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Is your dream job to get paid to travel? For decades, people made a living doing just that as international couriers, traveling across the world — usually on last-minute plane tickets — carrying documents, products and supplies that needed to arrive as quickly as possible.

Now, in the age of the gig economy, courier services are coming back with a new twist. There are many start-ups promising cash for carrying products with you as you travel. I’ve looked into these opportunities and passed on trying all but one: Airmule.

Airmule is a company that offers travelers a chance earn up to $600 per round-trip by acting as a courier for the company. The company matches travelers with free checked luggage allowances with people and/or companies that are looking to ship goods for cheaper than it would cost to send via FedEx, UPS or mail.

In This Post

Origin and Destinations

After expanding in September 2017, Airmule now works with travelers flying from three markets in the US: New York City (JFK/LGA/EWR), the Bay Area (SFO/OAK/SJC) and Los Angeles (LAX). Currently, the only eligible destinations are cities in China — but you can fly practically anywhere in China:

  • Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK)
  • Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG)
  • Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport (SHA)
  • Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport (CAN)
  • Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport (CTU)
  • Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport (CKG)
  • Fuzhou Changle International Airport (FOC)
  • Xiamen Gaoqi International Airport (XMN)
  • Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport (SZX)
  • Harbin Taiping International Airport (HRB)
  • Zhengzhou Xinzheng International Airport (CGO)
  • Wuhan Tianhe International Airport (WUH)
  • Changsha Huanghua International Airport (CSX)
  • Nanjing Lukou International Airport (NKG)
  • Dalian Zhoushuizi International Airport (DLC)
  • Shenyang Taoxian International Airport (SHE)
  • Jinan Yaoqiang International Airport (TNA)
  • Qingdao Liuting International Airport (TAO)
  • Tianjin Binhai International Airport (TSN)
  • Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport (HGH)
  • Ningbo Lishe International Airport (NGB)

Airmule has noted it hoped to expand to Hong Kong (HKG) in the second quarter of 2018, but this might be delayed to later in the year.

Not starting or ending your trip at one of the supported airports? Airmule now allows passengers connecting through supported airports to participate. However, the company does “recommend a minimum layover of 15 hours” for the pickup or drop-off.

Security Measures and Liability

Airmule originally began as a “peer-to-peer” courier service, connecting travelers with those wanting to ship items via an app. The passenger and the shipper would have to meet up to hand off the items on both ends of the flight. The company initially heralded its lack of involvement in the process, acting like an Uber for transporting packages. That system was obviously rife with potential pitfalls and wouldn’t be something that I’d feel comfortable trying. Thankfully, the Airmule system has completely changed now.

Today, Airmule gathers multiple individual shipments into larger boxes/suitcases for transport. Before handoff to the courier, these individual shipments are inspected “by trained specialists” at an Airmule processing center.

After inspection, individual shipments are packaged in clear, protective wrapping and marked with a QR code for ease of tracking. In each package we carried, there were between 3 and 17 individual shipments.

As stated on its website: “Airmule assumes 100% of the responsibility for every item in each Airmule Travel Box.” After being able to inspect the shipments, the drop-off Airmule representative seals the containers with numbered security seals and provides couriers with a cross-signed liability waiver saying that the company retains responsibility for the contents inside.

In addition, Airmule also assumes any liability for customs tax. While containers are packed to stay under regulations, if customs disagrees with the valuation and demands a duty tax, the company states “Airmule reimburses 100% of the cost.”

After completing our trips, I checked with New York lawyer — and TPG contributor — Alexander Bachuwa about the protection that this waiver and the security seals provided us. Let’s just say he didn’t recommend relying on it. Sure, the liability waiver might provide some protection in the US, but in the end, “the protections from the American government and principles of contract law will not immunize you from criminal liability in a foreign country.”

Listing a Trip

While Airmule used to offer cheap flights to China in exchange for passengers giving up their baggage allowance, the company no longer brokers flights this way. Currently, the only way to use Airmule is to book flights on your own and list the flights in the Airmule system.

Listing a trip is a very manual process of including the departure and arrival times, flight numbers, etc. for each leg of the flight. It took about 10 minutes to list the first round-trip. Future listings were a bit quicker.

You’re able to list flights anytime after booking. However, in order to have the best chance of matching with shipments, you’re going to want to list at least five days before departure.

While it wouldn’t stop us from doing so again, we were a bit uneasy about having to provide Airmule with our airline confirmation number and an upload of our flight confirmation to list flights. Doing so is entrusting the company with a lot of information. But then again, trust is a huge part of this arrangement.

Rates

The standard rate is $150 per package with a maximum of two packages each way. Theoretically that means you can earn up to $600 per round-trip. However, you shouldn’t hope for more than $300 per round-trip based on current demand primarily being from the US to China rather than the reverse.

Since packages are arranged to stay just under customs regulations, Airmule won’t let us elites with a three-bag allowance the opportunity to take more than two packages.

Matching With a Package

A few days ahead of your flight, you can hope to be matched with a package. Airmule boasts that its match rate from the US to China is over 90% currently, with travelers listing at least five days out having even better chance.

Once you’re matched with a shipment, you’ll start seeing the descriptions, photos and weights of the items included in your shipment on the Airmule dashboard.

You’ll also be called by an Airmule representative and asked to join a WeChat group text. This is how you’ll coordinate your pickup and drop-off.

As touched on above, you’re much more likely to be matched with a shipment when traveling from the US to China than from China to the US. When originally signing up, I assumed that it would be the other way around, as companies were trying to get product samples, vital manufactured parts and similar goods from China to the US. Instead, Airmule is seeing strong demand for goods sold in the US being sent to China. Between our two round-trips, we carried a combined eight packages from the US to China and just one package on the way from China to the US.

Pick Up

Couriers are instructed to meet an Airmule representative at the departure airport three hours prior to take-off. On our first pickup, a malfunctioning Newark AirTrain system meant that we didn’t arrive until two and a half hours out, which we communicated through the WeChat group chat. The hard cutoff for pickup seems to be as little as two hours prior to departure.

Once we arrived at the airport for each of our trips, we met the Airmule representative near the check-in area. We went through our shipments right in front of the airport check-in desks. Although awkward, we were comforted how out in the open we were doing it. The Airmule agent was fine with us digging through the shipment and cross-referencing the contents to our shipping manifests.

While Airmule typically uses cardboard boxes for shipments, recent rains had led to some wet boxes arriving on the other side. While no shipments had been damaged, the company decided to experiment with using rolling suitcases instead. On the first shipment, we ended up with three rollerbags and one cardboard shipment. On the second shipment, we carried four rollerbags.

After inspecting the shipments, the Airmule rep used security seals to seal the shipments. After noting the security label numbers on the form, the Airmule rep and the courier signed the liability waiver. The final step of the drop-off process was for the representative to take a photo of us with the bags, which was uploaded into the group chat to mark the handoff.

From there, we made the short walk over to the bag drop to check the suitcases. Airmule instructs couriers to be forthright with airline employees that we are acting as couriers if they ask about our checked luggage. Across our four check-ins with Airmule containers (two in Newark, one in Vancouver and one in Beijing), the Air Canada check-in agents never asked any questions about our luggage.

Drop-Off

Upon arrival in China, we collected our shipments from baggage claim and passed separately through customs. Despite the busy terminal, we easily found the Airmule representative at the location he had prearranged. On the first trip, we were welcomed with a bottle of water each, which was a nice touch.

The agent meeting us both times in Beijing didn’t speak English, so we used an app to translate any essentials. On the first trip, I wanted to ensure that he didn’t need to inspect the contents of the bags — especially those whose security seals had been broken by the airline or security personnel. For better or worse, the contents of the shipments weren’t inspected at drop-off on any of our three trips.

The final step of the process was for the representative to take a photo of us with the packages, which was uploaded to the group chat to mark the drop-off. Overall, the drop-off process took only a few minutes each time before we were on our way.

That said, there was one issue with our first drop-off before we even got to China. Our flight itinerary included an overnight layover in Vancouver on the outbound. Although we had entered our flight information correctly in the Airmule system, the Airmule representative in China showed up a day early to receive our package. I awoke in Vancouver to increasingly frantic WeChat messages and missed calls as Airmule representatives tried to figure out where we were.

Once the misunderstanding was communicated, Airmule reached out to “sincerely apologize” for “any inconvenience.” They offered an additional $25 per package as a token of their apology. Considering that the misunderstanding didn’t affect us much, this seemed generous.

Our Earnings

When we did our trips in January, we were part of a “mileage runner” test program. Unfortunately, the company is no longer offering this program. That program guaranteed travelers a $200 payment per package and a minimum of $400 per round-trip — even if you don’t get matched with a package. Since we had two Newark (EWR) to Beijing (PEK) trips booked for January, we signed up as part of the program for January — guaranteeing ourselves at least $400 each for these round-trips.

  • $1,800: Across four round-trips (two trips by each of us), we carried nine packages. Thanks to the mileage runner guarantee, we got paid $200 for each of these packages.
  • $50: We received an additional $25 for two my packages for the miscommunication on the first trip

In total, we earned $1,850 for four round-trips between the US and China. The payments for the packages were deposited into our bank account within two business days of arrival.

We were also expecting to earn another $200 referral bonus. I had referred Katie to the program, she had run four packages and the referral bonus is $50 per package. When the referral bonuses didn’t deposit after a week, I submitted a ticket to Airmule. After a couple of weeks and a few escalations, Airmule reached out and asked me to call. On the call, a representative apologized and explained that the referral bonus wasn’t eligible since Katie was part of the mileage runner program. Although I can understand the limitation, I’m disappointed in the company retroactively applying an unstated limitation.

About That Name…

After competing my trips, I reached out to the company with some clarifying questions for this article. One of the questions I had to ask was about the name.

Our CEO Sean Yang, was born in China. In China, the mule (animal) is a symbol for sturdiness & dependability. He wanted a way to convey that our couriers and processes were sturdy and dependable, hence, Airmule.

That said, the company is well aware of the “other” implications of a mule. The company has no intention of ever transporting illegal items or breaking any laws.

Suggested Improvements

Suitcases: Couriers only need to move shipments a short distance between pick-up and bag drop and then a slightly longer distance from baggage claim through customs to the drop-off location. However, even for this short distance, the rollerbags were much easier and seemed to draw less scrutiny. On the first trip, Katie’s two rollerbags were waived through by customs while my rollerbag and box were scanned by a customs X-ray machine.

Since most shipments are from the US to China, disposing of boxes is a lot easier for Airmule to manage after drop-off than dealing with suitcases. However, it’d be great if Airmule is able to ship all packages both directions via rollerbags.

Manifest data: While the manifest and photos of the individual shipments are available in the dashboard, Airmule could take it a step further by providing values of the goods and how it compares to customs restrictions. If my shipment contains cigars, I’d appreciate the manifest noting the maximum amount of cigars that can be carried duty-free into China. That way, if customs opens my bag, I’ll know how much I’m entitled to carry in and how much I’m actually carrying in.

Listing flights: When we listed our trips in September, the process required manually entering all of the details of each leg of our flights. It’d be nice to be able to forward a flight confirmation email to Airmule and for the flight details to be scraped off the email.

App: It’d also be great if Airmule could develop an app that contains an offline manifest of the shipments in case the courier has trouble connecting to the internet upon arrival.

Overall Impression

I was impressed with our experience on these two round-trips. Airmule seems to have worked through the kinks and developed a smooth trip procedure, from clear contact ahead of the trip to timely group-based communication during the trip to quick payment after delivery. The ability to pick up packages right at the airport and drop-off just after customs makes the process almost no hassle. Personally, I look forward to using Airmule on future trips to and from China.

That said, there are a lot of travelers who might still feel uneasy with this program. While the company allows you to inspect the contents and provides a liability release, there’s still a lot of trust involved in couriering packages like this. Those hesitations are probably amplified for a startup company with name AirMule. If you still feel uncomfortable with the process after hearing my experience, don’t do it. That’ll just mean more packages for me!

Feature photo by ULU_BIRD/Getty Images

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