Flying Cheap: Air Courier Travel
Editor’s Note. There was a time, way back before 9/11, that you could travel on an air courier flight for free. But those days are long gone. Consider this story a trip down memory lane. If you want more info on air courier travel as of 2015, George Hobica and Alexander Basek provide the sad story–it’s all over. Read what happened here.
In The Good Old Days
How do you fly to London for $100 round-trip? Hong Kong for $300? Rio for $150? Mexico for FREE? Easy. Travel as an air courier. There are numerous air courier companies that will fly you to cities around the world for prices that no consolidator or Internet special can beat. The days of air courier flights, however grand they used to be, are done, finished, no more.
Being an air courier required nothing more than signing up, being willing or able to travel light on short notice, and being responsible enough to meet a representative in an airport for a few minutes before beginning your vacation.
It’s wasn’t hard, but like some other alternative transportation options, it required a little more planning than simply buying a ticket and climbing aboard.
WHY TRAVEL AS AN AIR COURIER?
One reason: cost. Short of winning an Internet auction (rare and hard), or redeeming your frequent flier miles, there is no other way to travel by plane as cheaply. It’s also fun: a bit of adventure in what is usually a routine mode of transportation.
WHAT IS AN AIR COURIER?
An air courier is basically a freelance deliveryman/woman who is hired by a delivery company to escort cargo by plane. In reality, you are a passenger on a plane whose baggage allowance (or excess) is used for shipping goods or documents quickly. As payment for your temporary employment for the company, you get a discounted (sometimes FREE!) round-trip ticket to a destination.
But, a courier is also the point person for the shipment, which means that you will be often be carrying the paperwork for the shipment and are responsible for making sure that the paperwork is received in its destination. However, once the shipment and the paperwork arrive in the destination, you are free. You may never even see the shipment, or if you do, most certainly won’t handle it directly. Don’t worry, you aren’t transporting drugs or contraband: usually, the cargo is nothing more than documents or small parcels and it’s all perfectly legal.
WHO CAN BE AN AIR COURIER?
Anyone. Well almost. You must be over 18 and have a valid passport, usually a US or EU passport. Some courier companies require that you have a presentable appearance, i.e. take out the nose ring and don’t dye your hair green before your flight.
TYPES OF COURIER COMPANIES
As a freelance courier, you have the option of working with a range of companies. Some air courier companies fly to most major cities in the world on a regular basis, while others fly only to and from specific cities at specific times. Some companies require that you become a member of their organization to be eligible for flights; others will give you a ticket without any formalities other than a signature on a contract.
Many companies work with air courier booking agencies that represent a number of smaller companies around the world. Booking agencies are the best bet for freelance couriers because they offer a wider selection of flights and are good sources of information about courier travel and how it works. Many smaller companies refer all their business to the booking agents, so sometimes you can’t get a flight without using them.
On the negative side, there is often a small fee to pay to be eligible for the flights. Still, between the fee and the cost of the ticket, it usually comes out to far less than what you’d pay for a regular plane ticket.
The larger booking companies also offer consolidator tickets–cheap plane tickets that don’t require courier services. Several companies also offer deeply discounted fares that are essentially seats that haven’t been sold when the plane takes off (like stand-by). Many companies also offer “Last Minute” deals when they need couriers quickly–really cheap fares or even FREE!
HOW LONG CAN YOU STAY ON A COURIER TICKET
The amount of time you can stay in your destination varies ticket by ticket. The average length of stay is one week–some are three or four days, some are two weeks and still others allow you up to a month or longer. Some are open returns, meaning that you can be flexible on your return date as long as it is within a certain time window. Missing a return flight means that you forfeit your return ticket and will have to pay for a new one, not at courier rates!
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Exact procedures vary from company to company, but the basics are as follows:
- You call the courier company or booking agency and tell them you are available to travel to such-and-such destination on such-and-such dates. Flexibility on dates is important: have approximate dates, not set ones. It’s a good idea to call two to three months before you plan to travel (if you have set dates and destinations), as flights fill up quickly. Last minute travelers can often call a few days in advance and see what’s available.
- The courier company or booking agent will tell you what is available. To purchase your ticket, you may have to pay by overnight check or by credit card. You will also have to sign a contract (this can be done in advance or at the airport). You may have to give a refundable deposit on your return ticket ($100 or so). If you miss your return flight, you forfeit your deposit.
- A few days before your flight, you will be required to check in and confirm that you are still planning to go. If you must cancel your plans, do so long before your flight. Check with the company at the time of your reservations regarding refund policies for cancellations.
- On the day of your flight, you will have to meet a representative of the company at the airport to get your ticket, instructions and papers, or you may have to meet the representative at the courier company offices.
- You will be checked in and given the luggage receipts for the checked cargo, which you will then give to the company representative in your destination.
- Upon arrival, you will meet the representative of the company, hand over the papers and you’re on your way. In some cases, you may have to attend the company rep until the parcels clear customs, but it shouldn’t take long.
- On your return trip, you may have to repeat the procedure, or you may be flying empty– without any cargo for which you are responsible. In this case, you simply meet the rep, get your ticket and off you go.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR COURIERS
It sounds easy, and it is. But courier travel isn’t for everyone. Below are a few things to consider before you call the courier company.
- Courier tickets often begin and end in major airline and shipping hubs–New York, London, LA, Tokyo. If you don’t live in the city of departure, you are responsible for getting there at your own cost. If you are planning to travel away from your arrival destination, that cost is also yours, as is the responsibility of making sure you are back in the city in time for your return flight.
- You need to be flexible. Sometimes, you can’t get a flight when you want it, but you can get close.
- It’s very difficult to travel with another person on the same flight. Often you can get flights close together–within a few days–or your travel partner can purchase a (regular) ticket on the same flight.
- You can often only take carry-on luggage. Depending upon the route and the time of year, you may be limited to one carry-on, as your baggage allowance is used for the shipment. In some cases–low-volume flights–you will be allowed your checked baggage and the excess will be used for the shipment.
- You rarely get Frequent Flyer miles with your tickets. Neither can you use your miles to upgrade from coach class.
- Some companies require that you follow a professional dress code on the flights–business attire or at least clean, neat clothes and appearance. If you can’t or won’t dress appropriately, don’t sign up.
- Sometimes flights are cancelled at the last minute or you get bumped. While it’s rare, it can happen, just like a regular commercial flight.
- Courier flight fares rise and fall with the seasons and the demand. If airline prices are up in general, or you are trying to get to a popular destination, you could pay more. Sometimes, the price is almost as high as a regular flight or a consolidator fare, so it pays to check.
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