Back in the mid 90’s my friend Rob was running an export business in Thailand, he also had a pretty young Thai girlfriend so needless to say Rob needed to fly to Thailand – ALOT! He didn’t have much money back in those days so Inevitably Rob discovered what was the best deal in budget travel at the time – Courier Flights.
It all sounded pretty shady to me – I imagined Rob the unwitting pawn of some Colombian drug lord or the decoy for a black op splinter group of the CIA – turns out the reality was nowhere near as interesting.
Here’s how it worked way back in the 90’s:
Let’s say a German TV Station was having a Bay Watch Marathon. Unfortunately, as the Marathon nears the grand finale – a janitor spills toilet bowl cleaner on their only video copy of Episode 240. Episode 240 is scheduled to air the next day at 10pm, so, the TV station puts in a frantic call to NBC Television in Hollywood requesting a new copy of the video tape.
The problem is that if the tape is shipped to Germany using traditional air cargo, it could be delayed in customs for several days, or even weeks, which means the new tape could sit in the airport until well after the Bay Watch Marathon has ended – and the station would have to contend with a whole bunch of pissed off German, David Hasselhoff fans… Not a pretty thought!
Here’s where the air Courier comes in. An individual on a commercial airline could transport the video tape effortlessly through customs within minutes of their flights arrival. They could then hand deliver the Bay Watch tape to a representative of the German TV Station at the airport – no fuss – no muss!
At the peak of the Courier Era there were dozens of courier companies in operation – they were considered a crucial part of doing business overseas.
My friend Rob got some great deals, usually flying from San Francisco to Bangkok for half the going rate, sometimes even less. There were some severe restrictions on the length of his stay and on the amount of baggage he could carry on. On one trip he had to lug a suit along so he could appear professional when dropping off cargo to his Japanese employers.
It all seemed like a great deal to me, so, several years ago, when I decided that I wanted to start traveling the world, the first thing I researched were Courier flights – actually the first was Frequent Flyer programs since I had accrued about 100,000 miles over the previous 10 years – but once those were used up It was all about courier flights.
What I discovered was really depressing. Turns out that, much like Roller Disco and the Dinosaur, the era of Courier Flights is dead and gone.
There are several factors that lead to the demise of the courier flight. The biggest nail in the coffin was that, unlike the late 1990s and early 2000s, air cargo companies now have much larger fleets and more sophisticated handling services that work with customs agencies to speed deliveries.
Federal Express, for example, issued a news release in August 2007 describing upgrades resulting in a 50 percent increase of daily delivery capacity from the United Kingdom to the United States. Other companies are making similar improvements. In short, the air cargo industry has become much stronger and better prepared for speedy delivery than it was 10 years ago.
Because of technological advancement many documents can now be seamlessly routed via the Internet. Take our Bay Watch video for example. Today NBC could just shoot a digital copy of Bay Watch to Germany in minutes via satellites transfer technologies.
Airfare competition has also become more intense in recent years – with dozens of discount airfare sites online competing for your business, the informed buyer can get a killer deal without having to deal with all the drawback associated with courier travel.
All off these elements combined have led to the inevitable demise of what was once a great opportunity for the budget traveler.
The State of Courier Flights Today
There are still some courier companies out there clinging onto the past, trading on the courier mystique. Most of them will charge you a fee to sign up for their “service” – usually around $45. These outfits promise anywhere from 30 to 85 percent off the going rate – but don’t be fooled – you’ll probably end up spending what you would for a regular economy fare (sometimes, more), with far less control over your travel options.
Even Kelly Monaghan, who wrote the definitive book on Courier Flights back in the day, 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.
So, please save yourself alot of time and effort and cross courier flights off your Budget Travel Checklist. You’ll probably do much better waiting for fare sales listed on one of the fare alert and listing sites. More on that later.
If you absolutely have to check courier flights out for yourself here are some of the courier sites still in existence online:
Couriertravel.org plays on the “courier travel” name, but many of the flights offered are actually characterized as “wholesale” and don’t involve courier duties. To take advantage of these offers, a one-time membership fee of $40 USD is required. (NOTE: This site is now offline)
AirCourier.org They offer a “Triple Guarantee” it must be legit!
International Association of Air Travel Couriers still offers courier fares between the west coast of the U.S. and Asia; and between London and the east coast of the U.S. To take advantage of the fares and arrangements offered, a $45 USD annual fee is required.