Air Courier Travel
With Around 32,000 Courier Flights a year, courier travel is probably the greatest opportunity for getting really cheap (possibly even free) tickets. Although courier travel isn't for everyone, for those people with time on their hands and a sense of adventure, it's a great way to see the world a little bit at a time at a very affordable price.
First of all, what exactly is an air courier? Simply put, an air courier is a person (could be either you or me or the guy sitting next to you on your next flight) who accompanies time-sensitive business cargo that is checked as excess passenger baggage on international flights.
There will always be a need for air couriers because commercial air cargo is too slow. There are only two ways to send an international air shipment: as commercial air cargo or as excess passenger baggage.
Commercial air cargo must be at the airport 6 hours prior to departure for manifesting and loading into containers. On arrival the large containers go directly to a bonded warehouse for customs inspection and release. This takes two to three days, and the chance of loss increases the longer the cargo is held in the warehouse.
The only way to send international overnight freight is by using passenger baggage. International airline regulations require that passenger baggage must belong to a ticketed passenger traveling with the baggage. Customs officials require that all baggage be picked up by an arriving passenger. There are no exceptions to this rule. Courier companies enjoy the late check-in privileges allowed passenger baggage. Courier bags can be checked at the ticket counter up to 30 minutes prior to departure. Passenger baggage is the first freight off and clears through customs as soon as the passenger arrives.
Overnight freight wholesalers consider this process hassle-free and fast. Most courier runs are the last flight of the day. You arrive at your destination the next morning.
All courier flights to Asia, the Pacific Rim and Australia are served by Singapore Airlines, Japan Air, and United Airlines. You travel along with other coach passengers, but at a greatly reduced price and sometimes without paying any airfare at all. Seating is in the coach section and you get all the usual service provided to coach-class passengers.
Usually you save up to 85% of the regular airline ticket price, and in some instances you can fly free. The savings varies depending on the season and demand, but the discount is substantial. During the summer, rates are generally higher than any other time of the year, but you still fly cheaper as a courier than with other discount fares. In short, traveling as an air courier can save you hundreds of dollars on each trip you take. Some courier companies maintain a list of couriers who they can call at the last minute in the event of a cancellation, and let the courier fly free in exchange. Free flights are extremely rare, but super discounted last-minute flights are more common.
Savings from courier travel works the opposite of conventional airline fares, which require advance purchase to ensure the cheapest seat. With courier travel, fares go down as the departure date approaches. But if you're not the adventurous type who doesn't care what part of the world he travels to as long as it's within the next 24 hours, then it's possible to make advance reservations several months in advance. Sure, the biggest discounts are for those flights with rapidly approaching departure dates, but the likelihood of finding a courier company that needs a package escorted to your particular destination at the last minute is slim to none. Flights to the most popular destinations usually require at least a 2-week advance reservation, especially during the summer when advance booking can be 4 or 6 weeks or more to guarantee a seat. Most people advance book in order to make sure they get the flights they want. When courier companies are short of carriers for particular runs, the price usually starts dropping the closer it gets to the day or hour of takeoff.
The courier company may charge you an annual registration fee (typically $50) or a refundable deposit ($100-$200). Once you've chosen your destination you pay the money for the ticket (non-refundable) to the courier company, who then buys the ticket from the airline. Several hours before your departure you meet the courier company representative at a predetermined airport location, usually the gate where your flight leaves. He will give you your tickets and a courier pouch which has the manifest, baggage claim tickets and other courier company documents pertaining to the shipment. You do not deal with the baggage. It is your responsibility to deliver the pouch to the courier company representative in the customs area of your arrival airport. Then you are on your own.
This whole process may sound a bit scary, but after your first trip as a courier, you will become much more comfortable.
Air Courier FAQs
What About Baggage?
Some courier companies reserve the right to use your free baggage allowance for their shipments. Sometimes you are allowed to check one bag, and other times you get to check whatever you want. You always carry on anything you want, and you can check a bag for a small fee.
How Long Can I Stay?
Most courier runs are for stays of between 7 and 60 days. Many of the returning flights are open-ended, which means you can return anytime within this time frame. About 20% of the flights have courier duties on the return flight. If there are no courier duties on the return, then you do not have to make the return flight even though you have a round trip ticket. If you're only acting as a courier on the outbound flight you can check baggage as normal on the return trip.
When Are My Courier Duties Over?
As soon as you deliver the courier pouch you are finished. You do not make any deliveries. Sometimes you will as a courier on the return flight to the U.S. Once you clear through customs, you are on your own.
Do I Have To Fly Alone?
No, but you cannot both be couriers on the same flight. You can fly a day apart or fly for two different courier companies going to the same destination on the same day, or one of you can buy a regular ticket for the same flight.
What Type Of Overnight Airshipments Will Be Checked As Baggage?
About 80% of a shipment is business documents. The rest of it can be computer software, small electronic parts, and anything else that requires overnight delivery.
It's carefully inspected and packed into large duffel-type courier bags which can weigh up to 70 pounds each. You do not handle these bags. All you physically carry is a courier pouch, which has the manifest, baggage claim tickets and other courier company documents pertaining to the shipment.
Any Chance Of Being Caught With Illegal Contraband Checked As Baggage?
Absolutely not. Courier wholesale companies are established firms that deal in legitimate air freight and are well known by customs officials. They have to sign documents which are presented to customs officials when the baggage is checked through. For their protection - as well as yours - you are generally not allowed to touch the baggage. An air courier just carries the paperwork. You are not personally liable for the baggage. Before you make your flight you can verify with the company what precautions they take on behalf of couriers such as bonding and insurance.
Who Can Fly As An Air Courier?
Virtually anyone with a valid passport can be a courier, however some companies require couriers to be at least 21 years old. Being a courier is ideal for students, retirees, teachers, outdoor enthusiasts, hobbyists, business owners, entrepreneurs, adventure travelers and people in freelance occupations such as travel writers, imports, exporters, photographers, and persons exploring overseas markets.
Are Tickets One-Way Or Round-Trip?
All tickets are round-trip except in rare cases.
From Which Cities Do Courier Flights Originate?
At this moment, courier flights currently take off for foreign destinations from the following North American gateway cities: New York, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. (The majority of courier flights originate in New York, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco). You must get to the origination city at your own expense.
Is It Possible To Courier On Domestic Routes?
Courier travel between destinations in the U.S. is much less common these days, as U.S. domestic airline package delivery services have improved enough to no longer make couriering cost effective. So most courier travel is between the U.S. and an overseas destination.
Do I Get To Keep My Frequent Flyer Mileage?
Yes, except in rare cases.
Where Can I Fly As An Air Courier?
Common destinations include Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, Bangkok, Manila, Beijing, Taipei and other destinations in the Far East and Southeast Asia.
Where Do I Stay When I Get There?
You book into a hotel, motel, youth hostel, or with friends and family at your own expense. Once you complete your duties you are on your own and have no need to stay in contact with the air courier company unless you're acting as a courier on the return flight.
How Do I Book A Courier Flight?
There are really only two options, either going through a courier company itself or through a courier broker. A broker matches couriers with companies that need to ship packages, thus you will have a greater variety of destinations to choose from. You may have to pay an annual registration fee, but a courier broker usually offers more convenience than a courier company. By joining up with a courier broker oftentimes you will receive a manual with detailed instructions on booking a courier flight; access to a 24 hour hotline with last minute "specials" where you can fly sometimes for free; and a newsletter. For someone new to air courier travel I would recommend joining a courier broker. The registration fee becomes less of an issue the more frequently you fly. After several courier runs you'll know what to expect and you can then decide if the annual membership fee is worth the convenience. In the following section you will find a list both of courier companies and brokers, and other helpful resources for people interested in becoming an air courier.
Air Courier Resources
Books About Flying As A Courier
Air Courier Directory
If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested in How to Fly For Free.