Carry documents for an international shipping company, and save about
half off of your airfare? It sounds too good to be true. But it happens
every day, and has been going on now for about 30 years. Once you have
flown as a courier, you may never pay regular over-the-counter fares again.
Courier flights have always had a cult-like popularity among the savviest
of travelers. Yet courier travel is now becoming almost mainstream. A
recent article in The Wall Street Journal reports that travelers can cut
the cost of international flights by 50 to 85 percent by taking advantage
of courier flights.
When word first got out about air courier flights, insiders worried that
their secret gravy-train of cheap airfares would be derailed. There were
few courier flights available, and increased passenger demand would overwhelm
the supply of cheap seats. This was in the mid-Eighties. Rather than dying
out, courier opportunities have increased dramatically. A flock of new
courier firms and brokers sprouted in the late Eighties, and the larger
companies are still expanding their networks as of mid-1994. Business
depends more and more each year on guaranteed overnight shipping, so the
need for couriers should do nothing but increase continuously for the
According to U.S. News & World Report, about 25,000 courier flights
depart American cities each year. Similar patterns exist in Europe and
the Pacific Rim, so the true number of courier opportunities in a given
year may approach 100,000 flights. In short, there are plenty of courier
flights available for those who know how to sign up for them.
What is a Courier?
An air courier is a person who delivers packages for companies that are
in the international overnight shipping business. Typically, the courier
must give up his checked baggage allowance for the shipping company's
mailbags. In exchange, the courier gets a free or discounted air ticket.Why
Do the Courier Companies Do It?
We've all heard about those international air freight services, the ones
that promise to deliver your package to any place in the world, "overnight,
guaranteed!" These companies, (Federal Express, DHL, etc.) tend to
handle an enormous volume of parcels, especially from one regional center
to another. So it is usually cost-effective for them to use their own
planes to carry the shipment.
But when a company has only a few letters (or at most a couple of mailbags)
to send, it is not cost-effective to fly a whole 747 to a distant city.
Instead, the shipping service turns the packages over to an air courier
Courier companies are the clearing houses of the express shipping business.
They handle the small quantities of overnight freight that the big shipping
companies don't want to deal with. Because overnight shipping is in great
demand, courier services deliver at least a few items every day to the
cities they specialize in.
Commercial airline seats are the cheapest way to move small quantities
of freight, quickly. An advance purchase airfare (which allows the passenger
to check 44 pounds [20 kg] of luggage) is relatively inexpensive. And
on days when there is more than 44 pounds of freight, the firm can check
the rest as excess baggage, and it will still get on the plane with the
passenger. Further, upon arrival in a foreign country, passenger baggage
is handled faster than cargo. The edge may only be an hour or two, but
that can be the difference between overnight and second-day delivery.
Largely for this reason, courier companies reserve airline space every
day of the week to each of their destination cities.
Of course, courier companies could still use the freight service that
all major airlines provide. But there is another problem. All packages
must go through customs at the destination country. Unattended packages
tend to languish in a customs warehouse somewhere (sometimes for days),
until the local customs officials finally get around to inspecting them.
If, however, a package is accompanied through the airport as the luggage
of a responsible individual traveler, it clears customs almost immediately.
This is where you and I come in: courier companies need individuals like
us to accompany their mailbags through customs. They have to get the packages
from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. In fact, they need us
so badly that they willingly pay about half of our airfare! In exchange,
they get to use part or all of our checked baggage allowance.
What's the Catch? (page 2)
To get a courier flight, you must first be willing to fly (and return)
when the courier company has an available seat. (Of course, the same case
is true when you fly on a standard, full-fare airline ticket.) Then, you
must be willing to let the courier company use your checked baggage allowance.
And you will only find international flights available; on domestic flights
there are no customs checkpoints through which shippers would need their
What about the clothes and other belongings that you'll want to take with
you? It is true that the courier company will generally use your entire
checked luggage allowance to transport their mailbags. However, you get
to use your entire carry-on allowance for your personal gear. As a general
rule, couriers on flights to or from the United States can bring one bag
(weighing less than 20 kilograms, or 44 pounds) to be placed in the overhead
compartments, as well as a second bag (length + width + height = less
than 45 inches) to be placed under your seat. On other flights, couriers
may be restricted to one carry-on bag weighing less than 20 kilograms.
This should be plenty of space for the efficient traveler's belongings.
And remember, there is no rule about how much clothing you can wear onto
the plane. If your bulky sweaters and coats do not fit into your carry-ons,
wear them onto the plane. At your seat, peel off the excess layers and
put them in the overhead bins, or into a spare nylon bag you just happen
to have in your pocket.
To be a courier, you need to be adventurous and flexible. For example,
you don't get your ticket until you arrive at the airport meeting point.
If you are a worrier, this may not be the best option for you.
While courier travel is usually hassle free, there are occasional foul-ups.
Your contact person may not arrive at the meeting point precisely on time.
Worse yet, on very rare occasions couriers have been bumped to the next
day, or their tickets have gotten to the airport too late. If you are
an inflexible, risk-averse traveler, do not fly courier. But I remind
you that even the major airlines occasionally cancel flights.
If you do fly courier, bring the local telephone numbers of the courier
company with you on your flight, so you can call in if there is a problem.
You might even bring the name of the local courier company, written in
the local language. Also, remember that the airline employees are very
familiar with the whole courier procedure. If you cannot find your contact,
ask the people at the airline check-in counter.
How Do I Know I'm Not Smuggling Contraband?
This is the first question people ask when the subject of courier travel
comes up. People conjure up images of overcoat-clad strangers with aluminum
attachι cases handcuffed to their sides, handing them the package
that lands an innocent traveler in a Third World prison. If this sound
about right, you've been watching too much late night television.
Air courier companies are established businesses who only handle legitimate
freight. They have to vouch for the contents of the mailbags on every
flight. If one package contained contraband, the entire time-sensitive
shipment could be held indefinitely as evidence. The companies could not
afford the loss of reputation that this would cause; a courier company
caught smuggling would never get another customer. In order to guarantee
to their customers the complete security of the shipment, they usually
don't even let you touch the mailbags.
What's more, the bags are usually sealed, so that you could not easily
open them even if you were allowed to handle them. As a further precaution,
many courier companies routinely X-ray all packages in order to detect
contraband. When something suspicious is found, they alert customs at
the departure point, and the rest of the shipment is allowed to proceed
Every customs agent we interviewed agreed that there is virtually no risk
of being stopped for possession of contraband while working as a freelance
air courier. Not a single agent had heard of a case where a courier was
caught unknowingly smuggling contraband. Apparently, the smugglers prefer
to use their own people for such purposes.
I spoke with United States Customs Service Public Affairs Officer Mike
Fleming in order to get the official word on this issue. True to his role
as a law enforcement official, he warns travelers to avoid suspicious
situations. "If someone approaches you informally at the airport
and asks you to bring a suitcase to his sister," he says, "red
warning flags should pop up in your mind."
When you approach a courier company and ask them if you can fly as a courier,
you have initiated the interaction. This is very different from the situation
above. According to Fleming, the risk of carrying contraband as a freelance
courier is "very minimal." He adds, "I'm not aware of any
instances of seizures involving individuals flying as couriers for a legitimate
Both customs officials and airline employees are extremely familiar with
the courier clearance procedure, which they perform daily. They are in
a good position to give an impartial opinion on the matter of courier
safety, and across the board they report that courier travel is safe.
In fact, you probably have much more to fear from the airline food than
you do from the cargo you are accompanying.
How to Travel with a Companion
Courier companies generally offer only one seat on each flight. That can
make it hard to travel with a companion. However, with a little planning,
it is fairly easy for two or more travelers to take advantage of these
great money-saving flights.
One option is to book with a courier broker. Brokers deal with several
different courier companies and may have two courier seats on the same
flight, on the same day.
Another option is for each of you to fly the same courier route on consecutive
days. The first to arrive can handle such details as getting the hotel
room and reconnoitering the city, so that everything is ready when the
second person arrives. This can be a minor inconvenience, but it is worth
the dramatic savings on the airfare.
Of course, if your companion is being stubborn or inflexible, he or she
can always pay full coach fare, and book on the same flight on which you
will act as a courier. Better yet, get your companion a consolidator ticket
for the same flight. It will not be as cheap as your courier fare, but
you will both have saved a bundle.
On the Day of the Flight...
On your day of departure, you must be at the company's designated meeting
point about two hours before the flight. Some companies simply arrange
to have you meet their agent right at the airport. Others require their
couriers to meet at the courier company offices, from which they are escorted
by a company employee to the airport.
The agent will stand in line with you at the airport, check you onto the
flight, and give you your instructions and the document pouch. The pouch
contains the shipping manifests, which are an official listing of the
contents of the mailbags you are accompanying. In most cases, you never
actually touch any mailbags - for security reasons, the company's staff
checks those directly onto the plane.
You board the plane and fly just like any other passenger. (Well, you
may be smiling a little more, since you know you paid much less than everyone
else did.) When you arrive at your destination, you walk through customs,
hand the pouch to the courier representative at the airport, and you're
on vacation! The company's local staff handles the mailbags, so you don't
even have to wait for your baggage at the carousel. Sometimes you may
not even have to meet anyone at the destination airport. Some companies
now ask you to call their local office from a pay phone once you have
In some Third World countries, and in a few stubborn industrial nations
as well, you may still be required to go to the baggage carousel, recover
all of the mailbags, and roll them on a cart through customs. This is
rare, but is simple enough and certainly worth the savings.
On the way home, you often have no courier duties. That means you have
full use of your checked luggage space, to bring home all those souvenirs.
If your flight involves round trip courier duties, you follow the same
procedure as you did on the first half of the trip.Different Companies,
There is a great deal of variability in the policies of the twenty or
so courier companies listed in this guide. Some companies use only the
space of one of your checked bags, while others use your entire checked
baggage allotment. Similarly, some companies use your services only on
the trip to your destination, while others take up your baggage allowance
on your return trip as well. Some give you a huge discount off the regular
airfare (up to 85 percent off), while others reduce the fare as little
as possible while still filling all of their flights.
Lastly, most companies allow only short, fixed-length stays at your destination,
while a few are extremely flexible about your return. The simpler logistics
of making all courier assignments one week long are attractive to the
courier companies; they automatically know who will be covering each return
flight. Nonetheless, longer stays seem to be the wave of the future, as
courier companies compete with each other for the limited pool of travelers
who know about courier flights.
Secret of Flying Free (page 3)
Courier companies usually charge you about half of the coach fare for
your flight. However, sometimes a courier cancels his reservation at the
last minute. This puts the courier company in a real bind, but it can
be a real opportunity for you.
When someone cancels more than two days before the flight, the company
will try to sell the seat, often at a hefty discount (Look for companies
who offer last minute discounts in the courier listings, below).
In the end, someone must accompany those mailbags. The company wants to
avoid sending an employee, because it would have to pay for his wages,
hotel, and meals while he is abroad.
Instead, the company will cut its losses, and send an independent courier
for free! To get in on this deal, you must be willing to fly on less than
48-hours notice. These offers happen frequently. Sometimes you have to
be lucky and call them at the right time in order to take advantage of
a cancellation that just occured. Other companies keep an index card file
of people who are willing to fly to a particular destination at the last
minute. These companies will actually call you and ask you if you are
interested in filling their suddenly available flight. Because the person
who canceled forfeits his payment, you have the chance to fly cheap, and
maybe even free.
If these impromptu flights interest you, call the companies who offer
a last-minute phone list (see courier company listings, below) and tell
them that you are available. Couriers who have previously flown with that
courier company will have priority, since they have proven themselves
to be reliable, but first-time couriers may also be accepted. Keep a bag
packed - sometimes they call you the same day!
Another option, if you are feeling especially adventurous, is to call
around to see if any company has a cancellation that it needs to fill.
If you just want to get away, and destination doesn't matter, you can
usually find something. And you can't beat the price! Last-minute flights
are most common in the low season, or on holiday weekends. From mid-May
to September, the system is overloaded with college students, making your
chances for catching a last-minute flight much lower. If you want to fly
courier in the summertime, try to book as early as possible.
Pros: Extremely cheap airfare. Forces you
to pack light; with carry-ons only, you can skip the whole baggage carousel
experience, and get on with your vacation. Occasional VIP
treatment by airline employees.
Cons: You usually must give up your entire checked baggage
allowance. Tickets are non refundable, and dates are typically
not changeable once ticket is paid for. Choice of schedules
and destinations is limited. Trips usually require you
to return after some fixed length of time, often between one and four
weeks. Minimum age of 21 years on some flights.
Courier Travel, Step by Step
Courier travel is so easy - it amazes me that more people do not take
advantage of it. Your duties are simple and unburdensome, yet your airfare
is half that of other passengers. And if you are a seasoned traveler,
you probably already pack light and bring carry-on luggage only.
To illustrate how easy it is to fly as a courier, let me walk you through
a courier flight that I took recently from New York to London.
The first step was to plan my date ranges. The more flexible you are,
the easier it is to fly cheap. I decided to stay for about two weeks,
and to depart between March 17 and March 19.
I would have preferred to fly from California to London, but by the time
I called the courier companies, all of the flights from the West Coast
to London were booked. Not easily deterred by such minor details, I started
calling the New York courier companies. (New York is, after all, on the
way.) Sure enough, I found a flight as a courier for Halbart Express,
one of the world's biggest courier companies. The dates were perfect,
so I booked the flight by telephone.
Next, I used some frequent flier miles (earned on a previous courier trip;
I've also used American Express student tickets to fly across the United
States cheaply) to get a free flight from San Francisco to New York. That
meant that the total cost for the flight from California to London was
only $239. Not a bad deal!
I got into New York City the night before my Halbart courier flight, and
spent the evening enjoying the Friday night bustle in the East Village.
I had called Halbart to reconfirm my flight, and was given very simple
instructions: "Meet the Halbart representative at the American Eagle
counter at JFK Airport at 2pm."
A friend dropped me off at the airport a bit before 2pm the next day.
We noticed a Halbart truck parked outside the American Eagle counter.
"Good sign," I thought. Inside, I saw a man with a Halbart jacket
and a Halbart cap. "This is too easy," I thought to myself.
I walked up and said, "Hi. I'm the courier for London." He handed
me my round trip ticket, and three pages of written courier instructions.
On the flight out, I would be stopping in Boston, where the mailbags would
actually be loaded onto the plane. On the flight home, I would go directly
from London to New York. Each page of the instructions corresponded to
one leg of the round trip. I asked the Halbart representative to wait
while I read through the brief instructions (Reprinted in Box ). The Halbart
man verified that I was accompanying mailbags only on the Boston-London
leg. I was to call Halbart's London affiliate upon my arrival, to ask
if there was anything further to be done. I was also instructed to call
two business days before my return flight, to request instructions.
The Halbart rep left, and I headed for my flight. In Boston, I arrived
early at the designated meeting place, under the large London banner at
the American Airlines counter. A few minutes after the listed meeting
time, the Boston Halbart rep arrived, toting two large orange plastic
mail sacks. He checked me in, wished me a safe trip, and pointed me towards
The flight was easy, and really no different from any other flight. I
arrived in London early in the morning, and promptly called the local
Halbart office. I said, "Hello, I'm the courier from Boston, and
I've just arrived." He said, "That's all, you may go, sir."
I didn't have to do a thing, and I was now officially on vacation.
At the end of my trip, I called Halbart's London affiliate for instructions.
It turned out that they had nothing for me to accompany. I did very little
to earn my discounted airfare on the way to London, but I did absolutely
nothing on my return flight. I was just another passenger. Too easy.
Report: Review of Jupiter Air's Los Angeles-Singapore Run (page 4)
Researcher Byron B. Deeter agreed to review the courier operation of Jupiter
Air on a recent flight to Singapore. The following is his report.
My motivation for deciding to try courier travel was simple: money. I
didn't have a lot of it. My girlfriend was spending the summer working
in Singapore, and although I wanted to visit her, I could not afford to
pay the fares that the airlines were asking. Three months in advance the
cheapest conventional flight I could find was around $1,500 round trip.
When I found a courier flight on United Airlines for $550 round trip,
on the dates I wanted to fly, the decision was easy. Three months later
I was landing at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), about to meet
my contact from the courier company and begin my trip. The arrangements
at LAX were surprisingly easy.
Along with one other courier, I met the contact at our pre-determined
location two hours before my scheduled take-off. At that point our contact
called the main Los Angeles office on his cellular phone to let them know
that we had been found, and that everything was a go. He then helped us
check in, as some of those full-fare people, do at the first-class counter.
Mind you, they were not about to let me fly first class, but because of
their relationship with the airlines, we were able to check in that way.
This enabled us to bypass the long coach-class check-in lines, and essentially
walk right up to the counter.
At this point potential couriers will want to take note of three things:
I was able to check in a suitcase, they did not give me my return ticket
to the USA at that time, and on this leg of the trip I was unable to get
frequent flyer miles. Different companies handle these matters in different
ways. As for the luggage, I got lucky. Often times couriers are allowed
only a single carry-on bag, as the courier company is using your checked
baggage allotment. I was allowed one carry-on, and up to two checked bags.
Additionally, I never touched the mailbags, nor did I have to carry a
document pouch with shipping manifests. Jupiter Air's agreement with United
Airlines is such that they simply have to show United that someone sitting
in a seat on the plane in order for the shipment to be considered properly
escorted. I didn't even need to hold on to the claim checks for the mailbags.
Essentially, with the ticket in my name, I flew as a normal passenger.
I say essentially, because there were the two other exceptions I mentioned
above. First, Jupiter Air gave me only a photocopy of my return ticket
on United Airlines, and it had "OPEN" marked for the date. They
said that the return ticket would be sent over with another courier to
protect their interests. This made me slightly nervous, but made sense,
as their main objective was to ensure that their freight gets shipped.
This way, if I do not show up at the Singapore airport to accompany mailbags
on the return trip, they can use the ticket for another courier. The photocopy
of the return ticket is to appease immigration officials by showing that
you do indeed intend to return. Second, the ticket had marked on it "NO
MILES," which in airline-worker-lingo means "laugh at this kid
when he tries to get frequent flyer mileage on top of the great deal he
already has." Again, this varies with the company you travel with,
and its agreement with the airline.
Frankly, I was amazed at how easy it had been! I had literally spent months
in anticipation of this trip. I had booked my flight three months in advance.
Then all of a sudden, I was in Singapore like every other traveler on
that flight. People had paid three to four times as much, for a seat right
next to mine! The ease of my flight was also increased due to the fact
that the plane was far under capacity, so I was able to stretch out across
four empty seats and sleep for much of the flight.
However, this account would not be truly informative if I were not to
relate a negative as well. After a fabulous week-long stay in Singapore
(see Stopping over in Singapore for more information on the city itself),
I arrived at the airport on a Sunday morning to meet my contact, get my
ticket, and fly home to California. I had called Jupiter Air's local contact
number earlier in the week, and was told everything was in good shape.
I was told to meet their representative at a set place, one hour and fifteen
minutes before my flight was set to depart. Take note of the tight time
frame - I didn't until it was too late. I arrived at the meeting point,
two other couriers arrived, and then the Jupiter rep arrived.
The problem was that there were THREE of us, and TWO tickets in his hand.
It was not standard procedure for couriers to duel over the tickets. The
rep had simply forgotten one ticket at the office - mine. It was now just
over one hour before my flight was to depart, I had no ticket, and his
office was half an hour away. Even if he could have gotten there and back
in time, he was just a delivery boy, and did not have the key to get in.
Although the delivery boy knew nothing, he did have contact phone numbers,
and I immediately placed a call to their downtown office. I think that
being genuinely angry, and the fact that I aggressively asserted myself
at this point made a large difference. I would suggest doing the same
if ever faced with a similar situation.
I flatly demanded that the Jupiter official get out of bed and come down
the airport himself. Although I missed my scheduled flight, he was able
to get me on a flight to LAX that departed only 30 minutes later, passing
through a different layover city. I still do not know what the Jupiter
official did or said - perhaps he paid for the ticket himself out of his
own pocket just to get me thousands of miles away from him - but I was
To Jupiter Air's credit, they admitted that they had made a mistake, and
they eventually solved the problem. On the whole I would have to say that
the experience was a positive one, and I look forward to flying as a courier
again in the future. The mix-up at Jupiter's Singapore office added unneeded
stress to my return, but it was adequately handled. As a bonus, because
of the hurried conditions under which my return ticket was issued, they
neglected to mark it "NO MILES," so I was able to get frequent
flyer credit. Best of all, I was able to travel to a place I would not
have been able to afford to visit otherwise, and I had a great time doing