Key Points:

  • If your shipment is small (up to about 50 kg) you’re better off with express freight shipping
  • Ocean freight shipping is more likely to get caught up with long delays like bad weather and port congestion
  • Expedited ocean freight, for instance, can often shave 10 days or more off the transit time

Getting international freight shipped can feel really, really complicated. But one of the most common questions that come up from both beginners and the slightly weathered importers is deciding whether to import specific shipments by air or ocean.

This blog will give you the full scope of air freight vs. sea freight so you know everything you need to know about using these services.

Table of Contents

What is Air Freight vs. Sea Freight?

Air freight parcel delivery is the shipment of goods via an air carrier. Air freight delivery can be a great shipping option for small, medium, or large businesses looking to keep up with the competition. This transportation method also offers reliable delivery lead times, making it easier to boost customer loyalty.

Air Freight vs. Sea Freight

On the other hand, sea freight shipping refers to the transportation of goods via cargo ships. Unlike air freight delivery, sea freight items are packed into containers and loaded into a container, which is then transported to the destination.

What's More Expensive: Air Freight vs. Sea Freight?

Generally, air freight is more expensive than sea freight because air freight is a faster courier service. Air freight shipping can take upwards of a couple of days, while sea freight can take upwards of two weeks or more. Sea freight is usually the better option if you're not in a rush for your items to reach points A to B in the fastest amount of time.

How is Air Freight vs. Sea Freight Calculated?

Air freight cost is calculated via chargeable weight, which is a metric calculated by adding the weight and size of the shipment. On the other hand, sea freight doesn't factor in shipment weight and instead is billed by a container. For instance, a standard container (20' x 40') is charged a flat rate.

Shipping via sea freight is often cheaper for large, heavy items; however, as the shipment size decreases, the margin between air and sea freight prices also decreases.

Pros and Cons of Air Freight vs. Sea Freight

Air freight or sea freight shipments are two popular methods for overseas shipping. But, to choose between the two shipping methods, we'll have to consider both the pros and cons of air freight vs. sea freight.

Pros & Cons of Air Freight

Air freight shipping offers faster lead times but is generally more expensive than sea freight shipping. Let's take a look at the other pros and cons so you can understand which shipping method works best for you.

Pros of Air Freight

  • Faster delivery lead times when you ship via air
  • Great for time-sensitive shipments
  • Reliable courier service
  • Often comes with premium shipping insurance

Cons of Air Freight

  • More expensive than sea freight
  • Not ideal for heavier shipment, as it is more expensive
  • Air freight planes cannot hold as much weight as sea freight containers
  • Weather dependent mode of transportation
  • Duty and VAT are more expensive

Pros & Cons of Sea Freight

Sea freight shipping may offer longer delivery lead times but can be an economical shipping method for larger or heavier shipments. We'll look at the pros and cons of each so you can understand what works best for your business.

Pros of Sea Freight

  • Cheaper costs for shipping and cost-effective for shippers
  • Sea freight containers can hold more weight than air freight planes
  • Duty and VAT are less expensive
  • Better carbon footprint and is more environmentally friendly

Cons of Sea Freight

  • Longer delivery lead times than air cargo
  • Less reliable than express shipping
  • Not ideal for time-sensitive shipments

Factors to Consider When Choosing Air Freight vs. Sea Freight

Beginner’s luck - deciding is easy when you’re getting started, especially with samples.

An international courier (express freight) will take care of your sample shipment (to test the product) and probably also your small trial shipment (to test the market).

But once you ramp up to larger shipments, you’ll be hitting courier weight and size restrictions, not to mention the prohibitive cost. That’s when you’ll need to answer three questions to decide whether to use air freight or sea freight shipping.

1. Are You Looking To Save Money?

As with parcels, freight cost is weight-based. If your shipment is small (up to about 50 kg) you’re better off with express freight shipping. Heavier than that, it gets more economic to go with air freight shipping.

Then around the 500-kilogram mark (1100 lbs), ocean freight becomes cheaper. The differences can be staggering. For instance, a $195 ocean shipment can cost $1,000 by air.

Take this with a grain of salt.

These weight cut-offs are approximate because costs don’t stay static. But you can get accurate estimates by inputting your shipment details into Freightos' freight rate calculator, which uses average air and sea freight shipping rates from global forwarders.

2. Looking To Save Time?

Taking China to US door-to-door as a guide, express freight shipping takes about 3 days, compared to 8-10 days for air freight and 30 days or more on ocean freight. Each of these has a quicker premium option. Expedited ocean freight, for instance, can often shave 10 days or more off the transit time.

Of course, there are always small ways to reduce the size, like skimping on (only the unnecessary!) packing or only palletizing after import, which may reduce the costs to make the air freight costs.

3. Looking to Make Sure That...

...You Make A Drop-dead Delivery Date?

Ocean freight shipping is more likely to get caught up with long delays like bad weather and port congestion. That’s risky if it’s critical your shipment arrives by a certain date – even if that date is well after the estimated transit time for ocean freight shipping.

...You 100% Avoid Product Damage?

Ocean freight moves around much more on a container ship than in the hold of a plane, so it is more likely to get damaged. But ignore talk of 10,000 containers falling off ships each year – it’s an urban myth.

...Save Your Planet?

CO2 emissions from ocean freight are minuscule compared with air freight. Even withstanding some measurement concerns, ocean freight has a much smaller carbon footprint. Thinking green? Stay with ocean carriers, which are literally the most carbon-efficient way to transfer anything.

...Your Hazardous Material Doesn’t Destroy An Airplane?

Even if it’s never been a problem fulfilling sales, your freight shipments might be classified as hazardous. For instance, there are flight limits on products with batteries or magnets. That won’t affect your single sale fulfillment, but importing a large shipment will either have to go by sea or be broken down into smaller shipments on separate flights.

How Easyship Can Help with Air Freight vs. Sea Freight

By now, you should know everything you need to know about air freight vs. sea freight shipping. To recap, air freight is great for merchants who need fast, expedited shipping. On the other hand, sea freight is best for businesses that ship larger items like furniture and want to cut costs on shipping.

Regardless of the pros and cons of both shipping methods, air freight vs. sea freight can ship your items from points A to B. But, what if you could ship with a platform that offers high-volume discounts?

Easyship saves users up to 91% off discounted shipping rates on 250+ courier services. You'll also gain access to features and benefits designed to help you scale your business globally. You'll gain instant access to the following:

  • Easyship Shipping Rates Calculator: Access high-volume discounts and competitive rates from major couriers' shipping options. Plus, get instant access to delivery lead times from premium shipping couriers
  • Global Fulfillment Network: Easyship ships over 220+ countries so merchants can reach their customers worldwide. Plus, with warehouse partners on four continents, merchants can be closer to their customers
  • All-One-Dashboard: Manage all your orders and create shipments in one place. Plus, upload CSVs or sync directly from your eCommerce store

This article was originally posted by our partner, Freightos. Check them out to get instant freight quotes for global fulfillment of oversized goods and B2B eCommerce!

Interested in being a content partner with Easyship? We'd love to hear from you! Reach out to us at [email protected] to start the conversation.