So You Want to Become an Air Courier to Save on Air Fare?



The Shoestring Traveler - a bulletin to find an air courier company for a deeply discounted flight

The Shoestring Traveler — a bulletin where air courier companies listed their deeply discounted flights

When I came to America in 1992, there was one important thing I had and an equally important thing I didn’t. I had a burning desire to travel the world, and – I should probably use the word but – I didn’t have any money. 🙁

Before I discovered credit cards, frequent flyer miles, and hotel loyalty programs; before I found the way to fly and stay at hotels for next to nothing; long before I learned how to sip champagne in the front of the bus and enjoy free hors d’oeuvres at 5-star resorts – before all that happened I had discovered the mother of all travel hacks that allowed me to fly for pennies on a dollar – the IAATC (International Association of Air Travel Couriers).

That was pure gold! Here is my older and shorter post about those good old days.

How I traveled as an air courier

It was simple. You would get a paper brochure every month called The Shoestring Traveler, and you would choose where and when you wanted to travel. You could get a flight that cost $500-$600 for $200, an $800-$1,000 flight for $300-$400; occasionally you could get a flight for $50 if you were able to act quickly. I remember flying to London for $75 on a last-minute notice. I don’t remember all the details, but it worked somewhat like this:

  1. You would call an air courier company from the Bulletin (remember it started before the Internet became a household name).
  2. You would tell them what flight you were interested in.
  3. If they chose you, the representatives from an air courier company would meet you at the airport and give you a ticket and a manila envelope with a manifest inside.
  4. Upon arrival at your destination, you would be met by the local representative. You would hand them the envelope, and you were done.

I did that on many occasions and not once did things go wrong. Not once did I have to waste more than 10-15 minutes for the whole process. It was magic!

You would still have to give up your checked bag “rights,” but you would NEVER, under any circumstances, be handling the luggage itself!

The air courier cottage industry died soon after 9/11. It wasn’t just the heightened security that killed it. New travel regulations, lower air fares, and a surge of freight companies with much-improved logistics played their roles too, but one way or another, the air courier services that I and tens of thousands of other cheapskates used to cherish and love were gone, once and for all.

Or so we thought.

Renaissance of air courier companies

Just kidding. It would take more to call it a “renaissance.” I’ve been able to find exactly 2 air courier companies using freelance couriers that at least appear to be reputable: Airmule and Air Charter Service. That doesn’t mean that I couldn’t have missed others, but I’m writing a blog post, not a white paper.

In fact, the reason for my writing this post was another post from Travel Is Free where he linked to yet another post from a TPG writer who made $1,800 with Airmule for 3 round trips.

Let me say right away, though, that this kind of loot is gone now. That used to be a promo or something that’s no longer valid.

More importantly, with the current reincarnation of air courier companies, the wall between you – the carrier – and the luggage is gone. You’re not delivering a cargo manifest anymore. You’re delivering cargo.

And that, in my opinion, is troubling on more than one level.

How Airmule works

Unlike the way it used to work, with Airmule you buy your own ticket, then list your flight on the Airmule website.

Airmule used to have services for China only, but it seems it’s expanded its operations in the last 2 years.

Airmule is an air courier company

Airmule offers $250 for giving up your checked luggage spot and delivering their own per round trip

As you can see there are 4 existing routes between the U.S. and China, India, Korea, and Thailand. And there are 4 future destinations: Iceland, Dubai, London, and France.

Note that you must route flights to all currently supported countries via China with at least a 4-hour layover in the U.S. and at least a 6-hour layover at a supported Chinese airport.

How much can you “earn” per round trip? Not much – $250.

I see 2 issues with this value proposition.

  • You have to handle the luggage. You must pick it up from Airmule. You must check it. You must retrieve it at your destination, then hand it over to Airmule. I would also open it up and try to inspect it, although the effectiveness of such a short “inspection” is unclear to me.
  • No matter what the company tells you (and it does tell you that it assumes all the responsibility for the contents of your bags) – when you land in a foreign country, it’s your ass. The contents of your luggage is on you. Yes, the risk of unwittingly carrying some kind of contraband must be extremely low, but so is the reward.

This business model doesn’t even come close to the great modus operandi of air courier companies of the past (alas, we don’t have a time machine).

Would I go to all this trouble for the measly $250? No way!

However, their proposed routes appear to be more interesting. I could see myself hauling their bags to Dubai, Iceland, London or France one way only (unless their return flights will pay more than $100). But discussing the routes that aren’t even operational yet is fruitless.

Here is another cheerful post about the Airmule experience.

However, my verdict is NO. I wouldn’t waste my time.

How Air Charter Service works

Air Charter Service seems like a more advanced operation to me. Here are some pros compared to Airmule.

  • ACS Onboard couriers are paid in full for flights, hotels, and other business expenses (home/airport/hotel transportation?).
  • ACS appears to offer a lot more worldwide delivery routes.

You also get to keep your frequent flyer miles (and, I presume, hotel points) and have a chance to earn status.

Here are the cons:

  • ACS onboard couriers must be more engaged with the operation, as this post indicates.
  • They must be willing to go wherever they’re needed and, sometimes, on short notice.

Still, this is a great way to see the world and collect miles, especially for the younger crowd.

What do I not like about it? Well, if you read the post I linked to, it sounds like a job to me, and I like to be paid when I’m working (outside of this blog), but that’s just me. 🙂

Let’s recap

Neither company’s business model is great for air couriers. Unlike the air courier companies of the past where you didn’t touch or even see the luggage, these gigs require your direct engagement with the cargo, and that’s a bit bothersome.

Having said that, if you’re crazy about traveling and have time on your hands, using these services can help with the cash flow.

Oh, and there is still nothing like the miles and points game.

For now!

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Peter Allemano

Fascinating; thanks very much for this article, Andy!

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