The Pros and Cons of Travelling with a Laptop

Lindsie Foreman from Flashpacking Wife.
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Swarms of people crowd the shopping stands on Nakamise-dori in the traditional district of Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan. Photo by jwongyboy.

My husband and I have been traveling with our laptops for the last eleven months. We’ve visited sixteen countries, taken eighteen flights, fifteen trains and eight long-distance buses, not to mention numerous subways, tuk tuks, long tail boats, scooter taxis, local buses and lots and lots of walking.

And throughout the whole journey, a pair of MacBooks have been along for the ride.

For us, the question of whether to bring our laptops wasn’t really even a question. But it is something we get asked about a lot by other travelers – so here’s my take on whether or not it makes sense to bring a laptop on your journey.

The first thing most people ask when they hear we’re traveling with a pair of fairly expensive laptops is, “Are you insured? And aren’t you worried about theft?” No, we don’t have insurance on them, and yes, we are worried about theft. That’s probably why they haven’t been stolen yet.

No, we don’t have insurance on them, and yes, we are worried about theft. That’s probably why they haven’t been stolen yet.

Getting your laptop covered by home or travel insurance is pretty unlikely if you’re going traveling. Most insurers won’t cover you unless you pay a very high extra premium. Our insurance agent told us that we would have to “self insure” them – meaning if they get lost or stolen, we pay for new ones.

To reduce theft, we bought combination cable locks that plug into a slot in the side of the laptops. We use these whenever we stay at bungalows, hostels, or slightly sketchy hotels. While traveling, we always keep our laptops with us in our carry-on bags. Sometimes we’ll lock them up if we’re on a train and we’re both planning to take a nap.

Should you bring a laptop when you travel? It’s a highly personal question that depends on a lot of things – what you’ll be doing, where you’re going, for how long, and so on. In the rest of this article, I’ll share my own impression of the pros and cons of traveling with a laptop, then share a few guidelines that might help you decide whether to take one with you the next time you hit the road.

10 reasons you should bring a laptop

1. You can blog. Even when we were offline for days at a time, my husband and I could write new posts for our blogs. If the only local Internet access was at web cafes, we’d save the posts on a memory stick, lock up our laptops, and head out to the internet café.

2. It makes travel planning way easier. You just can’t plan twelve months on the road before you leave – you have to do much of your planning on the go. For our trip, we booked intercontinental flights, then planned and booked everything else as we went.

We researched destinations on Wikitravel, Travelfish, Lonely Planet, TravellersPoint, and lots of other great sites. We arranged free couch surfing accommodations with wonderful hosts in four countries. We researched and booked hotels on TripAdvisor. We found long-term apartment rentals on Owners Direct. We booked flights on Air Asia, Ryanair, and EasyJet. We booked bus and rail tickets on SNCF (France), DB Bahn (Germany), and lots of others.

And we did most of it from wifi-enabled cafes, hotel rooms, and apartments, often on rainy days when we would have just been killing time without a laptop. We’ve been able to avoid travel agency fees and save countless thousands of dollars by comparison shopping and finding discounts. The Internet has been the ultimate travel planning tool.

3. You can keep up with friends and family by email. Email has been a great way to correspond with future landlords, as well as with loved ones back home. Obviously, this is something you can do at internet cafes, but it’s so much nicer from the comfort of your hotel room or lobby or from your rental apartment. A lot of rentals come with free wifi.

4. You can call home for free (or very cheap) with Skype. We’ve enjoyed Skyping with friends and family — it’s always great to see each other while you talk. We even bought webcams for our parents before we left to make sure we could keep in touch. Plus, we’ve made tons of calls to landlines and cellphones all over the world using Skypeout, which lets you call from any web-enabled laptop for mere cents per minute.

5. You can store your trip photos. You can download digital photos to your laptop – where they can later be uploaded to photo sharing services like Flickr, Picassa, and Facebook. Saving them on a laptop gives you way more storage so you don’t have to worry about filling up your camera’s memory card.

6. Keeping a trip journal is easier. If you’re keeping a separate trip journal (aside from any articles or blog posts you’re writing), a laptop can be handy. I type a lot faster than I write, and stuff written on a computer is much easier to edit.

7. You get a lot of information storage in a small space. My laptop has maps, directions, bus and train schedules, must-sees for key cities, and lots more. Considering how much information I’ve got saved on it, it’s much lighter to carry around than several big guidebooks!

8. It’s an entertainment alternative. Sure, you’re traveling, and you should be out interacting with the locals and having adventures. But everyone needs some downtime. When you get stuck inside your bungalow during a rainstorm, or if you’re just too hung over to do anything else, you can watch all those cheap DVDs you bought in Asia.

9. You can work. If you’re a writer, a designer, or do any other kind of work that can be done from a computer, you can work and earn some money online.

3 reasons you shouldn’t bring your laptop

1. It’s a timewaster. You can get sucked in to online life and waste time on Facebook or surfing the web when you should be out experiencing the foreign city you paid so much money to get to.

2. It’s extra weight. If weight is an issue, you’ll lose a few pounds by not bringing your laptop, power adapter, and any other plug-ins and devices you use with it. (This point can depend on how many places you’re visiting, and for how long. For our yearlong trip, a laptop makes sense because it’s lighter than even a few Lonely Planet guides and novels stuffed in a bag.)

3. It could get lost, damaged, destroyed, or stolen. Depending where you’re traveling, the risks range from mild to extreme. We’ve made it through five southeast Asian countries, Australia, and eight European countries with no damage or theft issues. (Knock on wood!)

Only you know the answer for what kind of risk you can tolerate. If you do bring your computer, I recommend a soft case to keep it safe – we use water-resistant neoprene ones – and a good lock. And don’t do anything stupid like stow your computer in the luggage bin on that $9 bus ride through Cambodia.

Making the decision: Other factors

I’d say the biggest consideration is whether you feel you actually need a laptop. Are you a writer? Someone who works online? Someone who absolutely needs to stay connected? Then you probably never seriously considered the possibility of not bringing it in the first place.

Are you a writer? Someone who works online? Someone who absolutely needs to stay connected? Then you probably never seriously considered the possibility of not bringing it in the first place.

Your decision also depends on where you are going. The more remote your travel destination, the less likely it is that you’ll find a wifi connection. We visited a few remote islands that were lucky to have super-slow dial-up connections, never mind a wifi signal.

You also can’t assume that the wifi is free when you order a coffee or food. There are plenty of cafes and restaurants around the world that do offer free wifi when you order something, but that isn’t always the case.

(For example, Starbucks has free wifi in Kuala Lumpur, but in Sydney, they charge $12 an hour! If you’re in Sydney, I recommend the free wifi and internet at the public library. In Bangkok, Starbucks at MBK mall charges for access, but you can head upstairs to Coffee World and get it free.)

Depending on your needs, there are other choices too. If you want a smaller, lighter, less expensive alternative to a laptop, consider bringing a netbook like the Asus Eee PC. These are smaller, lighter, and cheaper, with less storage and processing power, but if all you’re doing is a bit of blogging and web surfing, they might be the best thing for you. (Also, if your netbook gets stolen, you’re not out as much money!)

Personally, I love my Mac for the big storage capacity, and because I can use iPhoto to sort and edit and store photos.

Finally, if your needs are minimal and you’re just using the web occasionally, you might find that something like an iPhone or other smartphone does everything you need. Personally, I don’t have one, and I hate the idea of the huge service charges you can rack up on them, but if that’s your thing, it’s a lot lighter than a laptop.

If you aren’t blogging, don’t like to write and the majority of your accommodations are in 20-bed dorm hostels – don’t bring your laptop. But if you want to keep a travel blog, take a stab at that novel you’ve always dreamt about writing or can make money online – having a laptop along is a necessity.

About the author:

Follow Curtis and Lindsie's round-the-world adventure as they blog it on dueling laptops at Flashpacking Life and Flashpacking Wife.

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Discussion »

  • #1Scottish castles

    I don’t imagine my trips without a lap top. It doesn’t matter where I am, it is possible to find a point of wi-fi access or ust connect via adsl and co-operate with your contacts and information you need. It makes sense. About internet access tips: Seoul and Pusan (South Korea) – you can have free wi-fi in Lotte Mart department store :)

  • #2Craig | travelvice.com

    I’d strongly recommending doing full-disk encryption on laptops and external hard drives carried for travel. There’s practically zero slow down, and if stolen, they may get your machine or disk, but they’ll never get your data.

    See: http://travelogue.travelvice.com/united-states/laptop-external-storage-encrypted/

  • #3previously.bitten

    I’ve been thinking long and hard about this, myself. The idea of a little netbook does seem appealing in some cases. Especially since not all hostels have computers, but most do have Wi-Fi. I was so set to not get one, but now I’m thinking again.

  • #4wandermom

    Great article!
    Personally, I’ve got a Vivenne Tam HP netbook on my xmas wishlist for next year. I’ve traveled enough with a full-size laptop (for work) to know that I don’t really need all that weight & functionality. But, I can’t imagine traveling without something to write on, upload photos to, etc etc.

  • #5Tim

    I travel with one when I have to on assignment as a writer, but not when I am traveling for pleasure. It’s an isolation device and an umbilical cord to home. Almost anything you can do with a laptop you can do when you really need to at an internet cafe or through the services of another human. They key phrase is “need to.” The non-working travelers I see lugging a laptop are the ones most likely to be holed up in their room and are the least likely to be interacting with other people, reading a book, or whiling away the hours playing backgammon instead of watching DVDs they could be sitting at home on the sofa watching like they do each week when working. Travelers found places to stay just fine in the pre-Internet days and unless you are going to Europe in the summer, you can do it just as well now without ever logging on.

  • #6Donna Hull

    I can’t imagine traveling without my laptop. It’s invaluable for downloading/backing up photos while on the road.

  • #7fetzig!

    additional reasons why you shouldn’t bring your laptop:

    4. You can blog.
    5. You can keep up with friends and family by email.
    6. You can call home for free (or very cheap) with Skype.
    7. You can work.
    8. It’s an entertainment alternative. (no alternative at all. sitting in front of the notebook instead of actually being somewhere you never where before.)
    9. You can store your trip photos. (and wait when you get home and try to review them when your notebook is broken/stolen and you have nothing on your sd card(s))

    Who says these are only pros. For me they are pretty much contra points.

    10. You think about something you (maybe) shouldn’t/don’t want while travelling (“I need a power adapter, man!”)

  • #8Rob

    If my trip is less than 2 weeks in duration, the laptop stays home. A Moleskine or two works just fine.

  • #9Melanie Waldman

    Hi, Lindsie! Unlike you two fancy flashpackers, I haven’t yet blogged from the road — I download, type up, and share when I get home.

    I’m all about my iPhone and little writing pads on trips; the iPhone for checking Facebook, Google Maps and schedules, and the pads to throw in my purse and take everywhere for surreptitious jotting. My iPhone has a Notes feature that looks just like a digital yellow pad, but honestly? I like to actually write, with a mechanical pencil, while I’m in the midst of brand new experiences.

    But between you and me, I hope to someday have a laptop/travel lifestyle. It will force me to leave that extra pair of shoes at home!

  • #10Mark Wiens

    I migrate around the world, eating, and hanging out. Up until now I have neglected to take a laptop so I could have the least amount of responsibility.

    However, I recently decided it would be a good idea to begin blogging, and sharing photos and experiences with friends and others. I’m also trying to make a little online money so I can remain traveling for years at a time, and not have to get a 9-5 job.

    As much as I dislike the responsibility, my laptop has become a necessity.

  • #11Jimmy Ku

    You make some excellent points there. But, you can do most of those things using your mobile phone as well. So, a laptop may not be necessary. I have an iPhone and I can do most of what the laptop can with less bulk.

    1. You can blog – I can blog from my iphone and I can even use travel microblog from GoPlanit to write about my trip while I’m still on it so I don’t forget. Here’s my latest trip to Hawaii. I blogged the whole time – http://www.goplanit.com/l/0r

    2. Travel planning is easier – I can do a search for nearby things to see, restaurants to try, or even hotels using the mobile application – http://iphone.goplanit.com/ or http://m.goplanit.com/

    3. Keep up with friends/family via email – Ditto. Email at my fingertips.

    5. Store trip photos – Laptops do this better, but you can also take photos and send them in to your trip journal directly using a mobile phone with a built-in camera. This saves you the step of having to upload pictures.

    6. Keep trip journal easier – Send your journal entries directly into the trip journal using microblogging. You can also rate/review things from your mobile phone. My trip to the Grand Canyon – http://www.goplanit.com/l/0h

    8. It’s entertaining: The app store + games all at your fingertips.

    The only things I can’t do are:
    4. Call home for free with Skype: Nope, can’t do that… yet.
    7. Information storage: Small amounts of info can fit on your phone, but the laptop is better.
    9. Work: Do you really think this is a good thing though?

  • #12soultravelers3

    A laptop is absolutely a necessity for a long term traveler. We are into our 3rd year of an open ended world tour as a family and use our 3laptops all the time.

    We travel mainly overland ( 4 continents/29 countries so far on ths trip) and believe in slow, green, authentic travel, thus we spend much of our time unplugged and in nature.

    Nevertheless, if you are going to be living while traveling ( as those into extended travel MUST do) laptops keep you connected and allows you to collaborate with others around the world.

    We made our first video on our laptops which has had almost a million views! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wn9rDTZj-m4

    My child even does her piano lessons with her teacher on another continent via webcam free Skype calls ( not to mention sharing her tooth fairy cash in various currencies with grandparents as she loses her babyteeth around the world!).And John Hopkins Univ. CTY online classes.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Ar90wOnWnM

    I recently wrote a post about Twitter and Travel 2.0 because the nature of travel is changing like so many things and if used wisely, a laptop can add so much to a journey ( just as moleskins can too).

    http://www.soultravelers3.com/2009/02/twitter-travel-20.html

    We travel VERY light with just a small daypack each even for months at a time in 4 seasons of weather, but we do always have at least one laptop with us ( along with homeschool supplies)….even when we went deep into the Sahara!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrrAFDt9W_U

    We don’t own an iphone, ipod or wii, but our laptops help keep us connected to the world while we travel the world and also allows us to take thousands of disadvantage school kids with us virtually!

  • #13mandy mok

    Hi Lindsie. Great story. I am always in some sort of internal debate about traveling with my “other right arm”, aka laptop, too. I have opted to set a rule for myself on trips now. If the trip is for less than 10 days, then I bring only my iPhone and leave the laptop at home.

    I agree with Jimmy’s post that the iPhone can pretty much suffice with blogging and some web-based surfing. The iPhone also replaces my need to bring along extra reading materials. My new indulgence with the iPhone now is loading up on great ebooks from the app store now that they have new Times bestseller books available for the iPhone (not just Classics). Currently traveling in Shanghai with copy of The Shack and Coraline on my phone, so much more convenient.

  • #14Claudia

    Cant think of travelling without my lap top. It is usefull for so many things! Specially keeping track of your experiences and work…

  • #15Anonymous

    I took a 6 month trip around the world and if I do so again I’ll take a laptop and a smaller camera. We spent a huge amount of time in web cafes looking for hostels and attractions and paid for the web by the minute, which wasn’t very good.
    Here in Scotland loads of hostels, B&Bs, hotels and so on have free wifi so if you do bring a laptop you’ll be fine. Just as long as you don’t spend all your time on Facebook and miss the stunning landscape!

  • #16Jes

    I love bringing my laptop with me on trips, however I usually try not to. Though I agree with all the pros stated in this post, I really think that the times I brought my laptop with me, I possibly missed out on a great experience by staying in the hotel room spending time on my laptop. I tend to not bring it with me anymore. A vacation to me means taking a break from my norms. I actually want to be out of contact, with the exception of my mom in case of emergencies. Other then a call every day, I’m fine with forgetting the rest.

  • #17Stijn

    The solution to all problems in 1 word: iPad.

    Done.

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