A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Get paid to travel as a diplomatic courier

diplomatic courier interview dale cazierIf you see an advertisement offering a chance to get paid to travel, odds are it’s a scam. But there are a few legitimate jobs that actually pay you to travel and the diplomatic courier profession is one of them. The Foreign Service has two main branches — generalists and specialists.

Generalists serve in more traditional diplomatic functions, and specialize in one of five career tracks: consular, management, public diplomacy, political and economic. Specialists also have diplomatic status but work in fields you might not associate with embassies — administration, construction engineering, facility management, information technology, international information, medical, office management and security.

The Diplomatic Courier Service is in the security branch, along with special agents who look after the security of our overseas embassies and personnel. Dale Cazier, a native of Syracuse, has been a diplomatic courier for 19 years and is currently the Deputy Director of the Diplomatic Courier Service. We spoke to Dale to get the scoop on the life of a diplomatic courier.

What does a diplomatic courier do?

We’re the only entity authorized by the federal government to carry classified information over international borders.

Do other countries have diplomatic couriers?

Yes, but not as many as we have. Right now we have about 100. But of those, about 20-25 are managers or supervisors like me.

Where have you served?

My first assignment was Frankfurt. In those days first tour couriers were given six-year assignments, now they’re usually three. After that I was based in Miami and then did two tours based in Washington.

In a good year, how many frequent flyer miles can you accumulate?

When I was based in Miami, within a year and a half, I got a million miles on American Airlines.

And you’re allowed to use those yourself, right?

Oh yes, they’re long gone now. When I first joined, you couldn’t keep your frequent flyer miles but that changed in the mid-’90s.

So how much classified cargo are you carrying on these flights?

It ranges from a piece of paper in a small orange pouch all the way up to a generator, which is massive.

What are the cities that U.S. diplomatic couriers are based in?

There are ten places; the offices vary from one-person offices to about 30. The four main regional offices are Frankfurt, Bangkok, Washington and Miami. And then there are hub offices in Seoul, Syndey, Manama, Dakar, Pretoria and Sao Paulo.When you join the service, can you express a preference of what city you want to be based in?

When you first join, you don’t get a choice. The career development officer meets with new recruits and says, ‘Here are the positions we want to fill with new recruits,’ and they can choose from those, but they don’t really bid on them.

There are a lot of pretty scary airlines in the developing world. Are diplomatic couriers required to fly on any of those airlines?

We don’t fly on those kinds of airlines if we can avoid it.

But there are some out-of-the-way posts serviced by dodgy airlines. How do you get to those places?

We try to avoid the more hazardous airlines but we don’t just fly, we also use ships, trains, whatever means of transportation is available.

But I imagine more than 90% of your trips are via planes, right?

90% is pretty close but we don’t just fly on passenger planes. We’re moving away from passenger flights toward cargo carriers.

Do you still get soft drinks and peanuts on cargo flights?

No. You’re lucky if you get a seat. Sometimes the only place to sit down is those little fold down seats. They’re about one square foot and it’s just like a piece of hard wood.

Is there time for sightseeing once you get to your destination?

There’s very little time for sightseeing. You might not arrive in a place until very late at night, and then you typically leave very early the next day to go to the next destination or back to your base.

How many days are you traveling in an average month?

You travel about 75% of the workdays in a month, so that could be 15 days or so.

Mostly day trips or do you stay overnight?

Over time that has changed. We used to go on 2-3 week trips at a time. Nowadays, most of the trips are down and back on the same day, if it can be done. That saves the taxpayers a lot of money on hotels.

O.K., so there isn’t a lot of time for sightseeing but you get loads of frequent flyer miles. But if you travel for work do you still want to fly in your off time?

When you fly day after day it can get tedious. I’d be home for a day or two and my wife would say, ‘Let’s go somewhere.’ But I’d just want to stay home.

What makes a good diplomatic courier?

The whole job is based on personal relationships and you’re completely independent. You need to be personable, flexible with different personality types. You’re always dealing with foreigners, most of whom don’t speak your language. People who can keep themselves entertained and don’t get upset easily and can make good judgments under stressful conditions do well.

And if you don’t like to fly I guess this a bad career option?

Right. And it’s not as glamorous as people think. It’s exciting and there’s lots of adventure, but it’s hard work too. If you don’t like traveling, or dealing with stress, or being on your own all the time, it’s probably not the job for you. But lots of people like it.

Ever had any close calls with foreign officials during your career?

I have. There was one time in Africa, when an official at the airport asked me what I was doing there and wanted to see my passport. Next thing I know, I was taken into a detention office.

I tried to explain my situation but he didn’t get it. So I was in a crowded room with a bunch of people I didn’t belong with. The guy told me to wait in the room but my outgoing flight was about to leave and the next flight out of the country wasn’t for another week. I didn’t want to stick around to see what they were going to do to me, so when the guy left the room I just sidled out into the hallway, very slowly, thinking that he’d catch me. I just kind of slinked over to the check in and snuck back onto my plane. But the whole time, I was expecting the security guards to come after me with their AK 47’s. When the plane took off, I was greatly relieved.

What does your passport look like as a courier?

It’s full. You have to keep getting extra pages added to your passport. My passport got huge. I had to carry about 4 passports usually, because 1-2 would always be out at embassies waiting on visas. We’d usually have a few diplomatic passports plus one regular tourist passport for situations when we didn’t want to show our diplomatic passport.

How hard is it to become a diplomatic courier?

We just brought in five new couriers in a training class, and we plan to hire nine more. We had four or five thousand applicants for 14 job openings. It’s very competitive.

Note: The State Department isn’t currently recruiting couriers, but you can sign up for an email update here, and you’ll be notified the next time there is a vacancy.

Read more from “A Traveler in the Foreign Service” here.

What? You’re still paying the airlines to carry your bags?

Now that the airlines have raised, yet again, their fees for checked bags, it’s time to take another look at the alternative: shipping your bags, or better yet (if you’re staying in one place once you arrive) just the contents of your bag ahead of your arrival using economical ground shipping services.

Why deal with the airlines, when UPS Ground and FedEx Ground offer better tracking, insurance and security, can be much cheaper in some scenarios, and will actually refund your shipping fee if there’s a delay or loss? No waiting in line at the airport! No pilferage! No schlepping!

Airfarewatchdog.com has looked at four domestic route scenarios (short, medium, and long haul) and compared three shipping services and two airlines (one with high bag fees, and one with low fees) to see how much you can save by not entrusting your bags to the airlines.

As you can see from the chart, depending on route and method, the cost savings achieved from shipping vs. schlepping range from little or nothing to dramatic. But as we explain, even if costs are the same, dealing with a company like FedEx
can be much less stressful than with an airline.

Consider: a single 25-pound suitcase or shipment from Boston to San Francisco by FedEx Ground costs about $31 vs. $23-$25 on Delta or nothing on Southwest.

But once that suitcase weighs over 50 pounds, excess charges kick in on the airlines, even on Southwest: you’d pay $56 for a 55-lb. bag using USPS on that same Boston-San Francisco trip, but twice that on Delta, which adds an extra $90 fee each way for bags weighing over 50 pounds. Even Southwest will charge you $50 each way.

And if your bag is both heavy and oversized (larger than 61-62 linear inches), you’ll get hit with triple jeopardy on some airlines: a fee for the first bag, plus an overweight fee, plus an oversized fee. Such a bag might cost nearly $300 on Delta on a trip from Los Angeles to Seattle vs. under $40 via FedEx Ground.

Also of note: the typical 22-inch rolling suitcase weighs 9-10 lbs. and airlines will shun responsibility for what they consider “normal wear and tear” if the suitcase or its wheel mechanism is damaged in transit. If you’re staying in one place once you arrive, do you really need a suitcase at all? Put your clothes and other personal items in a sturdy box and you’ll pay ground shippers even less than the prices shown in our chart.

But even if the costs are the same airline vs. ground shipping, consider these advantages of shipping:

  • Better tracking: You can track your shipment online step by step. Try that with an airline.
  • Safer: There’s less chance of something going missing or getting damaged.
  • Convenience: you can breeze through the airport without waiting in line to check bags.
  • Responsibility: If an airline loses or delays your bag, they’ll keep your fee and play the blame game. FedEx and UPS will at least refund your shipping fees. Plus, airlines refuse to take responsibility for losing or damaging anything they consider “valuable,” such as electronics or business items. You can insure these items with the shipping services for a small additional fee.
  • Less schlepping: True, you have to either drop off your shipment at a post office, UPS office or store, or FedEx or Kinko’s location (or you can arrange for pick up for a small fee in some cases), but let’s face it: fighting for overhead space is no fun, and lugging luggage through mile-long airport concourses is no fun either.

Clearly, we’ve only given examples for domestic shipping, but USPS Priority Mail rates for international shipping are surprisingly competitive with the airlines’ fees for checking bags on international routes.

And even if you’re the carry-on type, shipping on your next trip may reveal the joys of not fighting for overhead space and saving yourself a shoulder injury from hoisting a heavy bag into same.

Give shipping vs. checking a try next time you fly. You may never pay bag fees again.

George Hobica is the founder of Airfarewatchdog™, the most inclusive source of airfare deals that have been researched and verified by experts. Airfarewatchdog compares fares from all airlines and includes the increasing number of airline-site-only and promo code fares.

Flying courier: can it still be done?

Every so often, the wayward adventure traveler still asks me whether or not its possible to fly courier. That is, a company pays for your plane ticket and you transport an article for them as your checked luggage. They save on shipping and you get to fly somewhere. If you’ve ever seen EuroTrip you know what I mean.

The topic has been discussed ad nauseum across several travel forums, but I’ve never seen a consolidated post about why it’s implausible. Yes, implausible. In fact, damn near impossible. Our friends over at Airfarewatchdog.com have created a very comprehensive post on the topic discussing the fabled fares out there and the companies that claim to deal in them these days.

Fact of the matter is that these days the market is too competitive (both in the airline and the shipping sectors) to support any sort of margin for courier fares. Couple that with added security measures in the last few years and it’s best to just keep an eye out for travel deals. Luckily you have people like George and me for that.