but instead unwraps. The Solar Panel Pouch, from Voltaic Systems, may not provide enough juice for your laptop, but it can recharge your cell phone, music player, etc.

For those travelers who actually would be willing to lug around some armor, the aluminum computer cases offered by ZERO Halliburton should provide ample protection. For anyone who owns and cherishes their Mac PowerBook, the MacTruck, made by RadTech, could keep their Apple from getting bruised. Instead of being a metal case into which the Mac is put temporarily, the MacTruck functions as a shell that never needs to be removed, since it allows for sufficient heat dispersal.

Theft Deterrence

While you are flying the friendly skies, you should do everything to prevent your laptop from sprouting wings and flying away in the arms of a thief. There are many security measures that you can follow, and they include an awareness as to how laptops are frequently stolen.

The only time you should allow your laptop out of sight is when it is making its way through the x-ray scanner at an airport security checkpoint. Even then, watch out for the ruse in which one thief, ahead of you in line, walks through the metal detector and then grabs your laptop, while his accomplice delays your doing the same by repeatedly setting off the metal detector.

When you are nowhere near any security personnel, there is always the chance that a thief will try to grab your laptop case from you and run with it. Several electronics equipment vendors offer notebook alarms, which can activate loud sirens and flashing lights via remote control.

When you are sitting in one location for some time, working on your laptop, you can oftentimes lock it to the arm of the seat, or some other secure loop, with the use of a strong cable. Typically you would attach the cable to your laptop with an adhesive plate, or a T-bar lock (which requires that your laptop have a dedicated security slot, which most of them do). A variety of cable locks are available from such firms as Kensington, Secure-It, and Targus.

Encryption and Electricity

Even if your rugged laptop is well protected by a case and a cable, it can still fall prey to theft by muggers, or confiscation by government officials. Be sure to keep all of your sensitive information encrypted, using a program such as PGP. Also consider using a USB thumb drive as portable backup.

If you are traveling overseas, first find out what type of electrical plug you can expect to find at your destination, and thus what adapter you should bring. For instance, consult the World Electric Power Guide. Your laptop will be nothing but an expensive doorstop if you cannot power it up.

Copyright © 2007 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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