Repairing & Replacing Broken Laptops While Traveling

Macbook Pro with open case on a desk with ifixit tools for laptop repair.

After 9 years of continuous travel, I’ve faced a lot of different situations that demonstrate what can happen to a laptop while traveling.

Real-world situations you may face

…I say you may, but I did – each and every single one of them:

1. Force Majeure

I was in a motorcycle accident (low sided the bike) where my laptop was in a backpack, and we (on the bike) rolled a lot when the bike hit the ground. The funny thing is, this is perhaps the most violent situation where I’ve broken a laptop, but besides a major dent in the housing, the computer was actually fine, and I managed to use it for a year or so before selling it to buy a newer one.

2. Human Error (Probably..)

After doing some upgrades of my own (more RAM, upgrading the hard drive to an SSD, and replacing the CD drive with another SSD), some software glitch caused the laptop to not go to sleep when I put the screen down, and the massive heat it generated from being closed all night with fans running on full messed up some internal component, making the computer inoperable.

3. Gremlins

Several times, it was just *boom* dead, all of a sudden, with no obvious cause – including one time in Iquitos, Peru (the world’s largest city you cannot access by road, with the computer repair resources to match).

The icing on the cake of all of these is that they were all MacBook Pro’s, which are a bit specialized in terms of repair (and much more so nowadays).

Windows, being cheaper and more widely supported, would likely be easier to deal with while traveling.

Real-world resolutions

Here’s how those situations ended up shaking out for me:

Sheer Luck

In the first case, I was lucky.

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This was in 2012-ish and the MacBook was from 2011, when they were built heavy & durable (with replaceable batteries!).

I literally used a pair of pliers to undent the case so it would fit the screen again, and kept using it for almost a year afterwards, at which point I sold it.

It’s funny that this massive physical damage was the best-case scenario.

Buy a “Burner”… Computer?

In the second example, and one of the times in the third, I was:

(1) unable to access Apple support in the countries I was in (Bali was where I did the upgrades, with parts from Singapore) and the local (lacking) tech support couldn’t fix it, and

(2) unable to find a good replacement MacBook to buy (there was just nowhere to buy them in Iquitos, and in Bali you literally could not purchase the top spec new MBP even if you wanted to – it was just not on their list of configurations they could even source – so bizarre), and

(3) not very far from doing an international trip to a country with an official Apple store.

These factors combined led me to purchase a cheap Windows laptop in both cases.

When I was finished using them, I gave the first one away to a Zen center I was staying at later on, and I believe I sold the second one for more than I paid for it, because it was in a different country where electronics were more expensive.

Computer Repairs: Great Excuses for a Vacation

In other cases from the third example (this has happened a lot unfortunately – graphics issues, keyboard issues with the newer MacBook Pro’s, etc.) I just gave it in to Apple support, or in countries where Apple doesn’t have an official presence, to whatever the largest premium reseller was (for sake of trust).

In the former case, they were always pretty quick, but in the latter, one big issue is that, especially for more important components that need to get replaced, or for non-local keyboard types (which if you’re traveling, is probably always), they sometimes have to get parts shipped in, which can take time.

In one case, the waiting time was estimated at 3-6 weeks, and so I just bought another MacBook to use during that time, as that was well beyond the usable period (for both my productivity and mental well being) of a Windows computer – then sold it when I got mine back (as this was through a service, and I didn’t have to spend time selling it).

In other cases, they estimated 1-2 weeks – often finishing in 7-10 days, sometimes 5 – and I used that as a convenient excuse to go on a vacation, sometimes within the country, other times to a neighboring country and coming back.

A Brief, but Important Warning:

I will add that in the case of repairing or selling your computer, it is very important to completely wipe your data from your computer.

In high school, I bought I used laptop, that still had all of the previous owner’s data on it. It was even still logged into his gmail account.

You have to trust your repair person with your computer, but do not trust them with your data.

Even when I give my computer back to Apple, I completely back up my computer (more on that later), then completely erase it, and completely restore my data when they give it back to me – and I would afford no more trust to any other repair person or company, unless I was personally standing there over their shoulder the entire time they were working on my computer.

The last thing you want is for them to give you back your computer, but take your identity with them.

Apple vs. Windows – a.k.a. “What’s in a Warranty?”

As you can see, this is something that potentially happens a lot.

With Apple, you mostly have to go through their channels, either for warranty issues or for peace of mind, as a laptop is such an important tool in this type of lifestyle.

Luckily, most of the repairs were covered under warranty – which I will add, get the extended warranty (AppleCare+) – and Apple has also gone above and beyond for me personally, even going as far as to help past the end of the warranty in some special cases. It is worth it.

With Windows, you will probably have an easier time getting repairs; I wouldn’t say you’ll have less issues – and keep in mind all the above examples occurred over nearly a decade – but that you will find many more places to service Windows computers in many more parts of the world, and out-of-pocket costs will be cheaper (though overall they may be more expensive depending on your computer, and the type of warranty you’ve got. Apple’s is great, and basically worldwide – another perk of the premium price tag).

Repairs on Windows laptops, however, may not be covered under warranty unless you go with a recognized global brand like Samsung, Dell, or HP – and even then, the warranty process may not be particularly appealing, as Windows computers naturally have much more variety than Apple ones, and the wait times for parts could either be much longer (in which case, longer vacations?) or simply inaccessible from your region.

This can be somewhat offset by Windows computers having more interchangeable parts, which would be out of pocket (and even void your warranty), but again, certainly more readily available.

A Backup Computer?

If your daily presence at work is so mission-critical that you cannot miss a single day – besides potentially re-evaluating whether that type of work is suited to a lifestyle that by its nature brings in a degree of unavailability, either by choice (e.g. exploring) or necessity (e.g. flights) – then I would buy the thinnest backup laptop you can find that is powerful enough for what you need to do.

Having a second laptop you bring with you can also double as a lightweight laptop that you bring on mini-trips (e.g. long hikes, or road trips) where you might still need access to a laptop but want to keep it light and not bring both – or in another, opposite form factor, as a gaming laptop.

Otherwise, as above, take the time to treat yourself to a vacation, or just be ready to buy a new computer at a moment’s notice, even if it’s only a temporary one – that is what I’d recommend over carrying two laptops just as a backup (again, unless mission-critical things demand it).

However, whether you buy that replacement computer – or even have a backup one ready to go – it’ll do you little good if you can’t access up to date versions of your files.

Which brings us to the final piece of the puzzle, whether you need a second computer now, or not:

Backing Up Your Computer

Investing (which is a funny word for it as it’s so cheap) in a cloud backup service, like BackBlaze, to keep your important files constantly and automatically up to date in the cloud is an essential part of being able to recover from a computer crash or loss. BackBlaze in particular is the one I both use and recommend, especially with its “extended version history” option, which keeps a history of all your files for a year.

With it, you can download the most recent versions of your most important files right away, and be back up and running with the crucial necessities basically as soon as you get (or activate) your new computer.

And one of the best things about BackBlaze in particular, is that it’s all done automatically in the background, so once you set it up, you can more or less forget about it (unless you have external drives, which need to be reconnected for a minimum period of time every once in a while).

On top of that, you can use cloud services for daily-access files in a “collaborate and/or edit online” manner, such as Google Workspace (formerly G Suite), which will more or less give you the same immediate access – but only to those files (mainly documents) that exist on the platform. Note that this is not a backup strategy, just something to potentially save you a tiny bit of lost work in case your computer dies in the middle of you working on a document, before you’ve had time to save it, and only to those files that you edit with that platform.

Then, making sure you use a password manager like LastPass (or at least an encrypted shared document), you’ll be able to get access back to your accounts.

Getting Back to Your Computer (New or Old)

Of course, having an actual full backup (not just of your working files, or all your files minus your operating system/settings like BackBlaze doesn’t offer), is necessary to get you back up to “full speed”.

With the above setup, even prior to doing a full restore from your full back up, you could switch to the other computer and get back up and running (i.e. able to work on the files/sites you need to) more or less uninterrupted, in case something happens to your main computer – whether that involves you buying a new one, a new temporary one, or having to restore your data after getting it repaired.

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