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Gabrie Coletti / Flickr

How To Bring a Desktop as Carry-On Luggage

I’ve carried a lot of weird shit on planes over the years just because you never know how baggage handlers will mess with your stuff. And in about a week, my desktop is going to be making the rounds on the TSA scanners again.

When I was younger, I often carried on my figure skates—I used to figure skate—because I wasn’t willing to part with what was very expensive and precious sports equipment to me. I guarantee if you tried to part a photographer with his $25,000 camera, he’d go so far as to buy an extra ticket just to carry it on (a friend actually has done this). There are some chances just not worth taking.

That said, the desktop computer thing is something that seems to get asked more often than not. Because, believe it or not, people use airplanes to move. I’ve had to deal with this situation a couple times and all I can tell you is that I don’t ship important things. Fedex lost my last desktop computer a while back and I never quite psychologically recovered from it. What I can tell you is that I was at home the entire time waiting for it and it never came.

Because I sometimes alternate periods of time between New York and San Francisco, I’ve found myself having to do this more frequently because my desktop is my main work horse machine. I also no longer trust Fedex, so the last time I had to do this, I decided I would try to carry it on. So I found a small box that would fit the frame more snugly, placed it inside and then padded it with some clothes. (Back up before you get on the plane!)

Let’s not forget that a desktop computer is still subject to carry-on regulations. Thankfully I have a small form factor PC so size was not an issue, but if you plan on carrying a 50-pound behemoth that’s half the size of a small child, than you should think twice about carrying it on. Remove the important components, pad it, have the airline mark it as ‘fragile’ and check it in.

Though I suppose it depends on who you get as a security screener, the TSA dudes I ended up getting just basically asked me what was in the box. When I told them it was my desktop, the guy just smiled, said he understood and waved me through without any hassle. TSA is still within their right to ask you to remove your desktop from whatever packaging you use, so just be prepared with a roll of tape and scissors if need be.

I then proceeded to the gate, stashed the box in the overhead bin, flew from San Francisco to New York, took a taxi home, set up the computer back together and turned the power back on. The indicator light flashed; we were back in business. The whole situation couldn’t have been less painless.

I never took out any hardware components but some people recommend removing certain parts just to be safe. In particular, what seemed to get cited most was the hard drive for safekeeping. However, at gaming site Team Liquid, people seem to prefer protecting the graphics card and CPU:

Graphics cards and large aftermarket CPU coolers are the most susceptible to damage during transit, a bumpy ride can dislodge the PCI-e slot or otherwise cause damage to the board. You may want to remove the graphics card and pack it in a static bag / foam and box it up to put in a separate bag to be safe.

So I asked Jason Chen, the former editor at Gizmodo, what he’d do. “Don’t think you need to [remove anything],” he told me, saying if the components were secure, it shouldn’t be an issue.

Look, all I’m saying is that I was fine. It wasn’t an issue either for this dude who brought it to Belgium or this other dude that brought it to India. People bring their laptops on all the time and a desktop is just a bigger, bulkier version of that. But, seriously, don’t forget to back up.





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