Academic Travel Tips

Academics — at least those actively involved in computer science research — do a fair amount of travel. Making this go smoothly is something of a learned and practiced skill. Here are some things that have helped me.

Plan ahead

Before the trip, plan ahead about the things that you’ll need with you. This helps avoid forgetting things at the last minute.

I have prepared a checklist that I use for academic travel. A day or two before a trip, I print out a copy, add anything special I need for that trip, and cross off anything irrelevant. The digital list is a superset of my common needs for a variety of trips, including things like posters and international power adapters that I don’t need for every trip; crossing them off is not much work, and it helps me make sure that I don’t forget them when I do need them.


I’ve found it valuable to standardize things. The checklist is one form of this; my/blog/2013/09/wardrobe) is another. I don’t have to make complicated decision about what to wear; I (mostly) just need to count.

Simplify and streamline

I try to take a minimalist approach to managing ownership in general, and travel is no exception. I don’t like weigh myself down with things I really don’t need. This also helps me stay within a carryon.

There are a few things that help with this:

  • Use an e-reader or tablet. All the reading material I want fits in one small device. It’s somewhat heavier than a paperback book, but it has far less bulk. Bulk can make a huge difference in how a bag distributes its weight.
  • Try to get devices with standardized charging cables. I used to have a phone that took Mini-USB, while other things took Micro-USB or a 15-pin connector. Now my phone and tablet both take Micro-USB (although the MP3 player still uses 15-pin), so I can just take one cable. With some forethought, I can usually avoid needing to urgently charge multiple devices at the same time.
  • Consider an integrated laptop + USB power supply. This won’t necessarily be a good idea, but is worth thinking about. I’ve found that mine (a now-discontinued ASUS AD69800) is overly cumbersome if I just want to charge my tablet in an airport, so I’ll probably not be using it for future air trips, but other designs might be a worthwhile.

The exception to this is notebooks. I use physical notebooks for work planning and logging, note taking, and journalling, and want them with me when traveling. This entails multiple notebooks, as I keep my personal journal separate from my working notebook. I also carry a small notebook in my pocket for on-the-fly capture.

Make (and bring) backups

For academic travel, I’m often giving a talk, and may have a poster.

I make sure I have backups of my slides, both on a USB thumb drive in my bag and on an online service such as Dropbox. If something happens to my laptop, this should allow me to recover and give the talk on a borrowed laptop. Similarly, I back up a PDF version of my poster, so if it gets lost or damaged I can reprint it at a local copy shop.

I also make sure that I’ve taken a fresh backup of my laptop prior to leaving. With my automated backup system, this is just a matter of leaving the backup drive plugged in the night before.

Use a good bag

A good bag makes a big difference in the convenience and pleasantness of travel. I use a Timbuk2 Classic Messenger (small size); the small size keeps weight and bulk down but is still big enough for my laptop and related things. I prefer a messenger over a backpack because it’s easier to sit down (I can just swing it into my lap) and easier to access while walking or standing. The Timbuk2 is also very easy to get things into or out of, either while walking or in the airplane seat.