"Get to Hong Kong or London for cheap," the pitch goes, "and all you have to do is accompany a package with some documents!"
It sounds like an opportunity that's too good to be true, and, of course, it is. Courier travel is hardly cheap these days, and courier companies are fast disappearing, victims of 9/11 and technology. A few remain, but like Madonna or George Michael, they are shadows of their former selves.
Today, documents route seamlessly via the Internet, while physical cargo (and travelers with one-way tickets) are scrutinized more closely than ever. Both these facts of modern-day life make for tough times at courier companies.
"Between new international trade agreements, post-9/11 air travel rules, and a surfeit of ways to find budget fares online, courier services are merely a barely surviving vestigial quirk of the old school of budget travel," said travel expert Reid Bramblett, founder of ReidsGuides.com.
There's even pressure from overnight delivery services: why send a courier to Hong Kong when FedEx has 30 frequencies weekly to China?
Even Kelly Monaghan, who wrote a highly regarded book on the subject, admits that, "Because of changes in the air freight industry and worldwide concerns about airline security in the wake of 9/11, air courier travel is, effectively, a thing of the past. Yes, there are still places that advertise 'courier' flights, but the prices they are asking are seldom competitive with those offered by airfare consolidators or bucket shops."
Getting squeezed from all sides, the remaining courier companies can't afford to offer the rock bottom fares of yore. Still, it's easy to get on board with one: call the couriers and announce that you're interested in traveling during a window of dates; they'll tell you if they have vacancies, and you purchase the ticket from them. But it'll cost more than you expect.
"Courier outfits promise anywhere from 30 to 85 percent off the going rate, but you end up spending what you would on a regular economy fare (sometimes, more), with far less control over your travel options," said Bramblett.
Take a look at the alert dated Jan. 1, 2005 on Courierlist.com. It tells pretty much the whole story: "We have suspended subscriptions to this Web site because we feel that it is not providing significant value or airfare discounts to travelers. Courier travel opportunities have always been scarce, but have become even more limited with decreased trade restrictions, increased security measures, and increased competition in the international freight industry."
Other sites catering to the would-be courier are less forthright. They charge membership fees for access to what they call "'secret airfares' the airlines prefer to keep quiet." One, not purely a courier-travel site, promises "daily FREE TICKET opportunities and much, much more," as well as a "triple guarantee." Isn't one guarantee enough?
Should you actually get a decent courier fare, most likely directly from an air shipping agency rather than through a third party, prepare for restrictions. You'll be expected to do a return run, you can't collect frequent flier points, and flights depart only from major cargo hubs (London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York, Miami) so you'll have to pay your own way to reach one. Some couriers limit your baggage to carry-on.
Is it worth it? AirfareWatchdog.com compared a fare typically offered by a courier service with a last-minute fare available through regular channels. It found the courier fare after joining the International Association of Air Travel Couriers (IAATC), a site that charges $45 a year to access a list of courier companies and fares, to find out.
Jupiter Air, a Los-Angeles-based courier company with routes from San Francisco to Manila and LAX to Hong Kong, recently posted last-minute round-trip fares on its LAX-HKG leg for $500, routed through Narita on Japan Airlines. Meanwhile, a one-way ticket on China Airlines leaving within a week of the fare search ran $514 — competitive, considering the pluses (luggage, companionship) that a non-courier ticket offers.
Bottom line: you'll probably do better waiting for fare sales listed on the top fare alert and listing sites.