Today's courier agencies

AskEd & AnswerEd
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on August 27, 2007. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, AskEd & AnswerEd, Ed Perkins, frequent flyer, last-minute, upgrade.

Today's courier agencies

Even during the heyday of courier flights, the big courier agencies were diversifying into non-courier discount tickets—usually unpublished consolidator deals. Now, despite the decline in courier flights, several online courier agencies continue to promote their services:

  • The one-time industry leader, Jupiter Air-Courier, still offers what appear to be a very few legitimate courier flights, but on only two routes: Los Angeles to Hong Kong and San Francisco to Manila. It is not hyping any other cheap flights, and, as of mid-August, showed no specific availabilities or fares. If you're interested, you can submit an application online.
  • Affordable Travel charges a membership fee of $39 a year; the site promises lots of "free" travel and "discounts up to 70 percent," but the pitch seems suspiciously high-pressure and shrill. Air Courier Association looks like a slightly different gateway to the same operation.

Overall, I'd say that courier flights are a minor remnant of what used to be an important part of the low-fare travel scene. If you're interested, check out one or two of the sites. But be very careful of any that seem to over-promise, and never buy a "bargain" airfare without first checking prices at a few other more conventional outlets.

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Legend 2: Cheap standby

A few travelers still inquire about "heading to the airport for a cheap standby flight." No way: The last really important cheap standby program died when Freddie Laker's Skytrain folded some 30 years ago. Now, travelers heading to the airport looking for a last-minute seat pay top dollar. About the only official cheap standby program I know these days is the "AirTran U" student standby deal on AirTran, limited to travelers age 18 to 22. If you really need a cheap last-minute airfare, forget about published airline fares and look instead to some specialized outlets:

  • A few smaller airlines offer last-minute tickets through independent agencies such as those noted above and AirHitch.
  • Some online agencies, such as Travelocity, offer good last-minute airfare deals as part of air-and-hotel packages.
  • You can sometimes get good last-minute prices through Hotwire or Priceline.

But forget about cheap standby on a major airline at the airport.

Legend 3: Dress up for an upgrade

Some travel writers still suggest you can get upgraded from even the cheapest economy ticket by dressing nicely and asking politely at the departure gate. As far as I can tell, by now that's a true urban legend. These days, airlines give out upgrades, if any, to (1) travelers on expensive economy tickets, (2) high-ranking frequent flyers, or (3) people who pay for a standby upgrade at the gate.

In my experience, most departing flights now have far more disgruntled upgrade-eligible travelers in the cattle car section than in first class. No matter how you're dressed, asking for a free upgrade when you don't have high frequent flyer status is more likely to get you a laugh than a seat.

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