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Travel Insider

The Ultimate Cheap Package Tour: Just You and a Package

Budget: Courier services offer huge discounts to major cities in Asia and elsewhere. But restrictions make it hard on all but solo travelers.

February 04, 1996|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Not much in the world of travel works to the benefit of the lone traveler: Most cruise lines base their rates on two people per cabin; most tour operators count on a couple in every room; many airlines offer "companion fares" that leave lone fliers out. But courier travel is different.

Not only is it a good way for a flexible traveler to save as much as 50% (occasionally more) on overseas air fares, it's a strategy that's far easier on solo adventurers than it is on couples. And authorities agree that there are more courier flights these days than ever before.

The idea of traveling as a courier puts some people off because it sounds vaguely illicit--as if dark glasses and a trench coat might be necessary. They are not, but a willingness to travel light is.

Couriers are needed because international express-delivery companies are paid to get shipments (often paperwork) from Point A to Point B internationally, and the cheapest, most secure way is often to have those shipments travel as passenger baggage rather than as air freight. Companies generally have their own representatives at airports to aid in the checking and collection of shipments, but they rely on "casual couriers" to fill the airline seats.

Courier fares are usually round trip, and the numbers can be seductive. In January, for instance, the following round-trip fares were available: LAX-Tokyo, $200; LAX-Manila, $295; LAX-Bangkok, $200.

There are several catches. Despite the growth of the market, there are still relatively few of these fares available. Many companies have just one seat a day to fill, and even a large firm such as IBC Pacific can offer only seven seats a day from LAX. Among all courier companies, routes lead only to major business cities. Also, to get the best bargains, a courier must be prepared to fly on a few days' notice and to accept limitations on the timing of the return trip.

Another restriction is that you may bring only carry-on luggage. The courier company is using the space that would go to your bags in the cargo hold.

It is possible for a couple to travel on courier tickets, but logistics are far simpler, and it's easier to get the ticket you want, if you're going it alone. Couriers are usually required to sign a contract and sometimes asked to put up a deposit, to be refunded upon completion of the round trip. (Some companies accept deposits by credit card. Some also require couriers to make a payment of $35 to $50 the first time you fly with them each year.)

Courier flights leave North America principally through gateway cities: Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Among the most common destinations: England, Australia, France, Germany, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Venezuela. Courier travel experts agree that Asia is gaining routes faster than any other area--especially among departures from LAX.

Tracy Arato, vice president of East West Express, estimates that for each seat she controls, she receives calls from five to seven would-be couriers.

The International Assn. of Air Travel Couriers (IAATC), a group based in Lake Worth, Fla., that tracks courier fares, estimated that 35,000 to 40,000 flights left the U.S. last year with at least one courier aboard--a rise of about 25% over the last three years. The IAATC estimates that courier flights have increased by 15% in the last year. The association, which charges members $45 yearly, provides them fare updates by fax, online service and a bimonthly newsletter. (The IAATC can be reached at International Features, P.O. Box 1349, Lake Worth, FL 33460; telephone [407] 582-8320.) Another source of information is "Air Courier Bargains," by Kelly Monaghan (it can be ordered for $17.95 from Intrepid Traveler books at [800] 356-9315).

Here are some courier companies handling departures from Los Angeles, and a sampling of the destinations they serve.

* East West Express (P.O. Box 300849, JFK Airport Station, Jamaica, NY 11430; tel. [718] 656-6246, fax [718] 646-6247 Contact: Tracy). Destinations from LAX: Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland.

* Film International (8900 Bellanca St., Los Angeles, CA 90045; tel. [310] 568-8403, fax [310] 568-8275). LAX to Mexico City.

* Halbart Express (147-05 176th St., Jamaica, NY 11434; tel. [718] 656-5000.) LAX to Sydney.

* International Bonded Couriers (also known as IBC Pacific; 1595 El Segundo Blvd., El Segundo, CA 90245; [310] 607-0125, fax [310] 607-0126). Destinations from LAX: Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo, Bangkok, Manila.

* Jupiter Air (460 S. Hindry Ave., Unit D, Inglewood, CA 90301; tel. [310] 670-1197 or 1198, fax [310] 649-2771). Contact: Sarah or Lavene). Destinations from LAX: Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore, Bangkok.

* Bridges Worldwide (Building 197 JFK Airport, Jamaica, NY 11430; tel. [718] 244-7244, fax [718] 244-7240). LAX to London.

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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