Ask Kate: Do I Need a Laptop for Travel?

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This week’s Ask Kate is about technology, staying in touch, and whether internet cafes are still a viable option in 2013.

Hi Kate!

I am anticipating a lot of travel in 2013 and am no stranger to travel. The time is right! Would love your insight on things.

I am not giving up my US apt yet but will  be in Paris the month of February renting an apt. in the 6th. Will need to use an internet cafe as I don’t have a Smart phone yet and don’t want to bring iPad or laptop.  Any suggestions in that area? ugh!

There’s no way to say this gingerly — internet cafes are DONE.

That’s not to say they no longer exist — you can still find them in Paris and throughout Europe — but their heyday has passed.  I practically lived at internet cafes during my semester abroad in Florence in 2004.  Today, though, it’s far more common to find places with free wifi than it is to find an internet cafe.

For this reason, and because you’re traveling for a full month, I recommend bringing the minimum of a smartphone.  If you have an iPod touch, that pretty much serves the same purpose, minus the phone aspect.  With a smartphone or iPod touch, you can easily email, update social media, take and edit photos, and surf the web.

If you don’t want to travel with a laptop because you’re nervous about traveling with something valuable, just lock it up!  I use my Pacsafe Portable Safe when there isn’t a safe or locker available.

If you still don’t want to bring your laptop, I recommend that you at least invest in a netbook — a small, cheap, simple laptop.  This is similar to the one I used in Asia and it retails for $275.

I’ve met many people who bought netbooks halfway through their trips because they realized that they couldn’t rely on internet cafes.  Plus, it’s infinitely more pleasant sitting in a Parisian cafe and sipping a glass of Bordeaux or a cafe creme while catching up on your email.

I promise you that if you invest in a netbook or a smartphone, it will add to your travel experience — not detract from it.

Good luck and enjoy my favorite neighborhood in Paris!

43 thoughts on “Ask Kate: Do I Need a Laptop for Travel?”

  1. I’d second that. I don’t know where I’d be without my laptop. It’s also worth seeing if the apartment has free wifi. While I like using wifi at cafes, it’s nice to be able to relax in my room and be able to access e-mail and social media.

    It’s also worth knowing that while there is a lot of free wifi in Paris, it’s not nearly as widespread as it is in the UK for example.


  2. yeah! i had a same question in my mind..i didn’t have a laptop and used to work in desktop, but recently i’ve bought a laptop and want to take with me wherever i is of no problem if you are traveling nearby, but if you are traveling solo and in some remote places, it would be a problem..anyways, thanks for suggestions. Cheers!

  3. You can pick up a 10 inch Windows notebook for basic surfing and word processing for about £250 now – they’re portable, light, have decent battery life and if they get nicked, not too bad to replace. I’d recommend everyone travel with one. They’re vastly more usable than some thief-tastic Macbook Air.

  4. I totally agree with your netbook suggestion, Kate! I haven’t given in to the smartphone religion (yet), and my little Asus netbook was the best travel purchase I ever made!
    I studied abroad in Portugal last year, and didn’t want to bring my heavy laptop, or buy an expensive, fancy phone – for me, this was the perfect solution! I could easily carry around my netbook when I went to university, or to work in a café, but I didn’t have to take the expensive gadget with me when going out at night, because I still had my old cell phone 🙂

  5. Definitely agree. On a 6 week jaunt without a laptop in 2010 (with similar concerns about theft), I spent a small fortune in internet access at hostels and internet cafes, where wifi was free. It was frustrating, and a huge mistake!

  6. I just picked up a Asus vivobook for my big trip coming up and I’m loving it. It is small, super light and also touchscreen and still only went for $500. For people who want a compromise between portability and quality – I’d recommend it! Insurance usually covers items up to $500 as well…so I’ll still be comfortable traveling with it!

  7. A Netbook, absolutely ….. Ours has been a life saver. It is so small and light that I often carry it me in my “Man Bag” that I purchased in Hong Kong a few years ago. In addition to E-Mail and Social Media it is great for storing and processing the thousands of digital photos we accumulate along the way. Plus you can Skype from anyplace that has a Hot Spot. Although it is more difficult to print from I can research transportation modes and checkin for flights or do any other number of tasks.

  8. I agree!!! – I bought a netbook a couple of years back and love it. Not only to stay in touch but to back up (and share) pictures and from there put them onto a flash drive. (a bit paranoid perhaps Laurie?) I now have an iphone as well – me who hated cell phones. Never say never!
    If you do go without a laptop/netbook/iphone however, a local library is a good place to access the ‘net for half an hour to an hour – they give you a temporary card so that is an option and one I’ve used if I get fed up with the small keyboard or the wifi speed. Not sure if that is an option in Paris though. While internet cafes can be nice a lot of them are grotty with filthy and broken keyboards….up some stairs in a cramped dark room. (having flashbacks here!) However if you want to stay in touch without waiting for opening hours though a netbook/smartphone is the answer.

  9. Great tip on the pacsafe. Hadn’t heard about that before!
    But I’m guessing someone who reallyreally wants to steal something will find a way.

    That said, I totally agree on having you own tablet/iPod/smartphone/netbook with you. It’s so much easier when you can just take it out when and where you need it. I wouldn’t bring a laptop if I was planning on traveling for a short time or going from one place to another. Seems a bit too big to me then. But if you’re staying in the same place for some time, it might be more comfortable than tockling on something small.

    1. Just thought of another good reason to bring your own: for all the ‘private’ stuff you want to do in a ‘secure’ online environment, like online banking…

    2. True — if someone is determined to steal from you, they will find a way.


      Most crimes are crimes of opportunity. Reduce the level of opportunity and you decrease your chances of getting robbed.

  10. I travelled Ireland without a laptop for three weeks. No lies, it sucked. It’s almost essential now, not just for keeping in touch but simply for research & bookings.

  11. I always take my smart phone traveling, and we have an ipad too, but it just isn’t as useable as a laptop. I find a smart phone will cut it for a few weeks, but anything longer and I would need a laptop.

    1. I’d been thinking of taking my iPad, but what do you mean it isn’t as useable as a laptop? I was kinda hoping that I wouldn’t need to lug the laptop if I have this. Oh dear!

  12. The netbook was invaluable three years ago in South Africa but still needed internet stores as WIFI wasn’t very available. Hoping that’s improved. Also dumped photos every night which saved my memories when the Indian Ocean ate my camera. This trip also includes a backup drive.

  13. Isn’t it strange how fast technology can change. Even when I traveled in 2007/2008 I didn’t feel the need for a computer of some sort but now most definitely. I don’t have a smartphone yet, but I have an ipod touch and usually bring it to stay in touch. I also have a laptop that I’ll bring if I need to do work, but if it’s more of a vacation trip (which doesn’t happen a lot now) I’ll leave it at home.

  14. I travel with my laptop because I work freelance, but I wouldn’t if I didn’t work and travel. Many countries still make finding wifi pretty hard (India, lots of places in South-East Europe, Middle East and Africa and I also struggle in my home country Germany anywhere that doesn’t have Starbucks). Most (European) backpackers still do seem to travel without laptop and get on just fine.

    1. I actually struggled a bit in South Africa — I was shocked that they have no Starbucks there! Many of the places had limited wifi — if it’s just 20 MB, what’s the point?

  15. Hi Kate. I was wondering, how do you keep up with a low battery life or smartphone? Did you buy an extra battery saver (external) or you just bought an extra smartphone battery? Please let me know since I’ll be travelling to Cambodia end of this month. Thanks!

  16. Yet, there are many internet cafes in Paris, just not in the 6th arrondissement and they are not very nice as they tend to be in diverse neighborhoods where you find a lot of arabs and africans men. If you have friends studying in paris, ask them for their student card and go any library in the 6th and use the desktops there.

  17. When I studied abroad in France I brought my laptop but I only used it at home or school. When it came to traveling I never brought it in case it got stolen (that thing was my life, my only connection to home!) Instead when I traveled I just made sure to always book a hostel that had computers for guest use. I never had an issue while traveling when it came to staying in touch.

    Driftwood and Daydreams

  18. We travel extensively, long and light, but I cannot imagine travelling without a (small) laptop. It is a life-line for me. Use Skype (have credit. bring headset)) for inexpensive or free phone calls, email, info/activities etc. search re city I am in…., finding/booking next accommocation, planning what to see next, connecting with expats located there, watching movies, reading newspapers, my interests/ websites and ebooks…. way too numerous purpose for laptop to list here. I never stay anywhere where they don’t have free unlimited WI-FI and that way stay self sufficient and economical while travelling.

  19. Hi – Sorry, I know this is an old thread but I wondered if you had any luck.
    I’m in the 6th and I have internet but I no printer, I need to print something this afternoon and I’m wondering where I can do it.
    There used to be a place in the 5th but I don’t want to lose time by going there if it’s shut down now.
    By the way, when people say there is less wifi in Paris I wonder where they’re going. Maybe more upmarket places where they don’t expect you to use it, Im not sure. But most little bars have it and you just need their code, no registration, or need to give your email address or anything and a lot of the smaller cafe’s have it too.
    In England I find it’s mainly in franchises like Starbucks, Nero’s or MacDonalds, where they want you to sign in with them that have internet and hardly any independent places.

    1. Richard I find myself in the same situation. Did you ever find somewhere to print your documents? I want to book some tickets to Giverny etc, but need to print them and I haven’t access to a printer.

  20. Hello from an Adventurous Cate

    I just returned from a four-country European trip where I’d hoped to use my Android Nexus and Smartphone for wireless access (To avoid roaming charges, I suspended Verizon phone service. )

    Instead I was shocked by how hard it was to find reliable internet access, particularly in Italy. Internet Cafes are hot, crowded and noisy — a lot of people screaming over bad connections; public wi-fi surrounded us, but was inaccessible without an Italian exchange on a cellphone (We’ve bought a MOBAL phone with a UK country code for quick calls on the run and use google on a laptop and/or facebook for longer calls home.)

    I’m traveling in one to three month chunks and every time I’m home in the U.S., I scour the web for the latest developments, hoping the situation will improve in terms of affordable wireless solutions for long-term travelers. I’ve tried USB plug-ins (WIND in Italy, Moviestar/Claro in Central America) and am now reading about pocket-sized wireless routers at exorbitant daily rates.

    In addition, given what a pain it is to disconnect and reconnect home cable (wireless, phone, cable services), I’m ideally looking for something that can be used both here in the U.S. and abroad.

    Surely, there’s something better out there, or am I dreaming? Please advise.

    Cate (Brooklyn, NY)

    P.S. I’m thirty years older than you, traveling with the new man in my life, and starting my own blog.

    Love yours! Keep up the good work and safe travels!

    1. Cate, I have had the opposite experience. Free wifi is extremely common in Italy and throughout Europe. The last few years I’ve traveled there with no issues whatsoever.

      1. Thanks for the quick response, Kate

        It would be interesting to know how it is that our experiences are so different. I suspect it’s because, having leased a car and using home exchanges and AIRBNB’s, we were not staying in center cities. I’ll watch your posts to see if any overlap with locations from our trip and get back to you.

  21. Hello there, You could have performed a fantastic job. I’ll certainly digg this and individually propose to be able to friends and neighbors. More than likely they are taken advantage of this web site.

  22. Hi Kate. I desperately need your advice. I trust your opinion. I’m REALLY struggling choosing a laptop. I’ve never travelled with a laptop but I am going to Ireland for 6 months in 16 days and I plan to do lots of traveling. So I’m trying to decide between the 13″ or 15″ MacBook Pro with retina. These are both super lightweight: the 15″ is only a pound more than the 13″. 3.5 lbs vs 4.5 lbs. With that in mind would you choose the 15″ or in your experience would it still just feel too big and bulky?

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