Many years ago when I first started travelling, one of the tips you heard for a great way to get cheap international air tickets was to travel as a courier carrying items for specialized courier companies.

I don't think these were companies like DHL or FedEx but I think they were proper companies complying with all relevant regulations and were not regarded as something sketchy or dodgy.

The idea was that you carried personally on the plane something fragile or important to be delivered in the other country. This counted as part of your on-board luggage so you couldn't bring anything or could bring less on board of your own stuff. I'm not sure if checked luggage was also ever used. In return you got a free ticket or a ticket at greatly reduced cost.

But now I haven't heard of this travel option for years. Did it disappear due to changing rules after international terrorism? Or does it still exist? Does it only exist in some places?

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    I seem to recall reading a few years ago that this practice was all but extinct, but I don't remember where I read it.
    – Flimzy
    Commented Sep 8, 2013 at 7:17
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    @ŁukaszLech I don't agree. If the value of the package is much more important than the transport costs, one could consider this type of transfer, especially if there are strict time constraints.
    – Bernhard
    Commented Sep 8, 2013 at 8:45
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    @ŁukaszLech: I've met plenty of people that would opt strongly against not travelling to Poland because stuff will get stolen. Fortunately I didn't ask either of those questions and I don't really listen to that sort of advice. I saw lots of movies where bad stuff happened to all kinds of travellers though - should we just all stop travelling? We could just convert the site into somewhere we spread rumours and warn people about stuff in movies. Commented Sep 8, 2013 at 10:06
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    Related: Is it possible to travel on cargo aeroplanes? Commented Sep 8, 2013 at 11:17
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    @Bernhard true, but would you really hire a hippietrail you never met but called you asking for a chance to carry something for you between Timbuktu and Pashewar to be your courier of the day for that Stradivarius violin or some trusted aide who's been in your employ for years and years?
    – jwenting
    Commented Sep 9, 2013 at 13:15

5 Answers 5


I spent quite a lot of time investigating this last year. Last time I checked (around February 2012) the only realistic possibility of a traditional courier flight without knowing anyone on the inside or with an airline is with British Airways, who offer a courier spot on flights between London Heathrow and Tokyo Narita. I called up their reservations number, who put me through to the right department (BA World Cargo), who gave me prices and timing.

Whilst the flight price is about half what it would normally cost (between £300 and £450, though this does vary), there are certain conditions. You must return within 2 weeks (or you can extend to 3 weeks by paying an extra £50), and you need to book fairly far in advance - there's often a 6 month lead time or longer for these flights. Finally there is only 1 courier spot per plane - so travelling at the same time as a friend isn't possible. As far as I know Tokyo is the only destination available with BA as a courier, and BA is the only airline I could find that had a courier programme available to the general public

To be honest it's quite easy to get reasonable flights from London to Tokyo for around £600 anyway, without any of the stipulations or hoop jumping that courier flights entail. I think the dream days of jetsetting around the world for next to nothing via courier options on flag carriers are a thing of the past.

UPDATE: I'm just trying this again - the number to call is 0870 32 00 301 (BA World Cargo), however they are only open during standard business hours. I am going to attempt this again on Monday.

UPDATE 2: I just called - flights were available from April onwards (a mix of outbound dates), but as April is high season the cheapest flight available was just over £700. The salesperson told me that the lower tier of fares for April starts at £530, but none of these were available. This means the flight is about 2/3 of BA's normal fare. I just did a quick check on Kayak and, although indirect, Air France flies flies LON > CDG > HAN for £524 on the days I investigated. So basically no great savings (aside from that its direct).

  • Are you saying Tokyo is the only destination for couriering full stop? Or the only destination from London Heathrow? Or the only destination BA offers for couriers? Commented Sep 8, 2013 at 11:19
  • Edited the post for clarity, but in my experience of hunting for flights BA was the only one to offer a courier seat, and only to Tokyo. Commented Sep 8, 2013 at 11:21
  • Sorry if I seem pedantic but were you asking checking on couriering between all pairs of places such as from USA to Latin America or only from the UK? This could make a big difference if say this is much more common in the US or some other place. Commented Sep 8, 2013 at 11:29
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    I checked with a few U.K / European flag carriers, of which only BA offered any kind of courier flight, and that was London / Tokyo. No other airline offered courier flights (to the general public) to any destination. I can't speak for non-European airlines. Commented Sep 8, 2013 at 11:38

Yes, this still exists as I have friends who have performed this task. Because of the trust issue, it has generally been arranged through pre-arranged contacts. Giving a high-value item to someone you don't know is not a good idea. And from the other side, carrying an item through customs that you have been given can be very risky unless you 100% know what it is.

So only people who are very highly trusted are used. (Usually long-term friends or family members).

While it is a good way to see new places, it has these limitations:

  • A lot of time is spent hanging around either waiting to go, or spending time in airports.
  • Very short notice. Can you travel tomorrow...? Today...? Now...? Trips also get cancelled at very little notice.
  • Turnaround times can be very tight. Fly into a destination and fly out on the next flight.
  • Cheap seats. The aim is to get the item there, not the courier's comfort.

So, it's possible but very rare these days. It's also not as glamorous as you would like. (Unless you like planes, airports and airline food).

  • So you're saying friends do this for friends but the courier companies no longer provide a service to find and pay people to carry goods for customers? Also must the couriers now return as well? Can you provide any links or company names? Commented Sep 8, 2013 at 10:50

The term used is apparently air courier. I've found several resources on the topic after more searching.

But I have not found the names of any courier companies. They seem rather elusive!

TL;DR version:

  • It does still exist.
  • It has become a lot less prevalent, but only partly due to post-911 security changes.
  • The savings are far smaller than they used to be.
  • They use your checked luggage, not your hand luggage.


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    Whilst informative, none of these sites have up to date, specific information regarding particular airlines, available routes or how to book - the 3rd link has effectively been unchanged since 1999 and the final link hasn't been updated since 2007. Commented Sep 9, 2013 at 4:51
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    I believe the airlines are not responsible. There are courier companies who merely book seats on airlines. So presumably they cooperate but are not tied and a courier company could change airlines or use more than one. It is notable that none of the articles list any courier companies! Commented Sep 9, 2013 at 5:54
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    Fair point - I think the companies died a bit of a death once FedEx and DHL started to run their own regular cargo planes at what I imagine is a significantly reduced cost. This is a stab in the dark, but I think the main reason Japan remains as a destination is perhaps due to the ingrained culture of document / paper-based business, but that is conjecture alone. Commented Sep 9, 2013 at 6:09
  • Yes FedEx and DHL are specifically mentioned in at least one of the linked articles as the major reason for air couriers vanishing. Yes Japan is odd - there are no Western Union or MoneyGram agents there either! Commented Sep 9, 2013 at 7:37

There are very few circumstances when it is useful to pay a person to carry an item, instead of simply paying only the airline to do ship it as cargo. Major airlines already carry a lot of belly freight cargo; indeed sixty per cent of all air freight is carried in the bellies of passenger planes. On some long-haul routes, the cargo business is more valuable to the airline than the passenger business. (The small cargo bay on the A380 is one reason it has not been particularly popular with many airlines.)

The main reason you would pay a personal courier is when you need a single person to be responsible for the delivery of essential items that cannot be delayed or interfered with. If there are problems on the way, the courier can then use his initiative to mitigate delays and smooth over problems with customs and other authorities. If you leave it to the airline or a service like FedEx, then there is no single person responsible for your watching your cargo door-to-door.

There are probably only a few situations when it is necessary to do this.

The first is medical couriering. In this circumstance, human tissues are being transported from a donor to a patient (or occasionally to a research laboratory). Time is typically of the essence, and of course, there are few or no replacements if the item is lost. Thus a courier is needed to ensure delivery and to smooth over any problems at the airport or with customs. There are a few companies who will pay for your air ticket and your expenses at the destination. However the rate of pay above expenses tends to be quite low or even unpaid.

The second and much less common example is the diplomatic courier. This is essentially the same as medical couriering, except that of course the courier must guarantee that the bag is not examined or intercepted by any person at all en route. The UK apparently employed sixteen such couriers in 2012, of which thirteen were ex-military. They also get a very cool "Queen's Messenger" passport. http://www.passport-collector.com/experiences-queens-messenger/

The final example is some businesses will still prefer to courier essential items with their own employees. Like the examples above, it is a matter of paying for risk mitigation.


Check out airmule.com, a new service that pays travelers to deliver items for others across international borders. You can make a living at this, actually make a profit over the cost of your flight or just have fun and save costs on your international trip.

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    Are you affiliated with this service? Have you tried it? Do you know how it works for customs stuff? (Sounds like a good way to get jailed for a few decades when you mule across a few kilos of drugs....)
    – Gagravarr
    Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 22:06

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