I was sitting on a hard metal fold-up chair, separated from the turquoise-painted warehouse by a yellow line on the floor and a sign that read, "U.S. Customs bonded warehouse. Personnel only beyond this point." Giant bags filled with who-knows-what were being moved about by a legion of workers. I was told to "wait for 10 minutes." After that I was ignored.
But not by the butterflies diving headfirst into my stomach lining.What if the airline didn't let me on the plane? I fretted. What if my suitcase was too big for carry-on? What if something illegal was packed in freight attached to my name? What if the courier company forgot I was sitting there and didn't get me to the flight?
What if, what if.
My worries, it turned out, were all for nought. Well, I take that back. They were worth $289 - the difference between the cheapest consolidator ticket I could find and the cost of making the flight from Miami to La Paz, Bolivia, as a courier.
On this, my first time flying as a courier, everything went as smoothly as cream cheese, both for me and for a friend, who traveled the day before.
Traveling as a courier was one of two cheap-seat methods I tested this past year. I also bought a ticket through a consolidator, or discounter, a company that I found through a newspaper advertisement. In that case, too, the savings were substantial.
In my mind, flying as a courier somehow seemed daring and mysterious, while flying on a cheap ticket I'd found through an ad seemed, well, risky. But in my case, at least, each experience worked out well. In the process, I discovered the possible pitfalls, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each.
The courier flight caused me the most butterflies, partly because I was alone. And that is how you, too, will travel, because in nearly all cases, courier companies need only one person per flight.
The deal is this: Unaccompanied freight has a much lower priority with an airline than accompanied baggage. Within the United States this is not much of a problem; some delivery companies even have their own planes. But overseas is a different matter. For freight companies that guarantee overnight delivery, having a live person on the plane is essential to keeping their commitment.
Since Miami is a major center for international business, it is also a good place to pick up a courier flight to Central or South America or Europe.
As a courier, you have no responsibility for what is in the courier company's bags as long as they, and not you, bring them through customs, says John Casale, chief of the cargo control section at Miami International Airport for U.S. Customs. In my case, I never touched the cargo; a courier company representative checked their bags in at the airline counter, and I never saw the bags again.
Generally, says Tom Belmont of Halbert Express, the cargo consists of documents, computer discs, checks, videos - items that must be delivered overnight and are impossible to fax. Sometimes companies will send machine parts, says Casale.
Courier flights can be arranged through a booking company that handles flights for a number of freight companies or, in some cases, directly with the cargo line. Most flights involve major airline carriers.
Terms and conditions vary between companies and even between destinations; for instance, the flights to one city may allow you to stay one week exactly, while others may allow more flexible schedules. Some companies may allow you to pay by credit card or check, while others accept cash only.
But the following parameters are common to nearly all courier arrangements:
- Couriers are used almost exclusively on international flights. Domestic legs are rarely, if ever, available.
- Once paid for, arrangements are non-changeable, non-transferable and non-refundable. You bought it, it's yours, and travel insurance generally is not offered. However, if you have lots of advance notice and are working with a booking company, they will often try to help you out if you need to change.
- Courier companies use only one person per flight.
- You are allowed carry-on luggage only, because the freight company is using your (checked-baggage allotment.) However, many airline companies will allow you to pay the price for any extra bags you wish to put on the plane. Cost varies, but count on about $25 per bag.
- Flights can be booked as much as two to three months in advance, depending on the company. In some cases, the price gets much cheaper as the date gets closer - dropping, for example, from $500 to $100 round-trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Many companies keep "last-minute" lists of people willing to fly on short notice at very cheap rates.
- The price of a courier ticket is generally about 50 percent of the regular lowest available fare. The cheapest times to fly, says Dawn McCaffery, president of Discount Travel International, are in the off-season. For instance, in winter she may offer a ticket to Europe for $199 round-trip. In summer, a ticket to London or Madrid is $399 round-trip.
- You must be at least 18. You are expected to dress "casual smart," says McCaffery. That means no torn jeans, no shorts, etc.
- You can claim the frequent flier miles from the flight. However, the airline carrier may be changed at the last minute, so you might not be flying with a company whose miles you garner.
There are risks. It is possible that the freight company might cancel at the last minute or that arrangements with your return flight could go awry. However, both McCaffery of DTI and Belmont of Halbert Express stress that such problems are extremely rare. In his 12 years in the business, says Belmont, he has known of perhaps only 10 times when a courier has been canceled at the last minute. On a few occasions, passengers flying out of South America have been delayed for a day due to local holidays or some other occurrence, says McCaffery, but that too is very rare.
My friend and I experienced no problems when we traveled for a week last fall to La Paz, Bolivia.
We called Discount Travel International and booked our flight on Oct. 5 for departures on Oct. 25 and Oct. 26. The carrier, we were told, would be Lloyd Aero Boliviano. Because we wanted to travel as closely together as possible - one on one day, and the other person on the next - we had to be somewhat flexible about the schedule.
The cost: $500 each. (A $400 ticket to La Paz is currently available through Line Haul Service.) The cheapest consolidator ticket I had found was $789 per person, and the regular advance-purchase airline fare was significantly more.
DTI faxed us a confirmation letter with instructions. Their information sheet advised that we might have to carry a courier pouch with documents for the cargo, but this was not necessary in our case.
For a week's trip, I packed my duffle with the bare essentials. I put my purse and camera in my day-pack, and off I went to Line Haul's office.
The people were pleasant. I waited about a half-hour before they loaded their cargo and me into their van. They even carried my suitcase for me.
We drove to the airport. They checked in their several large bags, filled with documents, I was told, and checked me in on their ticket, which was issued in my name. My "guide" made sure I had been filled in on the procedure for getting my return ticket in Bolivia. And that was it.
When I arrived in La Paz, I simply went on my merry way. No paperwork, no hassles.
The return was equally easy. Everything went according to plan. On my flight, Line Haul sent only a small bag back to Miami, and I was able to check in my luggage as well.
The one snag was paying the departure tax. I had forgotten I would need to pay it separately, and I had to scrounge for pennies to make up the amount. A small hassle - and one that would have existed if I'd been traveling on a regular ticket.
Would we do it again? At fares such as $200 round-trip from New York to Singapore; $175 from Miami to Bogota, Colombia; and $100 round-trip from Miami to Caracas, Venezuela, of course we would.
A few hundred dollars for a few butterflies is a fair trade.
When it came to buying our tickets for Guatemala from a consolidator, I threw out the window nearly every bit of advice I've ever read about not getting scammed. We didn't ask friends or relatives for recommendations. We didn't check with the Better Business Bureau. We didn't even pay by credit card because the low price was for cash or checks only. No refunds, no changes allowed.
What we did was this: We scoured the tiny ads in the back of the travel section. We called several and found similar prices - including tax, $296 round-trip to Guatemala City, about $150 less than the cheapest advance-purchase round-trip fare available on a major carrier.
Consolidators, also called discounters, are independent brokers who sell tickets the airlines haven't been able to sell at the regular price.
The danger, of course, is that you may end up buying from a small company with a short lifespan. However, if you deal with a reputable, established firm, the risks are far less - and you may save as much as 30 percent.
Despite our lack of caution, everything turned out just fine.
The agency we used was called N.E.W.S. Travel & Tours, based in Miami. Our tickets were on United Airlines. Although we'd paid a discounted rate, the tickets listed the full excursion fare.
As we edged toward the counter, my stomach went into its familiar antics. What if the tickets were no good? What if they were stolen?
As it turned out, we had no problem at all.
The one hassle was that we didn't have preassigned seats or boarding passes, which my travel agent usually books. We could have called in advance to get assigned seats; instead, we just went early to the airport.
As with the courier flight, there was a price to pay: no exchange or change, a few butterflies and the extra time at the airport because we needed to arrive early.
But we were able to travel when we wanted, together, for substantial savings. Worth it, for sure.