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Wider Laptops Aren’t Always The Best Option. Especially When Flying.

For the past several days, frequent travelers have been dreading something far worse than being stuck in a middle seat: having to check their laptops and tablets before flying home from Europe.

That’s the fear invoked by news reports that the Department of Homeland Security will expand its current ban on large electronic devices in the cabins of flights to the U.S. from the initial 10 airports across Africa and the Middle East to all U.S.-bound flights coming from anywhere in Europe.

Until we see the details of this plan’s implementations, we’ll have to hold off on some questions about a policy that almost no other country imposes.

Still, you should wonder what airlines might do to cope with such a ban, and what that might mean for your safety and the safety of your data.

Checking your laptop

The cardinal rule of checking baggage is not to put anything valuable into a bag that will spend hours in the custody of strangers, many of whom don’t work for the airline you fly.

Some foreign airlines blindsided by the electronics ban announced in March responded by setting up systems to check laptops at the gate or even on board, then keeping them with airline staff members until reuniting the devices with their owners after the flight.

That’s what Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines have done. The first three also offer loaner devices — laptops at Emirates and Qatar, iPads at Etihad — to passengers in business or first class.

People who have used these airlines’ laptop-check services — see, for instance, travel-blog reports on flights with Emirates, Etihad, Qatar, and Turkish — have generally had positive things to say about them.

Note that this service may not alleviate the fire hazard posed by their lithium-ion batteries, which are already banned from being shipped as cargo on passenger aircraft.

Analyst Bob Mann, president of the airline-consulting firm RW Mann & Company, warned that leaving this work to passengers would be even worse: “Given passengers cannot be presumed to know how to properly pack spare and in-use batteries and devices, this proposed order has very serious safety implications for every flight on which it is imposed.”

And flights from the U.S. to the Middle East involve far fewer people: 9,753,172 passengers in the 12 months ending last June, versus 59,401,505 travelers between the U.S. and Europe over that period, according to Department of Transportation statistics.

Protect your data if you can’t protect your device

Should the current ban be extended across Europe, travelers with gadgets would have to hope that their airlines would provide some sort of gadget-concierge service like those Mideast carriers.

But U.S. airlines — none of which fly out of the 10 airports covered by the current ban — have yet to say how they might deal with a wider prohibition on in-cabin electronics.

Neither United Airlines (UAL) nor Delta Air Lines (DAL) responded to requests for comments on the matter. A representative with American Airlines (AAL) referred me to the trade group Airlines for America, which wouldn’t set individual baggage policies.

If your airline will gate-check your laptop, you should not have to worry about baggage handlers stealing it. But you should still be ready for consequences worse than, say, nine hours of unproductive boredom between Frankfurt and Washington.

The cost of a lost laptop or tablet may not be an issue with devices worth less than thecap on liability for luggage (currently, about $1,550). But the data on them is another issue.

“We recommend that people that can, travel with a Chromebook,” advised Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology. Those cheap, light laptops backup your data automatically to Google (GOOG, GOOGL), allowing you to wipe one before handing it over, then restore it on arrival.

If you must carry a “real” laptop, Hall advised setting a “reasonably complex” password and powering the device down before checking it.

Another tech-policy expert had similar advice about bringing hardware you can’t quickly reset and restore once you get home.

“Ultimately, travelers should be more careful with the devices they choose to bring across borders under these new regulations,” wrote Amie Stepanovich, a policy manager and counsel with Access Now. “In many cases the best advice will be to leave the laptop at home.”

Tech For Travelers

Travelers: Use Gogo On The Go!

Inflight Wi-Fi based on air-to-ground cellular connections has a terrible reputation for being too slow and expensive.

And that’s only gotten worse as the leading purveyor of it, Gogo (GOGO), has tried to keep a minimum level of connectivity by jacking up prices on transcontinental flights to as much as $40. That’s made the Chicago-based company extraordinarily unpopular among many frequent travelers — and even some airline CEOs.

“It’s not good,” Delta (DAL) CEO Ed Bastian told Cranky Flier blogger Brett Snyder in an interview. “I told the Gogo guys that in my mind, they’re ‘no go’.”

But now Gogo is trying to make in-flight Wi-Fi fast enough for you to stream movies while more than a mile in the air.

Test flight

Gogo has spent the last few years deploying faster, satellite-linked service. And Tuesday it invited a small group of journalists to Newark International Airport to try its latest setup on the 737 it employs as a flying lab.

That revised configuration improves on the “2KU” system I tested on a flight out of Austin last March in two ways: an upgraded modem that can distribute 100 megabits of bandwidth to the cabin and a high-throughput Intelsat (I) satellite.

Everyday chores like checking social media, email and listening to streaming music on Spotify were no problem. Streaming an episode of “Portlandia” on Netflix, however, fell a little short of high definition even before I started downloading a 227MB copy of the free LibreOffice productivity suite.

Download speed tested via Netflix’s (NFLX) fast.com site averaged 32.8 Mbps, with the worst performance a still-impressive 26 Mbps.

But upload speeds — which fast.com doesn’t report but which I checked at speedsmart.net, a site suggested by Gogo chief technical officer Anand Chari — ran much slower. That site clocked my uploads at an average of 6.1 Mbps, with downloads averaging 34.1 Mbps.

Satellite connections inevitably suffer almost a second of lag time, thanks to your data taking a 44,000 mile detour to geosynchronous orbit. I didn’t notice that latency in practice, but it would be obvious in some online games.

While I didn’t encounter any apps blocked by Gogo, some test sites failed to load. Speedtest.net never managed to start, while Measurement Lab’s tests often failed halfway through. When it worked, it reported latency of as little as 2 milliseconds — an impossible figure, since data can’t zip from the satellite to the plane faster than the speed of light.

“All of these web sites suffer from some measurement error,” observed Chari.

The airlines can still mess this up

Still, it’s going to be a while before anybody but Gogo’s invited guests can enjoy this experience. The company won’t start installing this souped-up modem and upgrading the 170 existing 2KU planes until the second half of this year.

When that happens, Gogo marketing vice president Steven Nolan warned that airlines will throttle back uploads further.

“The upload speeds will be even narrower than that, because airlines don’t want a full plane of people doing FaceTime and Periscope,” he said.

But the bigger problem is all the aircraft that still fly with Gogo’s older, air-to-ground system.

At American Airlines (AAL), satellite Wi-Fi is confined to some international aircraft and won’t start making its way to its domestic fleet until the arrival of new Boeing 737 MAX planes later this year. Delta’s Wi-Fi is also mostly air to ground, although it is the only U.S. airline to have Gogo’s 2KU in service.

United (UAL) uses mostly satellite Wi-Fi from LiveTV and Panasonic that I’ve usually enjoyed, but Gogo air-to-ground remains on some of its premium flights between Newark and San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Southwest (LUV) and JetBlue (JBLU) offer all-satellite service, but Alaska Airlines (ALK) only has Gogo air-to-ground, as is the case with most of its Virgin America planes.

Pricing is, predictably, a mess that varies by equipment and route. I can only point to two blessed outbreaks of simplicity: Southwest charges a flat $8 a day, and JetBlue gives it away for free.

I’d like to think that at a time when the airline industry has so much trouble getting people to recognize the legitimate progress it’s made in recent years, it would jump on this opportunity to bring a measure of simplicity. But maybe they’ll decide they’d rather keep Wi-Fi pricing that makes their checked-bag fees look simple in comparison.

Tech For Travelers

Smartphone Apps That Are Perfect For Travelers!

There is a constant release of new apps and websites that claim to make your travel experience easier, cheaper and faster. So how can you know which ones really will save you the most money? Here are some of the best apps available to help you stay on budget for your next vacation. Some are new, others have been around for a while, but they all are proven to work well.

 

Getting there:

First things first: Figure out how to get to your destination – though sometimes the road trip is the vacation in itself! Rather than default to one mode of transportation, you should determine the best – and cheapest – way to get somewhere. If you decide to drive, take along Gas Buddy as your driving companion. This mobile app can find the cheapest gas available in your area. The app is free, and shows how recently information was last updated for every gas station.

 

Is flying the better option? Track airfare with Yapta to make sure you’re buying at the optimal time and getting the lowest possible price. If an airline ends up dropping its price after you book, Yafta will alert you to the change and even help you get a refund for the difference.

 

If you need to rent a vehicle once you arrive, search for the best deal through CarRentals.com. You can compare prices and use filters for as many specific features as you want. There are no booking fees, and many reservations allow free cancellations.

Staying there:

When booking a hotel, use a price comparison site like Kayak to instantly see what each travel booking site has to offer in rates, reviews and free perks that might be included. With a little flexibility, the possibility of lodging options can open up. AirBNB offers a trusted online community of listings that can offer very inexpensive places to stay if you don’t mind renting rooms or houses that are part of a residence. Fortunately, the ratings and reviews on the site can tell you what to expect before booking.

If you don’t mind doing things a little last minute, you can score great deals with apps that scoop up unsold hotel rooms, such as Hotel Tonight or Last Minute Travel. For Hotel Tonight, deals get posted at noon each day on the app to show you where there is vacancy in the area. The listings are heavily curated by Hotel Tonight to include only what they deem the highest quality at the best value. Last Minute Travel gives travelers access to wholesale prices for hotels.

 

What to do?

To find fun things to do or places to eat in the area where you travel, take a look at the apps you use in your own neighborhood. Type your destination into a deals site such as Groupon or Living Social and you can find coupons and offers that the locals are taking advantage of.

 

Don’t forget to search for discounts when you travel, as well. AAA members can download the AAA Mobile app to search in any area for savings on shopping, hotels, restaurants and more. If you’re part of another community, such as AARP or a veteran, then you can probably find more discounts targeted specifically at you. Be sure to do some research in advance to find out what might apply.

 

Yelp is a well-established free website and app that collects reviews of every service-based business you can imagine. It’s easy to sort your search to only include less expensive options, while still vetting results to include positive reviews and high ratings.

There may be a time during your vacation when you need to log on to the Internet – maybe even to download all these apps! A free WiFi Finder app by JiWire will search in your immediate area to find where you can access WiFi for free and it will sort the results based on the type of location you want, such as a café, library or other location.

These apps cover a lot of the basics to help you save money when you travel. Do you have any recommendations for tried and true sites that made your vacation cost less?