Travel sites often list “carry a USB drive” as one of their most important tips. But many of them fail to explain exactly what they mean by this, or how “a USB drive” can actually benefit you. So, as always, Gadling is here to help with real life tips on how a USB memory drive can help you when you are on the road.
Bootable recovery drive
Do you travel with a netbook or other small machine without a CD or DVD drive? Do you know whether your machine comes with a “recovery partition”? Often, these small computer rely on you to make your own recovery DVD, using an external DVD drive they expect you to buy. If something goes wrong, you won’t be able to boot your computer, and may end up having to keep it in its bag till you get back home.
Thankfully, with just a few simple steps, you can use your desktop PC and your original Windows DVD to make a recovery USB drive of your own.
I always carry one of these, simply because I don’t want to rely on a DVD that can be damaged, and because many of my travel laptops lack a DVD drive. Plus, even though my computers usually come with a recovery partition, it is often for a different operating system than I use on a daily basis.
A great guide on how to make a bootable USB drive can be found at Intowindows.com.
Scanned travel documents
If disaster strikes on the road, do you know your passport number? Do you know your credit card information? If you have a scanner, make scans of all your important documents, save them as an image or PDF, and add a password (some PDF scanning software packages allow you to do this). Alternatively, pop them in a password protected ZIP file or a Tryecrypt file (see below).
If something bad does happen – find yourself a computer with access to a printer, and print out the documents you need. Showing up at the consulate with a copy of your passport will make the replacement process much easier. You can also scan airline tickets, frequent flier cards and anything else that could make life a hassle if you lose it.
Portable browser and email
Don’t like the browser on the hotel computer? Bring your own browser! Most popular browsers are available in a “portable” version. Best of all, you can usually store your bookmarks and extensions alongside that portable browser.
Portable apps collection
Browsers are not the only thing you can make portable – photo editors, word processors and more are all available “portable”. A fantastic place to start is PortableApps.com. Their installer can make the process of copying portable versions of applications to your USB key a breeze.
Concerned about your privacy on the road? The TOR router/browser package can conceal all your tracks, routing your data over secure servers. The TOR system can be installed on a USB key, providing you with an easy to use security solution.
TOR is free, and can run on Windows, OS X and Linus.
Computer backup + photo backup
Did you just spend a day making photos of some of the wonders of the world? As a well educated photographer, I’m sure you made a backup of your photos onto your laptop. But what happens if your laptop hard drive breaks?
Consider an app like Microsoft Synctoy to keep your photos (or other media) in sync with your computer. Simply copy stuff to your PC, then use Synctoy to keep your USB memory drive in sync with your data.
This backup strategy works for any folder on your computer, so consider keeping a backup of your documents or other important files. If you are making backups of private files, consider encrypting them (see Truecrypt below)
If you are on the road for longer than a couple of days, you may want to refresh the music collection on your iPod or other media player. Instead of wasting precious space on your laptop, consider adding fresh content onto your USB drive. The added bonus of this is that some hotel TV’s (and even airline entertainment systems) now accept USB drives, which means you’ll be able to play your tunes on the hotel TV.
Complete computer system
The process of installing an entire operating system on a USB memory key is not “one click”, but if you can follow some simple instructions, you’ll be able to turn your USB key into a bootable Linux system in under an hour.
Pendrivelinux has a fantastic overview of what is involved in the process – along with links to compatible Linux versions.
Do you travel with stuff you wouldn’t want to share with anyone? Before we go on – if you think about using this for hiding kiddie porn, I hope you burn in hell. Thankfully, there are plenty of other legitimate uses for using strong encryption to hide your files from customs officials.
One of the most popular (free) ways to protect your data is Truecrypt. This open source application uses some of the strongest encryption on the market to encrypt your files. The application is ideal for USB drives because it is small, very fast and easy to use.
Of course, as with any password protected system, the weakest link is always going to be the password – so stay away from stupid passwords like “password” and pick something really, really hard to guess.
Truecrypt is free, and is available for Windows, Mac and Linux users. The application creates an encrypted file or partition on your USB drive, and only mounts when you enter the correct password. Once mounted, your encrypted data can be accessed like anything else on your computer. Various additional protections can lock your data if you are not using it.