Can you Travel Light? Great! Fly Internationally for Free

By Nora Dunn on 12 September 2008 8 comments
Photo: Nora Dunn

Can you travel with carry on luggage only? Do you fly solo? And can you fly last minute? Great! Now you can fly for drastically discounted rates, and sometimes even for free.

All you have to do is become an air courier.

Courier agencies often find that it is less expensive to fly cargo on a passenger flight as checked luggage than it is to use standard freight cargo services. And if luggage is being checked, it means there is a passenger seat to go along with it. This is where you come in, dear flyer.

 If you can fly with carry-on luggage only (since your allowance for checked baggage will be used for the cargo in question), and often close to the last minute, you may be able to book your next international flight as an air courier.

 Your Responsibilities

As an air courier, your job is to deliver the goods being flown with you to the destination. This may involve picking up and dropping off the parcel (if you’re lucky there will be somebody at the airport to take it from you), and often there is associated paperwork to fill out.

You will also be required to join a courier organization. The oldest and longest standing courier organization is the International Association of Air Travel Couriers (IAATC). The $45-50 annual membership with IAATC entitles you to:

  • Membership for you and a spouse/family member
  • Access to consolidator flights when a courier flight is not available
  • Courier photo ID card
  • Travel magazines, customer service, and helpful links on the Members only site
  • Daily bulletins of all courier companies and schedules of flights

Really? Is This too Good to be True?

Not having flown as a courier myself, or known anybody who has, I cannot substantiate the legitimacy of this technique. However it seems to be real, and all research points to “go”. (I’ll be joining an air courier agency myself shortly by the way, as a Professional Hobo always on the hunt for great airfare deals).

There are two reasons why a courier company might use members of the general public to deliver their cargo:

  • It is less expensive for the courier company to fly the parcel as luggage on a commercial flight than it is to ship it as air cargo.
  • Checked baggage often clears customs much more quickly than air cargo (which can sit for days in cargo holds) does.

Drawbacks to being an Air Courier

  • Usually there is only one seat per flight reserved for a courier. If you are traveling with others, you may be relegated to separate flights, or one person may have to pay full fare to accompany the other.
  • It is rare that you can book a flight months in advance, as many courier agencies only have days or weeks to deliver a package.
  • Courier flights are often one-way only.
  • Courier flight opportunities are only available for international destinations.

If you can swallow the conditions above, and are amenable to being an international pack-horse, flying for free (or deep discounts) as an air courier may be the perfect fit for your next international flight. If anybody has experience with this style of travel, please let us know what it was like by leaving a comment below.

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Can you Travel Light? Great! Fly Internationally for Free

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Guest's picture

I tried doing this a few years ago. Bought all the books, the memerships. Now that you can transfer huge documents quickly over FTP connections, companies don't tend to send giant documents overseas anymore. In one year of membership, I never once saw an opportunity worth taking advantage of. In fact, all of the books that I bought were either published long before the advent of the internet, or the updated versions warned that there was very little courier work left anymore.

Guest's picture

What about the question they always ask: Are you carrying any bags/packages that aren't yours? I guess this is technically "yes", but a loophole?

Guest's picture

I was thinking the same as Kevin- that knowing my luck I'd end up in a foreign jail cause they'd think I was a drug mule!

Guest's picture

Most courier travel is dead, except for a few companies like Jupiter Air that hire couriers directly w/o middlemen like these membership organizations to carry customs documents for industrial computer equipment shipped to Japan, usually followed by a connecting flight to HK or Thailand, for $500. Having tried this, my only beef is that flying transpacific on JAL in economy class is even more of a sardine can for most Americans than US/EU airlines. For the time, money, and trouble, you'd be better off using FF miles.

Guest's picture

It reminds me of the "get paid to do surveys" stuff. It sounds great, and it's legitimate in the fact that companies do pay well for surveys and focus groups because it's important research, but demand far outnumbers the supply. Chances that you'll find something worthwhile are slim to none.

Guest's picture

Wow, exactly the same job requirements as a drug mule! The risk is higher but oh the opportunities to see the world!

Guest's picture

has declined over years due to 9-11. I have done it in the past and using a middle man is a waste of money. If you can deal directly with the company needing a courier there is no cost involved. But, as stated the need for couriers is almost extinct.

Guest's picture

I know a lot of people who have shelled out real money for books/memberships and only a couple of them have ever scored a flight and neither of them could justify the expense and hassle for the little money they saved after adjusting for extra expenses incurred.