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Cheap courier flights and other myths

Several visitors to SmarterTravel.com have asked about courier flights—what they are and whether or not they’re good deals. The short answers are (1) they’re air trips subsidized by shipping companies for travelers willing to hand-carry a high-priority pouch and (2) there are still a few, but far fewer than five to 10 years ago. Thus, although courier flights are not yet completely relegated to “urban legend” status, they’re heading that way, to join “cheap standby” and “dress up for an upgrade” as dead relics of times past that remain alive in some travelers’ minds.

The courier idea

International business has always needed to send some documents and materials from one place to another as rapidly as the current technology would allow. For the last half century, that meant flying. And, until recently, delivery companies or large multinationals could shave a few hours off the time by having an actual person carry documents or baggage—and clear them through customs—rather than handling them as cargo. Hence couriers.

In the most typical case, delivery companies made deals with courier agencies to screen and supply people to do the schlepping. Travelers interested in really cheap travel would sign up with those agencies to either be notified for future trips or to agree to take a trip already posted as available. Ticket prices were a matter of supply/demand balance. Courier prices for advance-notice trips on popular routes were only a few dollars less than the cheapest available discount tickets; last-minute trips on less popular routes cost much less and were occasionally offered free.

Almost all courier trips were international, and most of them were from a few U.S. gateways—especially New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—to a few major European and Asian business and financial centers.

On any of those trips, the courier’s job was simple. Just before departure time, the delivery company would give the courier a pouch or bag of some sort containing an assortment of documents and packages. The courier would check the bag as personal baggage and claim it on arrival, where he or she would turn the stuff over to the delivery company’s local representative and be on his/her merry way. Most courier tickets were round-trip, with a one- or two-week stay.

Sometimes, the traveler was expected to act as a courier on the return trip as well; other times, there was no return requirement. It was all easy: Couriers never had to hang onto the delivery full time—no briefcase handcuffed to the wrist, per Hollywood spy epics—all they had to do was check then reclaim the shipping company’s baggage.

The decline

A few years back, I routinely saw a wide choice of attractive courier flights and prices to Europe, Asia, and South America. However, as far as I can tell, major multinational shipping companies such as FedEx, UPS, and DHL have built up their own air fleets and sophisticated handling systems. New security measures probably complicate the process, as well. The result is that hardly anyone now requires courier flights.

Some of the self-styled courier websites still display references in books that trumpet the virtues of courier travel. If you look closely, however, you see that these books and reports were written five to 10 years ago. Kelly Monaghan, the one-time leading guru of courier travel, no longer even lists his once-popular book.

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.

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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