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Fly as a Courier for Deep Discounts

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


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.

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 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 usually are round trip, and the numbers can be seductive. In March, for instance, the following round-trip fares were available: LAX-Tokyo, $400, with last-minute flights as low as $200; LAX-Manila, $495; LAX-Bangkok, $400 to $495 and LAX-London, $350 to $465. Last-minute flights to all destinations are usually available for much less than the posted prices, and prices vary from airline to airline.

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's possible for a couple to travel as couriers, but logistics are far simpler, and it's easier to get the ticket you want, if you're going it alone. Couriers usually are required to sign a contract and sometimes asked to put up a deposit, to be refunded upon completion of the round trip. (Some companies require a $35 to $50 payment 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, a Florida group that tracks courier fares, estimates that 35,000 plus flights left the U.S. last year with at least one courier aboard.

Byron Lutz of the IAATC said that while the number of flights each year is remaining steady, there is constant change in the number of flights to different parts of the world. "We've noticed an increase in flights to the Orient from LAX," he said, and predicted that flights to South America will soon be on the increase.

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 (561) 582-8320, fax (561) 582-1581.

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) 656-6247. (Contact: Tracy Arato.) Destinations from LAX: Auckland, New Zealand, and Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, Australia.

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

* Halbart Express, 1000 W. Hillcrest Blvd., Inglewood, CA 90301; tel. (310) 417-3048, fax (310) 418-9792. (Contact manager Don Sutton or courier coordinator Greg Gallegos.) LAX to London; Glasgow, Scotland; and Sydney, Australia. In June, Halbart will begin offering flights to Guam, Hong Kong, Singapore and Manila.

* International Bonded Couriers (aka IBC Pacific), 1595 El Segundo Blvd., El Segundo, CA 90245; tel. (310) 607-0125, fax (310) 607-0126. LAX to Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Bangkok, Thailand, Manila and Seoul.

* Jupiter Air, 460 S. Hindry Ave., Unit D, Inglewood, CA 90301; tel. (310) 670-1197 or 1198, fax (310) 670-0621. (Contact: Booking Department.) Destinations from LAX: Bangkok, Hong Kong, Seoul and Singapore.

* Virgin Express, Building 197 JFK Airport, Jamaica, NY 11430; tel. (718) 244-7244 or (888) VEX-MOVE, fax (718) 244-7240. LAX to London.

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