Last updated on September 26, 2023
This is one of those ever-present questions for new travelers—should you bring a laptop on world travels? And if you do, what’s the best way to protect your laptop?
There’s actually a lot to think about before you set off overseas with a computer in tow.
For some, it’s an easy answer. If you start your own travel blog, then carrying a computer is a no-brainer—you need a laptop with you. Likewise if you’re a freelancer working from the road (this has been me for 13 years!), then you also absolutely need it (but then, digital nomads already know that a laptop is the price of their freedom).
But if you’re somewhere in between—maybe you just want to watch Netflix, keep up with email, or you need to work as you go—I’ve traveled for 15+ years with a laptop, so I’ll share the pros and cons of traveling with a laptop, as well as the best alternatives that may just get the job done without the commitment of a full computer.
Navigating the Airport With a Laptop
When you’re packing your laptop, ensure it’s in a compartment that’s easy to access. You’ll need to pull it out at the security checkpoint, so avoid burying it under other items. I often opt for a dedicated laptop bag or a ‘checkpoint-friendly’ bag that opens flat to expedite the security process.
Unplug any accessories or dongles before you get to the security line. I’ve found that these can sometimes trigger additional scrutiny, turning a routine scan into a more time-consuming ordeal.
Should Your Laptop Go in Checked or Check-In Luggage?
Traveling with a laptop presents options: checked luggage or carry-on. While placing a laptop in checked luggage is technically allowed, it exposes it to risk factors like theft, damage, and temperature extremes.
I strongly recommend keeping your laptop in your carry-on, where it’s more secure and accessible. This also prepares you for security screenings, which require the device to be placed in a separate bin.
Using Your Laptop on the Plane
Airplane trays are notoriously cramped spaces. To make the most of it, consider downsizing your peripherals. A compact travel mouse, for instance, can be a real game changer. I also recommend keeping a pair of headphones handy. Not just any headphones, but ones that have proven effective at noise-cancellation. Trust me, it’s a completely different experience when you’re isolated from the ambient noise of an airplane engine.
Also, remember to download any necessary files, shows, or documents you’ll need during the flight. Wi-Fi in the sky is getting better, but it’s often sluggish and unreliable. I usually sync my important work documents using Google Docs offline capabilities, and a good Netflix series before boarding, so I’m all set regardless of connectivity.
I also download kids shows on my phone or tablet instead of my laptop—I haven’t met a kid yet who minded using a tiny screen so long as there was something good on it.
Use a VPN to protect your data and watch Netflix.
Most people consider VPNs when traveling internationally for the ability to watch US Netflix. It’s also vital to use one like NordVPN in coffee shops and on public Wifi networks.
Best Way to Travel With a Laptop
If you’ve decided to bring your laptop on the road, then you need to know one thing: Keep it close. Traveling with a laptop means keeping an awareness of your gear at all times, even when leaving it behind in the hostel, hotel, or guesthouse.
And if you don’t know the place you’re traveling well, you’ll never want to leave your laptop on a table coffee shop while you pop to the bathroom. Things you do at home where you’re familiar with the people, places, and cultural norms are way different on the road.
Here are the key considerations when considering how to best travel overseas with your pricey laptop.
Pick a Quality Backpack
Your laptop backpack should be easy to carry through airports, on trains and buses, and even out day tripping if you just don’t trust leaving it in your guesthouse. For that reason, you want to avoid messenger bags and instead choose a pack thick, comfortable backpack straps.
Laptop backpacks with a chest strap get extra points because that can really relieve the load on your shoulders after hours of carrying one. Timbuk2 makes some of the best luggage out there—get this Timbuk2 Authority laptop backpack for your travels asap. I’ve used it for several years now.
Protect Your Laptop
The right backpack can go a long way toward protecting your backpack from all of the challenges you face when traveling. The best travel laptop backpacks offer security features that prevent thieves from running off with it when you set it near your chair at a cafe (that means a bags with a carabiner-type feature or other travel MacGyver-esque hacks).
Bags that are “slashproof” add another layer of security too.
Also! The protective sleeve inside your backpack should be suspended—this helps if you drop your bag on the floor, if it lands in a puddle, or if a water bottle overflows inside your bag (you never know what faces you when traveling internationally).
Another way to protect your laptop? Make it look unappealing. There’s a lot to say for the power of duct tape to make any piece of gear worthless when used to “decorate” your precious gear.
Then, of course, never leave your laptop unattended, even in a cafe where another patron offers to watch it—just don’t do it! Again, you don’t know the norms well in a new place, so don’t get complacent.
I recommend PacSafe brand bags because they are well made and include valuable security features that go a long way toward protecting your laptop from theft. I also believe Timbuk2 makes some of the most durable, thoughtfully-designed, and stylish bags out there—its Authority laptop bag is a good purchase.
I’ve owned both PacSafe and Timbuk2 products, and which I use as my go-to usually depends on my current travel style.
If you work at home with an external monitor and lumbar-supporting chair, then you’ll have a wake up call working from tiny tables, stools without a back, and more while traveling with your laptop.
I have honed an amazingly portable, ergonomic travel system over the years that includes a Roost laptop stand paired with a portable keyboard and mouse. All of these items pack down and slide into my laptop backpack while I travel.
Pack Appropriate Accessories
You’ll need a great power adapter when traveling abroad with a laptop. Make sure whatever adapter you buy can accept the third grounding plug if your power cord uses this! (You’d be surprised how many don’t.)
Should You Travel With a Laptop?
Going as light as possible on the electronics you pack can be incredibly liberating for long-term travelers. If you’re planning to travel the world, this might be the perfect opportunity to force yourself offline.
The fact is, most travelers these days have a smartphone, so bringing a laptop might be overkill for your trip.
Did I carry a laptop? Yes, I brought my computer with me on my yearlong RTW trip, and for the more than decade that I stayed on the road. What’s more, I cannot imagine traveling without it (my heart stutters at the thought).
But I did not take a traditional RTW trip. I have worked as a freelancer since I left in 2008, so my trusty Macbook kept me on the road (although it was a Dell for the first few years!).
If you’re prepping for a traditional trip around the world, or if traveling abroad for a few months, consider these pros and cons of bringing your laptop on an international trip.
Disadvantages of Traveling with a Laptop
Safety is a big concern.
And I don’t mean personal safety—when you pack gadgets galore then you have to come up with ways to keep your electronics safe. For me, that meant a bringing a PacSafe mesh net on my budget backpacking trip and securing my laptop in my main backpack when I left it behind at hostels and budget guesthouses.
In more recent years, I travel more mid-range, and the PacSafe is no longer needed since I don’t share spaces. Also, although the PacSafe mesh net saved my piece of mind (and stopped my gear from being nicked), PacSafe now makes laptop backpacks that integrate many core safety features without the need for a net.
You spend more time on the computer.
If you have a laptop, then you’ll likely spend more time using it than you might have otherwise. That means possibly getting sucked into technology when you could be out meeting new people, playing cards with others at your guesthouse, and generally exploring.
This ties into the safety concerns, but you have a much more heightened sense of worry. Even with the PacSafe, I was nervous whenever I felt my laptop wasn’t truly safe at the guesthouse or hostel. (Disclaimer: Most of my worry stems from my laptop’s role as my key source of income on the road; as a freelancer I cannot afford to lose my laptop in the middle of a project).
It’ll weigh you down.
In the backpacking world, it’s all about packing light. Less is more. There are even “my pack’s smaller than yours” debates among those who care. Even if you don’t, prioritize truly minimalist travel, a laptop means more weight in your pack and on your back as you hike to hostels, chase down chicken buses, and make a mad sprint for your train.
It’s hard to stay ergonomic.
I developed serious RSI and carpal tunnel from my years traveling with a laptop and working from the road. Because of that, I still travel with my laptop, but I have a few other ergonomic travel products that make it easier to work as I travel.
You’ll need a VPN.
Dreaming of watching Netflix from your hotel bed when the travel fatigue sets in? You’ll need a good VPN to stream most U.S. shows. And although downloading shows isn’t regulated in some places, it’s super illegal in others.
Bringing your laptop opens up a whole other set of worries and necessitates a VPN for many travelers. I’ve used NordVPN since they ran an amazing deal in 2019—it’s SO effective. Very rarely do I encounter an issue, and if I do, it’s always solved by just accessing from a different IP address.
Beyond Netflix, I’ve often needed NordVPN to even work. Past client sites have had international IP blocks, or they redirect to an international version of the site. VPN to the rescue.
Benefits of Traveling With Your Laptop
A laptop allows you to pre-write blog posts, upload and sort photos, and draft emails—all from a hostel or train. It takes a lot of time to run a travel blog, and long train rides (a few trains/buses even have power outlets!) provide the perfect opportunity to catch up on work and get information ready for the next time you find internet.
Internet access is pervasive. That means that you can sip a hot tea from a small café and tap into wireless on your laptop. Wireless cafes are available from Laos to India and throughout Australia and Eastern Europe, not everywhere, but they’re there.
Where there wasn’t good WiFi (parts of Africa), I could buy a local SIM card and hotspot myself (tether) my laptop to the internet from my phone.
A nice computer.
I like my laptop; it’s familiar and modern. I had a Dell XPS for years and it only croaked after like 7+ years of hard wear and tear while traveling internationally. I quite like the Dell XPS series and it’s arguably one of the best travel laptops on the market. Should you choose to bring a laptop on the road, and you’re a PC person, it’s a good option.
However, when my Dell finally broke down, I ended up replacing it from a shop in Cape Town with my beloved Macbook Air, which is also a fantastic albeit flashier option. Nice computers are not the case at a lot of foreign internet cafes.
Fortunately, even back in 2008, the vast majority of cafes allowed me to hook the internet cable into my own computer. Familiarity with your device also means less time transferring files to a computer built in 1989, or dealing with janky keys, foreign keyboards, etc.
It’s nice to have one spot to upload your photos. Though this can be easily accomplished with a sturdy external hard drive or cloud storage, your own computer is invaluable for storing and sorting massive amounts of media.
Pick out a sturdy and comfortable laptop case.
The right bag for your laptop can make or break your travel experience. Find a bag that protects the laptop from breaks, and that is comfortable to carry. Bonus points if it’s TSA-friendly.
How to Safely Travel With Your Laptop Internationally
Use a laptop case or bag
A laptop case or bag will protect your device from bumps and scratches while you are on the go. Look for a case or bag with padding and sturdy construction to provide the best protection.
Backup your data
It is important to backup your data before you travel to protect against loss or damage. Use an external hard drive or a cloud storage service to store copies of your important files.
Use a password manager
A password manager (like LastPass, which is what I use) can help you keep track of your login information and create strong passwords for your accounts. This can help protect your data and prevent unauthorized access to your accounts.
A virtual private network (VPN) will help protect your online privacy and security while you are traveling. A VPN encrypts your internet connection and can help protect you from hackers and cyber threats.
I have used VPNs for years not just for safety, but also to watch U.S. Netflix and work on clients’ websites that have IP detectors that change their website by region. I’ve use NordVPN since 2019 and it’s hands down the best one I’ve ever used.
Use caution when using public Wi-Fi
Public Wi-Fi networks can be convenient, but they can also be insecure. Avoid accessing sensitive information, such as online banking or shopping, while connected to public Wi-Fi.
Alternatives to Traveling With a Laptop
If you’re still torn about the traveling with a laptop issue, you have a couple other options. If you’re not working from the road, then you really can get by without one and you’d likely do fine with one of these.
This is a fantastic option if you’re running a casual travel blog to keep people updated, but it’s not an option for digital nomads. For blogging, if you can get photos onto your tablet (you will need an extra doohickey to read from a memory card for iPads), then the WordPress app will see you nicely through your entire trip.
Most travel companies have incredibly effective apps now—from Airbnb to Kayak to TripAdvisor—and you can easily book and plan your long-term travel as you go. Skype is also a great app; you can knock out the need for a Kindle with the Kindle app; Netflix will work on the road (with a different selection of films unless you have a VPN), and tablets even allow you to easily edit photos and upload to your blog or social media.
If you’re not working on client projects, and you’re instead simply traveling the world, then a tablet is a pretty fantastic solution! To work effectively from one, you might want a wireless keyboard and some cloud storage, too. Here are ergonomic, portable options for accessories.
Smartphones and the iPhone
If emails and social media are your priority then a small smartphone might do the trick. This is barely adequate for travel bloggers, but just might meet your need for connectivity—it’s small and portable and less conspicuous than a laptop. If you don’t plan to edit a lot of photos, or you’re accustomed to doing everything from a smartphone anyways, then this is a great option. I would grow weary of just a smartphone on a long-term trip, but it could be excellent for trips of less than three months.
This is a step up from the iPhone, but a step down from a full laptop. I carried a netbook on the Camino de Santiago in 2017 and it was absolutely perfect for my needs. Even though I had hoped to walk the Camino without client work, some deadlines made that impossible.
So I packed it into my bag and it was everything I needed. They’re smaller and lighter than a full-sized laptop and have a longer battery-life. They connect to wifi signals and give you a screen bigger than your smartphone, and a device that multitasks better than a table.
A netbook is ideal if you simply want the comfort of a laptop for your long-term trip, or if your main business on the road is blogging. The primary issue you’ll encounter is storage space, so you will need to back up to the cloud if you plan on taking a lot of photos! One other benefit—if it gets nicked while traveling you’ll be sad, but not out the cost of your pricey Macbook.
If you’ve already started your travel blog and you’re looking for great resources to get your blog off the ground, I share companies I use and love for developing this very travel blog. And if you’re planning to start a travel blog, I have a how-to primer here.
Suggested Reading for Those Working While Traveling
- Ergonomic Travel System: This is the fully portable system I use to travel and work from the road. It includes detailed information on how to prevent injury when you are working online from cafes around the world.
- The End of Jobs: An essential book for anyone who wants to work as an expat or digital nomad; speaking to why MBAs and JDs can’t get jobs, research on integrated living, and more.
- Four Hour Work Week: No doubt you’ve seen it for years, but if you haven’t read it yet, you should. Some of Tim Ferris’ viewpoints are very counter to how I live my life, but I will give him this: His book changed my perception about what is possible in building an online business. It’s still a primer read for a reason; it’s worth having that knowledge and perspective in your head as you move forward.
- The 80/20 Principle: A good companion to the Four Hour Work Week, this book talks about how 20% of your efforts will generate 80% of your results. As an expat or digital nomad working smarter, not harder, is key and this book provides a good base.
- Content Machine: Use Content Marketing to Build a 7-figure Business with Zero Advertising: While this business model is not going to work for everyone, Dan makes some excellent points about content creation and marketing.