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onboard courier

What is an On-Board Courier?

You’re not alone in wondering. On-board couriers were once much more popular than they are today. Time for a renaissance, wouldn’t you agree? But first, a brief history.

The Golden Age


How could international travelers once land flat-rate flights from Los Angeles to London for $100 round-trip? Tokyo for $75? Moscow for FREE? By flying as an on-board courier (a.k.a. air courier or O.B.C.). This once flourishing almost-too-good-to-be-true form of travel required nothing more than a simple registration and the willingness to travel lightly and on short notice.


On-board couriers thrived in the 60’s and 70’s, blossomed in the 80’s, and then exploded in 90’s. The industry saw nationally published books, invite-only clubs with pricey memberships, international associations, and non-stop worldwide news coverage.


Then, a tragedy. The horrific events that took place on September 11, 2001 wreaked havoc on the on-board courier industry, with every nation on the planet scrambling to enhance their airport security in an attempt to ensure that such a heinous act could never happen again.


Since then, it’s been a relatively slow revival, but with over 7,500 air courier companies in the U.S. today serving a multi-billion dollar industry, companies like Airmule have never been more poised to dominate, especially when you consider that America’s already embraced the sharing economy.


So, What Exactly Is An On-Board Courier?


Basically, they’re freelance delivery men & women. They’re hired by a delivery company (like Airmule) to escort cargo via commercial aircraft. In the simplest of terms, they’re passengers whose excess luggage allowance is used for quickly shipping goods or documents.


Can Anyone Travel As An On-Board Courier?


Yup. (Well, almost.) You’ll need to be 18 or older and you’ll definitely need a valid passport. And depending on which country you’re traveling to, you may or may not need a Visa to enter. (Check here to see if the country you’re visiting requires one.)


How’s It Work?


Each company operates differently, but the basics are pretty much the same:


  1. You’ll register as an available traveler with your courier company of choice, then give an approximation of available destinations and dates.
  2. The courier company will work to match your flight itinerary with a shipment. If purchasing a ticket directly, you’ll need to pay by credit card.
  3. A quick check-in by email, call or text happens a few days before your flight to confirm you’re still traveling. Always check with your company regarding refund policies.
  4. On the day of your flight, you’ll meet a company representative at your departure airport to receive your shipment, instructions and papers. (Airmule provides our travelers with a digital manifest that includes a photo of each item being shipped, it’s value and a brief description.)
  5. You’ll check into your flight as normal. If asked about your luggage by the authorities, simply state that you’re flying as an on-board courier.
  6. Upon arrival, you’ll meet another company rep, hand over your shipment(s) and then you’re done. In some cases, you may have to attend the company representative until the items clear customs.
  7. On your return trip, you’ll either repeat the process, or you’ll be flying empty. If nothing’s being shipped, then you’re all set.


Before You Go…


Sure, it sounds easy. And yes, it definitely is. But this incredibly inexpensive form of travel isn’t for everyone. Please consider the following before you decide to travel with any on-board courier company.


  1. Courier tickets are often available only in major airline hubs–Los Angeles, New York, Beijing, Tokyo. If you don’t already live in the departure city, then it’s your responsibility to get there at your own cost.
  2. You might only be able to take a carry-on. Just be prepared in case all of your checked baggage allowance is used for shipments.
  3. Flexibility is important. You won’t always get a flight/shipment, but stay available you’ll eventually find a match.
  4. Most on-board courier companies won’t allow you to keep your Frequent Flyer miles. (But Airmule always does!)
  5. Courier flight prices vary depending on demand. If airline prices are up in general or if you’re flying to a popular destination, you might pay more.
  6. Some on-board courier companies require a professional dress code. (Not Airmule. Wear whatever the hell you want.)
  7. Traveling with another person on the same flight is doable, but can be difficult. Make sure to contact your courier company in advance if this is an absolute requirement.