I recently returned from a month’s holiday in New Zealand. As a one-man software company I still have to check my email every day, even on holiday. Here are a few tips from my experiences of running my business from a laptop whilst travelling.
In theory you can run your business from a Blackberry or a mobile phone that supports email. But it is impossible to answer some support emails if you can’t run your own software. So I took a Toshiba laptop PC with a 13 inch screen with me. I find a 13 inch screen is a good compromise between portability and ease of use. Much bigger and it would have been too bulky. Much smaller and I would have struggled with the screen and keyboard.
The laptop contained my licence key generator and customer database. I owe it to my business and my customers to keep these secure and the Windows password is no protection at all if someone gains physical access to your machine. So anything sensitive was encrypted using the free Truecrypt software. Whenever I brought the laptop out of hibernation or restarted it I just had to type the password to mount the Truecrypt volume as a virtual drive.
I took a combination laptop lock, but I rarely used it. The problem with laptop locks is that the only things strong enough to secure your laptop to are usually in plain view, and a laptop left in plain view is a bit of an invitation. Locked or not. I am also not convinced how strong the laptop security slot is. I suspect an attempted theft would wreck the laptop, even if it wasn’t successful. So I generally prefer to keep the laptop with me or hide it somewhere a crook wouldn’t think to look. I have since found out that laptop locks aren’t even very secure (see here and here). There are still occasions when a laptop lock is better than nothing though. Incidentally, don’t rely on that padlock on your hold baggage either.
The laptop was also invaluable for playing Thomas the Tank Engine DVDs (using Windows Media Player) to keep my little one occupied for part of the very long flights and for backing up photos from the digital camera. I also took a universal power adapter.
I have a traditional Targus laptop bag with a shoulder strap. But I have found this uncomfortable for carrying a laptop any distance due to the uneven distribution of weight. It also makes it extremely obvious that you have a laptop. A fact I would rather not advertise.
For this trip I purchased a Swissgear Hudson laptop rucksack from Swiss Army knife manufacturer Wenger. It was much more comfortable to wear with the weight distributed across both shoulders and left both hands free for dealing with passports, boarding passes and a bored two year old. It was small enough to take on to an aircraft as hand luggage, but surprisingly spacious. It also had some useful extras, including: a carry handle, a breathable back and a compartment for an MP3 player. I was impressed with the quality of the construction and finish. My only quibble is that there wasn’t as much padding around the top and bottom of the laptop as I might have liked. So I wrapped my laptop in bubblewrap for additional protection. But on the whole I would recommend this bag highly for travelling.
As well a backup on DVD I also took a 2 Gig USB memory stick that contained everything I would need should my laptop malfunction or be stolen. This included copies of my licence key generator, customer database and various passwords. All the sensitive files were encrypted using the free Axxcrypt software, except my passwords which were encrypted using the free Keepass software. The memory stick also stored various third party software installers (including Axxcrypt and Keepass). I kept the memory stick on a lanyard around my neck when I wasn’t sleeping.
I also stored an additional encrypted back-up on a secure server.
Trying to find holiday accommodation that was the right size and budget, in the right location and free at the right time was problematic. Insisting on broadband Internet as well was a step too far. I also wasn’t keen on relying on broadband at accommodation. What if it didn’t work? Relying on Internet cafes seemed an even worse idea. What if I couldn’t find one? And the security issues of using Internet cafes are very real. So I needed my own mobile Internet access.
The roaming charges for using my UK three networks mobile Internet in New Zealand are an outrageous £6/MB. Vodaphone has more sensible roaming charges for some plans, but I couldn’t justify the high monthly price for the occasional trip abroad. So I tried to find a company that would rent me mobile data access in New Zealand for a month, without success. In the end my brother-in-law very kindly sorted me out with a USB mobile modem and a 1GB/mo data plan with Telecom New Zealand. He picked the modem up cheap second-hand on trademe.co.nz and the data plan was of the order of $70NZD/mo, with no minimum term. So, rather than paying >£1000, I ended up paying about £50 (thanks Derek!). There is definitely a business opportunity for someone there.
I am glad I didn’t rely on broadband at the accommodation. It turns out that most of the New Zealand ISPs have restricted SMTP access to prevent spam. So I could receive email via IMAP when plugged in to an xtra.co.nz broadband cable, but I couldn’t connect to their SMTP server to send email. Thankfully I didn’t have this problem with the mobile broadband or I would have been stuck with webmail for a month (the horror!).
Mobile coverage is patchy outside the bigger cities in the South Island of New Zealand, due to the low population density (sheep can’t afford broadband). But I was able to get some sort of signal everywhere we stayed. This might have been helped by the aerial attached to the mobile modem. During the month a I used approximately 40% of the 1GB allowance. I could have used quite a lot less, if necessary.
Stopping over in Singapore I just purchased wifi access from the hotel. It was quite expensive, but I didn’t need it for long. Wifi and hardwired Internet access are available for free in Singapore airport (I couldn’t get the wifi to work, so I just plugged in a network cable).
Running an Internet-based business while travelling isn’t that difficult, with a bit of planning. I doubt my customers even realised I was on holiday. What are you waiting for?
PS/ New Zealand is lovely.
 Truecrypt can also encrypt the whole OS, but that seemed excessive for my requirements and I wasn’t sure what impact it would have on performance.
 If Truecrypt is so easy to set-up and use, why is it apparently beyond the capabilites of the UK government to encrypt sensitive data?
Photo of Airbus A380 by Claire Brice
if you’re getting a lot of spam (like I do ;-), I’d also recommend getting an anti-spam solution that works on a server (and not on your laptop), so that you don’t have to download the spam mails. Further the freeware “Magic Mail Monitor” has been very useful for me, when having slow connections. It allows you to view the subjects and delete mails, for example the 10MB hey-look-at-this-funny-video e-mail from a friend that blocked my e-mail download.
But something different: How was travelling with a two-year-old for such a long distance? I would have thought THAT to be difficult. ;-)
Wow! well written and seems useful. Will “quality check” it on my next trip.
Where is your “follow me in twitter” icon. So used to seeing it in all the sites recently! surprised :)
And you in twitter.
Sign up for gmail and just use them as your SMTP. It’s secure and encrypted, and works from anywhere.
Where did you go? I’d also like to visit NZ and a list of ideas from a like-minded devel would be a great start!
I will check out “Magic Mail Monitor” – thanks.
>How was travelling with a two-year-old for such a long distance? I would have thought THAT to be difficult.
Ok for 3 of the 4 flights. A bit of a nightmare for the last one (over-tired). I would recommend night flights where possible. Also order them an adult meal – the children’s meal are full of sugar (on Singapore Airlines anyway) and that is the last thing you need.
>Where is your “follow me in twitter” icon
I have recently registered http://twitter.com/successfulsw as an experiment. But I haven’t decided yet whether to put any effort into it. Most of what is on twitter appears to be pretty useless/uninteresting IMHO.
>Where did you go?
I was visiting my wife’s family, so we didn’t do too much of the tourist thing this time. But there are loads of great places to visit in NZ. Depends on what you are into.
I couldn’t agree more with you on the Wenger/Swissgear bag. I upgraded to a 17″ laptop last summer and went looking for a backpack to haul it around. I winced at the price, but the one I got is well-built, comfortable, durable and has all sorts of pockets for carrying “stuff”.
In retrospect, well worth the money paid.
I enjoyed this post. I know how to stay ready next time. Your comment about Cyber Cafes are really true. Anyone visiting Cyber Cafe is risking their data.
I once visited a Cyber Cafe in Goa (I am from INDIA)., I found that they had various kind of keyloggers running in the background. Security Paranoid that I am, I tend to check the processes before starting to work on a PC :). I could have bought a data card like you did, good idea!
A little bit off-topic: based on previous posts it seems to me you like apple and their software, why Toshiba? I’d expect to see 13 Mac book instead.
I am pretty agnostic when it comes to OSs. I have a toolset that works pretty well for me on Windows, my main desktop machine is a Windows box and Windows laptops are a lot cheaper than MacBooks.
The main advantage of a MacBook is that it would allow me to run Windows and Mac version of PerfectTablePlan. That is certainly something I will bear in mind next time I trade in my laptop.
Out of curiosity, why didn’t you use truecrypt for your USB stick too (you could have put the truecrypt volume on it I guess) instead of using Axxcrypt ?
I could have used Truecrypt for the stick. It is mostly an accident of history that I used Axxcrypt (I started using Axxcrypt before Truecrypt).
File based encryption has advantages when only only some of the files needed encrypting. For example storing the Truecrypt installer inside a Truecrypt volume would have been a very bad idea. ;0)
Hey Andy, thanks for the tips. I just made the opposite – visited London for a week (from Australia) :)) Thanks for the rucksack tip – carrying a laptop in a standard bag IS a real pain while dealing with passports, bags, kids…
Andy, thanks for sharing your tips. Last year I traveled with 15” Toshiba Satellite, this year I’m thinking of purchasing Asus IEEE for traveling. It’s small and cheap.
I’d like to ask what program do you use to track your customers database? I’m using Excel now but it’s becoming slower and slower. After switching to Office 2007 I changed file format to binary (xlsb). This helped for a while, but I’m expecting that the database will grow…
>I’d like to ask what program do you use to track your customers database?
A home rolled one that reads and writes a honking great CSV file. It is a bit slow to start-up, but bearable.
We did a trip around the South Island in November 2008, staying mostly at YHA Hostels. These usually have double bedrooms with ensuite availsble, if you book far enough ahead. The hostels were almost all served by a common ISP deal which provided wifi that was accessible in at least the common areas, sometimes reached the rooms, for a blanket something like $40.
In terms of things to do – recommend the overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound over the much-smaller Milford Sound but the drive down into Milford is amazing. I was driving so didn’t get to see as much – take one of the weird wedge-shaped tourist buses down there instead.
Highlights for me were the parapointe tandem paraglide above Queenstown and the indoor ice-climbing wall at Franz Josef. We also really enjoyed the heli-hike on Fox Glacier.
Great tips! Thanks for all the useful information.
There are many ways to avoid keyloggers and spyware on public computers. Some are better than others; I good comparison I found is here: http://kyps.net/home/comparison
Definitely agree with you about the Swissgear backpack. No comparison to an over the shoulder case. It has so many pockets and features that one almost needs to carry a list to record where I stored everything. Great value too – less than $50.00 Canadian in Vancouver.
Great article – thanks.