Decline of Courier Flights as a Budget Travel Option

Air Couriers Dwindling, But Still a Way to Save Money

Cardboard Containers on a Conveyor Belt Being Loaded into the Rear of a Cargo Plane
Hans-Peter Merten/Photodisc/Getty Images

Courier flights, in their heyday, saved budget travelers thousands of dollars on overseas fares. Because companies must get documents or small product shipments overseas and through customs in a hurry, these courier services were considered crucial. The courier plan worked because most airline baggage drifts through customs with little or no delay and courier services were will to pay for bypassing the days- or week-long delays had been common with air cargo shipping.

As an air courier, travelers take courier flights between North America, Europe, or Asia. They spent a small percentage of the prevailing fare on these one-way trips, and frequently received a similar deal on the way home. In essence, the traveler's baggage allotment was sold to the company making the shipment. The traveler got a greatly reduced fare as a result.

But, there was a great shift away from this form of travel and providing this service. What changed?

In many ways, the terror events of September 11, 2001, vastly disrupted the air courier service. So did the improved reliability of popular air freight options like Federal Express, DHL, and others.

The Role of a Courier

To some, it sounds like the stuff of James Bond or "Mission: Impossible." But courier trips, while quite rare today, are completely legal. Most of the time, the traveler never sees the item he or she is delivering.

There are several air courier services still in existence like Air Charter Service and Airmule. These courier companies will match willing travelers with companies seeking quick delivery, offering great deals online to budget travelers with flexible schedules. There is nothing secretive about the arrangements. The courier is "paid" with a greatly discounted airline ticket or paid a flat fee for making a delivery.

In the case of Airmule, the traveler will receive a full inventory list of the items being transported, for easy declaration at customs. When the TSA or customs agent asks if you packed your own bag, you would be honest and state you did not, declare you are an air courier, and present the inventory list. In most cases, you are quickly on your way.

Your responsibilities as a courier are limited: show up at the airport on time, and meet a representative at the destination airport. Once through customs/immigration, your obligation usually is finished.

Rookie couriers should brush up on packing skills for a budget trip, because in many cases, you will use up your luggage allotment transporting the shipment. One carry-on bag might be your limit.

More bothersome are the schedules, which are left to the will of the company that you will represent. You must have a flexible timetable for travel, although sometimes assignments can be arranged well in advance.

Do not be too picky about your destination, either. For example, if you really want to go to Brussels, you might land in Paris and take a short train trip into Belgium. The money saved on airfare can easily pay for train tickets and give you pocket change for enjoying your destination of choice

Improvement of Air Freight Services

Unlike the late 1990s and early 2000s, when air couriers were popular, air cargo delivery services were spotty, and the delivery turnaround times were irregular. Air cargo companies now have much larger fleets and more sophisticated handling services that work with customs agencies to speed deliveries.

For example, in 2007, Memphis-based Federal Express, issued a news release describing upgrades resulting in a 50 percent increase of daily delivery capacity from London to the United States. According to the release, this one upgrade added up to a "20 percent daily capacity from Europe to United States."

Such investments are not made without due consideration of what the competition is doing. Other companies are making similar improvements. In short, the air cargo industry has become much stronger and better prepared for speedy delivery than it was in decades past.

9/11 Effect

Airfare competition also has become more intense during that time. Customs requirements and procedures underwent a major overhaul in most countries following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The list of air courier companies offering cheap flight opportunities dwindled as a result. 

If you think you want to go the route of becoming an air courier, carefully consider whether it is worthwhile to purchase a membership with any organization offering airfare discounts. Since airline prices fluctuate all the time, are the prices reliable? Can cheaper flights be found elsewhere? Is there any fine print? Now more than ever, you should approach all air courier offers carefully.

Some Drawbacks

If you are traveling with a friend, spouse, or partner, your partner usually pays full fare. It could be tough to find two courier assignments to the same destination on the same day.

Most assignments are one-way. Arrangements to get back home could be tricky and are usually on your own dime. If you're a drinker, alcohol on the plane is a no-no for couriers.

You must be at least 18 years old and a valid passport is required. Domestic courier flights do not exist.

Is being a courier legal all the time? It is natural to feel that there is this great risk that you are an unsuspecting drug smuggler, but dealing with reputable companies, you need not worry. Sometimes, when trade secrets are involved, you might not receive a detailed description of the contents, but reputable companies will provide you with documentation of contents required for customs.

The air courier option is far less available and attractive than in years past. It is seldom a practical answer to the need for a cheap overseas flight, but if you are persistent and a frequently traveler, you might be able to make some extra bucks if you travel lightly and have some luggage room to spare.

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