Laptops can be a handful for frequent flyers, who must haul them out of their cases at airport security, then re-pack them afterwards. Not only is this troublesome, but it can also result in damage to your hardware. Fortunately, a new breed of laptop bag has come to the rescue. Generally designated as "checkpoint-friendly" or "TSA-friendly," these bags are designed to go through the X-ray machine without requiring the laptop to be removed. There is no official certification for this program, but manufacturers can work with the TSA to test their bags.
Our two top-rated bags in this category accomplish that in different ways. The Targus Checkpoint-Friendly Air Traveler Backpack (*Est. $45) can be unzipped and folded open butterfly-style without losing any of its contents. The Tom Bihn Checkpoint Flyer Laptop Bag (*Est. $220) unclips, allowing the middle section (which holds the laptop) to fold out away from the rest of the bag.
For information about what sizes of carry-on bags -- including laptop bags -- qualify as small personal items on flights, see LuggageOnline.com's guide by airline. For more information about TSA-friendly laptop cases, see the Transportation Security Administration's own page on the designation.
As with many Targus bags, reviewers think if the Zip-Thru Air Traveler Laptop Backpack has an Achilles heel, it is its durability. Most find it reasonably well made, if not exceptionally sturdy, but several note that the bottom has no reinforcement. Several recent user reviews complain of the strap stitching coming apart after just a few months, though they say Targus honors the bag's limited lifetime warranty in those cases. Most say they have no problems.
Tom Bihn's reputation for rugged durability carries through with the Checkpoint Flyer Laptop Bag, which is made with quality, high-grade fabric, tough hardware and sturdy stitching. Reviewers and users report taking it around the world with no signs of wear. The Tom Bihn Checkpoint Flyer Laptop Bag takes the durability category.
The Targus Checkpoint-Friendly Air Traveler Backpack laptop bag gets high marks from reviewers for a comfortable ride, thanks to its ventilated padding on the back and shoulder straps. The straps can be uncomfortable if you overload the pack and carry it for long distances, something that's easy to do because of its large interior compartments, users note.
The Tom Bihn Checkpoint Flyer Laptop Bag is generally comfortable to carry, with ergonomic handles. But it doesn't come with a shoulder strap, which means it can become uncomfortable to carry over long distances. The optional Absolute Shoulder Strap (*Est. 30) is comfortable, but it adds to the cost of a bag that's already very expensive for the category. Due to the Checkpoint Flyer's lack of a strap, the Targus Zip-Thru Air Traveler Backpack is best-reviewed in the comfort category.
The Targus Checkpoint-Friendly Air Traveler Backpack is a plain, black nylon backpack. It's not ugly, according to reviews, but it's not pretty, either: It is what it is and does what it does. It's not bulky, but is sized large enough to carry all the gear you need on the road.
The Tom Bihn Checkpoint Flyer Laptop Bag is one of the most expensive bags we found reviewed in this category. Reviewers say the stitching is always perfect and that every aspect of the bag shows attention to detail, but they caution that it's a larger bag and it'll look lumpy if you stuff it. Still, the Tom Bihn bag takes the appearance category due to its finer details.
The Tom Bihn Checkpoint Flyer Laptop Bag and the Targus Checkpoint-Friendly Air Traveler Backpack both offer limited lifetime warranties. Both have top-notch reports of customer service from users and reviewers. Targus has more users saying they needed the warranty -- but that the company always delivers. Tom Bihn users don't report needing warranty service, but say the company's customer service in general is top of the line. When it comes to warranties, both companies come through.
Tom Bihn's Checkpoint Flyer Laptop Bag is one of the best-made on the market, critics agree. It offers thoughtful features, and the clamshell approach -- in which the laptop is clipped in a separate sleeve between the two outer compartments -- works well at security checkpoints, they say. The materials and manufacture are top-notch.
But you pay heavily for the privilege: this bag starts at $220, and that's without a shoulder strap. You see similar prices on high-end designer bags, but this is a basic, if extremely well executed, laptop bag. Because the included laptop sleeve is sized for your particular model, if you swap sizes you'll need to buy another sleeve. You get what you pay for, according to reviews; the question is whether you really need that much.
The Targus Checkpoint-Friendly Air Traveler Backpack is at the opposite end of the price spectrum, costing an estimated $45. But it's also not as well made, with some users and reviewers complaining about durability issues. Still, you could buy four Targus bags for what one Tom Bihn will set you back -- five, if you decide you want the Absolute Shoulder Strap for the Bihn bag (*Est. $30). The Targus bag is reasonably well made, and users give it excellent marks overall for its features. Due to the breathtaking price difference, the Targus bag easily tops the rest.
Reviewers and users agree that the Tom Bihn Checkpoint Flyer rules the category in durability, workmanship and, comparatively, appearance (though neither bag would look at home on a runway). The Targus Zip-Thru Air Traveler Checkpoint-Friendly Backpack takes the crown for comfort and value. But according to reviews the Tom Bihn bag, while top of the line, takes too big a bite from your wallet -- though it's a fine option if money is no object. Based on reviews, the Targus Zip-Thru Air Traveler offers the best balance between value and features, and takes the traveler-friendly category.