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Courier Flights
So What's the Catch? (page 2)

To get a courier flight, you must first be willing to fly (and return) when the courier company has an available seat. (Of course, the same case is true when you fly on a standard, full-fare airline ticket.) Then, you must be willing to let the courier company use your checked baggage allowance. And you will only find international flights available; on domestic flights there are no customs checkpoints through which shippers would need their mailbags accompanied.

What about the clothes and other belongings that you'll want to take with you? It is true that the courier company will generally use your entire checked luggage allowance to transport their mailbags. However, you get to use your entire carry-on allowance for your personal gear. As a general rule, couriers on flights to or from the United States can bring one bag (weighing less than 20 kilograms, or 44 pounds) to be placed in the overhead compartments, as well as a second bag (length + width + height = less than 45 inches) to be placed under your seat. On other flights, couriers may be restricted to one carry-on bag weighing less than 20 kilograms. This should be plenty of space for the efficient traveler's belongings. And remember, there is no rule about how much clothing you can wear onto the plane. If your bulky sweaters and coats do not fit into your carry-ons, wear them onto the plane. At your seat, peel off the excess layers and put them in the overhead bins, or into a spare nylon bag you just happen to have in your pocket.

To be a courier, you need to be adventurous and flexible. For example, you don't get your ticket until you arrive at the airport meeting point. If you are a worrier, this may not be the best option for you.

While courier travel is usually hassle free, there are occasional foul-ups. Your contact person may not arrive at the meeting point precisely on time. Worse yet, on very rare occasions couriers have been bumped to the next day, or their tickets have gotten to the airport too late. If you are an inflexible, risk-averse traveler, do not fly courier. But I remind you that even the major airlines occasionally cancel flights.

If you do fly courier, bring the local telephone numbers of the courier company with you on your flight, so you can call in if there is a problem. You might even bring the name of the local courier company, written in the local language. Also, remember that the airline employees are very familiar with the whole courier procedure. If you cannot find your contact, ask the people at the airline check-in counter.

How Do I Know I'm Not Smuggling Contraband?

This is the first question people ask when the subject of courier travel comes up. People conjure up images of overcoat-clad strangers with aluminum attaché cases handcuffed to their sides, handing them the package that lands an innocent traveler in a Third World prison. If this sound about right, you've been watching too much late night television.

Air courier companies are established businesses who only handle legitimate freight. They have to vouch for the contents of the mailbags on every flight. If one package contained contraband, the entire time-sensitive shipment could be held indefinitely as evidence. The companies could not afford the loss of reputation that this would cause; a courier company caught smuggling would never get another customer. In order to guarantee to their customers the complete security of the shipment, they usually don't even let you touch the mailbags.

What's more, the bags are usually sealed, so that you could not easily open them even if you were allowed to handle them. As a further precaution, many courier companies routinely X-ray all packages in order to detect contraband. When something suspicious is found, they alert customs at the departure point, and the rest of the shipment is allowed to proceed without delay.

Every customs agent we interviewed agreed that there is virtually no risk of being stopped for possession of contraband while working as a freelance air courier. Not a single agent had heard of a case where a courier was caught unknowingly smuggling contraband. Apparently, the smugglers prefer to use their own people for such purposes.

I spoke with United States Customs Service Public Affairs Officer Mike Fleming in order to get the official word on this issue. True to his role as a law enforcement official, he warns travelers to avoid suspicious situations. "If someone approaches you informally at the airport and asks you to bring a suitcase to his sister," he says, "red warning flags should pop up in your mind."

When you approach a courier company and ask them if you can fly as a courier, you have initiated the interaction. This is very different from the situation above. According to Fleming, the risk of carrying contraband as a freelance courier is "very minimal." He adds, "I'm not aware of any instances of seizures involving individuals flying as couriers for a legitimate shipping company."

Both customs officials and airline employees are extremely familiar with the courier clearance procedure, which they perform daily. They are in a good position to give an impartial opinion on the matter of courier safety, and across the board they report that courier travel is safe. In fact, you probably have much more to fear from the airline food than you do from the cargo you are accompanying.

How to Travel with a Companion

Courier companies generally offer only one seat on each flight. That can make it hard to travel with a companion. However, with a little planning, it is fairly easy for two or more travelers to take advantage of these great money-saving flights.

One option is to book with a courier broker. Brokers deal with several different courier companies and may have two courier seats on the same flight, on the same day.

Another option is for each of you to fly the same courier route on consecutive days. The first to arrive can handle such details as getting the hotel room and reconnoitering the city, so that everything is ready when the second person arrives. This can be a minor inconvenience, but it is worth the dramatic savings on the airfare.

Of course, if your companion is being stubborn or inflexible, he or she can always pay full coach fare, and book on the same flight on which you will act as a courier. Better yet, get your companion a consolidator ticket for the same flight. It will not be as cheap as your courier fare, but you will both have saved a bundle.

On the Day of the Flight...

On your day of departure, you must be at the company's designated meeting point about two hours before the flight. Some companies simply arrange to have you meet their agent right at the airport. Others require their couriers to meet at the courier company offices, from which they are escorted by a company employee to the airport.

The agent will stand in line with you at the airport, check you onto the flight, and give you your instructions and the document pouch. The pouch contains the shipping manifests, which are an official listing of the contents of the mailbags you are accompanying. In most cases, you never actually touch any mailbags - for security reasons, the company's staff checks those directly onto the plane.

You board the plane and fly just like any other passenger. (Well, you may be smiling a little more, since you know you paid much less than everyone else did.) When you arrive at your destination, you walk through customs, hand the pouch to the courier representative at the airport, and you're on vacation! The company's local staff handles the mailbags, so you don't even have to wait for your baggage at the carousel. Sometimes you may not even have to meet anyone at the destination airport. Some companies now ask you to call their local office from a pay phone once you have cleared customs.

In some Third World countries, and in a few stubborn industrial nations as well, you may still be required to go to the baggage carousel, recover all of the mailbags, and roll them on a cart through customs. This is rare, but is simple enough and certainly worth the savings.

On the way home, you often have no courier duties. That means you have full use of your checked luggage space, to bring home all those souvenirs. If your flight involves round trip courier duties, you follow the same procedure as you did on the first half of the trip.Different Companies, Different Policies

There is a great deal of variability in the policies of the twenty or so courier companies listed in this guide. Some companies use only the space of one of your checked bags, while others use your entire checked baggage allotment. Similarly, some companies use your services only on the trip to your destination, while others take up your baggage allowance on your return trip as well. Some give you a huge discount off the regular airfare (up to 85 percent off), while others reduce the fare as little as possible while still filling all of their flights.

Lastly, most companies allow only short, fixed-length stays at your destination, while a few are extremely flexible about your return. The simpler logistics of making all courier assignments one week long are attractive to the courier companies; they automatically know who will be covering each return flight. Nonetheless, longer stays seem to be the wave of the future, as courier companies compete with each other for the limited pool of travelers who know about courier flights.

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