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Fall 2010

Carrier Pigeons, Courier Students: Travel Around the World on a Budget

An image of two men on a raft
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When you first meet Tim Olsen, he seems like your average neighbor. He dresses in button-up shirts and jeans, leaves early in the morning for school, comes back home around dinnertime, and mows the lawn on Saturdays.

It is only when you enter Tim’s home that you realize there is something really different about him. Looking at Tim’s map-covered walls, you’d assume he was a geography major. You’d be wrong. He majored in information systems and is currently pursuing a PhD in process innovation. But Tim has an obsession with traveling and has been all over the world, from South America to Southeast Asia. With ever-mounting student debts and ever-present living expenses, how does this student satisfy his itch for exploration while avoiding financial ruin? Short answer: courier flights.

Tim and other students across the United States affordably travel around the globe by acting as “couriers.” A courier carries important documents on a flight for a courier company in exchange for a reduced-price plane ticket. Many companies will use couriers so that documents requiring urgent delivery do not get held up in customs. Couriers themselves benefit by getting anywhere from 30 to 85 percent off the price of plane tickets to and from distant locations they previously had only dreamed of visiting. In 2004, Tim and two of his siblings flew to and from Singapore for $450 each—including tax. The next year they did it for $100 each.

So how did Tim and other students become couriers? Generally, potential couriers (adults with a valid passport) can contact courier companies, such as Jupiter Air, directly and offer their services. The company will then provide them with information about available assignments.

Typically when a courier accepts an assignment, he or she will pay for the plane ticket at the time of booking. The courier then picks up the ticket at the airport on the day of departure. The documents are checked onto the airplane and delivered to an awaiting client at the other end of the flight.

An image of four people in Thailand

Tim explains, “Basically, you meet the agent at a certain location in the airport, you give him or her a cashier’s check if you haven’t already paid for the ticket, he or she give you the tickets, and you are off.”Depending on the specific assignment, couriers may stay at their travel destination anywhere from a few days to a full month. On one of Tim’s trips to Singapore he had time to take “detours” to Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Hong Kong before returning to Los Angeles.

While courier flights can be a great way for penny-pinching students to expand their campuses and satisfy their hunger for travel, courier flights are not for everyone. Often, courier flights are last-minute, requiring the couriers to pick up and leave with only a few days’—or even a few hours’—notice. Courier company documents also cut into personal luggage space, so courier travel is only for those who can pack light.

Since courier companies send only one courier per flight, courier travel is ideal only for those who can travel without a partner. Or you can do it as Tim and his siblings did—they each flew out on a different day and then met up in Hong Kong.

In today’s economy when many college-age adults find it difficult to even travel home for Christmas, much less explore the hidden beauties of Southeast Asia, courier flights can enable students like Tim to get a great education while traveling the world.

—Melissa Miner