From carry-on lovers to overpackers, only bringing a tablet to traveling with a full-on mobile office, everyone has their own packing style, and their own arguments for why it’s the best. There’s one aspect on which everybody seems to agree, though: never, ever, put your electronics in your checked luggage.
That approach worked well until early 2017, when the US government had something to say about it. By presidential decree, passengers on flights bound for the US from several Middle Eastern countries would no longer be allowed to bring devices larger than a smartphone into the cabin .
The travel world gasped, but the story didn’t end there. Just a few days later, the UK passed a similar resolution.
While no other countries have yet followed their lead, it seems like some laptops, tablets and phablets will go where no electronics have gone before: into checked luggage.
There’s good reason to worry about this. Devices can become severely damaged as they bounce around in transit, not to mention the higher risk of physical and data theft. This rule looks like it’s here to stay for a while, so travelers need to do what they can to protect their gear and information. Here are nine pieces of advice to help keep your electronics safe in checked luggage.
Make Sure the Device Is Turned Off
There are several reasons to leave your devices in sleep mode while at home, but manufacturers recommend to fully turn them off if you are going to transport them elsewhere.
This is even more true if you have to check your laptop or tablet in a suitcase. Leaving it turned on could result in overheating, or damaging the hard drive, and if you encrypt your data (see below), not turning your device off can leave that data accessible to others. So, power down your gear before you pack it.
Invest in a Solid State Hard Drive for your Laptop
If you’re in the market for a new laptop, make sure you get one with a solid state drive (SSD.) Unlike standard hard drives, a SSD has no moving parts. That makes it less prone to being damaged by movement, bumps, and magnets — so it’s the perfect option for any laptop that might end up traveling in a checked bag.
Most manufacturers offer models with SSDs, so just check the spec sheet carefully before you buy. If you want to upgrade your existing laptop, it’s often possible to switch your existing hard drive for an SSD (although it can void the warranty if you do so).
Set Up a Hard-to-Guess Password or Passcode
This is particularly true of tablets or phablets, but important for laptops as well. Using the basic security features built into the device is the first step towards preventing data theft, so don’t ignore them.
Setting up an intricate password or passcode (think random numbers — most definitely not your birthday — or the classic upper case-lower case-number-symbol combinations) should be the very first priority when securing your devices. If they allow for enrolling your fingerprins, like the latest smartphones, tablets and a few laptops, go ahead and do so.
The more barriers you set up between your data and those who’d like to steal it, the better.
Encrypt Your Data
Passwords aren’t infallible, sadly. Some would argue they’re a pretty weak way to protect your devices, in fact. So, take things up a notch, and encrypt your data to make it unreadable by others.
Most operating systems, including Windows (8.1 and up) and OS X, include an encryption system, but you need to make sure it’s enabled. You can also choose to pick your own software and do it manually — we’re fans of VeraCrypt, and AxCrypt also gets good reports. You can encrypt your entire drive, or only those files with sensitive data.
The same applies to phones and tablets. Encryption is enabled as soon as you choose a passcode on iOS, and is straightforward on Android, so make sure you do it long before you get to the airport.
Use Monitoring Software
Knowledge is power, and knowing whether your data has been compromised as soon as it happens (or at least, as soon as you land) may be the difference between a minor problem and a very large one.
Software programs like Little Snitch or ActivTrack let you know whether any new activity or data access has taken place, so you can change passwords, remotely wipe your device (see below), and take whatever other steps are necessary to remedy the situation.
Wipe It Clean of Data & Use External Storage
Another option for keeping data away from prying eyes is to store it somewhere else. Putting it in practical terms: copy all your files on external storage (or into the cloud), then remove them from your device. So far, at least, external drives and USB sticks aren’t forbidden in your carry-on.
Make sure, too, that none of your apps, programs or websites have your login details saved. It will be a mild annoyance to log back into everything once you’re at your destination, sure, but much less serious than if anybody were to have full access to your personal information.
Enable Remote Data Wiping
If you choose not to wipe your device beforehand, at least make sure you can do it afterwards. Enabling remote data deletion could be a real lifesaver if your checked luggage gets lost, or if your monitoring software tells you someone is tampering with your device.
Apple’s Find My iPhone does this for the company’s laptops, tablets, and of course, smartphones, and Google’s Android Device Manager does something similar. Another good option is Prey, which works across multiple platforms, including Windows. They’ll all help locate missing devices, or wipe them if worst comes to worst.
Consider Using a Burner
Another option is to buy a no-frills, inexpensive laptop or tablet for travel, and use it along with your external hard drive or cloud storage. For travelers with a home base, this might be the perfect compromise — you can stay connected on your trip, while your main device stays safely behind.
If you’ve got an old device lying around that’s still serviceable, you might be able to use that instead. Just be sure to fully wipe it beforehand.
Business traveler? Raise this possibility with your company, as it may actually make things easier (and safer) for both parties.
Pack Your Suitcase Extra Carefully
When it comes to the actual packing, err on the side of caution, and try to think of everything that can possibly go wrong with checked luggage.
Exploding shampoo? Bad enough on your clothes, devastating on your laptop. Take as few liquids as possible, wrap them tightly in one or more Ziploc bags, and pack them as far away from your electronics as possible. Put your laptop or tablet in a padded case in the middle of your suitcase, with soft items like clothing above and below.
Dented suitcase? Smashed handles? Imagine what that means for the valuables inside. For starters, consider adding a “Fragile” sticker to the suitcase. It might also be worth asking at check-in if there’s a special service available for fragile bags — some airlines offer it, and could be up for lending you a hand (sometimes for a fee, but still).
Lost luggage? Maddening in any situation, but especially so if your most important business tool is inside. Take a look at luggage trackers like Trakdot — they could be a lifesaver in this situation.