What the Laptop Ban Could Mean for Travelers and Digital Nomads

Jessie Beck

For seasoned travelers, the new laptop ban on some routes isn’t just annoying, it flat out challenges our way of traveling, packing, and navigating the airport. “Every seasoned traveler knows you don’t put your electronics in your checked luggage — if you’re even checking luggage, that is — what an easy way to get them broken or stolen!” I ranted in response to the news.

If you dive below the surface, a whole host of other problems become apparent. By relegating electronics to the cargo hold, the risk of fires in a hard to reach place is increased, there is a negative impact on the travel industry and their ability to cater to a core segment (business travelers), and there is the potential to make a 10-hour international flight 10x more miserable than it already is. As The Wired argued, a laptop ban leaves everyone scared and no one safer.

But none of this seems to matter to a cabinet that puts protection against terrorism before all else — even when we’re creating a real and proven threat to mitigate an assumed one. So travelers — especially business people & digital nomads — how do we deal with these new restrictions? How do we get crafty like we did with 3oz limits on liquids, shrinking luggage allowances, and all the other increased hurdles of international travel? Let’s talk about it.

What Does the Policy Currently Affect?

First, the basics: Which routes are currently affected by this policy, which are at risk, and which electronics does the laptop ban affect?  The name is a misnomer; it’s not just laptops.

Routes currently affected by the ban:

Currently, direct flights between the U.S. and the following countries are affected:

  • Jordan
  • Egypt
  • Turkey
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Kuwait
  • Morocco
  • Qatar
  • United Arab Emirates

Also affected:

Also affected are direct flights between the U.K. and the following countries: 

  • Turkey
  • Lebanon
  • Jordan
  • Egypt
  • Tunisia
  • Saudi Arabia

Will the Laptop Ban Expand to Other Routes?

While there were rumors throughout the spring of the laptop ban expanding to direct flights between the U.S. and Europe, it looks unlikely to take effect any time soon. Recently, the White House declared it would not be putting a ban on direct flights between Europe and the U.S. just yet. However, if you’re planning intercontinental travel, I’d keep an eye on it.

Which Devices are Affected by the Laptop Ban?

Despite its name, this ban affects more than just laptops being carried on board.

For flights going to the U.S., travelers cannot bring laptops, tablets, e-readers, portable DVD players, game consoles, and some camera equipment (camera bodies have to be checked, lenses can be carried on). For the UK ban, any electronic device bigger than 16cm x 9.3cm x 1.5cm is barred from the cabin. 

Electronics, like liquids over 3oz, can be in your checked bag but not in your carry on. That said, most airlines have adopted a process for checking electronics at the gate. Meaning: you’re allowed to keep your electronics on you until you board and can skip checking your entire bag beforehand. If you’re curious to know what that looks like in more detail, TechCrunch has a great article (with photos) documenting how Emirates handled checking electronics on a flight from Dubai to the U.S.

How to Avoid Checking Electronics

This new restriction sucks and we’d all rather avoid it. But to do so, there are really only two options:

  • Avoid affected routes
  • Leave banned electronics at home

Since the ban only affects direct flights between the U.S.  or U.K. and Middle Eastern and North African countries (for now), travelers can circumvent the rule by choosing a flight with a layover in an unaffected destination. For example, if you’re flying from San Francisco to Dubai, plan a layover in Toronto or Frankfurt. London to Casablanca? Stop by Madrid. Unfortunately, this solution comes at the expense of cost and convenience. 

Less ideal, especially for digital nomads and business travelers, would be to travel with no electronics at all and rely solely on your smartphone. Realistically, this option only works for short trips or genuine vacation getaways (embrace the digital detox!) Unless, of course, you’re Rolf Potts and can pull off a smartphone + bluetooth keyboard combo for all your blogging needs. 

What to do When There is no Choice but to Check Electronics

For some travelers, there’s no choice but to travel on a route where you’ll need to check your electronics — especially for those of us who depend on them for a living. In this case, do the following:

Check Insurance and/or Warranties for Coverage in the Event of Damage

U.S. airlines are only responsible for up to $1,500 in damages. Chances are, your electronics are worth more than that.

To further complicate things, not all travel insurance will cover electronics damaged by airlines — or at all. Double check the fine print before assuming yours includes this. The same goes for warranties. If you have a Mac, are you still covered under the 1 year warranty? Did you buy AppleCare+? If you’re traveling with a work computer, will they help you out if it gets damaged? Just make sure you’ve got a game plan if something goes wrong. 

Invest in a Good Case 

At the moment, most airlines will bubble wrap and pad the boxes in which they check electronics to protect them. While the few accounts about this procedure I’ve read all had their electronics returned unharmed, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before something breaks. If you want to be extra careful about your electronics, invest in a solid, hard case.

Pelican makes great cases for cameras, tablets, and e-readers. Though bulky, they’ll keep your electronics well protected. I’ve shipped my camera across the country twice in one with no problems. For laptops, The Wirecutter recommends the Thule Macbook Sleeve ($50)

Document Information About Your Electronics

Just like you would a checked bag, document what your electronics look like, take down the serial number, and add a “luggage tag” to your electronics. This could be as simple as taping a piece of paper with your contact info on it.

Arrive at the Airport 30 Minutes Earlier Than Normal

Extra security means extra time. Give yourself a buffer and arrive earlier than you normally would.

Prepare to Fly Without a Laptop or E-reader

Finally, what are you going to do on the actual flight? If you need to work, seriously, that Rolf Potts idea might not be too crazy:

  • Get a bluetooth keyboard: Folding keyboards by iWerkz ($30) and Microsoft ($80) come well reviewed
  • Download app versions of your most common work tools: Evernote, Word, Photoshop, etc.
  • Pack a charged external battery pack, just in case your flight isn’t equipped with outlets
  • And voila, you’ve just transformed your smartphone into a viable workstation 

If you don’t plan on working, download a few good podcasts onto your phone (they run your battery life down less quickly) or pack a good-old fashioned paperback book in your bag. Even if your flight offers in-flight entertainment, it’s always good to have a backup.

TL;DR

Just when it seemed like obnoxious travel restrictions were on the decline (TSA pre-check! Yeah!), we get another one slapped in our faces. Especially if you’re a light packer who never checks a bag or — double whammy — a digital nomad or business traveler who just can’t travel without electronics, this will hugely challenge our packing and in-flight best practices, hacks, and increase the inconvenience of flying.

Unfortunately, if this ban persists or expands globally (yikes, I know), we are left with two options:

  • Avoid it: Intentionally book a layover that lets you avoid routes affected by the ban, leave your electronics at home, or turn your smartphone into a souped-up do-it-all.
  • Prepare to have your electronics checked:
    • Have insurance and a plan in case your electronics are damaged en route
    • Get a good case
    • Document what they look like (including serial numbers)
    • Arrive early
    • Prepare to do something else on your flight

      As frequent travelers, we’ve found ways to cope with travel restrictions in the past. We’ll find ways to deal with this one — as frustrating as it is — as well.