"Fly to Hong Kong or London for up to 80% off, or even free" the pitch goes, "and all you have to do is accompany some documents or a shipment of engine parts!" 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, the savings are shadows of their former selves.
"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," says 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. "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," says Bramblett. Take a look at the alert dated January 1, 2005 on Courierlist.com. It tells pretty much the whole story. Other sites catering to the would be courier are less forthright, charging dubious "membership fees" and promising "daily FREE TICKET opportunities and much, much more…." Really now? You know you're in trouble when you see a "triple guarantee"….shouldn't one 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 from major cargo hubs (London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York, Miami) only so you'll have to pay your own way to reach one. Some couriers limit baggage to carry-on.
Is it worth it? AirfareWatchdog.com compared the fares typically offered by two courier services--we found them after joining the IAATC, a site (which often has technical problems) that charges $45 a year to access a list of courier companies and fares--to find out.
Jupiter, 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 their LAX-HKG leg for $500 routed through Narita on JAL. Meanwhile, a one-way ticket on China Airlines leaving next Thursday runs $514—competitive, considering the pluses (luggage, companionship) a non-courier ticket offers.
Bottom line: you'll probably do better waiting for fare sales.