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Alternatives: Traveling as a Courier

It's not just a cheap -- or free! -- ticket; it's a way of life for some.

Increased airport security hasn't ended the need for businesses to deliver high-priority packages to overseas destinations. By signing up as a courier, you give up your checked-luggage allowance for an important business parcel in exchange for a very cheap, or even free, ticket to an exotic foreign land.

Yes, this is on the level. Reputable courier companies are insured and carry only real business packages -- you won't be stuck with anything illicit or immoral.

Courier tickets usually require you to travel alone, to book at least 30 days in advance or (more often) at the very last minute, and to pack very light -- you usually only get that one carry-on, though there are exceptions. (Some trips from New York to Hong Kong lasting more than 2 weeks, for instance, let you check one of your own bags.)

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Courier flights leave from a few U.S. gateways, primarily New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami, with occasional flights from other major cities like Boston, Orlando, and Chicago. Though flights to Europe are about the same price as consolidator fares and many flights to South America have been cancelled in the wake of September 11, 2001, prices to Pacific destinations can be breathtaking -- last-minute specials from New York to Hong Kong of $300 or even $150 round-trip are common.

Courier firms fade in and out of business on a regular basis, so joining one of the two air courier associations below is a smart idea. All have been in operation for more than 5 years and act as clearinghouses for several different courier companies. They also sell consolidator tickets and discounted travel insurance and make sure that you'll be able to get home if (for instance) a courier company spontaneously goes under in the middle of your trip.

Traveling courier isn't just a one-time option, it's a lifestyle. Many courier companies offer even lower fares to fliers who they know and trust, and the courier associations' membership-based structures reward those who fly often.

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Courier Travel (tel. 303/570-0282; www.couriertravel.org), in operation for 7 years, is a great place to start. Browsers can search lists of courier fares without paying the $50 annual membership fee ($199 for a lifetime membership), and the Web site's flight lists seem to be the most up to date in the field.

The Air Couriers Association (tel. 800/282-1202; www.aircourier.org) recently listed free trips from Boston to Seoul, Miami to London, and Greensboro to Hong Kong. They charge $49 per year for membership.

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