Hardware & Infrastructure
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9/3/2002
04:07 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: Traveling With Laptops In The Post-9/11 World

Fred Langa offers 10 tips for speeding your electronic gear safely through even the most rigorous security searches.

You only have to stand in an airport security line once, barefoot as your shoes are sniffed for chemicals, watching an inspector tear your laptop bag apart and even swab its exterior to look for traces of explosives, to know that few things have changed more in the last year than air travel. For frequent travelers, and especially frequent business travelers who carry items that look suspicious when X-rayed--laptops, PDAs, cell phones, cables, chargers, spare batteries--it can be a major hassle.

But there are several steps you can take to speed your way safely through even the most rigorous security searches and also greatly reduce the chances of loss, theft, or damage to your expensive and delicate electronic travel gear. Here are my top 10 travel tips for post-9/11 air travel with electronics:

Make your laptop bag easily searchable.
Cables, batteries, chargers, and the like are a fact of modern life, but if your laptop bag is a rat's nest of cables and loose parts, you're inviting either close scrutiny or a time-consuming unpack-repack at the screening table. You can speed things along with two simple, ultracheap additions to your packing: clear, zip-top plastic bags and twist ties. I find most small parts, spare batteries, cables, and such fit easily inside sandwich-sized zip-top plastic bags, and most recharger-cable assemblies fit nicely inside freezer-sized bags. I coil each cable separately, use a twist tie to make the cable bundle compact, and place the coiled cable (and charger, if applicable) inside a bag. The clear bags mean security screeners can instantly see what's inside without having to remove the cables (or other items) from the plastic bags, and the cables can't get tangled in transit, even with repeated packing and unpacking.

Make unfamiliar devices obviously nonthreatening.
Most security screeners have seen laptops and cell phones by the thousands, but some devices--PDAs, ultracompact digital cameras, GPS devices--may be less familiar. You can assuage the concern of a security screener by carrying the owner's manual for such devices with you: Even if the screener has never seen, say, a Canon Elph or a Garmin GPS, having the printed owner's manual in the bag next to the device helps reassure the screener that it's a standard consumer device and not something dangerous. It also can be smart to place any unfamiliar device on top or in front of more common devices, so it won't appear that you're trying to conceal anything: Be open, up front, and help the screener identify what he or she is seeing.

Have your electronic devices charged and ready to run.
It's become less common than it once was, but some security screeners still will require you to turn on your laptop or other electronic device to show that it's real. If your device's batteries are dead, you may face a long delay as it goes through more detailed scrutiny or until you dig out the recharger, find a power outlet, and start the device. By the way, most laptops can go into or out of hibernation in less time than a full boot-up or shutdown. You can save yourself time at the security screening if, before your trip, you charge your laptop battery and then place the laptop in hibernation mode rather than doing a full shutdown.

Avoid problems with any tools you need to carry.
Many business travelers carry small a pocket tool kit to help with minor mechanical problems with laptops and such. However, screwdrivers and the like may be confiscated at the security screening. You can see what carry-on items are allowed at the Department Of Transportation Carry-On Guidelines Web page, but note that the list is only a guideline; many airlines impose further restrictions. (Before a trip, visit your air carrier's site directly or via a metasite to see what each airline allows and disallows.) If your electronic needs are such that you must travel with a small set of tools, pack them in your checked luggage. Or, if you have no luggage to check, send your tools ahead to your destination via mail or other delivery service. That way, the tools will be there when you arrive and won't cause problems for you at the airport.

Maintain visual contact with your bag.
Ironically, some antiterrorist security measures may actually increase the risk of simple theft because your laptop (or other valuable carry-on) may be out of reach for a while. For example, if you place your laptop bag on an X-ray belt, then immediately walk through the metal detector, any delay in screening the luggage ahead of yours may mean that your bag is out on the far side of the belt for several minutes. Depending on the layout of the area, someone walking by the belt might be able to grab your bag and flee before you can do anything. Likewise, some pairs of thieves work a classic scam at the security screening: One goes through the metal detector and waits at the end of the X-ray belt, the other goes through the metal detector just ahead of you, deliberately setting off the alarm with coins, a watch or whatever. While you wait in line for the second thief to empty his pockets, the first thief lifts your bag off the far end of the conveyor and disappears into the crowd.

To foil the first "snatch-and-grab" scenario, place your items on the X-ray belt but wait until they're out of reach inside the X-ray machine before you go through the metal detector. And as you go through the detector, watch the far end of the X-ray belt to ensure that no one is making a move toward your carry-ons as they emerge from scanning.

Better still, if you're traveling with someone else, split up at the metal detector: Have one of you go through security while the second waits outside the secure area with the laptops or other high-value carry-ons. When the first person has cleared security and can wait at the far end of the X-ray belt, the second can then load the items on the belt. Once the bags are safely out of reach inside the X-ray mechanism, the second person can pass through the metal detector while the first gathers the items at the far end of the belt. This way, one of you is always watching and near your bags, so the chances for theft are essentially zero.

Make your carry-on bags an undesirable theft target.
Even with the above steps, a custom laptop carrying case or camera bag is still an enticing advertisement to would-be thieves that there's valuable gear within. It can be smart to use a generic, nondescript carry-on that doesn't scream "electronics inside!" And no matter what case you use, make your bag stand out in some way so it can be identified even across a crowded concourse, so a thief will think twice about trying to lift it. Luggage stores and online travel sites (like Magellan's) carry personalization/identification straps, handle wraps, and (my favorite) oversized, high-visibility fluorescent luggage tags that can help you spot your stuff in a crowd and also make thieves seek less-conspicuous stuff to steal.

Likewise, make your laptop itself an undesirable theft target.
Marking your bags is fine, but at most security screenings, you now have to remove your laptop (or other electronic device) from your bag, and send it through the X-ray machine separately. An unmarked laptop is a coveted theft item because it's highly salable. But you can make your laptop (or other electronic device) far less desirable to thieves by marking it in some obvious, permanent way so that resale of the item--if stolen--will be hard or impossible because any potential buyer will know that the item was stolen. There are many simple, do-it-yourself options for permanently personalizing your gear, but I prefer the professional laptop ID and tracking method available from www.stoptheft.com. It's a system of permanent, high-visibility "tattoos," decals, and metal ID plates that you affix to your equipment with glue of such strength that a thief would likely have to damage or even destroy the laptop or other item to remove them. With such obvious, indelible tagging, your gear is less likely to be stolen in the first place, and, even if it is stolen and later discarded as unsalable, it can be returned to you. The tracking system includes a unique identifier and a toll-free number anyone can call if they've found a tagged item, so the item can then be returned to its rightful owner.

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