The TSA Is Easy, Your Airline Might Be a Problem
For anyone who needs to be productive on the road or just prefers to type on a full-sized keyboard, a laptop is an essential travel item. Even if you're not using it for work, it's handy to have a device of your own to use while your phone or tablet keeps the kids entertained. Some laptops are small and light enough to fit into a large purse, but it's usually more convenient to have a separate bag for a computer. In the case of parents with kids, a backpack can be the most practical of all, leaving hands free to carry other bags or corral fast-moving offspring. The Transportation Security Administration doesn't much care if you opt for a backpack, though it can be a complication with some airlines.
The TSA Is Mostly Laptop-Friendly
The TSA recognizes that laptops are essential to travelers, so it currently allows them in either your checked bags or your carry-on. If it's in your carry-on you'll be asked to slide the computer out of its bag to be X-rayed. You may also be asked to turn it on so the agent can verify it is indeed a working laptop. If you're enrolled in one of the Known Traveler programs, such as PreCheck or Global Entry, you will usually be able to keep your laptop in its bag as part of the expedited screening process. Alternatively, if you travel with your computer a lot, you might opt for a backpack that's designed to be screening-friendly.
Bringing a Screening-Friendly Laptop Backpack
Screening-friendly laptop bags first hit the market in 2008, part of a TSA initiative to speed screening and reduce inconvenience to travelers. The basic idea is pretty simple: Manufacturers created bags without design features such as metal zippers, buckles or snaps that interfere with TSA agents getting a clear X-ray image of the laptop. If you're planning to purchase a backpack purely to tote your laptop in, that's the kind to look for.
Of course, buying a laptop bag that's screening-friendly is only the starting point. You also have to avoid packing anything in with the computer that would interfere with the image. The most obvious item in that category is the laptop's charger, but a metal business-card holder, metal pens or your kid's tablet can also be problematic. If they can't get a proper image, TSA staffers will usually ask you to slide the computer out of the bag even if the backpack itself is screening-friendly. Backpacks designed for laptops typically have exterior pockets around the edges or an uncluttered fold-out compartment for just the computer itself so the X-ray can make a clear image.
Carry-On or Checked Baggage
Whether you're bringing your laptop in a backpack that's designed for the purpose or one that's already lying around the house, it's important to remember that the TSA's restrictions aren't the only ones you'll face. The airlines have a say in which bag goes where, and that might dictate whether you can carry your backpack into the cabin. Before leaving home, pack up the backpack exactly the way it will be used on your trip. Measure it in each dimension, then visit the websites of each airline you'll be flying with. Check your loaded backpack against the the airline's cabin baggage limits for each carrier and—this is crucial—for the aircraft used on each leg of the flight. The smaller planes used on regional feeder routes sometimes don't have as much space, and if your bag is considered oversized at any point along the way you might be forced to check it. It's smart to check these rules each time you fly, because airlines can change their size restrictions at any time.
Unexpected, Situational Restrictions
If you travel internationally with your laptop, it is possible that at some point you might face additional restrictions. In the spring of 2017, the U.S. and the U.K. both imposed sudden restrictions on laptops and other devices for passengers arriving from specific Middle Eastern countries on specific air carriers. This restriction might not apply to you, but similar hasty changes in policy aren't impossible in future. If you're overseas, take a quick look at the TSA's website or check in with the U.S. embassy or consulate in your area for recent changes.
- U.S. Transportation Security Administration: What Can I Bring? -- Laptops
- U.S. Transport Security Administration TSA Blog: TSA Travel Tips - Travel Tips for Backpackers, Campers and Fishers
- U.S. Transportation Security Administration: "Checkpoint Friendly" Laptop Bag Procedures
- CNN: Puzzling Out TSA's Laptop Travel Ban
- Consumer Reports: Know Your Airline's Carry-On Rules Before You Fly
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.