The Wannabe Flashpacker’s Guide to Laptop Travel

“What’s that?” I asked a girl in the hostel common area who sat down beside me. Everybody in the room was laden down with electronic gear, gadgets, laptops, headphones, and even microphones. We were all voraciously taking advantage of a free wireless internet connection, and were furiously writing emails, chatting to faraway family and friends, taking care of business, and scrapping over the limited power outlets.

The girl beside me, however, casually sat down without a laptop bag in sight, and pulled out a device the size of PDA. She showed me as she turned it on instantly (while I was still waiting for my laptop to boot up), and connected to the internet. She (literally) unfolded a keyboard that connected to her device, and still before my expensive laptop had booted up, she was writing emails on her inexpensive PDA.

It’s a big bad world of technology out there.

Abstract of man walking through Seattle airport
Taking Flight, Seattle © Wonderlane

Since that day, I have traveled the world with inexpensive large screen laptops, second hand small screen laptops, and even an “ultra cool” Ultra Mobile PC. I have bought computers in stores in foreign countries, and ordered them online. I have interviewed other travelers with the latest mini “netbook” laptops, tablets, and even one ambitious person with an entire music studio in his backpack.

If you are traveling, here are some tips to help you choose the perfect laptop.

Specialty Machines

There are a number of machines out there geared towards meeting specific needs. Ideally you can find one that suits your needs and lifestyle perfectly.

Are you tough on your gear?

A specialized bash-resistant hard drive, or even an iron-clad laptop like the Panasonic Toughbook might stand up to your abusive ways.

Pros: Your computer is much more likely to withstand the rigors of travel, the corrosive sea salt-filled breezes, the sand, the critters, and even airport security chaos.

Cons: It is hard to justify spending over $3,000 for a specialized laptop of this kind, especially for traveling. While on the road, your laptop is at increased risk of theft, and given your electronic-beating ways, you could just as easily lose the bloody thing as much as destroy it.

Short on space?

Then consider a PDA with wireless capabilities and a fold out keyboard for ease of typing

If you need more guts than what a PDA can offer, try an UMPC (Ultra Mobile PC), which is a small tablet with average dimensions of 8” x 4” x 1”.

Pros: You can leave the laptop bag at home. Enjoy the lighter load and ease of accessing your files and Internet sites from just about any nook or cranny. Feel free as you casually surf the net at the airport with your simple hand-held toy.

Cons: Even with a seven inch screen, I practically went blind surfing sites with my UMPC. If I wanted to use it as a normal laptop, I also had to carry external keyboards, mice, storage devices, optical drives, USB hubs, and then I had to find a place to spread out all my gear. (The idea of conveniently using my “laptop” on my lap was impossible). Personally, I found the UMPC quickly went from being convenient to being contrived and actually awkward.

Do you like small, but not too small?

The latest netbook might be for you. Originally popularized by Asus (with the EEE PC), the concept has been adopted and built upon by many laptop manufacturers now. You’ll get an 8-10” screen, slightly smaller keyboard, reduced internal guts, and no optical drive. It is teensy in comparison to its larger laptop brethren, will satisfy most surfing needs, and the price is most certainly right at about half (or less) of what a laptop costs.

Pros: At prices like $400 for a laptop, you won’t be heartbroken if it is damaged or stolen on the road. It won’t burden you with weight or size, and will address the majority of your computing needs.

Cons: Similar to my UMPC challenges, the possible necessity of external optical drives, hard drives, and other odds and ends may negate the space saved with the machine’s smaller size. Also, if you require more advanced software (like video editing, advanced photo processing, or gaming), then both the small screen and slower processors will be problematic.

Need to be able to sign documents electronically or do some freehand surfing?

Try a tablet PC with a special pen and touch-screen features. Touch screens and tablet functions are now available on many full-size laptops, as well as most UMPCs and PDAs.

Pros: I found the touch screen capability of my UMPC to be handy for electronically signing writing contracts and other documents, without having to print, sign, and either fax or scan pages upon pages of crap. It saves paper, as well as frustration in finding compatible printers and the overall hassle of the exercise. Handwriting recognition software is uncannily accurate these days and makes the lack of a full keyboard easier to deal with. It was also great to use the handy pen instead of a mouse, and there is a certain “cool-factor” to having a tablet screen.

Cons: You must be careful not to damage the screen (potential Toughbook candidates, please don’t get a touch-screen!), and overall really it wasn’t as useful as I had hoped it would be. If you plan to use an external mouse and keyboard anyway, the touch screen is almost useless.

Abstract of man looking through glass art at Seattle airport
Time Landing, Seattle © Wonderlane

Apple or Otherwise

If you are already firmly planted in the Apple camp, then not much will lure you into Microsoft’s lair, and vice versa.

When I started traveling a few years ago, it had been suggested to me that parts and repair centres for Apples are less common, but I question the relevance of that advice as time goes on. However, you can’t get around the higher cost of an Apple, and the higher sense of loss you would feel if it were damaged or lost.

Where to Buy

The cost of technology varies incredibly depending on where you are and how you buy. In urban North America, you can waltz into a computer or office supply store and waltz out with a new or refurbished laptop in hand fairly easily. Online discount carriers are also rampant and offer competitive prices and options.

In Australia, you can expect the variety to be halved and cost to be doubled if you want to shop in a store. Online ordering is common, and e-bay is the general preference for acquiring technology on the cheap. I managed to shop around and order from a local online retailer, but not without a fair bit of research.

In many parts of Asia you will find incredibly inexpensive laptops, some of which feature the latest options. Be very careful though if you don’t speak the language and don’t have a native guide: there is a strong chance you could get ripped off and not know it until you get your (non-refundable) prize home. If it seems like a deal too good to be true, then it probably is.

Warranties

Although International Warranties exist, they are not common, tend to be more expensive, and have lots of restrictions. Generally the warranty is only good for the country you purchase your computer in, so once you are on the road, getting warranty service can be tricky. Some warranty repair shops and carriers will still honor your warranty if it is from another country, but don’t hold your breath.

Airport Security Tips

Chances are you will be required to remove your laptop from your carry-on bag when going through security checks. They may request that you turn your computer on as well. So it stands to reason that when you pack your carry-on bag, keep your laptop within easy reach. The security officers as well as everybody in line behind you will appreciate this small organizational measure that keeps things moving. There is nothing worse than watching the contents of your bag increasingly splay out everywhere as you root through looking for your laptop amidst electric cords, bottles of water, and underwear.

Carry Case

There is a fine line between having a slim profiled carry case and having the protection against bumps and weather that your computer deserves. If you insist on a simple neoprene cover, then make sure the bag it lives in has sufficient padding; I once watched a girl pull her laptop in its neoprene cover out of her bag only to find that the computer had an actual dent in it from being banged around and largely unprotected.

Laptop or No?

Of course, there is always the option of not traveling with a laptop at all. I envy the backpacker who can actually fit all their gear into a backpack, and not have the additional computer bag stuffed into a carry-on case or slung across heavy shoulders.

If you are wondering if you can survive your trip without a laptop, the answer is you probably can. Internet cafés are widespread in almost every tourist destination, and most hostels and hotels have computers set up in common areas for their guests. You will often have to pay for your internet time, and will sacrifice some privacy, but will be able to do pretty much everything you want to, from chatting through Skype, to downloading photos off your camera to a memory stick or even a CD (often at an extra cost), planning the next leg of your trip, and fielding emails.

If however, you derive an income from your online activities, need to store vast amounts of photos, or require word-processing or spreadsheet software, you may prefer to have the comforts of your own machine with you.

What do Vagabondish readers do? Please share with us your own sage tips for traveling with a laptop. Let’s evolve with the ever-changing world of technology and travel together!

13 Responses

  1. Mike

    I couldn’t be without my laptop when I travel. Using internet cafes all of the time can be expensive and aren’t good if you have to do any video/image editing. A laptop with a DVD drive is also a good source of entertainment if you stay in a place with no tv.

    Reply
  2. Nora

    Absolutely…I forgot about the wonderful use of a DVD player – it has been invaluable for me too.
    And the hunt for wireless access is often a touch less painful than the hunt for internet cafes, to be sure.

    Reply
  3. soultravelers3

    We are 3 years into an open ended world tour as a family and we carry 3 laptops!

    We live a digital life and could not live without them for everything from banking to homeschooling, webcam skype calls home & my daughter even takes piano lessons over skype to her teacher on another continent!

    Internet cafes tend to be expensive ( we live large on 25K a year total for a family of 3), smoky, unsafe with horrible foreign keyboards often.

    We mostly use our macs, but have one PC to bridge the gap that sometimes happens with anything that won’t work well on a mac. ( ie many kids educational soft war only comes for pc’s etc)

    VPN helps keep all free wifi safe!

    Reply
  4. AndrzejM

    Bah!
    My suggestion is PDA for quick notes and stuff like protableapps.com for seriuos computer job on the road.
    Truth is that you can ALWAYS fins internet cafe somehere out there.

    And if you cannot you still have your “backup” PDA”.

    Not to mention that overall costs of this solution is $100 for mid-range PDA and $5 for pen drive which carries your portable applications.

    &

    Reply
  5. Saigon2009

    The oft-repeated advice is to “just use an Internet cafe” for trip planning, e-mail checking, etc. However, there is a very real possibility that an Internet Cafe computer has a key-logging virus that will capture your password (if checking e-mail) or your credit card number (if making reservations).

    Does anyone have any info on the prevalence of this kind of key-logging virus/hardware in cafes? Are any parts of the world, or companies better/worse than others?

    Reply
  6. Craig

    My wife and I carry a 12″ G4 powerbook for all our video and audio editing and a Asus Eee 900 for writing and other web development.

    As to travel, we’ve been living out of two backpacks since February 2006. My laptop’s been through more countries than most people. I was thinking about having it passport stamped on the borders.

    Getting through airport security can be a serious pain in the butt; unless you’re travelling in Turkey. We put together our notes on it here.

    Reply
  7. A. Wannabe Travelwriter

    Hi Nora,

    Funny to run into you “here.”

    If one of those netbooks will function with M.S. Word, M.S. Live Writer, and PhotoFiltre, so I can create the magic and post to my world-famous travel blog, I love the small size.

    My daughter just bought a Samsung netbook (which seems to have plenty of horsepower) but has not used it on the road, yet.

    Any opinions out there for a highly self-regarded, pseudo-professional global blogger?

    Reply
  8. joshwink

    Skip the laptop! It’s just something thing to worry about. A true backpacking trip shouldn’t be spent in internet cafes or at your hostel using wi-fi anyway.

    Write a blog, share your photos, let your mom know that you’re safe. A laptop is handy, but hardly a necessity. Pick up a hard-drive card reader like the Media Sonic Data bank for your photos, no computer required.

    Reply
  9. João Almeida

    Earlier this year I travelled in Indochina with a netbook (the first time I took a computer for travel) and highly recommend it, it’s a very good compromise between funcionality, cost and volume. Nowadays I can’t see a good reason to carry a “full-size laptop” on the road.

    Reply

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