How I thrive flying 30+ hours per week – courier life


What’s that they say about telling a good story? Join late and leave early? Then let’s do that.

It’s Tuesday in Shanghai. Normally that means… well it really doesn’t mean anything special to me, compared to any other day. Maybe my roommate will go to the office. It’s not an ayi (maid) day, since I don’t have an ayi anymore. She moved to Pudong.

So, what’s a Stu to do on an average Tuesday?

I’m off to Bucharest. I head out the door and pick up a bike on the street and ride to the subway…

You might be thinking… wait, wait, wait, that’s an average Tuesday?

Yeah, actually it is.

No this isn’t the story of a jet-setting rich kid of Instagram. (Follow my shitty Instagram here)

I haven’t escaped the suck, I just have a different kind of suck.

My kind of suck sits in economy class on United for 30 hours a week, moving stuff from one country to another. Not a job suitable for those afraid of the dark, close spaces, or heights. Suitable for those with an uncanny ability to fall asleep anywhere.

Sign me up.

So how does this work? Is this legal?

Basically, what happens is, I get a text message or call saying go to the airport tonight/tomorrow to pick up a shipment and take it somewhere. The agreed upon day arrives, I go to the airport and meet the goods. I also meet the customs officer, because, come on, of course this isn’t illegal. Totally above board. Next step: check it in as regular luggage and escort it into the hands of a desperate business owner on the other side.

This time it’s car parts to Bucharest. Last time Guadalajara. Courier life, baby, yeah.

This is a good time to go over this, as just today a great friend of mine is flying for his first time, and we have had to go over some much-needed strategies and equipment to thrive in this kind of job, and be better than that constant easy choice to just watch movies and sleep the whole time. (Today’s movie – Silence. Fascinating.)



First the gear- KEEP IT MOBILE:

I use a laptop to work, and get about 5 hours out of my 7-year-old Dell, which is respectable. That’s enough to have a decent day of coding or whatever needs doing on one of those 10-hour LH A380s. How do they not have in-seat power yet? Come on, Lufthansa. The battery charges enough over a 1 or 2-hour layover so that it’s ready for the next hop, anyway.

Guess how heavy that laptop is… ok it’s 10 fucking pounds. I’ll pick up an XPS13 soon enough.

Besides that, everything else has to follow the rule of keep it mobile. That’s why I use an iPhone 6s Plus, plenty of space to read, and no need to carry around a camera or books. Bam, just saved a few pounds.

The reasons for that are super simple.

An average courier trip goes through these stages:

  • Get the goods at the airport / Check in ~3 hours
  • On board ~10-14 hours
  • Transfer ~4 hours
  • On Board ~ 2 hours
  • Customs at destination ~1.5 hours
  • Layover ~3-26 hours
  • Return

At all of those stages, packing mobile is the right strategy.

First off. Backpack. Never travel with a suitcase. Ever. Just get a big backpack that you can adjust the straps to shrink the main compartment if you need to, or expand to fill it with duty free cosmetics for your girlfriend. There is a myriad of reasons. Most importantly is the stayover. Even if you’re only somewhere for 8 hours, with a rolling backpack you won’t be able to run into the city, find a croissant and see the Eiffel Tower and run back to the airport in time for your return flight. What a waste!

This leads to another benefit… if your flight is running late, you can actually run, catch up to it, and make it.

Bonus: I have never hated any backpackers for blocking an escalator, only rolling suitcase owners. Dicks.

Protip: European and Asian airports also often provide places to store your bag for a time. If you don’t plan on doing any work, just leave your bag there and take your passport, phone, and battery pack with you to check the sights out. American airports usually don’t because only BAD GUYS store luggage.

To really take advantage of this job, I always bring what I need to work. A laptop to code and a notebook with client notes is enough, but of course this will be different for everyone. The joys of digital semi-nomadism.

Most flights have wifi, but if you don’t have anything pressing to communicate or playoffs to watch, I highly recommend going dark, and just using it as an uninterrupted block of work time to get some coding, writing, planning, thinking, or meditation done.

Critically, you want to bring a socket adapter like (PRODUCT HERE) but not one that changes the voltage. It’s lighter, and all your electronics have a power brick that handles voltages already. Save the weight, plug your electronics into your laptop is also an option unless you have one of those magical Macbook Airs.

How do I even stay comfortable flying so many hours?

Simple. Restless legs, these compression socks, this eye mask, these ear plugs, and this jacket. Courier uniform. This is what works for me, but everyone has different standards for comfort right?


Winning strategies:

Have a plan for the day trip prepared beforehand – restaurants included. See my article here about maximizing your layover.

If digital nomading, stay on home time zone. If traveling, stay local.

Make friends!

Always be charging your phone and laptop, power is the most useful thing to have at any point. How else will you find the best places to visit and keep in touch with new friends?

Sign up for a frequent flier program for each major alliance and rack them up, then use them for your own trips in the future. (I use United, Air France, and Cathay Pacific).

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Stuart Leitch