While preparing for your next big trip, one of the more difficult decisions you’ll need to make is whether or not you want to travel with a laptop. If you do decide to pack your laptop, how will you protect it from damage and theft? How will you protect your privacy and keep your data safe from online criminals?
To help you decide, this guide outlines the pros and cons of travel with a laptop. We’ll cover productivity, weight and bulk, security, privacy, entertainment, and more. I’ll also explain exactly how to pack your laptop to prevent damage and how to secure your laptop from thieves and online criminals. In addition, I’ll also share a few tips for flying with a laptop to help make your trip a bit smoother. I’ll also recommend a few of the best travel laptops. You can’t eliminate the risk of damage, theft, or cybercrime but you can reduce it by taking some simple precautions.
For some travelers, the decision to pack a laptop is easy. For example, if you run an online business, create content, freelance, or if you’re on a business trip, the decision is made for you. I always have to pack my laptop because I work while I travel. I have no other choice. If you just want to stay up to date with your favorite TV show and post to social media once in a while, the decision becomes a bit more difficult. I’ll share some laptop alternatives for those who may not need a full computer.
Table of Contents
- Pros and Cons of Traveling With a Laptop
- How to Protect Your Laptop from Damage
- How to Protect Your Laptop from Theft
- Keeping Personal Information Secure
- Packing a Laptop for Travel
- Flying or Taking a Bus or Train with a Laptop
- Tips for Traveling with your Laptop
- Laptop Alternatives for Travel
- How to Choose a Laptop
- Laptop Travel Accessories
- The Best Travel Laptops
Should I Travel With a Laptop? Pros and Cons
Ideally, you want to travel as light as possible. This means leaving unnecessary items at home. Whether or not your laptop is necessary depends on a number of factors including your job, the types of tasks you need to perform, where you’re traveling, and how long you’re traveling. Sometimes a smartphone, tablet, or other portable device is a sufficient replacement.
Pros of Traveling With a Laptop
- Packing a laptop increases productivity- With a laptop, you can quickly and efficiently write emails, blog posts, journals, code, reports, or whatever else you need to type. You can type much faster on a physical laptop keyboard than you can on a phone or tablet touch screen. A laptop also allows you to perform tasks that require large amounts of computing power such as editing videos and photos. A laptop can also run all of the software that you need for your job including Microsoft office, code editing software, accounting software, video and photo editing software, and whatever else you may need. Even though mobile versions of these programs exist, the full desktop version is always more powerful. The larger screen also increases productivity by allowing you to use two applications at once. There are some tasks you just can’t do without the power and screen real estate of a laptop. In addition, you can also use your laptop to upload, sort, and store as many photos and videos as you can take. You can do all of this work in a hostel, coffee shop, or even on a bus, train, or plane.
- Laptops offer plenty of computing power- A good laptop has plenty of power for editing videos and photos, running multiple programs and browser tabs at once, and even gaming. A phone or tablet just can’t offer the same level of processing power.
- Entertainment options- With a laptop, you can comfortably keep up to date on your favorite TV shows and movies while you’re traveling. Most modern laptops feature a 13-1 inch HD screen and decent quality speakers. Watching a movie is a great way to pass the time on a flight, bus ride, or train ride. If you’re into gaming, you can pack a gaming laptop and play whenever you get a decent internet connection. If you’re traveling somewhere remote where you may not have internet access, you can download all of your favorite movies, TV shows, music, and games and store them on your hard drive.
- Your laptop gives you more storage space for travel photos and videos- Laptops generally have more storage space than a phone or camera SD card. For example, most base model laptops come with a 256GB SSD drive. Higher-end models have a terabyte or more. If you take a lot of video or photos when you travel, you may need to move them to your laptop to free up some more space on your phone or camera SD card. Of course, you could achieve the same thing with an external hard drive or multiple SD cards. You could also back your data up to the cloud. This is only an option when you get a good internet connection. After moving your photos and videos to your laptop, you can easily sort and organize them and edit them.
- Laptops offer better security and privacy options- If you don’t pack a laptop, you can visit an internet cafe if you need to use a computer during your trip. Some hostels also still have computers for guests to use. The problem is that these computers may not be secure. For example, they could contain keylogging software and steal your login information. They could be infected with various viruses that can steal or destroy your data. Identity theft is a serious concern while using a random computer. The last thing you want is for criminals to access your bank account, email, or social media accounts. When you travel with your own laptop, you can take extra steps to make sure that your connection is secure. For example, you can use a VPN (virtual private network). You can encrypt your data. You can also pick and choose where you connect to the internet. For example instead of logging into your online banking or email on a random computer, you can wait and log in on your own secure computer on a secure network at a public library or airport. This is much safer.
- Laptops offer plenty of software options- On your laptop, you can run powerful programs that are designed for productivity. Smartphones and mobile apps are great and continue to get more powerful. They still can’t compare to full desktop programs in most cases. If you need to edit photos or videos, code, or do a lot of word processing, you’ll be happy you packed your laptop.
- You can work from anywhere- With a laptop, you can get work done in a hostel, hotel, train, bus, airplane, cafe, restaurant, library, or even a city park. These days, wifi is everywhere. The only place I had trouble finding wifi was in parts of Africa. Sometimes I’d have to search for a cafe with working wifi. If you can’t get a wifi connection, you can buy a local sim card with some data and use your phone as a mobile hotspot and tether.
- More efficient- A laptop allows you to get work done on your downtime, even if you don’t have an internet connection. For example, during a long bus ride you could sort photos, draft emails, or write a blog post instead of just sitting there. Once you arrive at your destination you’ll have more free time to explore because you already got some of your work done.
- You have your own computer set up the way you like it- When you pack a laptop, you have all of your files with you. They are exactly where you want them. All of the software you need is already installed. You can run whatever operating system, editing software, or accounting software you like. You don’t have to wait for files to download or install any programs. Everything is ready to go. You can’t get this experience at an internet cafe.
- You can charge your other electronic devices with your laptop battery- You can use your laptop’s large battery to charge your phone, camera, e-reader, headlamp, smartwatch, or any other device that charges through USB. This comes in handy when you’re traveling somewhere where you don’t have access to electricity. You can treat your laptop like a big external battery.
- You don’t have to go to internet cafes- If you don’t travel with a laptop and you find yourself needing to use a computer, you may need to go an internet cafe. This has two drawbacks. First, it costs money. Over the course of a multi-month trip, you could spend a couple of hundred dollars in internet cafes if you go a couple of times per week. You also have to find one. In much of the world, they aren’t as common as they were 10 years ago. If you have your own laptop, you can almost always find free wifi.
Cons of Traveling With a Laptop
- Passing through airport security is a hassle- This is the biggest annoyance to me. At most airports, you’ll have to remove your laptop when you pass through security. During an international flight, you might pass through security 2-3 times. You have to put your laptop in a separate bin. Having to remove your laptop from its case isn’t a big deal but it is kind of annoying. When you’re going to fly, make sure your laptop is easily accessible.
- Laptops are heavy- A standard 15” laptop weighs around 5 pounds (around 2.25kg). A lightweight ultrabook style laptop with a 13” screen weighs around 2.5-3 pounds (around 1.3kg). This is a significant amount of extra weight to carry around in your backpack. Particularly while hiking, walking to hostels, and chasing down buses when you’re running late. The more weight you have to carry around, the less happy you’ll be while traveling from one city to the next. Also, if you’re trying to pack only a carry-on bag, a laptop takes up almost a quarter of your carry-on allowed weight. Most airlines allow 10 kilos or 22 pounds in a carry-on bag. If you’re carrying a laptop, you can’t really consider yourself an ultralight traveler.
- Laptops are bulky- Your laptop, case, charger, and accessories eat up a big chunk of space in your pack. It can be difficult to stay within carry-on size limits if you are the type of traveler who doesn’t like to check a bag. For example, when I travel without a laptop, I can easily fit everything in my 40-liter backpack. When I pack my laptop, I usually use a 60-liter pack. Having a bulky pack makes travel a bit more difficult. You’ll have to check your bag when you fly. You may not be able to take your bag with you on a bus. Carrying a large bag also draws more attention to you while walking around a city. It’s harder to blend in. Large backpacks are also cumbersome.
- You’ll worry about your laptop getting stolen or damaged- Because a laptop is such an expensive and fragile item, you may feel nervous about leaving it in your hotel room or hostel dorm. While taking the bus or train to your next destination, you constantly have to keep an eye on your bag out of fear that someone will rummage through it and take your laptop. In a way, your laptop holds you back and makes you a bit less spontaneous. Traveling with a laptop can also add unnecessary stress to your trip. Even if it’s locked up safely in your hotel, you’ll still worry. When you’re in transit, you’ll worry about your laptop getting bumped, dropped, or crushed under someone else’s luggage. To relieve some of this stress, consider traveling with an old, cheap, or used laptop rather than a brand new high-end Macbook.
- Privacy concerns- These days, there are a handful of countries that can require you to hand over your laptop and your passwords before they allow you to enter the country. They could search through your files, copy the contents of your hard drive, install spyware, and who knows what else. Countries that may request to search your electronic devices include the US, Canada, UK, China, Israel, and probably others. Really, any country could make this request before you enter. Of course, they will want to search your phone or tablet as well. One solution to this is to wipe your device of any sensitive data before traveling then reinstall everything before you arrive. Of course, this is a hassle. If you have sensitive documents on your laptop, you may not want to travel with it.
- Wear and tear on your laptop- While traveling, you may expose your laptop to humidity, extreme temperatures, dirt and dust, and shocks and vibrations. These conditions can cause damage to your laptop or can cause it to fail prematurely. Particularly if it has moving parts such as a disc style hard drive or fans. HDDs can fail if they’re bumped while spinning. Fans can suck contaminants into your laptop which can cause it to overheat. If you travel with your laptop regularly, you’ll probably have to replace it sooner than you would if you only used it at home. Many travelers only get a couple of years out of their laptops.
- Laptops are a target for thieves- A laptop is an expensive item that you have to worry about everywhere you go. If it’s not properly locked up in your hotel room or hostel locker, it could easily get stolen. If a thief accesses your bag in your hostel dorm, on the street, or on a bus or train, your laptop is the first thing they’ll take. I met one traveler who had his laptop stolen right out of a hostel locker. Evidently, another guest saw him using it, waited for him to leave, then broke into the locker to steal the device. There are a couple of ways to reduce the likelihood of theft. I’ll explain how to keep your laptop safe in a later section of this guide.
- You’ll spend more time online- It’s easy to sit down and burn up a whole afternoon on your computer and not really accomplish anything. We’ve all done this in the past. That time could have been spent siteseeing, meeting people, exploring, or actually traveling. You don’t want to waste your precious vacation time on social media. While traveling, I try my best to limit the amount of time I spend on my computer.
- Using a laptop while traveling can be hard on your body- It’s difficult to achieve an ergonomic position while using your laptop while traveling. You won’t have an office chair or desk most of the time. Chances are, you’ll be typing on your laptop while laying in bed. Oftentimes you’ll sit hunched over with your laptop or on your lap. This isn’t the ideal ergonomic position and can lead to issues like carpel tunnel. It can also lead to poor posture and back pain. The solution is to pack a stand, mouse, and maybe even a keyboard. Of course, this takes up more space in your pack and adds more weight. Ergonomics are really only a concern for very heavy users. If you only use your laptop for an hour per day, you don’t need to worry about it. If you’re working full 8 hour days while traveling, you need to be a bit more careful.
- Packing a laptop can be redundant- Most likely, you’re going to bring a smartphone with you whether you pack your laptop or not. These days, phones are powerful enough to do almost everything that a laptop can. You can even do basic video and photo editing on a phone. You can also pack a wireless keyboard and mouse and use your phone like a small desktop. The only drawback to using your phone as your only computer is that the screen is too small for some tasks. The lack of a physical keyboard makes typing long notes or emails kind of tedious.
- You’ll need a VPN- A VPN serves a couple of purposes. First, it helps keep your connections secure by encrypting the data that you send over the internet. It also hides your IP address by sending your data through a series of different servers. This makes your online activity much harder to track. Having a secure connection helps to keep your data safe and helps to prevent you from falling victim to crimes such identity theft. A VPN also allows you to access websites that aren’t available in the country you’re traveling in. For example, Facebook is banned in China. Many travelers get around this ban by using a VPN. The VPN essentially makes it look as if they’re in another country where Facebook isn’t blocked. VPN service costs around $20-$50 per year.
How to Travel With a Laptop
If you decide to pack your laptop, the next step is to think about how you’re going to protect it from damage and theft. A laptop is a fragile and valuable piece of gear. Laptops are easy to damage. They are also a target for thieves.
You’ll also want to take some steps to secure your data and protect your privacy so your personal information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. Identity theft is a concern while traveling with your laptop.
In this section, I’ll detail the risks of traveling with a laptop and explain how to keep your laptop and your data safe. You can’t eliminate the risk of damage or theft but you can reduce the likelihood by taking a few simple precautions.
How to Protect Your Laptop from Damage While Traveling
Laptops are fragile. They are sensitive to moisture, contamination, and shocks and vibrations. You want to pack your laptop carefully to avoid damage, failure of components, and premature wear and tear.
Humidity can cause internal parts to corrode and fail prematurely. This is a major concern while traveling in wet regions such as the tropics. Laptops don’t last as long when they’re used in humid regions. Obviously, moisture from rain and spills can also damage your laptop. Water and electronics don’t mix. You’ll want to pack your laptop in a way that keeps it dry. Ideally, you’ll store your laptop in a water-resistant or waterproof backpack, sack, or case. You should also store your laptop in a waterproof bag or dry sack for extra protection from the elements.
Dust, dirt, lint, hair, sand, and other contaminants can also damage your laptop. These contaminants can make their way inside of your laptop and clog fans, vents, and heat sinks. This prevents your laptop from cooling properly. Eventually, your laptop can overheat. This can damage the components and cause your laptop to fail. You’ll want to pack your laptop in a way that keeps it clean and protected from contaminants. You’ll also want to avoid using your laptop in dirty environments. If you do end up using your laptop in a dirty environment, you should open it up and clean it out periodically. You can remove dust and dirt with a can of compressed air. Keep in mind that some modern laptops can’t be opened up. Some have no moving parts.
Shocks and vibrations can also damage your laptop. A hard bump could crack the screen. Obviously, dropping your laptop could break it. Excessive vibrations could damage your hard drive if your laptop comes with a spinning-style HDD. You’ll want to pack your laptop so that it has some cushioning to protect it from bumps and vibrations. While traveling, you should always carry your laptop on your person. Never put it in your checked bag. Baggage handlers could throw it around, drop it, and cause damage.
The best way to protect your laptop from moisture, contamination, and shocks is by storing it in a quality laptop backpack or case. I’ll share some suggestions in the following section.
If you’re really worried about damage, you can buy a rugged laptop. These are laptops that are designed to be used in wet and dirty conditions. They are also designed to handle shocks and drops. For most travelers, these are unnecessary but they are an option. The main drawbacks to rugged laptops are that they are expensive and bulky.
How to Protect Your Laptop from Theft While Traveling
Your laptop will be exposed to theft when you travel with it. A hotel employee could enter your room and steal your laptop while you’re out. A criminal could steal your laptop bag while you’re sleeping on a bus or train. If you leave your laptop unattended at a cafe or library, someone could walk up and take it. A fellow guest could steal your laptop out of your backpack in a hostel. A bus company employee could go through your bag while loading the bus and take your laptop. You could also get mugged while walking through a rough part of town.
Opportunities for theft are endless. Every criminal would be happy to steal a laptop. They could easily sell your new Macbook for over $1000 at any pawn shop or used computer store.
The best way to protect your laptop from thieves is to keep it close at all times while traveling. Never leave your laptop unattended. Never store it in the luggage compartment under a bus or in an overhead bin on a train or plane. Always carry your laptop on your lap or by your feet while in transit.
While sleeping on a bus or train, consider tying or wrapping one of your backpack straps around your ankle or wrist. If someone tries to take your bag or go through it, you’ll feel it and hopefully wake up.
For even more security, you can lock the backpack using luggage locks and use a cable lock to secure your laptop backpack to part of the bus or train. some backpacks have built-in locking mechanisms.
While you’re out and about, lock your laptop up. If you’re staying in a hostel or guesthouse, lock it in your locker. If you’re staying in a hotel, store it in the safe, if it will fit. When there is no locker or safe, use a laptop lock to secure your laptop to a piece of furniture.
Alternatively, use luggage locks to lock your laptop in your backpack. Lock your backpack to a piece of furniture with a cable lock.
While working on your laptop in a public space such as a coffee shop, library, or hostel common area, consider using a laptop lock like the one above to secure your laptop to the table or your chair. This will prevent someone from running off with your laptop if have to get up to order a drink or use the restroom.
It can also help to make your laptop look unappealing. Put stickers or duct tape on your laptop to make it look ugly and broken. Carry an old laptop rather than a new model. Use a Windows PC instead of a Mac. Apple products hold their value better so they are more valuable to thieves.
Probably the best way to secure your laptop is to store it in an anti-theft backpack. These offer additional built-in security features such as a slash-proof metal mesh layer. This prevents thieves from cutting through your backpack to get to your laptop. Some models also feature built-in locks. More on this in the next section.
How to Keep Your Personal Information Secure from Cyber Criminals While Traveling
Using a laptop while traveling opens you up to identity theft and fraud. If you connect to an insecure network, criminals could potentially hack into your system to steal your personal information and eventually your money. A few steps you can take to reduce the risk of cybercrime include:
- Use a VPN- This helps you maintain your privacy while you’re online. A VPN makes you anonymous so people can’t see what sites you’re visiting or what you are doing online. This is achieved by sending your data through multiple servers, making you harder to track. This makes it more difficult for a criminal to steal your personal information while you’re connected to a network that might not be secure. They can’t snoop on you and see what you’re doing as easily.
- Make sure all of your passwords are strong- If someone gets their hands on your laptop, you don’t want them to be able to log into your email, online banking, social media, etc. Use long passwords. Particularly for logging into your computer and email. If someone gets accesso to your email, they could access many of your other accounts by resetting your passwords.
- Use a password manager- Password managers remember all of your passwords for you. All you have to remember is the password to your password manager. This allows you to use longer and stronger passwords for your online accounts. You can use passwords that would be impossible for a human to predict or remember. Most password managers can generate incredibly secure passwords for you that are almost impossible to hack.
- Keep your computer clean- Delete personal information from your computer. Never save your passwords in your browser. If there is anything that is potentially illegal in the country you’re traveling to, delete it.
- Set up remote wipe- This allows you to wipe data from your laptop if it gets stolen. You can even remotely wipe the entire OS, rendering the laptop unusable. This would come in handy if your laptop was stolen and unrecoverable.
- Use a privacy screen cover- These prevent people from seeing what’s on your laptop screen. This way, a criminal or nosy person can’t see your username, bank balance, or other private information that may be displayed on your screen while you’re sitting in a cafe.
- Use 2-factor authentication for your important accounts- 2-factor authentication increases security by requiring two different types of identification before you are granted access. This usually means a password and authentication code. For extra security, use an authentication app on your phone such as Authy or Google Authenticator. Avoid using email for your second mode of authentication.
- Log out of all accounts- When you’re done checking your email, bank balance, or social media profile, log out. Make sure your password isn’t saved in the browser. This way, a criminal won’t be able to easily access your accounts if they get their hands on your laptop. It’s a hassle having to log in every time but it’s worth it for the added security.
- Pack a travel laptop- Some travelers buy a laptop specifically for travel. They keep this machine free of personal information. This way, if it’s stolen or hacked the security risk is minimal.
How to Pack Your Laptop For Travel
You need to pack your laptop carefully to protect it from damage and theft. There are two ways to go about packing your laptop for travel.
- Carry your laptop in an anti-theft laptop backpack- An anti-theft backpack offers a number of security features to protect your laptop and keep it safe. This backpack will also double as your day pack and carry-on bag on travel days. This is the most popular, simplest, and most secure option.
- Store your laptop in a case in your main backpack or suitcase– This works well if you only travel with carry on baggage. This method is a little less secure. The main benefit is that it eliminates the need to carry two separate pieces of luggage (a big backpack and a smaller backpack). This cuts weight and bulk significantly. Ultralight travelers prefer this option. If you end up having to check your main bag or store it in a luggage compartment, you’ll want to remove your laptop and take it with you to avoid damage or theft.
Personally, I like to store my laptop in my main backpack and carry a packable day pack. When I need to check my main backpack for a flight or store it under a bus, I move my laptop into my packable day pack and carry it with me. When I’m walking from a bus or train station to a hostel, I put my laptop and day pack inside of my main backpack. This way, I only have 1 backpack to carry.
I pack this way mainly because it saves weight and space. I also prefer this method for aesthetic reasons. Carrying 2 backpacks with one on the front and one on the back looks goofy. It also draws attention. I prefer to blend in a bit more.
You should always pack your laptop in your carry-on. Laptops are allowed in checked bags. The problem is that checked luggage is not treated gently. It gets tossed around, dropped, stacked, and compressed. Your laptop is more likely to get damaged if you check it. To be safe, always pack it in your carry-on.
How to Choose a Laptop Backpack for Travel
The safest way to pack a laptop for travel is to carry it in a backpack that is specifically designed for carrying a laptop. When choosing a laptop backpack, look for one that has a built-in padded sleeve. The sleeve should secure the laptop so it sits against your back while you wear the backpack. A laptop is a heavy item. You want to carry it as close to your body as possible to reduce strain on your shoulders and back.
Ideally, the sleeve should also suspend the laptop. This way, your laptop doesn’t hit the ground when you set the backpack down or if you drop the backpack. A suspended sleeve also helps to protect your laptop from moisture. If something spills inside of your backpack or if you drop your backpack in a puddle, the liquid will pool in the bottom away from your laptop. The backpack itself should also offer some water resistance to protect your laptop in case you get caught in the rain.
Your laptop backpack also needs to be comfortable to wear and easy to carry. Remember, you will be wearing this backpack while walking through airports and bus and train stations. You may wear it while sightseeing if you don’t feel comfortable leaving your laptop in your guesthouse or hostel. This backpack will also be your day pack. Look for a backpack with thick, comfortable straps. A chest or hip strap is also a nice feature. These straps can reduce the load on your shoulders. If you’re traveling to a warm region, you might look for a backpack with good airflow so your back doesn’t sweat too much.
You should also try to choose a laptop backpack that is inconspicuous. You don’t want to stick out and you don’t want people to know you’re carrying a laptop. Avoid colorful or flashy backpacks with fancy features.
Avoid messenger bags and briefcases. They aren’t comfortable or practical for carrying around all day. When carrying these bags, your arms aren’t always free. You have to use one hand to hold the bag in place. They aren’t quite as secure because everyone knows you’re carrying a laptop. If you carry a backpack, nobody knows what’s inside.
Anti Theft Laptop Backpacks for Travel
Ideally, your laptop backpack should also offer some anti-theft features. A few important anti-theft features to look for when choosing a travel backpack include:
- Locking zippers- Some laptop backpacks have built-in zipper locks. Most are designed to be compatible with luggage locks. Locking the zippers prevents thieves from opening your backpack while you’re not looking. This eliminates the risk of getting pickpocketed while traveling.
- Cut resistant fabric- This fabric contains a layer of steel mesh. The steel mesh prevents thieves from cutting through the backpack to access your laptop. A knife or scissors can’t easily cut through the steel-reinforced fabric. This reduces the risk of slash and grab theft. (This is when a thief uses a knife to cut open your backpack while you’re wearing it and steals whatever falls out.)
- Detachable shoulder strap- Some anti-theft laptops allow you to detach one shoulder strap at the bottom, wrap it around a pole or piece of furniture, then lock it back in place. This prevents thieves from grabbing your backpack and running off with it. If your backpack doesn’t have this feature, you could use a cable lock and loop it through one of the straps.
- RFID blocking- This is a special pocket for storing your credit cards and debit cards. It prevents criminals from scanning your cards through the backpack.
You’ll also want to choose a backpack that is designed for your laptop size. For example, if your laptop has a 13” screen, you want to choose a backpack that is designed to accommodate a 13” laptop.
The ideal size for your anti-theft laptop backpack depends on whether you’re going to carry a separate laptop backpack or carry your laptop in your main backpack. For laptop backpacks, I have found that 20-30 liter models are ideal. This size gives you plenty of space for storing a laptop, camera, accessories, and other valuables as well as a change of clothes and some snacks. Remember, you’ll be using this backpack as a carry-on bag and day pack. It needs to be big enough to haul at least a day’s worth of gear. If you’re only traveling for a couple of days, you may even be able to fit everything in a backpack of this size. For ultralight travelers, you may prefer a smaller anti-theft laptop backpack in the 15 liter range.
If you plan to store your laptop in your main backpack, you may want to travel with a large laptop backpack. These are available in 40-65 liter sizes. These offer the same security features as smaller bags and can accommodate all of your travel gear including your clothing.
How to Pick a Good Laptop Case for Travel
As an alternative to packing a dedicated laptop backpack, you simply put your laptop in a case and carry it in your main backpack or suitcase. Remember, this option is a bit less secure.
When selecting a case, look for one that offers shock protection as well as water and dust resistance. This way, if your backpack or suitcase gets thrown around a bit or you get caught in the rain, your laptop will be protected.
If you choose a case that isn’t waterproof, consider storing the case inside of some kind of waterproof bag. A dry sack works well for this. You could also simply store the case in a large plastic bag like a trash bag. Simply roll or twist the top closed. This provides excellent waterproofing. It’s cheap too.
If you’re going to store your laptop in a case in your main luggage, you’ll want to choose a backpack or suitcase with some security features. Ideally, you should be able to lock your backpack with luggage locks. You might also want to carry a cable lock so you can lock your backpack to solid fixtures like a piece of furniture or a pole.
When you have to check your main luggage for a flight or store it under a bus, you’ll want to take your laptop out and keep it with you to avoid theft.
Tips for Flying or Taking the Bus or Train With Your Laptop
Traveling with a laptop is completely normal these days. In fact, I would guess that the majority of travelers pack their laptop. In this section, I’ll share some tips for flying or taking the bus or train with your laptop. We’ll cover luggage allowances, how to store your laptop while in transit, keeping your laptop secure, and more.
Luggage Allowances: Packing a Laptop in a Carry-On Bag
Most airlines allow you to bring one large piece of luggage and one personal item onto the plane with you. Your large carry-on must measure 22″ x 14″ x 9″ or smaller. Your personal item must be smaller yet. Most airlines limit the weight of your carry-on bags to 15-20 lbs. Some weigh your bags and others don’t. Generally, bus and train companies have a slightly larger carry-on luggage allowance than airlines.
Your laptop backpack or case is usually considered a personal item. You can bring this in addition to a larger piece of luggage such as your main backpack or suitcase. If you want to bring more bags, you’ll end up having to pay an extra luggage fee. If your main bag is too large or heavy, you’ll have to check it.
You’ll want to check the luggage allowance before your trip. When you travel with a laptop, you can easily go over. Laptops are fairly heavy. A 15” laptop, charger, case, and a few accessories can easily weigh 4-8lbs. On some airlines, this could be half of your carry-on limit.
If you’re unsure as to whether or not your luggage is overweight, check out my guide to weighing luggage without a scale.
Keeping Your Laptop Safe While In Transit
While you’re in the airport, bus, and train station, always keep a close eye on your laptop. Theft is a risk in these places. Someone cold easily snag your laptop bag while you’re not looking, hop on a bus or train, and disappear forever. Security is also pretty lax in bus and train stations. Oftentimes seedy people hang around these places as well. Theft is much less likely in an airport but is still a risk. Never leave your luggage unattended while in transit.
When passing through airport security, you’ll have to remove your laptop from its case and place it in a bin along with your other electronics, toiletries, shoes, etc. Be sure to keep a close eye on your laptop during this time. It would be easy for a thief to snag your laptop while you’re putting your shoes back on. After passing through security, store your laptop back in your backpack or case.
Security is usually a bit more lax at bus and train stations. Some have an x-ray machine and metal detectors and others don’t. Your laptop should never leave your possession.
You will want to keep an eye on security guards and bus and train company employees. In some parts of the world, these guys aren’t the most honest. If you check your laptop bag, it could get stolen.
You should always carry your laptop onto the plane, bus, or train with you rather than checking it. If the plane is completely full and there isn’t room for your carry-on bag, take your laptop out, carry it on with you, and check your bag. Never check your laptop in your luggage on a flight or place it in the luggage storage compartment in a bus or train.
There are several reasons that you shouldn’t check your laptop. First, it’s less likely to get damaged because you will be the only one handling it. Your laptop could easily get damaged by a careless baggage handler if you carry it in your checked luggage. These guys toss and stack luggage. They don’t care. Your screen could easily get broken this way. The temperature in airplane baggage holds often falls below freezing. This could potentially cause damage to your laptop. Your laptop is also less likely to get stolen when you carry it with you because you can keep an eye on it at all times. When you carry your laptop as a carry-on, it never leaves your possession.
When you’re on the plane, you can usually store your backpack either under the seat in front of you. It’s also safe to store your laptop bag in the overhead bin if you prefer. I avoid this because there is a risk that another passenger will jam their luggage into the compartment and crush my laptop. Storing your laptop under the seat also makes it easier to access if you want to get some work done while traveling. When booking tickets, try to avoid booking a seat with a bulkhead in front of it. These seats don’t have under seat storage.
While traveling on a train or bus, you can store your laptop under the seat in front of you, between your legs, or on your lap. It’s best not to place your laptop in the overhead storage space. It’s too easy for someone to grab it and get off the bus or train while you’re not looking.
If you plan to work on your laptop during your flight, try to book a window seat. This way, you can control the shade so you don’t have to deal with glare. Fewer passengers can see your screen as well when you’re seated near the window.
Tips For Traveling With Your Laptop
The biggest risks of traveling with a laptop include theft, damage, data loss, and identity theft. In this section, I’ll outline a few additional tips to help keep you and your laptop safe.
1. Back Up All Your Data
If your laptop gets lost, stolen, or broken, you’ll lose all your data. The only way to keep this data safe is to plan ahead and make regular backups while you travel.
There are a number of ways to back up your data. The easiest option is to back everything up to the cloud. You can back up your entire computer or choose which files and folders are backed up. Every time you connect your laptop to wifi, your files automatically start uploading.
I use Google Drive to back up select files. You could also pay for a backup service such as IDrive or Backblaze.
You will need a decent and unlimited internet connection in order to make cloud backups quickly and affordably. In some parts of the world, the internet infrastructure is still poor. For example, while traveling in Africa, I only found a fast enough connection to back up my travel photos and videos once every couple of weeks. Uploading multiple gigabytes of video from a cafe in a Ugandan village can take hours.
If you’re unable to back up to the cloud, you’ll want to make local backups. Pack an external hard drive or thumb drive and back your files up once in a while. This is particularly important if you’re traveling somewhere without internet or with poor internet. If your laptop gets damaged or stolen, you still have your files.
Be sure to store your backup drive separately from your laptop. You don’t want to lose both at the same time. If you’re traveling long-term or if your backup drive fills up, you might consider shipping it home and buying a second backup hard drive. Before you leave home, you might also want to take a full backup to store somewhere safe.
Backups are extremely important while traveling. For most travelers, the data is more valuable than the laptop. Imagine losing all of your travel photos and videos because you were careless with backups. That could ruin your whole trip.
2. Don’t Travel With a Laptop if You Can’t Face Losing It
There is a very real chance that your laptop will get lost, destroyed, or stolen when you travel with it. You could leave it on a bus. You could drop it and break it. If you’re unlucky, you could get robbed while traveling. If you can’t accept this risk, you probably shouldn’t travel with a laptop.
There are a couple of alternative options for those who can’t risk losing their laptop. One popular option is to buy a second laptop for travel only. This could be an entry-level model, a used laptop, or an old laptop. If it gets broken or stolen, you won’t care as much. For example, you could buy a basic Chromebook or a decent used laptop for less than $250. Of course, this isn’t an option for those traveling long term, those who work while they travel, or those who need lots of computing power.
Another good option is to buy insurance for your laptop. This can bring you peace of mind. If your laptop gets stolen or destroyed, you can file a claim and buy a new laptop with the payout. Some travel insurance policies automatically cover your laptop. You can also buy insurance specifically for your laptop. If you buy insurance, you’ll want to be sure to keep your laptop receipt so you can prove the value of the laptop if you have to file a claim.
If your main concern is damaging your laptop, you could consider buying a ruggedized model. These feature waterproofing and shock resistance. These laptops can survive spills and drops. This extra protection comes at a cost. Ruggedized laptops are expensive, heavy, and bulky. Of course, the rugged design does nothing to protect your laptop from theft or loss.
3. Pack Your Laptop in a Quality Laptop Backpack
As outlined above, a quality laptop backpack can protect your laptop from damage and theft. Padding can protect your laptop from bumps and vibrations. Water-resistant fabric can protect your laptop from moisture. Anti-theft features such as locking zippers and slash-proof fabric can protect your laptop from pickpockets, thieves, and robbers.
Laptop backpacks are also more comfortable to wear than regular day packs. They often feature extra padding and support straps. These are necessary to support the extra weight of a heavy laptop and accessories. You’ll be happy you have these features when you’re walking a mile from the train station to your hotel with your laptop in your pack.
4. Use a Surge Protector
In many parts of the world, the electrical infrastructure is unreliable. Power surges can happen when the power flow is interrupted briefly, when there is a short in the system, or when there is a sudden increase in voltage. A power surge can fry your laptop and destroy it. This is a rare event but it can happen.
To prevent this, you’ll want to use a surge protector. This is a device that you plug between your laptop and the wall. It protects your laptop from power surges.
5. Store Your Laptop in a Waterproof Bag
Most laptop backpacks and cases are water-resistant, not waterproof. Heavy rain or a spill could easily soak through your pack or case and get your laptop wet.
To prevent water damage, be sure to store your laptop in some kind of waterproof case. This could be a simple as a plastic trash bag with the top rolled up tight. You could also store your laptop in a dry sack. You can also purchase waterproof laptop sleeves.
Laptop Alternatives for Travel
If you’re still unsure about whether or not you need to travel with your laptop, there are a few alternative options to consider. These are great options for those who are not working from the road. By leaving your laptop at home, you cut weight from your pack, save space, and eliminate the risk of damaging or losing your laptop.
These days, smartphones are powerful enough to do pretty much everything a laptop can. Getting work done is just a bit more time-consuming and tedious due to the smaller screen and lack of a physical keyboard.
If all you need a computer for is to use social media, send emails, watch videos, research your destinations, book hotels and flights, and keep in contact with friends and family, a smartphone is all you really need. For trips shorter than a month, I usually just bring my phone and don’t bother with a laptop.
Mobile apps are so good these days that the experience is almost better than using a laptop for performing basic tasks. All of the major travel companies including Airbnb, Kayak, Booking.com, TripAdvisor, Hostelworld, airlines, bus companies, etc. all have mobile-optimized websites and apps that work great on your phone. There is no need for a laptop to make bookings. Social media apps work better on a smartphone than they do on a laptop.
It’s also possible to increase the productivity of your phone by packing a few accessories. For example, you can pack a small Bluetooth keyboard, mouse, and phone stand and use your phone like a small desktop. I’ve written and posted many blog posts this way. It is also possible to do basic photo and video editing on a modern smartphone. There are some surprisingly powerful apps these days.
Packing a smartphone only cuts at least 3 lbs from your luggage. It saves space too. Your phone fits in your pocket. You also don’t have to worry about your laptop getting damaged or stolen.
Both iPhones and Android phones both work fine for travel. Personally, I’m an android guy. The operating system offers a bit more functionality. iOS has some limitations. Android phones are also less of a target for thieves. They’re cheaper as well. That said, most travelers seem to prefer iPhones.
If you want a bigger screen but don’t want to carry a laptop, a tablet makes for a great alternative. Functionally, a tablet works about the same as a smartphone. The operating system and apps are all the same. A tablet might allow for a bit more productivity than a phone due to the bigger screen.
The main benefit of using a tablet instead of a laptop is that tablets are significantly lighter and more compact than laptops. For example, a base model iPad weighs just over 1lb. It takes up less space than a book. Tablets are also cheaper than laptops. They are a bit less powerful. You’re not going to do any serious gaming or editing on a tablet.
Tablets are excellent for those who mostly use their device for entertainment purposes. The screen is big enough to comfortably watch your favorite movies and TV shows. Your favorite entertainment apps such as Netflix, YouTube, and Kindle all work great on tablets. Battery life is usually pretty good as well.
With the right accessories, a tablet can also be used to get some actual work done. For example, if you pair your tablet with a wireless keyboard and mouse, you can type just as well as with a laptop. The WordPress app works great for bloggers. You can also use your tablet to do basic photo and video editing.
High-end tablets such as the iPad Pro and Microsoft Surface Pro are getting to a point that they are almost laptop replacements. They can do almost everything that a laptop can. For trips shorter than 3 months, a tablet is sufficient for most travelers.
Chromebooks and Netbooks
These days, a number of companies offer 11 inch laptops. A wide range of Chromebooks are available in this small size. 11 inch Windows laptops are also available. In the past, these were called netbooks. That term has kind of fallen out of style. Small laptops are sometimes called ultraportables these days.
These small laptops are kind of a cross between a tablet and a full-sized laptop. They offer the same form factor as a laptop but take up much less space in your pack due to the smaller screen size. They also have a full-sized keyboard and built-in touchpad, just like a laptop. In addition, they offer excellent battery life.
Most small laptops these days run Chrome OS. This is a lightweight, fast, and simple operating system developed by Google. It works great for those who do most of their work in the browser. Small Windows laptops are also available. These are ideal for those who need a full operating system.
Prices for these small laptops start at around $200. These offer a great alternative to a full-sized laptop for someone who doesn’t need a lot of computing power. They are also cheap enough that it doesn’t hurt so bad if they get stolen or broken. They are also pretty good for productivity. These days, you can accomplish a lot with just a web browser and some basic apps.
The drawback to Chromebooks and small Windows laptops is that they are generally not very powerful. They come with slow processors and insufficient RAM. They also lack storage space. Higher-end options are available but you’d probably be better off with a full-sized laptop at that price point.
How to Chose a Laptop for Travel
The ideal travel laptop depends on what you use your laptop for, how much computing power you need, your budget, and your personal preference. In this section, I’ll outline a few important considerations when choosing a laptop to travel with including screen size, operating system, repairability, durability, cost, size and weight, software options, and more.
- Screen Size- For most travelers, a 13” screen is ideal. If you need to do extensive photo or video editing or programming, you might be better off with a 15” laptop. If you just use your computer for social media and web browsing, you could get away with an 11” laptop or tablet and keyboard. 17” laptops are too bulky and heavy for travel. They won’t fit in most backpacks.
- Laptop size and weight- For travel, you want to choose the smallest and lightest laptop you can get away with. Remember, you’re going to be carrying it around with you much of the time. Ideally, it should weigh less than 3 lbs. It should also have a narrow profile so it doesn’t take up too much space in your pack. You don’t want to walk around with a 7 pound brick of a laptop strapped to your back.
- Screen resolution- For most travelers, a 1080p screen is fine. If you do lots of visual work such as photo or video editing or gaming, you may prefer a 2k or 4k screen.
- Specs (processor, RAM, storage space, graphics)- At a minimum, your laptop should have 8GB of RAM, 256GB SSD drive, and a mid-range processor such as an Intel i5 or AMD Ryzen 5 series. If you plan to game or edit photos and videos on your laptop, you might want to choose a laptop with a dedicated graphics card. If you only need your laptop for word processing, web browsing, and social media, you could get away with less power.
- Operating system- The best operating system depends on what you need to do with your laptop and what software you need to run. You can choose from Windows, macOS, ChromeOS, and Linux. For most travelers, Windows or macOS will be best. Both are pretty much equivalent these days. Which one you choose depends on personal preference. There are some programs that can run on one but not the other. If you only need to use your computer for social media and entertainment, you might consider ChromeOS. If you’re technically advanced, you might prefer Linux.
- Repairability- Travel is hard on laptops. You could drop your pack and break your screen. A component could overheat and fail. Your battery could die. Ideally, you want to pack a laptop with standard-sized parts that can be easily replaced. In general, Windows laptops are more repairable than Macbooks because they are more modular use more standard-sized parts. If you need a new hard drive, RAM, SSD, screen, fan, battery, etc. you can usually find one. Almost every city has a computer repair shop that can work on Windows laptops. Macbooks are a bit less repairable. The RAM and SSD are often soldered in place and the battery is often glued in. There are more proprietary parts as well. For most repairs, you’ll have to go to an Apple store. Many countries don’t have an Apple store so you’ll have to wait until you get home to repair your computer.
- Durability and longevity- Your travel laptop is going to take a beating. It will get tossed around. It will be exposed to humidity and heat. You want to choose a laptop that can handle the abuse. Look for a laptop with as few of moving parts as possible. Choose a model with a solid-state drive instead of a spinning hard drive. Consider choosing a fanless laptop. These are less likely to suck in dirt and overheat. Also, consider choosing a laptop that is upgradeable. After a few years, you might find that you need more RAM or hard drive space. It’s nice to be able to upgrade.
- Battery life- While traveling, you won’t always have an outlet nearby. Particularly while you’re on a bus, train, or plane. For travel, try to choose a laptop with at least 8 hours of battery life. Generally, Apple laptops offer more battery life than Windows PCs because they run a bit more efficiently.
- Cost- Because there is a chance that your laptop will get stolen or destroyed while you’re traveling, you’ll want to spend as little as possible on it. For basic web browsing, entertainment, and social media, you can get away with a $250-$500 computer. You can save money by buying a low-end or used model. Chromebooks start at around $250. You can buy nice used business laptops on eBay for less than $500. Personally, I wouldn’t want to travel with a laptop that’s worth more than around $1000. I certainly wouldn’t feel safe walking around with a $3000 maxed-out Macbook Pro. Of course, if you need a high-end laptop for work, the cost doesn’t matter as much. The laptop is a necessary business expense.
- Compatibility- Some software and accessories aren’t cross-compatible between Windows laptops, Macbooks, Chromebooks, and Linux laptops. While traveling, you’re more likely to find Windows laptop parts and accessories. There are also more software options for Windows computers. These days, compatibility problems are less common. You could run into issues if you’re using older hardware.
- Mac Vs Windows PC for travel- This choice comes down to personal preference. Macbooks make excellent travel laptops due to the long battery life, compact size, excellent keyboard, beautiful display, and premium build quality. macOS is a stable, reliable, and user-friendly operating system. Personally, I think Windows PCs make better travel laptops because they are cheaper, easier to repair, upgradeable, and offer better compatibility with software and accessories.
Accessories to Improve Productivity When Traveling With a Laptop
If you decide to travel with a laptop, you may also want to pack a few small accessories to make life a bit easier. Accessories you might want to pack include:
- Outlet adapters- Different regions use different types of outlets. Make sure you have the appropriate adapter for the region you plan to visit. For example, if you’re traveling to Europe from North America, You’ll need to pack a European-style outlet adapter. For world travel, a universal adapter is a good choice.
- Wireless mouse- Using a mouse is more ergonomic than using a touchpad. It reduces the risk of developing carpal tunnel. It can also make you more productive.
- Wireless keyboard- If your laptop has a poorly designed keyboard, you may find it more comfortable to type on a wireless keyboard. You can improve ergonomics by typing on a wireless keyboard as well.
- Laptop lock- These can lock your laptop to a piece of furniture or another solid object so a criminal can’t easily pick up your laptop and run away with it. Most laptops have a built-in Kensington security slot.
- Headphones- Don’t be that annoying guy that plays music on the bus, train, or in the hostel dorm room. Use headphones instead. Headphones can also come in handy when you’re trying to work in a noisy environment. You can play some white noise to drown out the sound so you can concentrate.
- Privacy screen or privacy filter- This is a thin piece of plastic that you place over your laptop screen. It prevents people from looking at your screen from the side while you’re working. You must view the screen head on to see what’s displayed. This helps to protect your private information.
- External hard drive or thumb drive- You need to be able to back up your documents, photos, and videos, even when you don’t have internet access to upload them to the cloud. This is particularly important if you shoot travel videos because video takes up so much space. Store your hard drive and thumb drive separately from your laptop. That way, if your laptop gets stolen or destroyed you still have a backup.
- Stylus- This is nice to have if your device has a touch screen. Styluses are great for those who work in graphic design. They allow you to touch your device’s screen much more accurately than you can with your finger. Some people just prefer using a stylus.
- Laptop stand- This can help you achieve a more ergonomic position so you’re not bending your neck and back in an uncomfortable and unnatural position. A stand adds weight and bulk but is worth it for those who need to work long hours while traveling.
- Cloud storage- This is really a must if you plan to take photos and videos while traveling. Even if you back everything up to multiple devices, there is still a chance that everything gets lost, stolen, or destroyed while you’re traveling. The only solution is to periodically back everything up to the cloud. I like Google Drive.
- Laptop case or backpack- As outlined above, you need a quality case or backpack to protect your laptop from moisture, dirt, shocks, and theft.
- Surge protector- This prevents your laptop from getting fried in the event of a power surge. This is particularly important if you’re traveling somewhere with frequent power outages.
- Spare batteries- Some laptops have swappable batteries. This allows you to work longer when you don’t have access to an electrical outlet. You may also need spare batteries for your wireless mouse and keyboard if you use them.
- Extension cord- Most laptops come with a 2 meter cord. Sometimes this isn’t long enough. An extension cord allows you to plug your laptop in when the outlet is on the other side of the room.
When traveling with a laptop, you’ll want to insure it. After all, it’s probably the most expensive individual piece of gear that you’re carrying. Having insurance gives you peace of mind. If your laptop gets stolen or broken, you can recover from the loss more easily if you were insured.
Before buying travel insurance, make sure the policy you’re buying covers your laptop in the event of theft or damage. Some travel insurance companies are better than others.
Before leaving for your trip, scan your laptop’s receipt and save it on your phone, to the cloud, and email it to yourself. You should also take a photo of your laptop and save it online. This way, you have proof to send to the insurance company if you need to use your travel insurance.
If you don’t want to buy travel insurance or you already have a policy that doesn’t cover your laptop, you can buy an insurance policy specifically for your laptop or other electronic device.
One thing to remember is that having travel insurance doesn’t automatically mean your laptop will be replaced if it gets lost or stolen. There is a very real chance that the insurance company will deny your claim. Particularly if you were traveling with a very high-end computer. After all, they are a business and will try to get out of paying for whatever they can. You’ll have a hard time getting $2500 out of an insurance company for a stolen laptop. Collecting insurance money on a $400 laptop may be easier.
Before starting this blog, I never carried a laptop while traveling. My phone was good enough for all of my internet needs. When I needed to use a computer, I would go to an internet cafe. Back when hostels offered common computers, I just used those.
I traveled for multiple months at a time and never really missed my laptop. It was kind of freeing not having to worry about having such an expensive and fragile electronic device in my bag. Not having to carry around the extra weight was nice as well. Without a laptop, I could usually pack a carry-on bag only.
These days, I pretty much need to carry a laptop to keep this blog going. I type thousands of words per day and edit photos and videos frequently. I need a decent keyboard and a relatively powerful computer to achieve that. For these reasons, I always travel with a laptop.
My biggest complaint when it comes to traveling with a laptop is the extra weight and bulk that I have to carry around all the time. I like packing light and can’t really do that with 5 pounds worth of laptop and accessories in my pack. I also worry about my laptop getting stolen, even though I take as many precautions as possible to keep it secure. There is no way to eliminate the risk of getting robbed.
My current laptop is too heavy for travel. I carry an 8 year old 15″ Asus laptop that weighs over 4 lbs. When the time comes to upgrade, I will look for a lighter laptop. Hopefully something less than 3 lbs.
When I first started traveling, nobody carried a laptop or even a smartphone. Every hostel had several computers that you could use for free. Internet cafes were common. These days, pretty much every traveler carries a phone and laptop. Times change.
If you don’t absolutely need your laptop to work during your trip, you should probably leave it at home. If you’re traveling for less than about 1 month, consider just using your phone. For those traveling for 1-3 months, consider a tablet or Chromebook instead of a full-sized laptop.
For long-term travel, you’ll probably want to pack your laptop, even if you don’t need it for work. Over the months, you’ll get a lot of use out of it for entertainment purposes and for researching your next destination. Of course, if you’re on a business trip or if you work while you travel, you need a laptop.
Whether or not you need a laptop also depends on what kind of internet user you are. These days, some people use mobile internet only. They don’t own or use a desktop or laptop at all. If that’s the case, you’ll get by just fine without packing a laptop. A tablet or phone will do.
Do you travel with a laptop? Share your experience in the comments below!
More from Where the Road Forks
- 25 Common Travel Scams and How to Avoid Them
- The Pros and Cons of Living Abroad
- 35 Types of Tourism
- My First Solo Trip Review: Backpacking Europe
- How to Plan a Trip Around the World
- 30 Free Things to do While Traveling
- Are Packing Cubes Worth It? Pros and Cons
Zachary Friedman is an accomplished travel writer and professional blogger. Since 2011, he has traveled to 66 countries and 6 continents. He founded ‘Where The Road Forks’ in 2017 to provide readers with information and insights based on his travel and outdoor recreation experience and expertise. Zachary is also an avid cyclist and hiker. Living as a digital nomad, Zachary balances his professional life with his passions for hiking, camping, cycling, and worldwide exploration. For a deeper dive into his journey and background, visit the About page. For inquiries and collaborations, please reach out through the Contact page. You can also follow him on Facebook.