Last updated on September 13, 2021
This is one of those ever-present questions for new travelers—should you bring a laptop on your round the world trip? 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 plan to record your trip on Instagram, pick up some small work assignments as you go, or you hope to watch Netflix on the road—this post will help you consider 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.
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. Here are the key considerations when considering how to best travel overseas with your 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.
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 overseas). 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!
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 have long loved and always carried Eagle Creek backpacks—their range of laptop bags are sure to be durable and comfortable (that’s the hallmark characteristics of the brand).
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. 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.
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 every year for more the more than a 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.
- You’ll worry. 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 working from the road. Because of that, I still travel with a laptop, but I have a few other ergonomic travel products that make it easier to work as I travel. This setup includes a Roost Stand, nice mouse, and portable keyboard, among other things (talk about no longer traveling light!).
- You’ll need a VPN. Dreaming of watching Netflix from your hostel 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.
Benefits of Traveling With Your Laptop
- Efficiency. 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.
- More connectivity. 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) 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. 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.
- Storage. 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.
Laptop Alternatives for Travel
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.