How do I protect my laptop en route?
March 24, 2006 6:44 AM   Subscribe

I'm thinking of traveling with my laptop for the first time. What should I be careful about?

I'm flying to California tomorrow for ten days, which is long enough that I'm thinking of taking my laptop. The idea makes me nervous, since it's my livelihood, but people do it all the time, so why not me? But this earlier AskMe makes it sound like taking it in its carrying case is a Bad Idea and I should put it in my backpack. Will it be OK if I just pack clothes around it? I never check bags; I'll keep the backpack in the overhead compartment. (Note: I'm only concerned about the actual plane trip, since my brother will be meeting me at the airport and I'll be staying at the family house.)
posted by languagehat to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total)
I just flew with my laptop for the first time - I don't have a laptop bag, so I wrapped it up in a soft shrug I had lying around, and took it in my plain, black messenger bag. The bag never left my side, and I stored it under the seat in front of me for the ride.

I got the bag for $10 at Ikea; shouldn't be hard to find something similar if you're not near one.
posted by kalimac at 6:53 AM on March 24, 2006

What do you mean by "protect"? Protect from theft? Protect from physical damage?

In either case, the risk you're facing is very, very low. If anything is likely to happen to your laptop en route, it's extremely likely that you'll be the culprit: you forget it at the security checkpoint, you drop it, you spill delicious airline coffee on it.

Back up the hard drive before you leave. Carry the laptop in a padded case designed for the purpose. Keep it under the seat in front of you, not in the overhead bin. Do these three things, and you'll have nothing to worry about.
posted by jjg at 6:55 AM on March 24, 2006

You'll be fine. At the airport security line, they'll ask you to take it out of the bag. Sometimes they ask you to power it on. So make sure it's easily accessible, and not wrapped up too tight. Keep an eye on it, as it goes through the x-ray machine. When you're on the plane, make sure there's padding on all sides, since the bag could slide around in the overhead compartment.

(I usually keep my laptop in a backpack under the seat in front of me. Maybe your bag is too big to fit under there, but I'd rather have it where I can see it.)
posted by hooray at 7:02 AM on March 24, 2006

You might consider picking up a protective sleeve or a brain cell, which is a nice hardsided padded protective case small enough to be shoved inside of another bag. That way you can have a bag that doesn't look like a laptop bag, without actually giving up the protection that laptop bags offer. I've been using a brain cell for almost a year now, have traveled with my laptop on several vacations and job related things, and so far it's been fine.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:07 AM on March 24, 2006

I have travelled with laptops for probably about 12 years now and I can tell you your risk is pretty much only at the airport. You put it down in the bathroom or get involved in reading at the gate and boom its gone. While in the terminal I always keep it attached to me, over the shoulder in the bathroom and between my feet while waiting at the gate. Doing this I have NEVER had a problem and I always used a laptop bag.

Do also now be careful at security. Put your laptop through as the last thing before you go through the portal...that way it won't be sitting on the other side while you are still waiting to walk through.

On the plane you should be fine...I often leave me laptop on my seat as well as my iPod or PSP when I go to the restroom and nothing has ever happened.

Be careful and all will be good...the fact that you are concerned to begin with tells me you will be fine. Its the people that don't think about it that get their stuff ripped off!
posted by UMDirector at 7:28 AM on March 24, 2006

Like others have said, you'll have to put it in a plastic bin all by itself to go through security. I suggest you use a permanent marker or a little sticker or something on the top of the outside of the laptop; just a little something so that you'll know it's yours when you go through security.

I didn't know this could be a possibility, and had a little bit of a "Whose Vaio is it, anyway" when two laptops went through in consecutive bins.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 7:51 AM on March 24, 2006

There's been quite a few incidents at least in Europe with thieves snatching them after they have come through the x-ray. So always make sure your laptop is the last thing to go through (after your coat, whatever else it is that you have) so that you have the maximum time possible to collect it (and do put all metal things away as well before so you're not stuck).
posted by keijo at 7:52 AM on March 24, 2006

I wouldn't put it in your backpack. Take it in a laptop bag separately. While you might sling your backpack around out of habit, you won't even just dump a laptop bag on the ground.
Also, when going through security, it's a million times easier to slip the thing out of it's slot and put it in the little plastic tray and then replace it and go, rather than to root around in your clothes while everyone behind you waits and burns angry stare holes in your back, and then have to repack it on the other side, still holding up the line.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:56 AM on March 24, 2006

even = ever
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:56 AM on March 24, 2006

I always travel with my laptop when I fly. I've carried it both in a backpack and in its own laptop case.

The problem with carrying the laptop in a backpack (at least for me) is that it's relatively difficult to get access to it when taking it out of the bag to run it through security. Plus there's more time involved in getting the laptop back into the backpack, especially if you're loaded down with books like I usually am when traveling.

The major benefit of a well-designed laptop bag is easy access to the laptop--it takes a couple of seconds to get it out and put it on the belt, versus 20 or 30 seconds (which is eons in airport-security-checkpoint time).

So either think carefully about packing the laptop in your backpack if you're using one, or invest in a laptop case--that's my advice.
posted by Prospero at 7:58 AM on March 24, 2006

it's really no big deal. do back ups so it doesn't matter what happens to the physical device. you have insurance, right?
posted by ascullion at 8:01 AM on March 24, 2006

Nothing to worry about - I travel with my laptop all the time with no case or padding whatsoever. But this is a good reminder to back up your hard drive! And make sure your homeowners or renters insurance covers your computer.
posted by kdern at 8:02 AM on March 24, 2006

Thanks, everybody, that's very reassuring, and I guess I'll keep it in its laptop bag and just make sure I keep an eye on it. (I'm used to traveling with a shoulder bag in which I keep books, lunch, etc., and keeping an eye on that, so it shouldn't be a problem.)

you have insurance, right?

Um, not specifically for the laptop, no. I'm a very improvident type who always waits till the last minute before doing things or even planning (hence this post), and in general I take life as it comes and figure I'll deal with what happens. I'll just hope the homeowners insurance covers the computer if anything happens, but it sounds like nothing will happen. (I'm sure after I've done it once it'll seem as routine as flying; on the other hand, my wife hates flying no matter how many times she's done it. Lucky for her she's not coming on the trip.)
posted by languagehat at 8:09 AM on March 24, 2006

When the wife and I travel, I hold on to both laptops and have her go through the metal detector a couple minutes ahead of me. Then she's able to grab both machines as they come through xray.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 9:06 AM on March 24, 2006

The only time you won't be able to keep an eye on it is going through security, but if you're well prepared, it will only be for a second.

By the time you're next in line for the metal detector:
- Your laptop should be out of its bag, in a plastic bin.
-Your shoes should be off and in a plastic bin (If possible. Some don't require this, but if they have to ask, it'll slow you down)
- Your jacket should be off
- Keys, phone, change, watch, and anything else metal should be in a side pocket of your carry-on bag
- Have your boarding pass and ID in-hand. Again, they may not care, but you don't want to waste time fishing for it.

You can do all the prep-work while you're waiting in line. Make sure you don't put your laptop through the X-Ray machine until you're ready to walk through. If you've done all that, you should be able to pick up your laptop as it comes out of the machine. I fly pretty regularly, and I'm always there waiting for my stuff when it comes down the line (instead of the other way around).
posted by Sibrax at 10:10 AM on March 24, 2006

Keep all your cords (headphones, iPod cables, etc) in a plastic baggy so when you go through security you can just pull out the tangle of cords. I only get stopped if I have headphones and such bunched up somewhere -- when I stopped doing that I get through very fast. The laptop power brick is usually too big for a plastic bag, but make sure you take that out too.

I don't see a problem with a back pack. Mine has a laptop sleeve built in and I can just drop my laptop in and whip it out.
posted by geoff. at 10:45 AM on March 24, 2006

I have a laptop backpack, it has straps and a handle and padding. I got it at a yardsale, it was a made for a compac, not sure it they can be found. I have the little wheelie luggage made for the overhead bin and my laptop back pack. If you are prepared for everything else, it will be easier to keep an eye on your laptop. Wear shoes that you can just step out of (dockside or loafers or something) with no laces. While you're waiting in line, put your change, keys, watch, belt and jacket in the outer pocket of the luggage. I also put all my electronics in the outer pocket of the laptop bag (camera, gps, cables, phone). So I step out of my shoes, throw them in a bin, put my luggage up, unsling my laptop backpack and pull the laptop out. I use colored duct tape to mark my bags, including checked bags to keep people from switching, and write my name and # on it with a sharpie. My laptop is covered with stickers, so its pretty obvious, but I scratched my name on the bottom and under some covers in case I have to prove ownership. And make sure your battery isn't dead, I've heard they make you start them sometimes.
posted by 445supermag at 11:52 AM on March 24, 2006

I travel with my laptop a lot - lots of good advice above, I would second or third the seperate laptop bag. My rule - the laptop always stays with me. When I get a cab, my luggage goes in the trunk, the laptop comes with me. You get the habit of never letting it off your shoulder when you are on the move.

As said the only time it leaves me is through the X-ray machine, but I always make it the last thing that goes through after shoes, etc. so I am usually at the other side of the machine when it comes out last.
posted by clarkie666 at 3:04 PM on March 24, 2006

It's actually getting easier to travel with a laptop. That last few times i have travelled, I have not be asked to turn my laptop on. I have a mac, and I used to leave it asleep to avoid waiting at security.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 3:55 PM on March 24, 2006

I always bring my laptop on planes, and I only carry one bag, which happens to be more like a backpack than anything else. I would be more worried about keeping track of two bags than I would worry about the laptop being damaged. I don't use a protective sleeve or anything. You really don't need to worry much about extra padding if you're just putting under the seat in front of you, and you show a little care.

My trick to speed up the security checkpoint is to have the laptop packed against the back wall of the bag, and then have some divider between it and everything else. In my case, this is a cardboard folder, but anything stiff and roughly the same size as the bag would do. I slip the laptop out, and the divider keeps everything away from the back wall, so I can slide it right back in without a hitch.
posted by team lowkey at 4:02 PM on March 24, 2006

If you have a small laptop, you might like this slingpack from Tom Bihn. It's padded expressly for a laptop. I've got one and it's compact and comfortable (as comfortable as carrying a laptop on your back can be). And, it does double duty. When I'm not carrying my laptop it's perfect for urban schleping.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 11:27 AM on March 25, 2006

I labeled it, kept an eye on it, and it was fine. I felt a little silly for having worried so much, but hey, I'd never done it before. Thanks, everyone!
posted by languagehat at 8:25 AM on June 28, 2006

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