At first, the new and utterly nonsensical ban on any electronics bigger than a phone on some flights seemed like it was something most of us would happily avoid.
But by essentially including all flights from Dubai to the US (ie Emirates), from Abu Dhabi (ie Etihad flights) and Istanbul (ie Turkish Airlines) it has shifted from something that might only inconvenience ‘other people’ and now threatens all of us who might be returning to the US through these (and the other seven) hubs. Expect a new round of airport chaos, and if we’re planning travel through an affected airport, clearly we can’t afford to ignore it.
The purpose of this article is to help you respond to the problems this ban will cause you. Furthermore, the ban is open-ended rather than temporary, and if it really truly is a bona fide response to a real new threat, it seems possible the ban might extend to cover all airports at some time in the future.
As you probably now know, the ban prohibits taking electronic items larger than a cell phone into the airplane cabin – all such items need to be checked instead.
So how big is too big? What is the maximum size of item you can now take on board these flights? Alas, even that obvious question is hard to answer (did I say this is a beyond idiotic piece of regulation?).
Problem/Solution 1 : Measuring Your Electronics
For the record, the US version of the ban says ‘you can’t take things larger than a phone’ onto the plane. How big is that? No-one really knows, and that is an ambiguity that will surely never be resolved in your favor. Let’s just say that when security officers prohibit plastic miniature replicas of pistols on charm bracelets, your chances of talking your way onboard with a possibly oversized electronic item are less than zero.
You could try traveling with an old ‘brick’ sized cell phone and claim that allows you to have any other electronics of the same size, but we doubt this would work.
The similar but not identical UK ban helpfully specifies the maximum size allowed on flights in to Britain. This is 16cm x 9.3cm x 1.5cm, or if you prefer inches, 6.3″ x 3.65″ x 0.6″. It means that the largest screened phones are probably going to be within the dimensions (an iPhone 7+ with a 5.5″ screen measures 6.2″ x 3.1″ x 0.3″), but even a small 6″ screen Kindle will be too large (the smallest Kindle is too wide).
What say you have an item which has two dimensions smaller than the maximum and one that is larger? In theory, the risk is actually related to the volume of the object, but we suspect that the officers at security are not going to be willing to calculate relative volumes and make exceptions. It is generally expected that sizing templates will be created, and our guess would be that a failure of any one of the three dimensions will mean a refusal to allow the item on board.
These templates will also be unforgiving. For example, my lovely Fiio X3 music player, while much shorter and narrower than the size limits, is 0.63″ thick – as close to 0.6″ as any ruler could ever determine. But if it is facing a template that can’t/won’t stretch, the extra 3/100ths of an inch is enough to change it from being accepted to being banned. (Happily, within every problem lies a desirable solution – is it finally time to upgrade to a newer, better, and smaller Fiio X5, I wonder!?).
So, the first suggestion is that you need some way of accurately measuring items at home – a set of calipers, not just a ruler to hold things against. Happily, these are easy to use and inexpensive. You can get (on Amazon, of course) a ridiculously accurate electronic caliper set for as little as $9, or an ‘old fashioned’ and (and only slightly less accurate) mechanical set for about the same price.
I have both, and find that most of the time I use the mechanical one – it is simpler and easier to use. In the unusual and rare situation that I need to know something to a higher degree of accuracy, I’ll bring out the electronic one (and hope the battery hasn’t died in the year since I last touched it!), but most of the time, the mechanical one is fine.
Problem/Solution 2 : The Danger of Having Electronics Stolen Out of Your Checked Bags
Luggage thefts are not just something that happens to other people. They can happen to you too, and for all you know, your bags may have been opened by thieves in the past, but passed over simply because there was nothing obviously/sufficiently valuable inside.
Don’t think that locking your suitcase will deter thieves. This Youtube video (and many others like it) show how easy it is to untraceably open a suitcase in seconds, go through it, and then lock it up again afterwards.
The ‘solution’ in that video is ridiculous, and one of the things you should never do is make your suitcase look unusual as if it is protecting items of high value. Better to have it blend in with the others. The one partial solution that can help is to have zips that don’t just lock against each other, but which lock against a part of the suitcase. If they can’t then be slid out-of-the-way, it makes it harder to then open the suitcase, and also makes it impossible to conceal that the suitcase was opened. Another reason to like the excellent Briggs & Riley suitcases with the lock feature depicted.
Luggage thieves will now know that bags on flights from the ten affected airports are much more likely to have valuable electronics in them, and will definitely focus on those bags. While the odds are still in your favor that you’ll be okay, can you really afford to risk that. Do you want to risk losing all your vacation photos on your camera, all your video footage on your camcorder, and – most of all – all your data on your laptop?
Insurance will probably reimburse you for lost items, but it can’t and won’t reimburse you for the lost data on them, and in the case of laptops, potentially the loss of business that arises if you lose work related records and data (unless you have additional specialized business insurance coverages).
The problem of luggage thefts was one of the factors that encouraged the airlines/security officials to walk back from their earlier total ban on all electronics on all flights. Too much was being stolen. So the problem is very real.
There are two things you should do. Before traveling, take the memory cards out of cameras and camcorders and keep them in your carry-on. You might not be allowed to have your camera with you any more, but you are definitely still allowed to keep your memory cards with you. Cameras are replaceable, their photos and videos, not so much.
Secondly, back up your computer’s data onto an external hard drive that is appropriately sized to avoid the size limits of the new electronic ban and carry the external hard drive with you. We also recommend, on the hard drive, you should keep master copies of all your software so that if you lose the laptop while traveling (or if it breaks/fails/needs replacement) you have everything you need to restore your laptop to full functionality, even if you need to urgently buy a new hard drive or laptop entirely.
While most external hard drives are about the size of a hardback book (ie too big), you can also get small light weight units that are powered by the laptop, so they don’t even need an external power supply, and which are smaller than the size limits of the new electronics ban.
When considering an external hard drive, clearly its dimensions are a critical factor. We also suggest you choose a name brand drive – the last thing you want is your backup drive to fail. And get one that supports USB 3.0 – it is appreciably faster than USB 2.0 when making backups or doing a subsequent recovery. Don’t skimp on capacity – get one that is at least as big as the hard drive in your various computers; and because a larger one probably only costs another $20 or so, why not get a larger one to ‘future proof’ the drive and your use of it. You can use it to back up your photos and video too.
Sure, you might think you could back everything up to the cloud, but are you sure you’ll have good fast access to the internet everywhere you’ll be? Or, maybe even if you do, it might be a ‘metered’ service that charges per MB/GB of data.
Plus, while small-sized cloud storage is available, free or cheaply, from many services, when you’re looking at 1TB or more of online storage, the cost becomes appreciable. A 2TB Dropbox account is currently $12.50/month, whereas a 2TB external drive is about $80 – little more than the cost of six months of Dropbox and very much more accessible.
The Seagate Backup Plus Slim ($80 for 2TB, other sizes also available) and Seagate Backup Plus Ultra Slim (same price) are good choices and fit within the allowable carry-on size. Most others (including the Western Digital My Passport Ultra Portable and the Toshiba Canvio drives) are too thick.
Related (Bonus) Problem : Identity Theft
These days, having electronics stolen not only means you’ve lost the item, but it can also mean you might be exposing yourself to identity theft.
Make sure that all the devices you own are password protected – phones, tablets, laptops. If you want to be more fully protected, enable encrypted storage on your hard drive, too. In theory this means that someone else can’t simply take the hard drive out of your laptop and plug it in to another laptop as a non-boot drive and read the data on it.
Problem/Solution 3 : Phone Battery Life
If the only device you can take with you onto your flight is a phone, you might find yourself using it for entertainment purposes more than you expected. Reading books, listening to music, and even watching video.
Years ago, we were told that we should enjoy watching video on tiny 3″ and 3.5″ screened devices. I always thought that was ridiculous, but now with 5.5″ screens, the experience is acceptable. Not as good as on an 8″ or larger screen, but if you’re stuck on a long flight with no interesting entertainment provided by the airline, then it is surely better than nothing.
Another possibility – you find yourself on an airplane where the airline has decided to do away with seat back screens, because ‘everyone brings their own devices these days’ – a statement that will have to be modified if the flight is leaving from one of the ten affected airports.
Now, sure, in theory your phone is probably good for somewhere between 10 – 15 hours of video or e-book reading, and more of simple music playing. Maybe you think ‘I only have an 8 hour flight, so I’ll be fine’. But that assumes that your battery is fully charged at the beginning of the flight, and that it has its full rated life, and further assumes you don’t mind walking off the plane with a potentially dead phone.
Many planes now have USB charging ports, but these don’t necessarily work all the time. Fortunately, there’s no reason to stress over battery life these days because an external battery pack is inexpensive, small-sized, and gives a huge boost to battery life. Even relatively small external batteries will at least double your phone’s battery life and ensure you have plenty of spare power, no matter how long your flight.
This is one of those things that is so useful, small/light/convenient, and inexpensive, that it should be considered an essential part of your travel kit, all the time, no matter where you go.
Talking about power, charging, and low-cost solutions, here’s another bonus tip.
Tip : The $5 Solution You Should Always Travel With
How many times have you been desperate to recharge a device while in an airport gate area (or anywhere else) but all the outlets are taken by other people charging their devices.
There’s a $5 solution for that. Well, it might be a few dollars less, and maybe a few dollars more. Simply get a double or triple plug adapter, so that one wall outlet can host two or three chargers simultaneously. That means you can confidently ask someone to share ‘their’ outlet without inconveniencing them at all.
Yet Another Bonus Solution
With big screened smart phones so inexpensive these days, it might make sense to but one with a 5.5″ drive, 1080 x 1920 pixel screen, and removable Micro-SD card storage as a portable media device, in addition to your ‘real’ phone with whatever sized screen.
This gives you a legally sized unit with unlimited potential storage (due to the swappable memory cards) and a good screen that will show full resolution HD video.
The current best value example of this is probably the Motorola G4, available on Amazon for a net $130. It lists for $180, and gives you a $50 gift card if you sign up for Prime. If you already have Prime, then it is $130 to start with. There are plenty of other phones, including some with slightly larger 5.7″ screens, but this is an unbeatable value and probably your best current choice.
You can even use it as a phone, too (of course). For example, if traveling out of the country, you can keep your regular phone and then put a local SIM in this phone, too.
Just one thing. If you buy a protective case for it (and any other phone, too), you might need to remove the case at security. With the case, it might be deemed dangerously thick; but without the case, it will be safely thin.
We’ve grown used to the luxury of surrounding ourselves with electronic distractions (and productivity tools) to while away the hours on our long flights. With some care and ingenuity, we can continue to surround ourselves with much of what we’ve come to rely upon.