Top 5 Tips for Traveling with a Laptop

In this special edition of Ask the Laptop Advisor, we offer up some practical tips and advice for staying charged up and connected on the road.
By , Last updated on: 12/3/2014

It's summertime again, and millions of Americans will be hitting the roads and skies (and maybe rails, just to pretend that the US is as hip as Europe) for vacations, spiritual pilgrimages, or mandatory trips to family gatherings.

Along with their swim trunks and toothbrushes, a big chunk of those road warriors will pack a laptop in their minivans or approved carry-on luggage. Whether it's to stay current on work, pound out the next great American novel, or just watch movies and play some games, computers are a focal point of any packing list these days.

I'll quickly suggest that maybe you should give your eyes and brain a rest, and leave the computer behind for a few days. But I'm just some jerk writing this column on an airplane back from my own vacation, so take that with a grain of salt and a tiny bag of peanuts.

On that note, I'm pretty successful at staying charged up and connected while I'm on the road, but I had to pick up tips along the way. I've witnessed some comical computer misusage on this current trip alone, so to stop as many of you out there from looking like fools this summer, here are some tips to help you travel smart with your laptop. 

Less is Mo' Better

This one should be painfully obvious, but I've seen a surprising number of folks traveling with 17-inch laptops, including the guy sitting next to me as I write this.

His computer barely fits on the tray table, so he's typing with his elbows out like undercooked chicken wings. (American Airlines already packs us in like genetically modified fowl.) I've seen his battery icon shrink by more than half since he pulled it out of his obnoxiously large carrying case an hour ago. His is perhaps not the best computer for flying.

So if you've yet to buy your road machine, go with a thin-and-light model somewhere in the 11 to 14 inch range. The Acer Aspire S7 Series has a bunch of affordable options, most with battery lives north of 8 hours. The Apple MacBook Air is the sleekest machine. Consider a tablet too, especially if you're more consumer than producer.

Up in the Clouds

Optical drives are going the way of the fax machine: There will always be a use for them, but only at the office. Media is moving to the cloud, so some new laptops don't even come with DVD drives. They're inefficient anyhow -- this Portuguese-subbed Elvis Presley DVD is another culprit behind my neighbor's dismal battery life. And DVDs are just one more thing to carry around only to leave behind.

Download your new movies (or use the digital copies included with your DVD/Blu-ray purchases) and rip your old ones using Handbrake. When you're around a WiFi signal, stream them from Netflix, iCloud, or your service of choice.

Hot Spot to Trot

Learn where to look for free WiFi hotspots. Airports have them. Most hotels do too, at least in the lobby and lounge. Some nationwide restaurant chains like Starbucks and McDonalds have free access, too. Local Cafes and coffeeshops are a strong bet as well. Treat WiFi access like the bathroom -- locked, and for paying customers only. But don't be shy, or rude. Buy a pastry or coffee, and ask for access.

Many trains and buses offer WiFi connections, as do some airlines (though most charge a few bucks). It's usually sluggish, though, and in my experience, service isn't guaranteed even if it's advertised. Most flight attendants, conductors, or bus drivers will at least try to restore access if you ask, but some jerks will refuse, and sometimes the router is just busted -- there's not much they can do to fix it in transit.

Juicing Up

Hotels obviously have outlets, and most eateries won't have a problem with paying customers plugging in for a few minutes, as long as the cords are out of the way. Airports usually have complimentary charging stations, though occasionally you'll have to fork over a few cents for the privilege.

Many train and bus lines provide outlets, too. I'm not aware of any airlines that do. Road-trippers should invest in car chargers. In any case, staying charged is one of the easier parts of traveling these days.

Use the Lost & Found as a Pick & Pull

If you forgot your power supply at home or left it at a previous stop on your itinerary, you're not alone. Hotels have a surplus of abandoned chargers of all shapes, sizes, and milliamperes. Their owners aren't coming back for them, and the hotels have no use for them. So if you ask nicely at the front desk, the clerk will usually let you dig through the box o' chargers. You'll probably just find a whole load of Blackberry chargers, but you might get lucky.

Happy travels!

~ The Laptop Advisor

Do you have a question for the Laptop Advisor? Please feel free to submit it in the comments section below, or to editorial@digitaladvisor.com. We can't send personal responses, but we may select it for next week's column.

Previous Columns:

6/7: Do I Need a Gaming Rig?

5/23: Lightning Round, Vol. 1

5/9: Which Specs Are Important?

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