Some articles on this site contain affiliate links, meaning we may be compensated if you purchase a product or service after clicking on them. Read our full disclosure policy here.
We know, we’ve said it before, but it’s something you can’t hear enough: regularly backing up your data is a must when you travel with electronics.
Just like many other important things in life, backing up is something you don’t realise the importance of until it’s too late. Your MacBook might be new, or may have never failed you before, but that’s no guarantee it won’t up and break up on you tomorrow without warning.
You could get the dreaded stripy screen of death out of the blue. You could leave your laptop behind at an airport security check (been there) and never get it back. You could pour a margarita over it.
If there’s anything worse than knowing your computer is gone forever, though, it’s realising all your documents (and photos, videos, and composure) went with it.
Spooked already? Fear not, as Apple has thought of it and came up with a solution. MacBooks come with their own system for making backups, the famed Time Machine, but it’s not the only option. I took a look at some of the different methods, for both removable drive and cloud, and came up with a shortlist. Let’s check it out.
The Apple Approved: Time Machine
Apple’s native backup software, Time Machine makes it easy to back up your MacBook on a external hard drive.
Pros: It’s convenient like no other, as it’s already installed on your MacBook, and will pop up whenever you plug in your external hard drive. It produces a snapshot of your Mac as it is at that moment, so you can restore the entire disk to the state it was at a certain time in the past.
Cons: There’s no cloud backup — it will only work with external drives. It can be slow, depending on the size of your files. You can’t really control the way it makes the backups, other than blacklisting some files individually.
Cost: Nada. From 2007 onward, Time Machine comes with your MacBook, no installation necessary.
Appropriate for: travellers in countries with bad or non-existent Internet connections, or those who prefer to rely on external hard drives. It’s ideal if your backup needs are straightforward (i.e., you want a full backup of your entire computer, without picking and choosing which files go where).
The Multi-Function: CrashPlan
A Too Many Adapters favourite, CrashPlan combines cloud and removable drive storage. It offers a free basic version, which lets you back up to a portable drive or another computer with the software installed. Paid versions let you back up one or more computers to the cloud. A similar service is ChronoSync.
Note: Disappointingly, on 22 August 2017, Crashplan announced its intention to leave the consumer backup business in 2018. While it still offers small business and other plans, they’re noticeably more expensive, both than its old Home plans, and similar individual plans from other companies.
As a result, we can no longer recommend the service for individual travelers. We’ll be testing alternatives and updating our recommendation in the near future.
Pros: sleek, easy and fast! It starts automatically when it detects a portable drive or Internet connection, and will e-mail you reminders when you haven’t backed up in a while. It makes several copies of your data in different places.
Cons: the premium versions aren’t free (though I’d argue peace of mind regarding your data is priceless). It doesn’t allow backing up to both cloud and external drive at the same time, alternating between the two. This makes the process take longer than you might expect. It can also slow down the computer significantly when it’s running, as well as drain the battery.
Cost: As mentioned, Crashplan has a free version for backing up to a hard drive or another computer elsewhere in the world, and you can also try out its cloud-based backup service for 30 days.
To keep using it after that, prices range from $5.99/month for unlimited storage for one computer, to US$13.99 a month for a family membership (unlimited space, 2-10 computers). Per-month costs are cheaper if you sign up for a year.
ChronoSync uses a different cost system, offering services for a one-time fee rather than monthly subscriptions. Prices go from $14.99 for a direct file sharing connection, to $49.99 complete backup and file sync, and $59.98 for both.
Appropriate for: in all fairness, everybody could benefit from these programs. They cover both online and offline backup, and provide the double data protection we recommend, all in one program.
The Cloud-based: BackBlaze
Pros: There’s no need to carry an extra piece of equipment – the backup lives and breathes on the net. It automatically starts backing up when it detects an Internet connection, and lets you specify the backup speed according to the quality of that connection.
It’s also one of the few services that will send a USB stick or hard drive with your data to you anywhere in the world, to get you up and running quickly in the event of an emergency (at extra cost).
Cons: Despite its best intentions, it can be pretty slow when backing up over bad connections — and obviously, it’s unusable if there is no Internet available.
Cost: At $5 per month for a personal plan with unlimited cloud backup, BackBlaze is one of the best-value backup options on the market. The company also offers a business plan for $50/year per computer.
Mozy offers a Home plan for $5.99 per month, for one computer with 50GB storage, or $9.99/month for three computers and 125GB. It also has a Pro plan for businesses and a Enterprise plan for IT companies.
Carbonite has three plans – Basic, Plus and Prime. However, only the Basic is available for MacBooks, which goes for US$59.99 per year for unlimited storage.
Dropbox follows the freemium membership plan of other software. Free membership offers just 2GB of storage. For more substantial space, you will have to go for the Pro membership, which offers 1TB for US$9.99 per month. There are also business plans from US$15/month per employee.
Appropriate for: travellers in countries with good, speedy Internet connections, else you could be stuck for hours waiting to upload or restore your data. These are also a good plan B option for at least your most vital documents, in case both your computer and external hard drive are stolen (knock on wood that never happens!).
Get Us in Your Inbox
Get our regular email updates with the latest travel tech news, tips, and articles. We'll also send over a free 5000-word guide to get you started!
The Rescue: CCC
CCC’s (short for Carbon Copy Cloner) selling point is that it is a bootable backup stored in an external hard drive. This means if your laptop hard drive fails, you can boot from the removable drive and use it as if nothing had happened. Other bootable backup providers are Super Duper! and Backup Guru.
Pros: It allows you to keep using your computer and data in the event of internal disk failure, and start automatically when an external hard drive is detected.
Cons: It’s painfully slow, both in creating the backup and as an alternative internal disk. Obviously, it needs a removable drive to work.
Cost: CCC is a purchasable license, which goes for $39.99 for a Personal and Household License.
Super Duper! and Backup Guru are slightly cheaper, pricing the license at $27.95 and $29 respectively.
Appropriate for: travellers on short trips with older computers whose internal disk might give up at any point, especially if they’re in countries where AppleCare may not save you from a failure.
The Classic: Drag and Drop
Confession: I used this method for most of my roaming years, until a kind soul introduced me to CrashPlan (my current backup software of choice).
You know the deal: select which files or folders you want to copy onto the external hard drive or cloud storage service of your choice, and drag them there. Then sit back and relax while they copy, which can take up to several hours depending on the number and nature of the files.
Pros: There’s no need to download or pay for any software. You are fully in control, knowing every step of the way which files are being backed up and which ones aren’t.
Cons: It’s slow and inconvenient. The biggest issue is remembering to do it regularly, since the nature of the technique means it’s not automated.
Cost: Just like Time Machine, it is fully free. Well, other than the price of the hard drive (we like the rugged Transcend StoreJet), or your membership to a cloud storage if you go that route.
Appropriate for: travellers who want to have complete control over which data goes in which storage (or nowhere) – especially if they’re type-A enough to remember to do it on the regular!
And Just One More Thing to Think About…
All the automated services work well in their own way – they’ll let you make a copy of your data to a drive, the cloud or both, using their own methods. Some are free, some aren’t, but even the paid options are inexpensive compared to the cost of losing your files.
There is one last piece of advice we’d offer, however, and it’s to not rely on one individual backup. It is all too easy for an external hard drive to crash, or for the Internet to be too slow for the cloud to be fully accessible. It’s always wise to have two different backups, in two different places.
Therefore, if I were to recommend one service it would be CrashPlan, just because the one program will take care of both backups. That said, if you’ve found a good system combining Time Machine with DropBox, or something else, don’t change it on our account. As long as your data is safe and accessible no matter what happens, you’re onto a winner.
Do you regularly back up on the road? What do you use to to keep your data safe? Let us know in the comments!