I Was A Mule To China

My husband and I recently got a free trip to Beijing, China by working as a mule. Clarification: an air mule, not a drug mule. However, most of my friends were convinced it was the latter.

Wait, what’s an Air Mule?

I’ll get to that, but first this…While most domestic US travel requires passengers to pay for checked baggage, international travel usually allows 2–3 pieces checked for free. So, a passenger traveling Delta to Shanghai could theoretically take 2 checked bags as well as carry on and a laptop or handbag. Got it? Ok, so… a few friends of mine have created a start up called Air Mule that allows travelers to list trips they’ve booked abroad and auction off their luggage space in exchange for compensation. What this means is that I can pay for two tickets to Shanghai and then serve as a courier for folks who want to ship stuff home to their family in China knowing that it will get their faster (and sometimes cheaper) in my suitcase than in international shipping. For the shipper it means, fast international shipping. For the traveler, it means a free or nearly free international trip in exchange for a day or two to work. Sounds good to me!

But what about drugs?

Nope. Air Mule requires folks to authorize their identity with passports and driver’s licenses, you also have to link a bank account to pay or be paid. This creates a handy ptotocol to protect against shenanigans. Additionally, the mule has the right to inspect and refuse any package they don’t want to take ergo returning it to sender.

The way it played out for our trip was like this: folks mailed their packages to our house, we inspected each one, logged it on a spreadsheet and packed it in our luggage.

The majority of the items sent to us were vitamins for kids, sweaters for cold weather or luxury bags. I had no idea that luxury goods made in China, like Michael Kors and Coach, go straight into a shipping container and are shippped to the U.S. without a portion going direct to Chinese consumers. This means that Chinese citizens have to buy these items re-imported to their country at a whopping near 38% tax. So, this means that if they purchase luxury goods IN the United States to ship home to China, they ironically save hundreds of dollars.

After packing up every body’s stuff, we reviewed the spreadsheet to see which items needed to be hand delivered by us (only two) and which items would be transferred to a Chinese shipping company once we landed in Beijing.


LAX was a breeze. We checked in our luggage and headed off to the plane with our carry on. PEK aka Beijing Airport was a nightmare, not because of our luggage, but because that airport is disorganized and there were a lot of people. That said, we had zero trouble picking up our luggage. After getting to our Airbnb, we realized that the TSA had inspected some of our luggage (they left us a nice little note inside a suitcase) but nothing was out of the ordinary so they let it be. So, that part was easy!

Group Messaging is King

As Beijing is definitely behind the red curtain, expecting Google or Yelp or Facebook to work is useless. You can get around it with a VPN on your mobile phone (I recommend Betternet) however, if you need to communicate with your Chinese package recipients you’ll want to use the AirMule app.

On our first evening, we group messaged our pal from Air Mule who came and helped us transfer packages to a shipping company. That was easy! On day two, we coordinated dropping off a few packages to recipients in Beijing. Day two was a bit more complicated because one of our recipients lived super far, had odd communication skills and kept trying to change plans. There was an obvious language barrier going on and we had to get creative by having our Airbnb host Victoria (who was rad) translate for us. All in all it worked out with a bit of patience and hustle. That said, if you’re high maintenance at all, don’t be an Airmule.

On day three, we found out we had one more item to deliver. It was a bottle of ibuprofen. Our task was to take this ibuprofen to a shipping company called SF Express for it to be delivered. This was one of the funniest deliveries we did. In the U.S., you would never dream of running up to a bike messenger and saying, “Hey dude, take this random bottle and ship it to this address and make them pay for it!” However, that’s exactly what we did. While we were wandering around the Nanluoguxiang boutique area in central Beijing, we saw a SF Express bike messenger whizzing past us and flagged him down. We handed dude the bottle of ibuprofen, pointed at the address where it was supposed to go and then did an interpretative dance to explain to him that the recipient needed to pay. He filled out the shipping form in front of us, handed us the carbon copy with tracking number and we were done with our tasks! Not too shabby.

Hang Time

Once we were done with our deliveries, it was time to hang and have fun.

Here’s an overview of what we did from hanging out in the hutongs of Beijing like Nanluoguxiang and Beiluoguxiang to scaling the Great Wall at Mutianyu. Any questions about what to do in Beijing? Hit me up on Twitter at @tatiana.

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