Flying Cheap as an Air Courier

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Tuesday 12th October 2010
In this article
  • What is an air courier?
  • How to become an air courier.
  • Five things to consider before signing up as a courier.

It’s vacation time at last! Unfortunately, between rent, your car payment and that SharpWoman you’re dating, you’ve barely got anything left to vacation with. Or do you? How about jetting off to Paris (yes, in France), London, Tokyo or Buenos Aires for about the cost of a nice night out on the town? Sound impossible? Not if you learn the tricks of the air courier trade…

What is an Air Courier?

An air travel courier is someone who carries shipping documents on international flights for an air courier company in exchange for discounted airfare — and we’re not talking about some lousy 10% discount. Air couriers generally travel at 50-85% off regular fares, sometimes even more if you have the ability to leave on short notice. Recent bargain fares for air couriers have included roundtrip trips to the Orient for $200, Europe for $99-$199 and South America for $150.

Sound too good to be true? It’s not. International air cargo is very expensive. Generally, it is cheaper for companies to book seats on commercial flights and have a passenger check freight as luggage. Shipping material as luggage also helps it clear customs faster than cargo (which can sit in customs for days).

What’s required of you?

Once you book the flight, your work is done. All you have to do is pick up the paperwork from the courier agent at the airport or at a company office located near the airport on the day of the flight. You are not responsible for the cargo. In fact, you are generally not allowed to touch it. When you arrive at your destination, you hand the "manifest" to a local courier agent who takes over from there. You will generally be expected act as a courier on your return flight, but not always. Once arriving at your destination, you are on your own.

No-Name Air?

And don’t worry about ending up flying Air Crash & Burn Express. Courier companies use major airlines like TWA, United, British Airways and other international carriers. Couriers fly coach, but can sometimes upgrade to first-class at their own expense.

Advance notice required?

Flights to the most popular destinations usually require at least a two-week advance reservation, especially during the summer. We recommend four to six weeks in advance to be on the safe side; however, the International Association of Air Travel Couriers provides a daily bulletin offering last-minute flights in need of couriers. These specials can have you in Spain or Brazil in time for dinner tomorrow — sometimes for as little as $100.

Length of stay?

The length of your stay varies with each ticket. Fixed stays of one or two weeks are common on the European trips, while flights to the Orient and South America allow longer stays, as a rule. In most cases, extending your stay from ten days to three weeks isn’t a problem. In rare cases, some couriers have arranged to extend their stays up to six months.

How to Become a Courier

The quickest and easiest way to get in on the courier deal is to sign up with the International Association of Air Travel Couriers. As long as you are 21 or over, have a valid passport and pay the $45 initiation fee, you’re in. Your membership provides access to more than 60 express shipping companies, as well as the IAATC Courier Handbook and regular newsletter. Once you are signed up, just telephone the appropriate reservation number provided to schedule your flight.

Another discount travel option is the Air Courier Association, which operates like the IAATC, but also advertises discounted non-courier flights, hotels, cruises and rental cars. The ACA combines courier travel, airline ticket consolidators and travel discounters to offer their members a wide variety of travel options. During a July special, the first 100 people to sign up each day receive a $25 discounted membership fee of $39 for one year, $78 for three years, or $117 for five years. Members receive a guidebook covering all destination cities and enrollment in the International Emergency Medical Information Assistance Plan (a worldwide 911 service) and Reward Mileage Club.

One little catch? We know what you’re thinking — the catch is that you might end up spending the next 15 years in a Moroccan jail for smuggling illicit substances. Not with this program. After all, you’re not picking up your "deliverables" in an alley. The IAATC and ACA are large, well established courier companies that deal in corporate air freight. They expect customs to inspect the freight and take full responsibility for all items shipped. Before you book your flight you can verify what precautions the company takes on your behalf (i.e., bonding and insurance).

Five Things to Consider Before Signing Up

OK, so there are a few catches. Read below to determine if the courier life is for you:

One: Couriers usually fly solo. On rare occasion, one company will put two couriers on the same flight, but don’t count on it. That doesn’t mean you have to travel alone, but you may be slightly inconvenienced. One option for getting around this is to try to get your companion on the same flight via a second courier company. A second possibility is for one of you to fly out on the next day. Finally, if all else fails, the cost of a courier fare and a full fare on the same flight is still a bargain.

Two: You have to be a little more flexible than some peoples’ schedules allow. Couriers generally have to fly when a delivery is required. They are also subject to a limited number of seats on a limited number of flights. If you must travel on a certain day, booking as far in advance as possible is a good rule of thumb. Also, remember that courier fares vary with the seasons just like regular fares. Winter travel provides the best bargains.

Three: The space for your suitcase is already being used by the cargo. Air couriers are generally limited to carry-on bags. Of course, at SharpMan we believe that’s all you need; check out How to Travel Sharp: A Case for Carry-on. If you’re not couriering on the return trip, you can bring home as much baggage as you want.

Four: Destinations are limited depending on the departure city, and couriers are responsible for traveling to their departure city at their own expense. In March 2000, courier flights originated from the following U.S. cities: New York (worldwide), Los Angeles (Auckland, Bangkok, Brisbane, Cairns, London, Melbourne, Seoul, Sydney) San Francisco (London, Manila, Singapore), Miami (Buenos Aires, London, Quito, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, Sao Paulo), Chicago (London only), Washington D.C. (London only) and Newark (London only). Check with the IAATC for further updates.

Five: In some instances, you don’t get to keep your frequent flier miles. Be sure to ask your specific courier company.

If all of these stipulations sound good to you, give the courier life a try. For SharpMen who like to travel without breaking the bank, it’s a great way to go. Enjoy your trip!

This article last updated on Saturday 11th February 2012
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