Couriers carry away savings on long-haul flights: Although there may be restrictions on baggage and length of stay, chaperoning company documents can cut the cost of travel

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A RETURN flight to Tokyo for pounds 359 return or perhaps pounds 179 return to San Francisco. These are two examples of the cheap guaranteed flights on offer to people who fly as couriers.

Courier companies are responsible for transporting urgently required material by the fastest possible route. It is much quicker to send documents by air as part of a passenger's check-in baggage than to risk delays with air freight cargo.

Although many companies prefer to use their own staff to courier sensitive documents, firms such as Polo Express, based at Heathrow, and Courier Travel Services, of the Fulham Road, London, are still responsible for finding members of the public to act as couriers.

There are a number of restrictions on most courier flights. Courier Travel Services normally allows its couriers their full 23kg baggage allowance, but it cautions that on a few flights the courier is restricted to hand baggage only. Polo Express allows one suitcase weighing up to 23kg plus one piece of hand baggage.

Every courier flight has some restriction on the length of stay. CTS allows up to 28 days and Polo Express up to three weeks. Most flights are return tickets only, although CTS recently advertised one-way flights to Tokyo.

Both companies book all of their flights through British Airways. Usually only one courier is required for each flight but a second traveller can sometimes travel on the next flight or alternatively book a full fare on the same flight.

Polo Express does not allow couriers to be accompanied by children under the age of 13. Couriers have to sort out their own visas where these are needed.

Those interested in getting on a courier flight must first send a stamped addressed envelope to the courier company.

CTS makes travellers complete an application form setting out full flight requirements. Polo Express accepts telephone bookings. A contract and flight details are sent to the traveller on receipt of payment.

According to Polo Express, the courier companies ideally like to fill their schedules two to three months in advance. However, due to seasonal variations in demand, shorter-notice seats are availiable, even the day before in rare cases.

For those who are healthy and over the age of 18, little more than a valid passport is required. On the day of the flight the courier reports either to the courier's offices or at a pre-arranged point at the airport.

CTS requires its couriers to report to its offices four hours before departure. The courier company representative hands over a document pouch and ensures that the courier is checked in. When the courier reaches the destination a representative of the company takes the document pouch and makes sure that the materials accompanying the courier clear customs.

When the traveller is ready to return home, a call must be made to the locally based courier contact. The contact provides a meeting point and the courier takes a further document pouch back to London.

Caroline Horsfield, who flew on a British Airways flight to South America as a CTS courier, was lucky. She was not asked to carry anything in either direction.

She says: 'It was great. There was very little inconvenience and it made the whole holiday so much more affordable.'

The savings on flights vary. CTS recently offered a return flight to Miami for pounds 179, while Virgin offered a similar non-courier flight for only pounds 30 more.

Greater savings seem to be available on the Far Eastern routes. CTS recently offered a flight to Tokyo for pounds 359 return; Polo Express offers the same for pounds 450. These both compared favourably with a fare of pounds 612 with Turkish Airways via Istanbul and direct flights with other airlines of more than pounds 800.

Courier Travel Services: 071-351 0300.

Polo Express: 081-759 5383.

(Photograph omitted)

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