Travelling as an air courier was a way to get cheap air-fare by giving up most or all of your luggage allowance. You generally had to organize ahead of time, but sometimes, last-minute deals were available. As a means of delivering urgent parcels and freight, splitting the checked baggage allowance from a passenger ticket in this manner is in decline. A handful of air courier assignments still exist, such as Air Charter Service and Airmule, but there are few bargains to be had. (As of Dec 2020, Airmule remains closed due to COVID-19. )
Increasingly, parcel carriers are deploying their own cargo-only air fleets. As airlines improve their own cargo operations to shorten delivery time, the need for urgent packages to travel as checked passenger baggage is disappearing. Heightened security post-September 11, 2001 is also a factor in the decline of air courier travel.
How it worked
Courier companies are well paid for delivering things quickly. Frequently, time is very important with business documents, merchandise or spare parts for an urgent repair. On some routes, the larger companies have their own planes, but for other routes and smaller firms there was a problem. If they sent things by air freight, on some routes it may have taken days to get through unloading and customs. The only way to get it through faster was 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 booked one seat each way, every day on flights between two major business hubs, 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 were often substantial, 20% and up, although this gap has narrowed with the increasing prevalence of discounted tickets from other sources. Once the company knew you as a regular and reliable courier, deals sometimes got even better. If someone cancelled and they were stuck, they occasionally offered 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, the few remaining courier flights are almost all intercontinental, and are diminishing in number for various reasons — tighter airside security, more business documents transmitted on-line instead of hand-carried, better efforts by airlines to co-operate efficiently with cargo firms. In rare instances, FedEx may still have a passenger hand-carry a courier package on a commercial flight as a premium service with end-to-end tracking, but this is becoming an uncommon, last-resort option as cargo-only flights are increasingly operated by parcel companies using their own aircraft.
Courier travel was not for everyone, as there are serious restrictions:
- Destinations were limited to major business routes. If you didn't live near a major international airport, that was your problem. A few courier companies might have sold connecting tickets, but you'd have paid the difference and expected long layovers to avoid any chance of missing the main flight.
- Your luggage is severely limited. Some companies allowed one checked bag. With most, you flew with carry-on luggage only. Occasionally, one may have had a full luggage allowance on the return trip only. That meant buying new luggage or a large, sturdy box at the destination. Of course, this baggage was subject to customs duty when you arrive back home, so it wasn't a good idea to overdo it.
- You needed to book well in advance for popular routes or seasons.
- You paid the fare, or at least a deposit, at time of booking.
- Most courier tickets were for a round trip, usually with a stay between 7 and 30 days.
- If you cancelled close to your flight time, there would be no refund.
- Visas, if required, were your responsibility. However, countries which required a visa solely because you're a courier were few in number (if any).
- You needed to report to immigration and customs at your destination that you flew as a courier. There was nothing at all unusual about this, as they encountered it every day.
- The courier companies booked a daily flight with one airline, months in advance. You could not change anything — airline, route or even flight.
- You may or may not be able to get reward miles for the trip.
- If you wanted to travel with a friend (both having courier fares), each needed to travel on a different day or for a different company.
If you cannot live with these restrictions, see the Air travel on a budget article for other options, such as charter flights or airline consolidators. Fares will likely be a little higher, but there is more flexibility.
Booking through an agency was 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.
Not very long ago, taking a position as a commercial airline courier 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 fare for the trip. This type of agreement isn’t as prevalent anymore, due to the fact that companies don’t rely on couriers as much as they used to, because air shipping is faster than it ever was before.
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, by the 2010s, courier passengers barely saved 15 to 50% off the full ticket price. These types of ticket prices are regularly sold to the general public by other means, such as seat sales.
As individual routes disappear (either through airlines improving their cargo operations or courier companies flying their own cargo-only flights), many of the agencies which provided lists of available flights have gone off-line and many popular beaten-path destinations are no longer available. The few seats which remain available may be going to some rather out-of-the-way points as there are plenty of other means to get an urgent package from (for example) London to New York.
If you prepay any money for participation as a commercial airline envoy, you are being given the run around.
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 reputation of the courier company before booking. None which are reliable and legitimate would ever try to ship anything hazardous or illegal.
If you do decide to become a courier, you won’t receive many options in where you can 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 oftentimes restricted as to the number of bags you are approved to have with you. Chances are, you will get better discounts by finding reasonably priced flights using other means.