Is it Better to Travel with a Laptop or a Tablet?
When was the last time your travel daydreams featured you sitting on a device, checking emails or scrambling to download a Netflix film before an 8-hour flight? Probably never, right? But while we may not think much about our devices when we’re planning trips, they play a central role in our experience once we’re on the road: guiding us around town, letting us tell friends back home we’re safe, or translating menus for us.
For most travelers and trips, a smartphone will be enough to fill our tech needs — but not always. Sometimes, you need a device with more capabilities and screen size, like a laptop or tablet. But which one of the two is better for travel? And what are the pros and cons of each? To help you decide if you should travel with a laptop or a tablet, here’s a breakdown of common considerations.
If you’re trying to lighten the load of your pack, a tablet is an obvious choice. For example, an iPad weighs about 0.5 – 1.5 pounds, whereas a Macbook Air weighs 2.5 pounds; a Macbook Pro 4.5 pounds. That’s 1 – 4 pounds less in your carry on if you opt to travel with a tablet over a laptop.
Of course, if you’re adding on accessories to your tablet (such as a keyboard or case), the total weight will increase and you could end up with a tablet-keyboard combo that weighs as much as a laptop. Pay attention to product specs before buying.
Capabilities & Function
Although tablet technology is rapidly improving, they don’t have the same capabilities as a laptop — or even, at times, your smartphone. Developers often create tablet versions of mobile apps as an afterthought to mobile versions, hard drives are less powerful, have less storage, and most tablets don’t have a USB port.
The one function a tablet has but a laptop does not: a data connection. Add your tablet to your phone plan and get internet access — even when there’s no wifi.
When it comes to capabilities and function, laptops will almost always win. But do you need all of those capabilities? Or is what your tablet offers good enough? For short trips, vacations, or travelers who won’t be on their devices that often, tablets are probably adequate.
Compatibility with In-Flight Entertainment
Airlines have been moving away from in seat entertainment systems in favor of “personal device entertainment.” These systems give travelers the ability to stream movies and TV shows from their phones, tablets, or laptops but, surprisingly, tablets are the best device for the job.
The larger screen makes it a better option than phones, and, from my experience at least, their phone/tablet apps tend to be less glitchy than the web-version used by laptops. Hands down, a tablet is just the best device for in-flight entertainment.
The Keyboard Conundrum
As a writer, trying to type out a 2,000 word article on a tablet touchpad is just maddening. It’s slow, takes up half the screen, and (depending on the size of your tablet) makes for scrunched up typing.
On the other hand, laptops come with keyboards capable of handling my mad-woman fast keystrokes. So, for trips where I know I’ll have to get work done but am also not too worried about theft or damage (i.e. a 4-day trip to NYC), it’s laptop all the way.
If you really want to make typing on a tablet work, invest in a bluetooth keyboard. Look for one that connects via bluetooth, has a long battery life (preferably without an additional charger to carry), and test it to make sure there isn’t a huge delay between typing and text showing up on the screen.
Recommended Tablet Keyboards for Travel
This keyboard is bluetooth enabled, doesn’t stick like other keyboards, and has a space for you to prop your phone or tablet up. The biggest downside is that it’s fairly heavy, weighing in at 1.81 pounds — which would make it + an iPad mini weigh about the same as a Macbook Air.
While on the expensive side, the obvious draw for this keyboard is that it’s compact and folds in half when not in use. The keyboard is full-size and it weighs a hair over 1 pound.
Don’t let appearances fool you: this keyboard may look like Apple, but it’s not. Unlike Apple keyboards, it’s made completely of plastic which makes it both less sturdy but, at 6 ounces, much more lightweight. Overall, it’s a great budget option.
Theft & Damage
Winner: Netbook or tablet
About a year ago, I had my iPad mini stolen on a trip to Hawaii. That sucked, but it sucked less than if my laptop had been stolen. Replacing it cost less (though it was still expensive) and since it wasn’t the primary device I use at home, I didn’t lose any locally stored files and had fewer account passwords to change.
If you’re worried about your device being stolen or damaged abroad, most travelers will feel more comfortable bringing a cheap netbook, like the Acer Chromebook ($300), or tablet instead of their nice(r) laptops. I know I did when I was hiking around the Simien Mountains and bussing through Laos.
Confession: I edit pretty much all of my photos on my phone since mobile photo editing apps are good enough to rival desktop apps. And guess what? Tablets have them too. Photoshop’s mobile app, for example, has most of the photo editing features of their desktop app — plus it’s free. Snapseed is another photo editing fav of mine. It links up with your Google photos, to make editing, sorting, and storing easier.
All of these services require you to pay after you hit a certain limit but it’s generally affordable (I pay $0.99 / month for iPhoto storage) and it’s worth it to know that, even if something happens to your device, you’ll never lose your photos or documents.
When Should You Travel with a Tablet?
While this largely depends on why you need your tablet or laptop, you’re better off opting for a tablet if:
- You’re taking a short trip
- It’s a vacation
- Uses are mainly entertainment, photo editing, or staying in touch with folks back home
- Weight is a major concern (i.e. hiking El Camino de Santiago)
- You’re worried about theft or damage
Tips for Traveling with a Tablet
If you’re traveling with a tablet instead of your laptop, here are a couple of quick tips to make it smoother:
- Use cloud-based apps to make device switching easier: for example, swap Pages or Microsoft Word for Google Docs, or upload your photos to Google Photos instead of downloading directly to your laptop.
- Make sure it’s packed with apps you’ll use: like Adobe Photoshop, Google Docs, or your airline’s in-flight entertainment app.
- Get a keyboard… maybe: while it makes your tablet more functional, it could add unnecessary weight.
- Get a cover: bonus points if it also acts like a stand (so you don’t kill your neck while watching movies on airplanes, obviously).
When Should You Travel with a Laptop?
While you can make a tablet work for pretty much any trip or use case, laptops are just a better option if:
- You’re on a business trip
- There’s an app you absolutely need, and no mobile version
- You need to do a significant amount of writing
- Local storage, USB ports, and fast processors are a concern for you
My 11-inch Macbook Air will always be my go-to if I have to do any amount of work beyond checking emails and Asana tasks on the road since most of what I work on (web development, SEO, writing) is tedious on a tablet.
Tips for Traveling with a Laptop
If you just decided to travel with your laptop instead of a tablet, a couple of tips to keep your trip rolling smoothly:
Never, Ever, Check a Laptop
Never, ever, put a laptop in your checked bag. Why? Theft, breakage, potential for its lithium battery to explode and start a fire down below while you’re flying… need I say more? (Oh, and that brief laptop ban? It was always a terrible idea and we’re happy to see it near gone.)
Get a Case
If you’re going to travel with a laptop, definitely get a case to protect it while in route. I prefer a lightweight sleeve, like the Incase Slim Sleeve ($49).
Consider Getting Insurance
If you’re going to travel with a laptop, you probably want to invest in travel insurance and make sure it’s actually insured under your policy. Most general travel insurance will only cover your electronics in very specific scenarios (i.e. it was in lost luggage) and even then the coverage is pretty limited. “If you have expensive camera gear or a laptop, it’s worth upgrading to [something like] the WorldNomads Explorer plan,” advises Tortuga writer Shawn Forno.
In general, tablets are a more lightweight and travel-friendly device. If you only need to stay connected with friends and family back home, edit all of the amazing photos you snapped on your trip, or want to have entertainment handy, a tablet is a far better option.
While you can use a bluetooth keyboard to give your tablet a more laptop-like functionality, if you plan on working a lot or you’re about to embark on a business trip, it makes more sense to just pack a laptop.
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