Shipping Air or Ocean Freight

The differences between air and ocean freight are seemingly apparent, but for shippers, there is much more than meets the eye. Our guide will help you understand the pros and cons of each and steer you in the direction that’s best for your next shipment.

air freight vs. sea freight

Air vs. Ocean Freight during COVID-19

COVID-19 has presented numerous challenges to shippers, including rate fluctuations and delays. With all this uncertainty, you might be wondering which mode to choose for your next freight shipment.  

Should I ship air or ocean during COVID-19?

The choice between air and ocean normally depends on your shipment’s size, weight, and contents – and how fast you need your goods. 

Under normal conditions, shipping air for small shipments often makes a lot of sense. It may cost more – for example, an 85 kg shipment might cost $400 by LCL and $600 by air – but your goods will arrive within days rather than weeks. For goods such as retail, where quick turnover is key, or electronics, which benefits from air freight’s heightened security, air is usually the right choice. 

Currently, air freight prices are much more expensive than normal, due to two factors: first, restrictions on passenger transport have limited space. Second, the space that is available is being prioritized for medical supplies. 

Nevertheless, airlines are flying, and even augmenting cargo plans with passenger planes. So if your transit time or another factor demands it, you can still ship by air. 

Just like during non-pandemic times, ocean freight is typically far cheaper, especially for larger shipments. 

Additionally, ocean freight prices are far less volatile than air, and new expedited ocean freight services may even offer faster transit times. 

If you have time to wait for your goods, try to ship by ocean when possible. 

Read on for more information on choosing between ocean and air freight.

  1. Air Freight vs. Sea Freight Cost

  2. Guidelines for Selecting Air vs Ocean Freight

  3. Air Freight Restrictions for Hazards

  4. New Fast Ocean Freight Services

  5. Eco Friendly Shipping

Air Freight vs. Sea Freight Cost

To calculate the cost difference between shipping via air freight vs. via sea freight, use our free freight rate calculator.

Return to top

Guidelines for Selecting Air vs Ocean Freight

Air Freight

  • Air freight is best used when the cost of shipping is less than 15-20% of the value of the goods. For light shipments, use this chargeable weight calculator to work out whether your shipment will be charged by actual weight or dimensional weight.
  • Air freight is faster, safer and more reliable than ocean freight, but it’s also more expensive – a $195 ocean shipment can cost $1,000 by air. Learn more about air freight pricing here.
  • Airlines also have stricter regulations when it comes to shipping hazardous materials. Refer below, and discuss with your forwarder.

Ocean Freight

  • Ocean freight offers more capacity and value – one container can hold 10,000 beer bottles!
  • Ocean freight is usually much slower than air, and customs issues and port holdups can cause additional delays, Express LCL, increasingly available on more routes and by more forwarders, often guarantees a delivery date and is often not that much slower than air.
  • Ocean freight has a much better carbon footprint than air freight.

For accurate shipment costing for both modes, check out this Freight Rate Calculator or this calculator specially designed for Amazon FBA Sellers.

Looking to compare 75+ international freight providers?

Return to top

Air Freight Restrictions for Hazards

There is a long list of prohibited items, and it varies by national law and airline regulations. With less obvious examples in brackets, these prohibited items include:

  • gases (e.g. lamp bulbs)
  • all things flammable (e.g. perfume)
  • toxic or corrosive items (e.g. batteries)
  • magnetic substances (e.g. speakers)
  • public health risks (e.g. untanned hides)
  • oxidizers and biochemical products (e.g. chemical medicines)
  • anything with a danger sign on the packaging.

If you are considering air cargo, you should carefully discuss the nature of your cargo with your freight forwarder. And don’t forget to mention ancillary items like handles.

Packaging can also be subject to restrictions. For instance, there is a maximum weight restriction to corrugated fibreboard boxes.

For further information check out the Freightos Hazardous Material Table.

Return to top

New Fast Ocean Freight Services

Until recently, smaller shipments that don’t fill a container (LCL) regularly took much longer to ship than full container (FCL) shipments. Shippers wanting smaller quantities reasonably soon had to pay a premium to go air freight.

But, there are new fast ocean LCL services which can compete with air freight for time, and are a lot cheaper. This is due to several reasons, including ships are getting faster, canal upgrades cutting delays on some routes, improvements to ocean tracking, and a much more competitive freight market.

Some forwarders are now providing express ocean services, sometimes called Expedited LCL, with guaranteed delivery days, actually faster than FCL, and close to matching air transit times. Most air cargo is typically consolidated, but it takes time to put together, and dedicated services are typically once or twice a week. So, transit times are usually 5-7 days. Compare this with some express LCL shipments. For instance, Europe to the East Coast can take as little as 8 days.

So air vs ocean freight now? These new services suit high-value products, with a critical, but not immediate, due date. It also works well for products with a short shelf life, but longer than a couple of weeks.

Return to top

Eco Friendly Shipping

International bodies, governments, and individuals are increasingly taking responsibility for their impact on the environment. For instance, 114 large corporations recently committed to emission reduction for more eco friendly shipping. Even smaller businesses are considering how they contribute to a more sustainable future. This will increasingly have a business impact too: not having green credentials will lose business.

So does sea freight or air freight leave a bigger carbon footprint on the environment?

CO2 emissions from ocean freight are minuscule compared with air freight. Even withstanding some concerns about measurement, ocean freight has a much smaller carbon footprint.

These guidelines should help when you get to the air vs ocean freight decision.

If you are a shipper booking freight quotes on the Freightos marketplace, the guidelines are even simpler. By selecting locations rather than ports when moving boxes or pallets, Freightos will automatically select the quickest or cheapest routes, irrespective of mode.

Return to top