The cheapest air ticket around

Dawn MacKeen explains the ins and outs of flying as a courier.

Published September 22, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Fifteen minutes before I was supposed to leave Tokyo on a flight bound for Los Angeles, I was paged. As my name rose above all the other airport sounds, I started to feel sick. I just knew it, the deal was too good to be true; I should have been suspicious of the whole scheme from the very beginning. These guys are probably professionals who have the scam down to a science: They find an unsuspecting person who can't afford a regular ticket -- i.e., me -- and sell her a round-trip ticket from the United States to Japan for $200. Only there's one hitch, they say: You have to give up your baggage space and accompany some "freight" -- contents unknown -- overseas.

Now it was all coming down: I was going to be arrested for the contraband they were trying to smuggle out via my ignorance.

When I approached the Singapore Airlines counter and nervously told the woman my name, she informed me that I had been upgraded from coach to business class.

"Is that all?" I inquired. Yes, that was all.

As it turned out, flying as a courier was as simple as IBC Pacific, the company I had gone through, had said it would be -- and it was all legit. In fact, as I found, being a courier is probably the cheapest way to travel internationally. All it takes is a little flexibility, persistence and willingness to fly on one of the most restricted tickets in the market. And this is an especially good time to try the courier route: Veteran couriers say the cheapest tickets of all are available in September, October, January and February.

Students, professors, retired folk and anyone else with a block of available time and some flexibility in their lives are in the most opportune position to take advantage of the approximately 45,000 round-trip courier flights that take off each year. Although Kelly Monaghan, author of "Air Courier Bargains," says those with a "certain amount of silver in their hair" tend to be more reliable -- translation: They show up -- it's not difficult to become an air courier. In most cases, all you need is to be at least 18 years old (or 21 depending on the company), have a valid passport, dress appropriately (meaning no wrinkled jeans or torn T-shirts), lay off the alcohol in flight and be willing to bring only one carry-on and to travel by yourself. Most assignments are for fixed amounts of time, somewhere between a week and 30 days long, with courier duties both going and returning. What you do in between your departure and return date is up to you (even jumping on another courier flight is an option); the only requirement is to show up at the airport about an hour before other passengers on both directions, so you can check in with the courier company representative.

And just to clear up confusion -- as an on-board courier, you fly on regular passenger planes, not in the back of some rickety old two-engine plane, jammed between boxes of cargo stacked up to your shoulders. "You're no different than other passengers -- you eat the same meals and get the same coach accommodations," says Ron Bracey, an agent for Jupiter Air, a popular courier company located in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Hong Kong. "You fly the same as other people who might have spent a couple hundred more dollars than you did." Also, Monaghan adds, one more advantage to being a courier is that the companies will make sure you don't get bumped on overbooked flights, and will even pay to have you upgraded if need be (which might explain what happened to me).

To even start hunting for a courier flight, you have to first abandon all notions of how the regular airline pricing system works. Because with the courier companies, it works just the opposite: The closer it gets to the departure date, the cheaper the ticket becomes. On some occasions, particularly if it's just a few hours (or sometimes even a few days) before the flight is supposed to leave, the ticket may even be free.

The reason courier companies release seats at such low prices is because they need someone, almost anyone, to physically sit in the plane they're having their cargo loaded onto. Courier companies are in the freight business, and the freight they ship ranges from the mundane, such as legal documents, to the exotic, like a long pole. Most of the time couriers don't even know what it is they're accompanying, only that each bag can weigh up to 70 pounds (although I have heard about one courier who found out that the "freight" he was accompanying included bottles of champagne that Paul McCartney was sending from London to some fortunate soul in L.A.).

According to the International Association of Air Travel Couriers, for a courier company, shipping something on a passenger plane as luggage is often cheaper and faster than sending it as air cargo. Luggage will be quickly loaded and unloaded along with the passengers, whereas shipments sent as straight cargo will commonly sit in customs for days before getting cleared.

The possibility for illegal substances exists, but all freight is X-rayed before departure, and for the on-board couriers' protection, they are not allowed to touch the luggage. After years of shipping freight back and forth, the courier companies say that customs officials are well aware of the couriers' hands-off role. "The entire operation is aboveboard. A freelance courier just carries the paperwork -- a job that doesn't exactly require a Ph.D. in nuclear physics," states the Web site for the Air Courier Association. A U.S. Customs spokeswoman said she had never heard of a courier getting in trouble for something a company had shipped.

To become a courier in the United States, most likely you'll have to fly out of one of five cities -- Los Angeles and San Francisco if you're interested in traveling to Asia, New York to Europe, Miami to South America and Chicago to both Asia and Europe. You can arrange a ticket either through a courier company directly, which Monaghan recommends, or pay a fee and go through an association, which also has its advantages: The ACA mails out the fares from the different courier companies to you and the IAATC posts them on its Web site twice a day and sends out two publications.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways of arranging a courier ticket. You can specify where and when you want to go and see if anything is available, or you can ask what deals are currently being offered and choose one that appeals to you. Most of the time, couriers can get deals upwards of 50 percent off the regular ticket price. Some last-minute round-trip prices currently offered on the ACA Web site include Bangkok for $150, Madrid for $175 and Quito, Ecuador, for $170 (all fares from the U.S.).

The secret is to know when to buy, and if what's being offered is a good deal. Monaghan recommends calling a few airlines prior to contacting the courier companies, so you're armed with how much an ordinary ticket costs. When I first called IBC about six weeks before I wanted to fly to Tokyo, it quoted me $400. Since a regular ticket was only a few hundred dollars more at that time of year (several years ago), I waited until two weeks prior to the departure date, when the $200 fare was being offered.

"It's tricky because in a way, it's a take-it-or-leave-it proposition," says Monaghan. "There's not a huge amount of competition route to route, so if you want to go to Rio, for example, you may find just one company that goes there -- so you have to take what they have to offer." If you wait, you might get a better deal -- or you might get no deal at all.

While the notion of taking off to Paris on a moment's notice is very romantic, Byron Lutz, editor of the IAATC's fare-related publications "The Shoestring Traveler" and the "Air Courier Bulletin," says that few people are really willing to pull themselves away on short notice from their daily grind. The IAATC and other companies often keep a list of people who say they are available to go at any time and yet, when they go down that list, few accept. "They say, 'Oh, man, $100 to London, I'd go any day but today.' Then we say then how about tomorrow? Then they say, 'Oh, any day but tomorrow.' They talk a good story but when it comes to jumping on the plane and going, it doesn't always happen."

They may not have the time, but do you?

By Dawn MacKeen

Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

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