Should Your Laptop Travel?

The hurdles keep getting higher in the airline obstacle course. Packed airports, jammed planes, and declining service make one wonder if the airport will become like Yogi Berra's famous quote: "It's so crowded, no one goes there anymore."

But the new "normal" of airline security may become a serious challenge to the meetings industry. After this summer's London air scare, focus has been on the TSA's ban on liquids, creams, and gels. But the future may be seen on the trans-atlantic routes, where carry-ons— including laptops—were banned in August. After the arrests of the alleged plotters, the British did go back to allowing one carry-on item, with laptops allowed again.

But what if there's another terror threat, and laptops are again banned from the cabin? Try these suggestions:

1. Consider a "ruggedized" laptop. The Panasonic ToughBook line is the best-known one; other providers are Itronix, Ergo, and Terralogic. The upside of a ruggedized laptop is that it typically has a magnesium case you can drop without damage from three feet, a shock-mounted encased hard drive, and a spill-proof keyboard. The downside: they're typically heavier and more expensive than other laptops. A Toughbook 74 sold for $2,900 at www.toughonline.com, with a 13.3" screen, 1.83GHz processor, CD/DVD drive, 512MB of RAM, and wireless capability. A comparable regular notebook, the Toshiba Satellite A105-S4074, was $979. Still, a Panasonic study claims that rugged notebooks have a lower lifetime cost of ownership, especially in harsh environments.

2. Check into checkable cases. Some laptop and equipment cases are designed to be checkable, like those from Anvil, Pelican, or Zero Halliburton. However, high-end (and expensive) cases like ZH's anodized silver cases almost scream, "Steal me!" You'll also need to check that TSA-approved padlocks can be used if security wants to open the case.

3. Before going to the airport, make TWO backups of everything. You could burn two CDs, use two USB memory keys, back up to your company's or another online server, or mix and match. Keep one back-up in your carry-on luggage or, if you must, in your checked luggage (a different bag than your laptop). Leave the other backup at your office or home. If your laptop crashes or is stolen, you'll still have your data—more valuable at that moment than the hardware.

4. Radically limit the amount of confidential data on your machine. Encrypt your hard drive and use password protection to limit unauthorized access. Use a complex password you can remember (such as one with upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters—like Moms3rdLasVegasWedding) and change it frequently. You can add BIOS and Windows XP start-up passwords as well as hard-drive passwords. Many laptops are also available with a biometric scanner to check a fingerprint before booting.

5. Consider shipping it ahead of time. Both UPS and FedEx offer padded, cushioned shipping materials so a laptop arrives safely. You can also insure for loss/damage. If checked, your laptop could be delayed or temporarily lost.

6. If you're actually at the airport when the draconian directive comes down, make backups, wrap clothes or towels around your laptop, and cross your fingers before it goes into your suitcase. Or be prepared by having a foam computer sleeve from companies like Caselogic to surround your laptop in its conventional carry-on case.

7. Don't take a laptop, and ASK that of delegates and presenters. A Treo, Blackberry, or Motorola Q gives attendees e-mail, and they travel well. Put your presentations on a USB drive and backup on CD. Procure computers at the meeting, and get delegates Internet access through hotel TVs or PCs, in the business center, and in Internet cafes and kiosks.


Extra Bytes: Take the Insurance

What we've dealt with above is "insurance" to protect your laptop and data. But if it's your own laptop we're talking about, you may literally need insurance. One company offering laptop insurance is Safeware; a recent search showed $4,000 in coverage goes for $200 annually. Visit www.safeware.com.