Call it the tech-savvy traveller's nightmare: when you arrive at the airport for your flight, you're told that, for security reasons, you must check your usual carry-on bag - including all of the sensitive electronics it contains.
Even if you weren't one of the thousands of travellers hit by this nightmare-turned-reality during the most recent terrorism scare (initially, passengers departing from or passing through the UK had to check all of their electronics items), you probably wondered how you'd handle that situation.
I travel with what amounts to my own electronics store - a laptop, a portable hard drive, a digital SLR camera with a couple of lenses, a smartphone, a digital audio player, and a slew of memory cards. And as a frequent traveller, I subscribe to the carry-on creed: the very thought of checking baggage containing electronics sends shivers of panic down my spine.
How to cope?
I called several makers of electronics gear to get their tips on how travellers can best deal with today's travel challenges. The answers I got were sometimes expected and sometimes surprising.
These tips are intended as a guideline, so you can prepare yourself for the unexpected with worst-case travel scenarios in mind. When possible, you should continue to carry your electronics on board with you. If your laptop falls out of the overhead bin, at least you'll know what happened - and who to blame.
Protect your electronics
No matter how well you pack, checking electronics equipment always carries some risk. The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) can rifle through bags at will, and when the TSA's baggage handlers do so, they do not necessarily repack things the way they found them. Other issues include such mundane considerations as theft, baggage loss, and delays - things that plagued the airline industry long before modern terrorism took to the skies.
For the latest domestic travel advisories, check the TSA website. It provides recommendations on what to bring and what to leave at home. And don't forget to check with your airline before leaving for the airport to find out whether its baggage rules have changed.
Here are some other tips:
-- Be prepared for anything. "The one thing I'd say is to always pack with the expectation that you may have to check something at the last minute," suggests Steve Heiner, long-time photographer and senior technical manager at Nikon. Heiner's suggestion applies to many devices besides cameras.
-- Pack modularly. Ideally, your sensitive devices should be in a padded bag that can fit inside your carry-on suitcase. Says Heiner, "I typically carry a small shoulder camera bag that I put my iPod and mobile phone in, and a larger backpack bag that I can put the camera bag into. Sometimes I have a bag loosely packed that I'm already checking, so that if I need to, I can drop my camera bag into. It adds an extra level of shock protection, so I don't have to worry about damage."
-- Pack your chargers and accessories separately from the rest of your electronics gear. When jumbled together, chargers, spare batteries, cables, and the like can form an unidentifiable mass on an X-ray screen, whether they're in carry-on or checked baggage. By segregating them in their own, soft-sided tote you can easily remove them from a larger carry-on bag before going through security. Then if anything raises a red flag for the screeners, they'll only have to search the smaller bag and not every crevice of your carry-on luggage.
-- Prior to travel, make sure that you've charged the battery on any electronic device - digital camera, laptop, mobile phone, or hard drive -- in your luggage. That way, you can turn your device on for security if asked to do so. If you couldn't charge a device in advance, have its AC adaptor on hand.
-- Pack your devices in the centre of your suitcase, with enough items surrounding them to keep them from moving around. Avoid using soft-sided duffel bags; a suitcase with a well-formed, shaped shell provides better protection against impacts. Wrap each device in bubble wrap (if available) or clothing to cushion it, or use a foam-padded case. If you have multiple devices, make sure to pack them so that they won't knock into each other in flight -- you might consider taping them together to avoid this.
-- If you're travelling with a digital camera - a digital SLR or a point-and-shoot - consider using a case with protective foam sides and inserts to help protect it. Lowepro and Tamron sell a range of cases for consumer and pro cameras. ""Even the small camera bags that hold the camera, an extra battery, and a lens - or a belt pouch - should provide an adequate amount of protection," says Heiner. If you want something that takes up less precious real estate in your bag, look into foam-padded Velcro wraps. If packed well, a digital camera should be able to withstand a journey in the baggage hold. "Our SLRs are designed with the expectation that they need to be fairly tough," says Nikon's Heiner. All bets are off "if they run [your bag] over with the luggage truck, though." Heiner suggests sticking smaller items inside a roll of tube socks for an extra layer of protection. "I've even been known to wrap my camera gear in my laundry on my return trip," he says. If you're serious about safeguarding your gear while you travel, consider looking at the unusually robust cases from Pelican (which would work for other electronics, too) or from Lightware.
-- Before travelling with a laptop, back up critical data and leave it at home. While on the road, use an online backup service, a flash memory drive, or an optical disc to back up newer data; and take a copy of your data or presentation with you. If you must check your notebook, says Liem Nguyen, a Gateway spokesperson, place it inside a neoprene sleeve and pack it in the middle of the suitcase to help dampen the effect of any impact. Erin Davern of Dell adds that users should fully shut down the laptop (rather than leave it in hibernate or standby mode) and remove the battery. If you don't have a neoprene sleeve or something similar on hand, wrap the system and its battery in soft clothing or bubble wrap.
-- Before travelling with your mobile phone, back up your contacts from the phone's memory to your SIM card and use a SIM card backup device to create a copy of that SIM card (check eBay for sources). If you must check your phone while travelling, remove the SIM card from the device and slip it into your wallet. This way, you'll have your contacts not only on the phone itself, but also on the SIM in your possession and on a backup SIM card at home. Not surprisingly, mobile phone vendors such as Nokia say that today's phones should be able to withstand a trip in your checked baggage.
-- When you're buying a hard drive - whether it's a stand-alone, portable hard drive; a pocket-size 1in hard drive; or even a notebook PC - look for one that is designed with shock protection in mind. For example, Seagate Technology's 1in and 2.5in hard drives park the drive's head off to the side, away from the disk media itself, to minimise damage due to collisions between your luggage and something else; the company says that it has tested the drives to withstand a 3-foot vertical drop onto a concrete surface. When travelling, "try to keep the hard drive wrapped in soft clothing, such as a sweater, or in bubble wrap, and don't pack it next to any hard surfaces. You don't want it rattling around - it needs to be held firmly in place - and you don't want it near hard surfaces, like the side of the suitcase, where an impact would be directly translated to the hard drive," says Peter Radsliff, Seagate's executive director for consumer marketing. Use a protective, padded carry-case if you can to help absorb any jolts from travel. If your drive doesn't work the next time you boot it up, don't panic: chances are that the data is still safe on the hard drive's platters and can be recovered - for a price. Recovery is easier, Radsliff says, because the damage caused by an impact during travel is typically mechanical.
Additional things to consider
If you use a baggage lock, make sure that it's a TSA-approved one (available at any number of luggage shops or online at Amazon and many other online stores).
If you're concerned about the monetary value of the devices you're travelling with, look into traveller's insurance. Some credit-card companies, for example, provide baggage insurance (programme details and requirements vary). Often, personal electronics are covered under a homeowner's or renter's insurance policy; but terms vary, so check with your carrier (and others) for details.
Also, consider sending your valuables on ahead of you. For fast, trackable services, you can use standard overnight or two-day carriers like FedEx and UPS. This option can get costly, however, and it requires you to plan ahead and do without your electronics until you are reunited with them.
Services like Luggage Forward resemble the package carriers in many respects, but the baggage doesn't travel on commercial airlines and is not subject to the same TSA security examination that your checked baggage is. This means that bags shipped domestically will arrive at your destination exactly as you packed them (international shipments are subject to customs searches). Luggage Forward even provides a reusable laptop box ($30 for first use, plus transportation to your destination).