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.
Here’s all the information you need to help you decide:
Is Shipping by Sea Cheaper Than by Air?
To calculate the cost difference between shipping via air freight vs. via sea freight, use our free freight rate calculator.
Guidelines for Selecting Air vs Ocean 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 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.
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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.
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.
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. 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.
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.