By land, sea or
If your plans are flexible, flying as a courier is an easy way to get a cheap fare
NEW YORK (CNNfn) - The globe-trotting ways of savvy business travelers are not out of your reach as long as you're packed and ready to go.
Courier companies offer heavily reduced airfares -- often 50 to 85 percent off the normal ticket price -- to passengers who are willing to accompany time-sensitive business cargo overseas.
With fares from the United States to major Asian and European destinations as low as $200, the rates may seem to good to be true. But there's nothing shady about flying as a courier.
"The first time [I flew as a courier] I had a little bit of hesitation," said Johnny Josselyn, an art director who has flown as a courier numerous times. "But it's totally a legitimate business."
Courier runs account for about 35,000 to 40,000 roundtrip flights a year.
Big name freight companies, such as Fedex and UPS, transport shipments as luggage with so-called "casual couriers" when they do not have enough cargo to justify using one of their own planes. More cost-effective, it also ensures cargo won't languish in customs for days.
As a courier, you usually must be willing to forfeit some or all of your baggage allowance. You are, however, permitted carry-on luggage.
You can even earn frequent flyer miles when traveling as a courier.
There are a few ways to become a courier. You can contact a courier company directly -- look in the yellow pages -- to find out about available "runs" or you can book your flight through a courier association, such as Now Voyager or the Air Courier Association.
These organizations consolidate thousands of courier flights into master lists they make available to their members via phone, fax, mail or the Internet. They usually charge a membership fee ranging from $25 to $90, plus annual dues.
Once you've chosen a flight, most companies allow you to pay by credit card or check and some require a deposit, though you won't get your ticket until shortly before you board your flight. You will, however, receive a contract detailing your "run."
You can book a courier flight fairly far in advance, though you probably won't get as good a deal if you do.
"You have to be flexible for it to be really worthwhile," said Josselyn. "The smarter thing to do is buy your ticket last minute."
By waiting until a just few days before he wanted to leave, Josselyn paid $200 for a roundtrip ticket from Hong Kong to Los Angeles. Most routes usually are available on short notice, according to Josselyn, though you may not be able to depart on the exact day you desire.
Getting the flight you want may be more difficult during peak season.
"Availability becomes a lot tighter in the summertime," said Byron Lutz, executive director of the International Association of Air Couriers and editor of The Shoestring Traveler. "The great rates become more scarce between June and mid-August."
As a courier, you likely will never have to handle the shipment you are accompanying. A representative for the courier company will meet you at the airport up to three hours before your departure with an envelope containing all the necessary shipping paperwork, in addition to your plane tickets. You'll be met by another rep at your destination city, usually after clearing immigration but before entering the customs area.
Pass on the paperwork and you're done, free to enjoy the rest of your trip. In a few cases, you may have to accompany an item on your return flight as well.
"I almost didn't notice I was flying courier," said Brian Ferinden, a writer and first-time courier who paid $350 for a flight from New York to Paris. "It was 95 percent like any other flight."
If you are worried about transporting an illegal shipment for a courier company, don't be. Courier companies have been in business for many years and are well known by customs officials.
"The baggage is never in your name. Most times, you never touch the baggage. You do not physically clear it through customs," said Lutz. "If there were a problem, the courier would not be held responsible."
Most courier companies require you to be at least 21 years old and have a valid passport. You are also expected to dress appropriately -- in other words, not too casually.
The courier approach works best when you are flying alone, but it is possible to travel with a companion. You will not be able to fly on the same flight but you can travel one day apart or with two different courier companies going to the same destination on the same day. Companions can usually get a discount on membership with the courier association you belong to.
As a courier, you are somewhat limited by what cities you can depart from. In the United States, courier flights leave from New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Miami. In Canada, departures from Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal are available.
Ferinden said he would definitely recommend courier travel to others, "especially if they need a cheap ticket last minute and they can be flexible."
"It can be great savings," added Josselyn. "But there can be stress and headache. It's not the kind of transportation for everyone."
-- by staff writer Nicole Jacoby