Mention of air couriers probably makes you think of students or retirees awaiting a phone call to hop a last-minute flight. Sure, in exchange for accompanying packages overseas, they get round-trip tickets from New York to London or Madrid for as cheap as $99. But the catch is they have to leave at a moment's notice.
While the best deals still go to those with ultraflexible schedules, international air-courier flights are becoming an increasingly attractive option for travelers who prefer planning ahead. Round-trip flights booked two to three months in advance are typically 50% off excursion fares in coach class on major commercial airlines, with frequent-flier miles usually available. (Discounts deepen as the flight date approaches.) And because of a growing need for air couriers as overnight mail delivery catches on globally, there are more destinations to choose from--including Eastern Europe--and more cities to leave from than just a year ago. About 24,000 courier tickets will be sold this year in the U.S., twice as many as five years ago. Typically, only one courier is needed per flight, and all tickets are round-trip. Also, no flights are available to destinations within the U.S.
QUICK CLEARANCE. You still can't take any checked luggage on most flights. But that drawback is now easier than ever to get around. Savvy couriers figured out long ago the solution is to travel with a spouse or a friend who purchases a regular ticket and agrees to share the baggage allotment. But coordination was often difficult, especially with last-minute flights. Recently, however, several courier companies added in-house travel agencies to book flights on courier routes for companions at competitive rates. They include the largest courier company in the U.S., Halbart Express, based in Jamaica, N.Y., and Line Haul Services in Miami.
These companies will also make hotel reservations for couriers, and Line Haul, which flies to Central and South America, will arrange car rentals. "We are trying to make the experience of flying as an air courier as friendly as possible," says Jack Schaper, director of audit and development at Halbart.
A WEEK IN RIO? Also new are package deals, offered by Discount Travel International in New York and Miami. This travel agency specializing in courier flights offers a stay at a mountain resort with a health spa and golf course, two hours from Mexico City, for $50 a day per person double-occupancy, a third off the regular price. The round-trip courier fare from Miami to Mexico City is $150, and $250 from New York--61% and 46% less than the regular price. Meanwhile, a week at a hotel in Rio de Janeiro, including breakfast, is $250 per person, with round-trip airfare for the courier of $499 from Miami, vs. the regular excursion fare of $1,186.
Shipping companies need couriers because their mail pouches, filled with canceled checks and other documents, clear customs more quickly as passenger luggage than cargo freight. Couriers must arrive at the airport two to three hours before the flight to pick up their ticket They are usually responsible for carrying customs papers and giving them on arrival to a shipping-company clerk who takes the cargo through customs. Similarly, they get their return ticket at the airport on the day they are leaving. Most routes require a fixed stay of one to two weeks, but a growing number, including those to Eastern Europe and some to Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Singapore, offer open returns of up to 30 days.
SAME ALLURE. Most courier flights depart from New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. A smattering of flights leave from Chicago and Houston, and a few became available from Boston and Washington in late 1992. Atlanta and Detroit are expected to join their ranks by yearend. For those who don't live near hub cities, it's important to comparison-price shop. The cost of a direct ticket to a foreign destination may be less expensive than the price of flying to a hub city and then boarding a courier flight.
The International Association of Air Travel Couriers in Lake Worth, Fla. (407 582-8320), publishes a bimonthly newsletter listing courier flights, with daily updates by fax, for $35 annually. The Insiders Guide to Air Courier Bargains by Kelly Monaghan ($14.95; Inwood Training Publications) includes a directory of companies offering courier flights.
While it is easier to fly as a courier than ever before, the allure remains the same: bargain airfares. And as any smart traveler knows, saving on getting there allows you to splurge once you've