Seven rules for flying with a laptop: Share these tips with clients

A client is planning on flying for an upcoming trip, and you know he may not have time to check the TSA's guidelines on traveling with a laptop. Be a good little elf and prepare your client for what he can expect by telling him these seven helpful rules.

 The holidays are just around the corner, and some of your IT consulting clients are going to take their laptops over the river and through the woods to grandma's house. Many companies allow employees to take company-provided laptops and other electronics on personal trips. It makes it easier for key employees to get away from it all, without really getting a way from a thing.

If clients aren't used to flying with a laptop, they'll need a little education, and that's where you come in. Even if clients are familiar with the routine, it won't hurt to give them a few pointers to help make their trip memorable — in a good way. Flying with a laptop is a nonevent most of the time, but if a client encounters security officers devoid of holiday cheer, knowing how to react could make or break the trip.

Here are my seven rules for flying with a laptop:

Rule #1: You have no rights in regards to your laptop.

This is a hard rule to explain to people: A border guard can confiscate your laptop at any time and without cause. You should hand it over when asked. Don't argue, don't negotiate — just hand it over. This isn't just a flying rule; this could also happen if you're driving across a border. The good news is that I don't know a single person that's had their laptop confiscated.

Rule #2: Your laptop is a carry-on item.

It might be tempting to check your laptop with your luggage, but don't. Chances are that you'll never see it again. Most of the time, you're allowed a laptop bag in addition to one carry-on bag. Check your airline's Web page in advance of going to the airport just to be sure. Also, check foreign destinations and layovers.

Rule #3: Arrive early and read the signs.

The people that have trouble getting through security checkpoints are the people who fail to follow the rules. If you don't know what to do, go to an information desk and ask. Breaking a rule probably won't get you into trouble, but it will delay your wait in line. Most airports have two lines: One for those who follow the rules and are prepared and one for those who don't. Guess who gets through their checkpoint quickest?

Rule #4: Your laptop goes in a separate bin at checkpoints.

When you go through a checkpoint, remove your laptop from its bag and put it in its own bin. One laptop in one bin. Don't put anything else in there, or they'll send you to the line for people who don't read signs (see Rule #3).

There's a bit of good news on the subject of bags. If you use the right kind of bag, you might not have to remove it. Butterfly and trifold bags are checkpoint friendly, but accordion and backpack bags are not.

Security needs an unobstructed view of your laptop's insides according to "Checkpoint Friendly" Laptop Bag Procedures from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Regardless of your bag's type, an officer still might ask you to remove your laptop from its bag. Remember: just do it.

Don't worry if an officer swabs the laptop's surface. They're checking for explosive residue. It happens routinely, and they're not singling you out. Dusting your laptop before reaching the checkpoint might prevent this check, but it might not.

(Check out security blogger Chad Perrin's post about Evan Roth's T.S.A. Communication project. Although the project is sometimes described as art, Chad warns that it might also get your bag searched.)

Rule #5: Remember to retrieve your laptop from the checkpoint.

Congratulations! You flew through security so fast that you forgot to pick up your laptop. It happens — a lot. It's hard to blame folks. The process is a bit unnerving, especially to someone who is not accustomed to flying. Tape your name and phone number to the laptop, just in case.

Rule #6: Ask about on board use.

Each airline is different, so check their Web site or ask a flight attendant before turning on your laptop once you board the plane. Most airlines require that you turn off your laptop when the door closes. Once the plane reaches cruising altitude, you can turn it on. However, they won't allow wireless transmissions, so remove your card. (Delta Air Lines recently announced that it will begin offering Wi-Fi connectivity on all domestic U.S. flights by the middle of 2009.) If you forget, a polite flight attendant will remind you. A not-so-polite flight attendant might take your laptop for the duration of the flight. Before the plane lands, you'll be required to turn off your laptop and stow it away.

Rule #7: Don't forget your adapter.

If you're traveling abroad, make sure your laptop will work on 230-volt current. If so, you'll also need a plug adaptor. You can purchase these before you leave, or you can usually purchase an adapter once you reach your destination.

Some clients may need additional tips

There are many tips for getting through airport security quickly and without embarrassment, tears, or name-calling (which will probably get you sent to the third line, which includes an escort off the premises). The above rules deal only with laptops. You might want to add more tips for your clients, especially the ones who don't fly much or haven't flown in the post September 11 era.

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Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

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