For many migratory bird species, the latitudinal range of the winter distribution spans thousands of kilometres, thus encompassing considerable variation in individual migration distances. Pressure to winter near breeding areas is thought to be a strong driver of the evolution of migration patterns, as individuals undertaking a shorter migration are generally considered to benefit from earlier arrival on the breeding grounds. However, the influence of migration distance on timing of arrival is difficult to quantify because of the large scales over which individuals must be tracked. Using a unique dataset of individually-marked Icelandic black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa islandica tracked throughout the migratory range by a network of hundreds of volunteer observers, we quantify the consequences of migrating different distances for the use of stop-over sites and timing of arrival in Iceland. Modelling of potential flight distances and tracking of individuals from across the winter range shows that individuals wintering further from the breeding grounds must undertake a stop-over during spring migration. However, despite travelling twice the distance and undertaking a stop-over, individuals wintering furthest from the breeding grounds are able to overtake their conspecifics on spring migration and arrive earlier in Iceland. Wintering further from the breeding grounds can therefore be advantageous in migratory species, even when this requires the use of stop-over sites which lengthen the migratory journey. As early arrival on breeding sites confers advantages for breeding success, the capacity of longer distance migrants to overtake conspecifics is likely to influence the fitness consequences of individual migration strategies. Variation in the quality of wintering and stopover sites throughout the range can therefore outweigh the benefits of wintering close to the breeding grounds, and may be a primary driver of the evolution of specific migration routes and patterns.