$99 Beijing Flights – With A Dangerous Catch

A startup called Airmule has recently made a big splash by offering $99 flights to Beijing. Obviously there’s a catch. The catch in this case is that you have to give up one of your checked bags (they appear to book you on carriers that allow two checked bags), and your other checked bag is a courier shipment. So, sharing economy, right? Seems like a perfect opportunity for a startup to move fast and break things. Most people don’t check two bags anyway so why not leverage this opportunity to make shipments of up to 50 pounds at low cost, with the fastest delivery possible?

Plus, you really have to love the founders of this company. I mean, as a startup founder myself, I’m rooting for them. One is a hardcore gamer, the other is a former backup dancer for Gucci Mane, and the third loves beer more than you do. I’m not making this up–this is what they say about themselves on their Web page:

Airmule cofounder photos

These guys totally have you covered.

So, despite the obviously strong qualifications in air cargo handling and logistics possessed by the founding team, the reason why I’d personally pass on this is that there’s a really big catch–one so serious it could potentially make you the star of an episode of “Locked Up Abroad.”

When you pass through Customs–particularly Customs in Beijing–you are personally responsible for everything that you bring into the country with very few exceptions. One of those exceptions is to be the authorized representative of a “common carrier.” These are companies like FedEx, UPS, or DHL, or the airlines themselves. Common carriers are considered by governments to be transportation carriers only. They aren’t held responsible for the contents of the shipments they carry; full responsibility lies with the people sending and receiving the shipment.

If you’re acting as an air courier, you may not have any of those protections. You could be fully liable for what you carry through Customs. So, that suitcase of apparel you’re supposedly carrying for a fashion show? If it’s loaded with heroin, that’s on you, and the penalty for that in China is death (no ifs, ands or buts). The suitcase full of baby formula? If you didn’t know that it’s illegal to bring it into China, it doesn’t matter: the massive fine is all yours if you get caught.

Airmule takes a bunch of reassuring-sounding security measures. For example, they participate in a TSA inspection program which verifies that shipments are safe for air transportation. You do too–by letting the TSA inspect your bag when you check it in (although in all fairness, there are some additional security measures cargo companies comply with, and Airmule says they do this). Airmule claims that they inspect shipments as well, and I think they probably do. However, while this provides reasonable assurance that whatever you’re carrying won’t cause the plane to crash, it doesn’t provide as strong an assurance that what you’re carrying is actually legal to carry into the country where you’re carrying it.

I reached out to Airmule to ask them to clarify who is liable for shipments. Just like the Airmule FAQ, I got an answer that sounded reassuring while skirting the question:

Evasive asnwer from Rory

This answer wasn’t reassuring.

So, I pressed for a clearer answer, and got one that is, to me, as clear as mud. I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions:

Rory Is Evasive

I think this is a roundabout way of saying “No”

I lived in Beijing for 3 years, so know that there’s a legitimate demand for this sort of thing. There are a lot of goods that are imported into China through Customs gray areas: they can’t be imported commercially, but they can be imported in personal quantities. One example is certain food items. You’re allowed to hand carry quantities of foodstuffs that are in line with personal consumption or gift-giving, even if importers aren’t allowed to bring in these goods. Similarly, you can bring in bottles of alcoholic beverages that aren’t available in China using your personal Customs allowance. And baby formula is another popular item. You can bring in a limited quantity (the regulation is fuzzy and seems to currently be “as many cans as you can convince Customs is yours”) of foreign-made baby formula for personal use. Every time I left the country, I’d be deluged with orders from new mothers in my office–this is a very popular item given ongoing scandals about tainted milk powder sold in China.

Other stuff is less gray area and more considered to be smuggling. For example, Apple products cost about 40% more in mainland China than they do abroad, so they’re popular items to smuggle in luggage. Even something as innocuous as books could be a really major problem in China. Books and literature are closely controlled in mainland China. That suitcase full of Chinese-language books you’re carrying might actually be hardcore prohibited political speech that could get you in a huge amount of trouble. How good is your Chinese?

And then, there’s the issue of drugs. All you need to do is watch “Border Security” to see all of the inventive ways that drugs can be concealed. If the courier company you’re working with doesn’t figure out that the shipment you’re carrying is actually drugs, but border guards do, your cheap vacation could turn into the last flight of your life. China doesn’t mess around–drugs equal the death penalty and given their history of the Opium War, being a foreigner will get you zero slack. In fact, you’ll get less than a Chinese person would.

Being able to fly for steep discounts as an air courier isn’t a new thing. This is something that has been around for decades. It just hasn’t gotten very popular, because usually you’re going to places where express courier services aren’t able to operate easily (such as Burkina Faso). And there are all kinds of shipments, to all kinds of locations, where hand carrying an item makes the most sense–whether it’s transplant organs, life-saving medicines that require refrigeration, aircraft parts, or other critical shipments that just need to be delivered by the fastest route possible.

I really don’t want to come off as sounding unsupportive of startups, or of this team. I really love innovations that will help people travel and see the world for less. I am the founder of a dating startup myself (one where we’ve had to make some really tough decisions about the trade-offs between usability and security for our users–we have gotten it right so far, but I know it’s only a matter of time before we have a bad day). That being said, there is a massive amount of risk that 20 year old backpackers may be accepting in order to score a cheap holiday, and they probably don’t know that they’re undertaking this risk. As an air courier, you are–in a literal sense–putting your life in the hands of a courier company, and trusting your life and freedom with the integrity of whatever you are carrying for them. Take this seriously, check out the shipment yourself, ask lots of questions, watch a ton of episodes of “Border Security” to find out how inventive smugglers can be, and if you aren’t 100% sure…

…just walk away. A cheap ticket isn’t worth it.

UPDATE

One of the co-founders of Airmule isn’t happy with this article and disputes the facts as I described them. Since the facts about his service came from his own tweets and email I’m not sure where the dispute is, exactly, but I’m happy to correct the record if anything I have written is factually incorrect.

Rory Felton email

Here’s the email I got from Airmule answering my questions

Rory had the following to say on Twitter:

Notwithstanding the tone of the response–which is arguably justified if the facts are wrong–I have offered Rory and Airmule (and will offer the entire air courier industry) an opportunity to respond to any facts that I got wrong. Thus far, this hasn’t happened. Since calling me “unprofessional” and “lame” doesn’t really help to correct the record should any facts be in dispute, I do hope we can have a facts based conversation going forward.

EPILOGUE

Airmule ultimately didn’t dispute any of the facts in this blog post. In fact, their Terms of Service explicitly places full Customs liability with the person carrying the suitcase (many thanks to the helpful reader who pointed this out). NOTE: Airmule has stealth-edited their Terms of Service, the original is here.

Rory also claimed that the Terms of Service was out of date. I’ll leave this to the interpretation of the reader:

another lie

I’m not sure how to read this, but….

Would I personally do this? Not on my life! The risk is definitely not worth it.

Avoiding Awful Hotel WiFi

Of all of the things that hotels get wrong, few things are more infuriating than poor or nonexistent WiFi. Annoyingly, many hotels view WiFi as a profit center and provide the service at rates that can’t be reasonably viewed as anything other than a price gouge. I have been on the road for the past few weeks and have encountered a lot of issues myself. In some cases, I’ve come up with workarounds. Here are a few things I have learned along the way that I hope will help you to survive your next hotel WiFi experience.

Terrible Signal. You arrive in your room and there is only one bar of signal, and it fades in and out. Forget using your mobile phone or tablet, they can’t connect to WiFi at all. So, you pull out your laptop and try to connect, but the connection keeps dropping. It’s an exercise in frustration but one that you can solve with an external WiFi adapter. I use the TP-Link TL-WN822N. It has a more powerful antenna than the one on my laptop, and with a long USB cable, I can move it around to a location in the room that gets a better signal. Additionally, you might look for whether a wired connection is available in the room. Many hotels offer both wireless and wired connections, and the wired connection is invariably faster.

TP-Link Wi-Fi AdapterNo WiFi. Sometimes hotels don’t have WiFi at all. This is where having an unlocked phone with portable hotspot capability comes in handy. I carry the Moto G as my primary mobile phone, and use prepaid SIM cards that allow for unlimited data (typically 1-5GB at 4G speeds, and the remainder at 2G or 3G speeds). This allows me to use the “portable hotspot” feature to share out my mobile phone data plan to other devices. Most unlocked Windows Phone devices also support this feature. On iOS, the “Personal Hotspot” feature is available at the option of your mobile carrier. Unfortunately, most North American carriers don’t allow this feature to be made available on versions of their phones without paying extra, so an unlocked phone is required. The speeds I get aren’t as good as I typically see with a dedicated device for data services (such as a Verizon Jetpack), but for infrequent use, it’s a good solution. This does not require carrying multiple devices and subscribing to multiple data plans.

Charges for each device, or only one device allowed for free. Sometimes hotels want to charge you for each and every device that you connect to their wireless network. If the WiFi is free, they may only provide access to one device. Typically, devices are authenticated by MAC address. There are a couple of ways around this problem. The first is to clone a single MAC address onto multiple devices. However, this isn’t particularly easy; it’s a relatively technical thing to do. Another option is to use a travel router. Many of these have software that can “take over” the connection you set up on your laptop, and can then share it out to multiple devices. Additionally, travel routers can share out a wired network connection if one is available, which provides faster service and less complicated to set up.

ASUS WL330NUL image.

The tiny ASUS WL-330NUL travel router has scored high marks on reviews.

Slow speed is “free,” high speed costs more. Many hotels advertise “free WiFi” when you’re booking a room. When you get there, you find out that the “free” WiFi is barely faster than dial-up, and you’ll have to pay more in order to do anything more than send and receive e-mail. How do hotels do this? They have crippled previously fast WiFi by deploying “traffic shaping” software which limits the speed of your connection. Fortunately, a lot of this software is badly designed and you can sometimes get around its annoying speed limits without paying extra. One of the workarounds that works for me most consistently is using a VPN service to connect to the Internet. I run my own VPN service so that I can reach Facebook and other social media Web sites from countries with censored Internet access, but anyone can buy a VPN service at low cost.

Hidden free WiFi areas.  Many hotels offer free WiFi in public areas of the property, but don’t expect them to tell you this. If you are prompted to pay for WiFi in your room, check the lobby, conference areas and business center before you pull out your credit card. You might find fast, free access available a short walk away.

The bottom line: Hotels, like everyone else in the travel industry, are always looking for an opportunity to lard up your bill with extra charges. When it comes to WiFi, come equipped for battle. With the right moves, you could save $20 or more per day.