For most travelers, international flights take up the biggest chuck of your budget dollars. It feels like an unavoidable expense…but what if there were an easy way to reduce the cost of those pricey tickets? In this Airmule review, I’d like to give you a behind-the-scenes look at my experience traveling as an air courier. It could save you as much as $300 on your flights!
Traveling as an air courier has become my new favorite travel hack for 2018. It’s quick, it’s easy and it takes advantage of the one thing I rarely use: both of my checked bags on an international flight. There are a number of great ways to save money on China flights, but this is one of the best.
Sometime last year I ran into a company named Airmule. They’re a technology company that is riding the “gig economy” wave to match companies that need to ship things quickly with passengers who will sell their unused check bags. The reason that it stuck out to me was that at the time they exclusively worked on flights between the US and China.
What Exactly is an Air Courier?
This concept of personally flying shipments overseas is nothing new. It’s known in the industry as being an “air courier” and it’s been a professional job for decades.
In short, an air courier is a person who replaces the traditional shipping companies by delivering a package in the fastest way possible: by carrying it with them.
Ever since September 2001, the perception of carrying somebody else’s bag onto an airplane seems (and in most cases is) illegal. In fact, a lot of the previous air courier jobs that were once a big “thing” for travelers slowly died away.
Fifteen years later, though, the air courier industry is starting to grow again and companies like Airmule are making it possible for even us regular travelers to get in on the action.
How to be an Air Courier (Airmule Review)
I’ll walk you through the process of traveling as an air courier through Airmule step-by-step below, but first you might enjoy taking a few minutes to watch my experience in this video:
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If you’re like most people, you have a number of questions after watching that video. Don’t worry: there’s an FAQ section below where I’ll answer most of those. First, though, let me walk you through the process step-by-step:
Step 1: Create an Airmule Account & List Your Trip
The very first thing I did was to create an account on Airmule and list my upcoming China trip. If you haven’t already purchased your flight, that’s ok. You can still create an account now so you don’t forget and then list the trip once tickets have been bought.
Listing my trip involved providing information about where I was traveling, what airline I was flying, how many bags I had available, and departure and arrival times. It took me about 5 minutes and then showed up in my account as a trip.
This is a screenshot of me listing my trip above. Below you can see that the trip has been listed and the system is asking me if I want to list my return flight as well.
Step 2: Wait for Airmule to Sell Your Luggage Space
Just because I listed my trip does not mean that I had automatically been paired with a shipment. This is why they tell me that it’s so important to list your trip as early as possible – it increases your chances of having your space sold.
Thankfully, I received an email a couple days before my flight informing me that the luggage had been purchased.
A day or two before my flight, I was even able to log in to my Airmule account to see exactly what items would be shipped. This was what they called my “digital manifest” and it was very important to me. I’m not going to carry luggage where I don’t know what’s inside.
In my case, I ended up carrying an iPhone X, a few designer handbags, a porcelain statue and even a gold coin!
Step 3: Delivery of the Airmule Luggage at the Airport
About a day before my flight, Airmule reached out to me to confirm that I was still good to go with the luggage (until you physically take the luggage, there’s no signed contract keeping you from backing out if you don’t feel comfortable with the situation). They connected me by phone with the concierge who would be delivering the luggage to me at the airport.
I was even sent a picture of the vehicle that would be dropping off the luggage.
From the LAX airport, I called the concierge to let him know where I was located. Within 10 minutes he drove up to the curb and unloaded two pieces of luggage.
IMPORTANT: Although it’s not required, I spent about 10-15 minutes looking through the luggage to make sure that all the contents matched the digital manifest that I had reviewed a few days earlier. Thankfully, all of the items are wrapped in clear plastic so that I can see exactly what is inside.
Once I felt good with the contents I closed the luggage and the concierge sealed it. We signed a liability waiver and the concierge took a picture of me with the luggage to prove that it had been handed over.
**Note: This liability waiver exists to limit the liability we as the air courier have. On paper, it seems that Airmule takes on all the responsibility. It remains to be seen whether this kind of waiver would hold up in a foreign court (no such incident has occurred yet).
Step 4: Check in Your Baggage with the Airline
While walking up to check in my bags, I was determined to be very open about what I was doing. I didn’t want to hide the fact that I hadn’t personally packed these bags and that I was acting as an air courier for this flight.
I presented this information to the lady behind the counter for Delta and was surprised that she had never heard of an air courier before. Uh-oh.
Learn More: Why I prefer Delta when flying around China
She went back to speak with her manager to make sure everything was ok and in the end they were more than happy to check the bags in for me. Had they asked, I would have been able to provide a digital manifest and they don’t care that I didn’t pack the bags as long as I know exactly what is in them.
Step 5: Pick up Your Bags and Walk Them Through Customs
After 12 hours of flying from the Los Angeles airport to Shanghai, I was ready to get out and walk around. I made my way to baggage claim and waited for my two bags to come out. To my surprise, the seal hadn’t been broken on the luggage, meaning neither US customs nor China customs had cared to see the contents of the bags.
Airmule told me that they make it an important point to pack the bags in such a way that the total value of the contents doesn’t exceed the allowance that each passenger is given when walking across the border. This means that even if you’re in business class and are allowed three checked bags, Airmule will only allow you two.
I walked through customs without a problem (I’ve never been pulled aside in customs…have you?) and met with a Chinese person who was holding up an Airmule sign in the waiting area.
He checked the bags, took a picture of me with the bags and then I signed the fact that the transaction had been completed. In total, the time that I had the bags in my physical possession during the entire trip was less than 20 minutes.
Step 6: Wait for Payment!
About an hour after I dropped off the bags, I received an email from Airmule telling me that the transaction was complete. Payment would be on its way (2 bags x $150/bag = $300!) and I should expect it to hit my bank account in 3-5 business days.
It all happened just as they said it would. Just like that, the round-trip tickets that cost me $600 had now been reduced to only $300. I love it!
FAQ on Being an Onboard Air Courier
There are a number of questions that I have been getting on a regular basis about my experience as an air courier with Airmule. I’d like to address those below.
How do I know I’m not carrying illegal items or drugs?
While there’s a certain level of trust that must exist here, there does seem to be risk involved. I was reassured about my safety in a number of way: 1) Airmule only contracts with TSA-certified logistics companies; 2) Airmule scans and looks through the luggage themselves before handing it to the traveler; 3) I had the opportunity to look through both bags and see that each item was still sealed in its original wrapping.
What if the baggage gets lost or I get stopped at customs?
There are a number reasons why you might not be able to walk through with the baggage: perhaps the luggage got lost or customs decided to put a tax on the contents. In both of these cases, the liability waiver that I signed says that I can walk away and let Airmule deal with it. I don’t have to stick around the airport.
I have a layover in China. Can I be an air courier?
Airmule has specific rules about layovers and I think you need something like a 6-hour layover minimum in order for that to work. You can also check their routes page to check out the other routes they have open (Thailand, Korea, Iceland, London, etc.).
Any other questions that you’d like listed here? Leave them in the comments below and I’ll try to add them.
Conclusion | Traveling as an Air Courier (and a BONUS!)
This type of service isn’t for everybody, I realize. You shouldn’t try traveling as an air courier if it makes you feel uncomfortable.
However, if you’re the backpacker type who never uses their checked luggage and would love to make some extra cash on their international flights, this is for you.
BONUS: Airmule has agreed to give a bonus of 10% to you if you use the code TCC10 when you list your trip on Airmule. That means that instead of earning $300 for two pieces of luggage, they’ll give you $330. It’s like free money!
I hope that this has been helpful to you. It’s just another option to save money for those who will be traveling to/from China!