Packing up your work computer for a business trip? Taking your gaming laptop to the Bahamas for beachfront battle royales? Then you’ll need to know the most important dos and don’ts of flying with a laptop.
If you haven’t traveled extensively with your laptop, the rules can be a little tricky to figure out, especially if it’s your first time. That’s why we’ve compiled this handy guide to flying with your laptop computer!
Know the basic TSA and airline rules.
While rules can vary between airlines and airports, the basics of air travel with a laptop are essentially the same throughout the U.S.:
- Laptops are generally allowed to fly in either a carry-on or checked bag, although the FAA strongly prefers them in carry-ons and requires them to be totally powered down either way.
- You’ll need to take the laptop out of its bag at the security checkpoint and place it in a separate bin for scanning.
- You won’t be able to use your laptop (or any other electronics) while the plane is landing or taking off.
- You cannot keep a spare laptop battery (or any detached lithium battery, such as a power bank) in your checked bag.
Remember that these are the general rules for flying with laptops in U.S. airports. Rules in other countries may differ substantially, so check the specific guidelines for your airline and destination when flying internationally.
Make your laptop easy to access when going through security.
Why not skip the hassle of fumbling to pull your laptop out of the bag at the checkpoint? Usually, the fastest option is to use a TSA-ready laptop bag. These bags feature a laptop compartment that unzips to lay flat, making it easy to pull your computer out for the security scan.
There’s also the option of joining TSA PreCheck®, a program that allows vetted travelers to bypass some of the normal security checkpoints. Usually, PreCheck members won’t have to remove their laptops from their luggage at all (or take off their shoes, belt, or jacket). However, you’ll still have to follow all other applicable rules about laptops.
If possible, pack your laptop in your carry-on rather than your checked bag.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s usually not against the rules to pack a laptop in a checked bag, so long as it’s completely powered down. However, it’s also much better to keep valuable electronics of any kind in your carry-on or personal item instead. Once the airline has your checked bag, your possessions are at the mercy of baggage handlers — probably fine for clothes, but potentially disastrous for electronics.
Where is your laptop safest once it’s on the plane? If it’s in a well-protected laptop bag or backpack, it’s relatively safe in the overhead compartment — although there’s always the small risk of the compartment flying open. However, the safest option is usually to stow your laptop in your personal item (such as a backpack or laptop bag) and place it under the seat in front of you. This also provides easier access if you want to use your laptop in flight.
Keep essential accessories packed with your laptop.
At the very least, your laptop needs its charger — and if you’re like most people, you’re bringing quite a few other accessories along, too. Some of the accessories you might want to keep close include:
- Mouse and mouse pad
- Flash drives, SD cards, and other memory devices
- A/V cables
- Backup battery (remember that these must be carried on)
Many laptop bags include elastic pouches and pockets that are perfect for storing these items. If you plan to use your laptop in flight (see below), you’ll want to keep any necessary accessories close at hand in your carry-on luggage.
Take steps to secure your laptop while in transit.
A laptop that hasn’t been properly secured is a tempting target for scammers and thieves. The first line of defense is a strong password. This will keep most prying eyes from sneaking a quick peek at your laptop.
Laptop locks are a great investment for travelers who want maximum security for their computers. These devices lock onto your computer and prevent it from even being opened without a combination or key. While you obviously shouldn’t leave your laptop alone at the airport, this can provide extra security in those little distracted moments that can happen.
Finally, it’s important to be cautious about joining public WiFi networks in an airport. They can be hunting grounds for data thieves, so consider using a more secure option like a personal hotspot or VPN while you’re in the airport.
Know the rules for using your laptop while in flight.
Most airlines will allow you to use your laptop during the flight, with several conditions:
- You’ll need to have the laptop turned off and stowed during takeoff and landing. Having a heavy object like a laptop out can be a hazard if the plane goes through turbulence during its takeoff or landing.
- Wait for the plane’s crew to announce that laptop use is allowed. Keep your laptop in airplane mode, and use headphones if you need audio.
- On most flights, you can rest your laptop on the tray table while you use it. Again, however, the laptop and the tray table will both have to be stowed during landing and takeoff.
- WiFi is available on some flights for an extra fee. The cost can be steep, so read the terms thoroughly before you connect.
- Back up your laptop’s most important contents before you depart.
Chances are, your laptop will get to its destination without any damage, especially since today’s solid state laptop drives are much less fragile than the older HDDs. All that said, why take a chance with your most important files?
If you have files you can’t replace stored locally on your laptop, take the opportunity to back them up before you travel. Either to the cloud or an external storage device will work, but creating copies on both is the safest option of all.
These days, most of us will fly with our laptops sooner or later. If you have any questions, the airline staff has likely heard it all before, so don’t be shy. They’ll be happy to help you figure out a solution!
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