An hour before my scheduled return flight from Brussels, Belgium, I still didn't have my ticket in hand. I waited near the United Airlines counter for the courier representative to bring my ticket. He arrived just in time for me to be hustled through security and check-in and with only minutes to rush through the long airport terminal to the departure gate.
My round-trip ticket from New York to Brussels cost me $100, and a few anxious minutes of waiting. I was an air courier, like thousands of other travelers each year.
A "casual courier" serves as a passenger on an international commercial flight for an air-courier wholesaler, allowing the company to ship priority packages as luggage on that flight. In exchange for carrying documents from a U.S. airport to company officials at the international destination, couriers receive a discount on the ticket.
Companies use couriers because federal regulations require a passenger to accompany any international shipments on passenger flights and because couriers can help get the packages through customs quickly.
"The shipments are turned over to us by retail courier companies, including Fed Ex, UPS, TNT and DHL. We put a courier on board a passenger flight to express clear the shipment upon arrival," says Carlos Bautista, New York station manager for Jupiter Micom Courier, a courier wholesaler. Wholesalers check in bags of overnight packages as luggage and may even check more than the regular baggage allotment for each courier passenger. The shipments could not be sent as cargo, because it would take days or even weeks to clear customs at the foreign destination.
The courier wholesaler recoups some expense in ticket sales, but the real savings are derived from labor costs. The wholesaler does not pay an employee a salary and travel expenses to be a courier.
Couriers never touch the shipments, and in many cases, don't even see the shipments. "All you are expected to do is be there for the flight and obtain the materials you must carry," says William Bates, president of the 7,000 member International Association of Air Travel Couriers (IAATC) based in Lake Worth, Fla.
Eight U.S. wholesalers and three courier brokers operate out of New York. Brokers act as travel agencies that match courier wholesalers with individuals. Each wholesaler sets prices, length stay and other conditions based on its contract with the airlines.
My $100 ticket was a last-minute deal with Jupiter Micom Courier, arranged only 10 days prior to departure. I could have bought the same ticket up to two months in advance, but it could have cost up to $325. My husband also bought a $100 ticket to Brussels, and he did not have any problems with his return ticket. I was just unlucky, and according to the wholesaler, these kinds of problems are rare. Besides, I could think of worse things than being stuck in Belgium.
The most obvious advantage of courier travel is the price. Even when purchased two months in advance, courier tickets to Asia and Latin America are about half the lowest excursion fare. Tickets to Europe are not always such a great deal because demand is high, but tickets can be cheap or even free for some very last-minute flights.
Aside from the thrill of buying a heavily discounted ticket, a sense of adventure often attracts casual couriers.
"I just went because it was a wonderful way to get to London inexpensively, but also because of the romanticism of it all," says Seymour Rubak, a retired civil servant from Baltimore. "It is a nice feeling to be able to pick up and go to a foreign destination without much planning," he says. Mr. Rubak has taken two courier trips to London, and plans to make another one later in the year.
Courier travel from the United States originates from New York, Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles or Houston, and getting to the gateway cities could eat up some or all of the savings on a ticket.
On the other hand -- what a deal! In addition to my cheap flight ticket, I spent $33.95 round trip to take the Peter Pan Trailways bus to New York. I spent more on waffles, frites (french fries) and chocolate in Brussels than I did getting there.
Another reason some people aren't interested in courier travel is that in exchange for the cheaper ticket, passengers often give up some or all of their luggage space. My ticket allowed me one 70-pound checked bag.
Couriers generally should not worry that illicit goods are being shipped, as long as they buy the ticket from a reputable wholesaler or broker. To find out if the company has had any customs violations or a record of unethical business practices, travelers can call the IAATC or the Better Business Bureau in the city where the courier wholesaler operates.
Although passengers technically are responsible for their luggage, "To the best of my knowledge no courier has ever been charged with a customs violation," says Reginald Manning, an inspector and the passenger service representative for U.S. Customs at JFK International Airport in New York.
Flying as a courier is not for those who demand flexibility. Most travel to Europe and Latin America must be completed in either seven days or 14 days. However, stays in Asia usually can be arranged for up to 30 days.
Courier tickets may work best for the solitary traveler, since only one courier ticket is available on most flights, but companions do have options. For Europe, couriers can fly to separate cities and use land transportation to rendezvous. One can fly to Paris, and the other to Brussels, for example. Also, companions can travel on separate days and still spend the bulk of the trip together. My husband left for Brussels two days before I did, and he returned one day earlier.
"If two people wanted to go to London, we would work with two courier companies to get two people to the same destination on the same day," says Dawn McCaffery, president of Discount Travel International, a courier ticket broker. Her company also could book one passenger as a courier, and the other on a consolidator ticket or other discount ticket. The savings even on one ticket may be well worth the extra effort.
But some travelers don't want to be bothered with all of the extra planning.
"I don't like courier travel. It reeks of getting something for nothing," says Rick Steves, author of "Europe Through the Back Door," and host of PBS's "Travels in Europe With Rick Steves."
"Time is money and I am interested in no-nonsense travel that is flexible," he says.
Professionals in the courier industry are the first to acknowledge that it is not for everyone. For starters, couriers must be at least 18 with a valid passport.
"We don't suggest that people taking their first flight out of the country take a courier flight," says Byron Lutz, executive director of the IAATC, because international travel can be stressful enough for the first-time traveler. There are more variables in courier travel, especially the last-minute deals, which might require the passenger to be available on a few days, or even hours, notice.
One bad experience
And even when experienced travelers plan ahead, things can go wrong.
"It was a disaster," says Charles Long, director of instrumentation for Johns Hopkins University, of one of his courier travel experiences: After purchasing a courier ticket from New York to Australia, he arrived at JFK Airport on a Saturday and waited three hours for courier wholesaler personnel who never showed up. When he tried to call the company to find out what to do, he was only able to reach its answering service.
He returned to Baltimore and lost deposits on land package tours in Australia. When he spoke to the company on Monday morning, he learned that its personnel had been waiting for him at the Qantas counter, while he was waiting at the American Airlines counter. Mr. Long says that the disaster could have been avoided if he had called the courier wholesaler during working hours to confirm the time and location of the meeting.
"Make absolutely certain where you are going to meet," he advises. The company replaced Mr. Long's ticket a few days later, and he is still an advocate of courier travel. He has taken courier trips to Germany and always is looking for bargains.
Two membership organizations offer services designed to educate consumers about air courier flights.
The Florida-based IAATC was started in 1989 by Mr. Bates, a former courier with the U.S. Diplomatic Courier Service at the State Department, and Mr. Lutz, a free-lance travel writer. For $45 a year, members receive a bi-monthly air-courier bulletin with flight schedules, and a bi-monthly newsletter, the Shoestring Traveler, featuring budget travel news and stories. Members also have access to its fax-on-demand system with last-minute flight offerings updated twice daily and on-line service with more detailed information about flights and destinations. The staff mostly consists of veteran couriers who are generally knowledgeable and enthusiastic when asked about hotel and flight information.
The Denver-based Air Courier Association charges $58 per person for the first year ($28 per person for renewal) and offers flight schedules updated quarterly.
Individuals can call the courier companies directly for information and flight schedules.
International Association of Air Travel Couriers, (407) 582-8320.
Below is a partial list of air courier companies operating out of New York:
Air Facility, (718) 712-1769, sells courier seats to Latin America.
Bridges Worldwide, (718) 244-7244, sells seats on flights from New York and Newark to London.
Courier Network, (212) 675-6876, flies between New York and Tel Aviv.
Discount Travel International, (212) 362-3636, sells courier tickets from a number of wholesalers, as well as consolidator tickets. Courier flights are available to Europe, Latin America and Asia.
East-West Express, (718) 656-6246, sells tickets to Johannesburg, Sydney, Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong and Manila.
Halbart Express, (718) 656-5000, sells flights to Europe and Asia.
Micom America (Jupiter Air), (718) 656-6050, sells tickets to Hong Kong, London, and Singapore.
Now Voyager, (212) 431-1616, is a broker that sells tickets to Europe, Latin America, Caribbean, Asia, South Africa and Australia.
Rush Courier, (718) 439-8181, sells tickets to Puerto Rico.
World Courier Inc., (718) 978-9552, sells tickets to Mexico City, Brussels, and Milan.