This article is a travel topic.
Traveling as an air courier is a way to get cheap air-fare by giving up most or all of your luggage allowance. You generally have to organize ahead of time, but sometimes, last-minute deals are available.
How it works
Courier companies are well paid for delivering things quickly. Frequently, time is very important with business documents, spare parts for an urgent repair, etc. On some routes, the larger companies have their own planes, but for other routes and smaller firms there is a problem. If they send things by air freight, it may take days to get through unloading and customs. The only way to get it through faster is to send it as checked luggage. Airline regulations will not allow them to send luggage without a passenger, which is where you come in.
Courier companies routinely book one seat each way, every day on flights between two major business centers. For example, from New York to Hong Kong. These are always economy class, generally on major airlines, and usually a flight that departs in the evening. Of course, the airlines give them a very good price.
You can occupy that seat at a discount -- provided you accompany their stuff. A courier representative will meet you at the airport with your ticket, the shipment (which is checked in for you) and the shipping documents (which you carry). Another rep will meet you at the other end to take delivery. You just deliver the documents, and they do the rest. In no case, do you have to help with carrying their luggage load.
Sometimes, someone will also meet you in the middle; e.g. on a Sydney-London courier flight, you stop in Tokyo, where you drop off the Sydney-Tokyo stuff and pick up Tokyo-London.
Discounts are often substantial, 20% and up. Once the company knows you as a regular and reliable courier, deals may get even better. If someone cancels and they are stuck, they may offer a last-minute free flight. In other words, someone else paid dearly for your free trip!
A few years back, courier travel was possible within North America or Europe. That has been eliminated by air express companies such as FedEx and DHL which have their own planes or long-term contracts with the airlines. Nowadays, courier flights are almost all intercontinental.
Courier travel is not for everyone, and there are serious restrictions:
- Destinations are limited to major business routes. If you don't live near a major international airport, that's your problem. A few courier companies might sell you connecting tickets, but you'll pay the difference. Expect and plan for long layovers to avoid any chance of missing the main flight.
- Your luggage will be limited. Some companies allow you one checked bag. With most, you go with carry-on luggage only. Occasionally, you may get a full luggage allowance on the return trip only. In that case, you'll have to buy new luggage or a large, sturdy box at your destination. Of course, you'll be subject to customs duty when you arrive back home, so don't overdo it.
- You need to book well in advance for popular routes or seasons.
- You pay the fare, or at least a deposit, at time of booking.
- Most courier tickets are for a round trip, usually with a stay between 7 and 30 days.
- If you cancel close to your flight time, do not expect a refund.
- Visas, if required, are your responsibility. However, countries which require a visa solely because you're a courier are very, very few in number (if any).
- Tell immigration and customs at your destination that you flew as a courier. There is nothing at all unusual about this, as they encounter it everyday.
- Your courier company has booked a daily flight with one airline, months in advance. You cannot change anything — airline, route or even flight.
- You may or may not be able to get air miles for the trip.
- If you want to travel with a friend (both having courier fares) then they will need to travel on a different day or for a different company.
Booking through an agency is generally worth the small fee of joining the agency, as they are given most access to the flights. They may be able to offer flights that you could not find as a freelance courier.
You need to be very careful about the legitimacy of the jobs you take. The last thing you want is to be caught transporting contraband (or worse) on a plane. A good way to avoid this is to use an agent (usually a representative of the service you are working for), who will take you through customs and clear the contents. Always check the repuation of the courier company before booking. None which are reliable and legitimate would ever try to ship anything illegal.
If you prepay any money for participation as a commercial airline envoy, you are being given the run around.
Not very long ago, taking a position as a commercial airline runner was an attractive way to travel on a small allowance. You essentially were contacted to transport a parcel from one city to another and your carry-on baggage allocation was “rented.” You were then rewarded with a low passage for the trip. This type of agreement isn’t prevalent anymore, on account of the fact that companies don’t rely on couriers as they used to as mailing is more fast than it ever was in times past. Another reason is because TSA requirements have grown beyond doubt more rigorous in the wake of the 9/11 calamity.
These days, few companies can offer someone the chance to serve as a courier. Although in the 1970s, one would pay a token passage as a courier, nowadays you barely save 15 to 50 % off the full ticket price (i.e., a flight from Washington to Madrid or Rome could possibly come to about £499 for a round trip, but one can regularly look up these kind of ticket prices regardless).
If you do decide to become a courier, you won’t receive many options in where you will travel. You go to whatever location they need you to visit, whether it is the Middle East, North America or another location. You obtain a last minute permit for the trip and are often times restricted as to the number of bags you are approved to have with you.
Chances are, you’re going to get better discounts by finding reasonably priced flights using other means.