If you’re travelling for work (or working while you travel) you need to be extra careful with your computer and other electronic devices.
If a tourist loses their mobile phone, it sucks and it might be expensive to replace, but that’s about it. If you lose your computer, you also lose valuable work time and, potentially, classified information. It goes from being a holiday-ruining event to a life-ruining event pretty quickly.
Whether you’re a digital nomad, a travelling writer, a small business owner hoping to answer a few emails while they’re away, or a full-time traveller, there are steps you need to take to keep your critical equipment safe and secure while you travel. In this tutorial, we’ll look at how to secure your computer to try and stop the worst from happening.
What Can Happen to Your Gear When You’re Travelling
When you’re travelling, there are three major threats to your computer:
- accidental damage
- theft or loss
- and data loss.
When you’re moving from place to place, your gear is just more likely to take a knock or go missing. You’re also more likely to use an unsecured wireless network which will leave you open to having your data and personal information stolen.
These sort of problems can occur anywhere. Whether you’re traveling in Texas or Thailand, your devices are far more at risk than when they’re in your home or office.
In fact, some of the precautions I’ll recommend should be used even if you just work in a local coffee shop. Let's walk through a number of best practices on how to keep your computer safe and reasonably secure while working on the road.
1. Accidental Damage
Accidental damage is one of the most common problems when you’re travelling with a computer. There are practically infinite ways for it to get damaged. You could spill coffee on your keyboard, drop your phone, sit on your computer, have a dog eat your charger, or any of countless more mundane and ludicrous accidents. Protecting against accidental damage is the simplest way to make your devices a lot safer.
First, cases are critical—and not just for phones. Everything from your computer to your Kindle should have its own protective case. Things are just too likely to accidentally fall or take a bang to leave them without one.
How protective the cases you get are, depends on how likely your devices are to get damaged. I’ve an Incipio hardshell case similar to the one recommended by The Wirecutter for my iPhone and a padded sleeve for my MacBook and iPad.
I’m quite good at looking after my devices so don’t feel the need to go all in with an Otterbox or other over-the-top case. You need to assess your own personal risks and what your tolerance for them is. If you drop your phone on a regular basis, you’ll need a beefier case.
Cases are only one part of protecting your gear from accidental damage. They’re great for everyday use but when you’re traveling in planes, trains and automobiles, you need to make sure your things are better protected. In particular, computers are especially vulnerable when you’re traveling.
The best way to protect them, is to get a bag with a dedicated laptop compartment. A good laptop bag will have a lot of padding, and potentially even a shock resistant suspension system, to keep your computer safe while you travel. If you work online, your computer is your business so it can’t be too protected.
2. Theft and Loss
Accidental damage is far from the only threat to your computer when you travel; tourists and other travelers have always been targeted by thieves and con artists.
The most important step in protecting your things from theft is to be aware that it could happen. Don’t let your computer out of your sight for a minute. It doesn’t matter what city or country you’re in, there will always be someone who is willing to take your gear from you.
A mistake all too many people make is to assume that cities in North America or Europe are significantly safer than those in Asia or South America. You’re as likely to have your laptop stolen in Paris as you are in Bangkok. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because you’re in a Western city, your devices are safe.
Especially when you’re traveling on planes, trains or busses, make sure your computer and other important devices are always near at hand. Don’t ever let them get put in the hold or storage compartment beneath the vehicle. It’s much too easy for things to go missing—either by design or by accident—if they’re away from you.
Although constant vigilance is great in theory, realistically you’re going to get distracted from time to time. Also, it obviously won’t suit to carry your computer with you everywhere. To help you protect them, you should invest in a computer lock.
A computer lock is a cable lock that you use to attach your computer to something immovable. You can’t remove the lock without breaking the computer. It’s obviously not a foolproof system but it will make your computer that much harder a target. If you’re leaving it unattended in a hotel room, lock it to the radiator or something equally solid.
Some older laptops and bigger laptops will come with a connection for a cable lock already. For ultrabooks, MacBooks and other low-profile devices, you’ll need to buy something like the Blade Universal MacBook Lock. It attaches to your computer and provides a connection for a cable lock.
If you’re working in a coffeeshop or similar public place, having a cable lock looped around your table can go a long way towards protecting your device. A photographer at the Rio Olympics had $40,000 worth of gear stolen in a few seconds from a public café. If anyone tries a similar trick on you, a cable lock will slow them down a massive amount.
3. Data and Information Loss
While losing a physical device can be annoying, losing important data or personal information can be much much worse. A new computer can be purchased for a few hundred dollars, but some files are irreplaceable.
No data should exist solely on your computer. It needs to be backed up to somewhere else offsite. As you work, save any documents you create to a cloud service like Dropbox, iCloud or OneDrive. Although not strictly a backup, they mean that if something does happen to your computer, you’ll still be able to retrieve all your work.
As well as a cloud app, you need a proper backup plan in place. As I mentioned in my article on preparing a Mac for travel, you should leave a backup of all your files at home.
That’s not enough though. What happens if your house burns down while you’re traveling and your computer gets stolen? You’d have nothing. Sure, the chances of that sort of disaster happening are slim, but they’re not zero. The rule when it comes to backups is that one is none, and two is one. You need to have at least two backup copies of your data, at least one of which is stored somewhere safe and secure.
One option is to make a regular backup and store it in a friend’s house or safety deposit box. An easier choice is to use a service like CrashPlan or Backblaze to set up an offsite backup. With a solid backup system in place, you should never actually lose any important data, no matter what happens to your devices or home.
You can check out this article on building a foolproof backup strategy for more details on setting up a proper backup.
Another major threat to information and personal information is unsecured wireless connections. If you send any unencrypted information over a wireless network that you don’t know is secure, you’re leaving yourself open to being hacked. Anything that gets sent to your computer could be redirected to an attacker.
We’ve covered how to protect your information on public wi-fi before so check out that post (above) for more information; the brief version is that you need to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) which encrypts and redirects your web traffic through a secure server. In this article, I’ve explained VPNs in more depth and recommended a few choices for small business owners and other traveling workers:
If your devices get stolen or otherwise misplaced, you need to make sure your data can’t be compromised. On macOS you can use Find My Mac to retrieve or wipe your stolen computer. Windows doesn’t have a built in solution but there are third party apps like Prey that have similar features. As long as you’ve got a backup in place, you can confidently wipe your devices remotely.
You Need Insurance
Finally, if you travel a lot, the question isn’t if your devices will get damaged, but when. There are just too many things that you can’t control. You can be as careful as you want but a fellow passenger might accidentally drop your bag while reaching for theirs. There’s nothing you can do to prevent that sort of thing.
Yet, it's important to know how to reasonably secure your computer and keep it as safe as possible while traveling. What you can do, is minimise the harm.
Have backups in place, keep the files you’re working on in the cloud, and get insurance. It’s often cheap to protect devices against accidental damage and theft. For a fraction of the cost of replacing your computer, you can insure it. The odds are, sadly, in your favor to do so.