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  1. Computer Skills
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Computers

Preparing a Mac For Travel

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:ShortLanguages:

It’s never been easier to travel with a Mac than it is today. Modern Macs are thinner and lighter than ever before. They’ve got batteries that last all day and, when paired with an iPhone, can access to the Internet from almost anywhere.

Unfortunately there’re some risks to travelling with a Mac. If you’re not careful—and don’t take the right steps before you leave—you might find yourself losing all your important data, having the Mac stolen or racking up a hefty phone bill. 

In this tutorial I’ll cover how to prepare a Mac for travel and minimise these risks.

Leave a Backup at Home

At Tuts+ we love backups. I’ve written before about getting started with OS X’s built-in backup service, Time Machine. My colleague Marius has gone even further and written about creating a foolproof, redundant backup system. The importance of regular backups cannot be overstated.

Backups are especially important if you are travelling with a Mac. In your day-to-day life, it probably isn’t exposed to too much risk. 

In new and unfamiliar places when you’re stressed from travelling and trying to work on a Mac precariously balanced on your knee next to an even more precariously balanced—and badly needed—cup of coffee, it’s never been more at risk. Disaster is a single spill away.

While you’re away you’re unlikely to be able to stick to a strict backup plan. Bringing extra hard drives just adds more things to carry, and they can break or go missing. 

If you are a photographer and the photos you take while you’re away are important, then you need to do it, but for everyone else the best solution is to backup the Mac the night before you leave. If you can create a clone of its hard drive, do. If you can do both, even better.

Whatever you do make sure there is a secure and up-to-date copy of your data sitting safe in your house.

Add a Custom Lock Screen Message

If you’re away and the Mac goes missing—whether it’s been lost or stolen—you need to make it easy for anyone who finds it to contact you. One of the best ways to do it is to use a custom lock screen message. Anyone who opens the Mac will see it.

Open the Security & Privacy preference panel in System Preferences. You may have to click the lock button and enter your password to make changes. In the general tab check the Show a message when the screen is locked checkbox. Click on Set Lock Message and enter the message you want to show on the Mac’s lock screen.

lost mac message
My Mac's lock screen message.

It’s best to keep it simple. I use a message that simply provides my phone number and says there’s a reward for returning my Mac. Depending on where you are, it might be worth saying that you have remote wipe enabled and so it has no resale value.

If you’re travelling to non-English speaking countries, run your message through Google Translate—or past a friendly bilingual speaker—and add that as well. It won’t be perfect but it increases your chance of getting a lost or stolen Mac back.

Turn on Find My Mac

You can use Find My Mac to track down, lock and even remotely wipe a missing Mac. If you are travelling with a Mac, enable it.

Jordan has written the Complete Guide to Find My Mac. It’s an excellent tutorial that takes you through everything you need to know about setting up and using Find My Mac.

If the Mac goes missing while you’re away, you can use Find My Mac from an iPhone, an iPad, a companions computer or an Internet café to track down its location. 

If you think its been stolen and you’ve no hope of getting it back, you can wipe it remotely to keep your data safe.

Disguise the Mac

Macs are instantly recognisable worldwide. Their distinctive aluminium look and glowing apple make them obvious even from a distance. It’s never a good idea to advertise that you are carrying high-value electronics while you travel. Tourists are always a target for thieves and pickpockets.

Adding a case to the Mac can go a long way to minimising how recognisable it is. It won’t fool anyone up close but it will make you less of a target. I use a solid black hard case like this one available from Speck to make my Mac look less Mac-like when I travel.

mac case
A case similar to the one I use when I travel. From a distance, it doesn't look like a Mac.

Carrying a standard laptop bag is also a bad idea. Many rucksacks designed for travellers have a special laptop pouch—often designed to fit a 15" MacBook Pro—so use one of them instead. 

A bag that looks like it contains a computer is an open invitation to thieves.

Pick Up a Local Data Plan

If you’re working while you’re travelling—or just travelling for an extended period of time—looking for Wi-Fi gets old very quickly. 

In most of the world it’s possible to pick up a prepaid SIM with a few gigabytes of data for around €20. If you have an unlocked phone, you can put that SIM card in it and tether it to the Mac. 

If you’re travelling a lot, or don’t have an unlocked phone, you can get USB dongles that do the same.

This gives you enough cheap internet access to get most things done and you can always top-up the SIM again.

Turn Off Auto Updates

The bane of mobile data is autoupdating apps. Nothing will burn through two gigabytes of data faster. Before you go, update all your apps to the latest versions. After you do, go through and turn off autoupdating in every large app. 

A 10 megabyte menubar app updating won’t cause problems but larger apps like Evernote, or god forbid, Photoshop updating will use up huge portions of the data. Save these updates for when you have access to fast Wi-Fi.

Most apps will have a checkbox in their preferences to turn on or off autoupdating. Find it and make sure it is off.

To stop the Mac from downloading system updates automatically, go to the App Store preference pane in System Preferences. I leave everything unchecked but the most important thing is to uncheck Download newly available updates in the background.

turn off autoupdates
My Mac's autoupdate preferences.

Apps that sync large amounts of information like Dropbox should also be disabled.

Bring Adaptors and Cables

Different mains plugs are used all around the world. There are also different voltages. Forgetting an adaptor when travelling with a computer is an amateur error. 

Before you go research what plug you’ll need in your destination and order an adaptor from Amazon. You can never guarantee you’ll be able to pick one up when you get there. 

The Mac charger is designed to accommodate a range of different voltages so should work anywhere without hassle.

apple usb ethernet
The Apple USB Ethernet adaptor lets you connect to any Ethernet internet.

You should also bring an Ethernet cable and, if your Mac doesn’t have an Ethernet port, an Apple USB adaptor. Some hotels give wired access to the Internet for free but charge for Wi-Fi. An Ethernet cable solves the problem.

Conclusion

Travelling with a Mac is easy to do and lets you work from anywhere. It’s also safe so long as you take the right steps before you go. In this tutorial I’ve taken you through some of the things you should do when you are planning to go travelling with a Mac. 

These are all the things I do when I travel with mine.

If you think I’ve missed any major points please let me know in the comments.

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