Tourists and businesses save with courier services

April 16, 1995|By Jana Sanchez-Klein | Jana Sanchez-Klein,Contributing Writer

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.

Cheap thrills

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.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.