When you start to ship freight at high volumes, it’s time to consider sea freight. Here is your guide to everything ocean, from choosing the mode that’s right for you to calculating costs and transit times.
This guide to ocean freight includes:
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What Is Ocean Freight?
Ocean freight is the most common mode of transport that importers and exporters use. In fact, a full 90% of everything is shipped by ocean freight and sea freight. The other international freight transport modes (courier, standard air freight, express air freight) are all faster, but they are also more expensive. Smaller shipments, and products with a high value, generally go by these other modes.
If ocean freight is too slow, but air freight is too pricey, some freight forwarders are now offering a relatively new service, often called expedited freight. This service is often nearly as quick as air freight, but it costs more like ocean freight. It works by streamlining ocean freight processes and only tying in with the faster ocean services and premium trucking services.
Why Choose Sea Freight Over Other Shipping Methods?
- Capacity and Value – One container can hold 10,000 beer bottles! And ocean freight is cheaper. As a rule of thumb, any shipment weighing more than 500 kg is too expensive for air freight. For light shipments, use this chargeable weight calculator to work out whether your shipment will be charged by actual weight or dimensional weight. For live international container shipping rates see our FBX index.
- Fewer restrictions – International law, national law, carrier organization regulations and individual carrier regulations all play their part in defining and restricting what goods are considered dangerous for transport. Generally, more products restricted as air cargo than ocean freight, including: gases (e.g. lamp bulbs), all things flammable (e.g. perfume, Samsung Galaxy Note 7), toxic or corrosive items (e.g. batteries), magnetic substances (e.g. speakers), oxidizers and biochemical products (e.g. chemical medicines), and public health risks (e.g. untanned hides). For further information check out the Hazardous Material Table.
- Emissions – CO2 freight emissions from ocean freight is minuscule compared with air freight. For example, according to this research, 2 tonnes shipped for 5,000 kilometers by ocean freight will lead to 150 kg of CO2 emissions, compared to 6,605 kg of CO2 emissions by air freight.
What Are The Downsides Of Ocean Freight?
- Speed – Airplanes are about 30 times faster than ocean liners; passenger jets cruise at 575 mph, while slow-steaming ocean liners move at 16-18 mph. No surprise then, that a shipment going by air freight from China to the US usually takes at least 20 days more than by ocean freight.
- Reliability – Port congestion, customs delays, and bad weather conditions generally add much more days to ocean freight than air freight. To date, there has been more takeup of tracking technology in air freight than ocean freight. That means that ocean freight is more likely to get misplaced than air freight. This is especially true when the ocean shipment is less than a container load. That said, ocean freight is slowly becoming more reliable, in order to compete with air freight.
- Protection – Ocean freight is more likely to get damaged or destroyed than air cargo. That’s because it is in transit a lot longer, and because ships are more subject to movement. But don’t worry too much about cargo falling off ships. The urban myth says 10,000 lost per year, but it’s more like 546 of the 120 million container movements per year that fall in the drink. Even less likely is piracy. Hotspots in recent years have included the Horn of Africa, the Gulf of Guinea, and the Malacca Straits. For more information about ocean freight and sea freight insurance, check out our page about cargo insurance.
LCL or FCL?
Ocean and sea freight break down to two further options: a full container load (FCL) and a less than container load (LCL). With LCL, several shipments are packed into one container. This means more work for the forwarder, there’s extra paperwork involved, as well as the physical work of consolidating various shipments into a container before the main transit and de-consolidating the shipments at the other end. This gives LCL three disadvantages:
- LCL takes more time to deliver than an FCL shipment. The Freightos Freight Team typically recommend allowing an extra one or two weeks,
- There is an increased risk of damage, misplacement, and loss with LCL.
- LCL costs more per cubic meter. In the Freightos’ Freight Team’s experience, the main transit cost is roughly double the per cubic meter charge as for FCL.
Since shipping rates are lower for FCL, it may be worth using a full container once your shipment is large enough, even if your goods do not fill a full container. The tipping point for upgrading from LCL to FCL (the smallest sized container is a 20 footer) is somewhere around 15 cubic meters.
How Do I Find Out More About Ocean and Sea Freight Rates and Charges?
With the exception of particularly heavy goods, most LCL is priced per volume of goods, and not by weight.
For most products, use these rules of thumb for which selecting the most cost-effective mode:
Shipments weighing more than 500 kg becomes uneconomic to go by air freight. Ocean freight is around 50 cents/kg, and a China-US shipment will take around 30-40 days. At about $4 per kilo, a China-US shipment between 150 kg and 500 kg can economically go air freight and will take around 8-10 days. Express air freight is a few days quicker, but more expensive.
Packages that are lighter than 150 kg can economically go by courier (express freight). At about $6 per kilo, a China-US shipment will take around 3 days. For products with a high value of goods per tonne, use this chart instead, based on recent quotes and freight rates from the Freightos marketplace. And for live international freight rates, check out the Freightos Baltic Index.
Common Ocean and Sea Freight Charges:
Expect to see these items on ocean freight quotes and invoices:
- Customs security surcharges (AMS, ISF)
- Container Freight Station (these are the consolidation charges, and apply for LCL only)
- Terminal Handling charges (charges by the port authority)
- Customs brokerage
- Pickup and delivery
- Accessorial charges (fuel surcharges, handling hazardous materials, storage, etc)
- Routing charges (e.g. Panama Canal, Alameda Corridor)
Are Container Shipping Prices and International Sea Freight Rates Changing?
For several decades now, world trade has been fueled by an increasingly abundant supply of cheap products that kept getting cheaper. So cheap, that actual freight costs were almost irrelevant. But since 2012, there has been a dramatic fall in sea-freight rates – more than 75% on some routes. Part of this was due to plunging oil prices, but a lot has been market forces at play. Carriers went on a container ship spending spree at the same time that demand for container freight began leveling off. Demand isn’t forecasted to reach supply levels until 2022, by some estimates. That’s rough news for ocean carriers, but great news for importers and exporters.
Do you need to know the seaport code for, say, the UK’s largest container port at Felixstowe? Check out this handy Seaport Code Finder. It’s GBFXT, by the way.