Freight shipping is the bulk transportation of commercial goods by air, land, or sea. Unlike parcel shippers that specialize in small lightweight items, freight shipping allows businesses to transport large volumes of goods or heavy items.

Every day, millions of businesses rely on freight shipping for their domestic and global trade. Just in North America, freight shipments totaled to nearly $100 billion in 2020. It's no exaggeration to say that freight shipping is the backbone of domestic and international commerce.

Freight shipping can be done in the following three ways:

  • Air freight
  • Ocean freight
  • Truck freight

Lead times and rates vary between forms of freight shipping. Air freight is faster than truck freight, but trucks are faster than ocean liners. Typically, you’ll pay more for the faster modes of transportation. And since you’re shipping in bulk, you save money when you ship greater volumes.

Easyship helps merchants to connect with their perfect freight shipping partner. Every third-party logistics provider in our trusted network is a reliable and affordable solution for growing businesses. You can find trusted logistics partners here.

Let’s talk about freight shipping.

Table of Contents

Understanding Freight Shipping

What Is Freight Shipping?

Freight shipping is transporting commercial goods in large quantities by air, land, or sea. Freight shipping companies operate worldwide, using airports, sea ports, and independent truck depots to move goods.

Freight shipments are larger than 30 x 30 x 30” or more than 150 pounds. Goods get loaded on wooden pallets or into 20-40’ shipping containers, often with other cargo. Smaller shipments can be more cost-effectively shipped via express parcel couriers like USPS.

Freight shipments are delivered to a warehouse instead of the end-customer. Once unloaded and stored in the receiving warehouse, only then are single orders sent out for last mile delivery.

It’s common for high-volume merchants to partner with third-party logistics providers (3PLs) like fulfillment centers. Doing so provides access to storage space in warehouses, but also fulfillment services. 3PLs often take responsibility for delivering packages to customers on behalf of the merchants.

Three forms of freight shipping exist:

  • Air freight: One of more palettes of cargo are loaded on a plane at an airport. Air freight is typically handled by one company, such as the freight divisions of common express couriers like UPS or FedEx. Air freight is best for merchants that want delivery in less than a week for one or more palettes.
  • Truck freight: Palettes are loaded onto semi-trailers or light trucks then driven to the receiving warehouse. This approach is best for medium to large shipments that must arrive in a week or less but cost less than air freight.
  • Sea freight: Cargo is loaded into a 20-40’ shipping container at the nearest sea port, then packed into an ocean carrier. Ocean freight is best for cost-effectively shipping high-volume cargo or heavy items when time is plentiful. You’ll coordinate with the shipping company and freight forwarder to coordinate transport, customs clearance, etc.

The Benefits of Freight Shipping

Freight shipping is the de facto delivery method for businesses that move large items or large volumes of cargo. Growing businesses turn to freight shipping companies for the following reasons:

  • Large items are easy: Freight accommodates the largest and heaviest shipments, unlike courier services. This could be individually heavy items like cars and pianos, or a large volume of lightweight items such as clothing.
  • Cost-effective at scale: Shipping large, unwieldy or heavy items via courier service is cost-prohibitive. Larger merchants use freight services to transport goods at pennies on the dollar compared to the rates of courier services.
  • Flexible pricing: Prices vary greatly among types of freight shipping. And each form of freight shipping comes in a range of pricing tiers. This means you can find ways to ship cost effectively on any budget, so long as your items don’t need to be there post-haste.

The 6 Steps of Freight Shipping

Freight shipping is more complex than parcel shipping due to its scale. Big jobs require extra hands, so you can expect to deal with a few other players as you get into the world of freight, including:

  • Freight forwarders: Like travel agents for freight shipments. Freight forwarders offer services that facilitate the freight process for freight shipping companies and clients, including operating truck transport services.
  • Third-party logistics providers: Companies that offer outsourced distribution and fulfillment services, including warehousing, transportation, and last mile delivery. Large freight forwarding companies may also act as fulfillment services.
  • Customs brokers: International freight shipments require customs documentation specific to the receiving country. Brokers specialize in filing the necessary import/export documents and clearing your shipment from customs.

Now let’s look at an example of freight shipping from New York, NY to London, UK.

Step 1: Export Haulage

The transfer of goods from your premises to the warehouse where your cargo is prepared for loading at port. Transport via truck or train to the shipper’s facility must be arranged either by you, a freight forwarder, or the freight company.

Step 2: Origin Handling

Your cargo is received at the port of departure. It’s unloaded from the transport truck, inspected, then arranged in the staging area. On-hand inventory is validated with shipping documents then made ready for loading before departure.

Step 3: Export Customs (International Only)

For international freight, you’ll need to register your cargo with custom authorities before your shipment gets moving. The required documents differ by country, and your freight shipping company will tell you all that’s required.

You’ll also need to determine if you or the shipper will be responsible for handling the customs clearance process. Also, whether you or the shipping company is paying for duty and taxes, if applicable.

Steps of Freight Shipping

Step 4: Import Customs (International Only)

Customs authorities at the port in the receiving country inspect your cargo. Your freight shipper or a designated freight forwarder will handle this process on your behalf. Either you or your shipping company will need to pay any duty or tax before the freight can leave the port area.

DDP vs. DDU: What’s The Difference?

Step 5: Destination Handling

The shipment is collected at port, then brought to your shippers warehouse. Cargo is un-stuffed (unpacked), inspected, and sorted for further transportation or collection by someone on your behalf. Destination handling is the responsibility of your shipping company, but you can negotiate who pays for this process.

Step 6: Import Haulage

Your cargo is transferred from the import warehouse to its final destination. This may be your warehouse, a fulfillment center, or that of a third-party logistics provider (3PL) who’s handling your fulfillment.

If your freight forwarder doesn’t handle this step, you’ll need to arrange for haulage either by truck or train from local trucking companies. Once picked up, your inventory can be distributed out to any nearby hubs.

As you negotiate who moves what at which stage, keep an ear out for these terms:

Port-to-port: Your shipping company or the freight forwarder takes responsibility for moving your goods from the origin port to the receiving port. They don’t coordinate transportation from your premises to the departing port, nor from the destination port to your warehouse or the end customers.

Door-to-door: Your shipping company or the freight forwarder is responsible for moving your goods from your premises all the way to your final delivery location.

Port-to-door: The shipping company or forward takes responsibility for moving your goods from the departure port to your final delivery location.

Generally, a trustworthy freight shipping company will walk you through most of these variables. You don’t remember everything, but it’s important to know there’s a lot of flexibility in merchant-provider relationships.

For learn more, read this full guide to warehousing and fulfillment.

Delivery Lead Times For Freight Shipping

Each freight shipping method carries a different timeline. Planes move faster than trucks, after all, and trucks move faster than ocean freighters. Here’s the expected delivery lead time each freight method.

Air Freight

Air freight is the fastest freight shipping method. Your cargo is loaded onto palettes at the origin airport then flown to the destination airport, potentially with connections in between. You can typically get door-to-door delivery in five days.

Typically, airport to airport transit takes one to two days. Longer lead times can arise when your aircraft is waiting for other cargo to be loaded before departure. If your shipment is crossing an international border, allow a couple days for customs clearance. Next, your shipment must be transported, unpacked, then collected from the shipper’s warehouse. All told, this can 3-5 days.

All told, door-to-door delivery for air freight with haulage, collection, crating, and final delivery may take up to two weeks

Truck Freight

Truck freight is a mix of fast delivery and cost-savings. Cargo is loaded into commercial trucks in palettes, then driven to one or more delivery destinations.

Distance and geography depending, truck freight door-to-door can take 2-6 days. For example, it takes about four days to truck cargo from Montreal to Los Angeles, including a day or so for customs clearance.

For a better estimate, figure that a freight truck can drive 550 miles (or 885 kilometers) per day. Truck drivers are legally required to drive no more than 11-13 hours per day, country depending. Environmental factors like weather can also slow delivery speeds.

Sea Freight

Sea freight is the slowest freight shipping method, but also the cheapest.

Port to port delivery can take anywhere from 2-6 weeks, depending on the distance traveled. Then you’ll need to arranged for haulage, clear customs, un-stuff your cargo, and transport it to your warehouse facility. By the time sea freight reaches the end-customer, it can take 6-7 weeks from door-to-door.

Freight Shipping Costs

Your freight shipping cost depends on several factors, including:

  • Cargo weight
  • Density
  • Dimensions
  • Packaging type
  • Mode of transport
  • Time-sensitivity
  • Freight class/category
  • Distance from origin to destination

Pricing varies depending on the freight method you choose, but for each method this is true: the more you ship, the better your rates.

Air Freight

Rates for air freight shipping are determined by the weight or volume of your shipment, whichever is more expensive. Air cargo rates typically range from $2.50-$5 per kilogram, depending on the cargo category and available space.

Sea Freight

Ocean freight can be priced in a few different ways, including:

  • Full Container Load (FCL): You pay for all the space inside a 20-40’ shipping container. FCL shipping is best for shipments of 10 cubic meters in volume or more. Rates for FCL range from $2,000-$4,000, depending on distance and market demand.
  • Less Than Container Load (LCL): A cost-effective alternative to FCL, you pay a prorated amount for cargo space in cubic meters. The minimum space you can reserve for LCL freight is 1 cubic meter. For example, a 200 kg LCL shipment from London to New York is around $700-800.

Truck Freight

Truck freight rates are charged by mile. Shipping factors like gasoline prices, cargo density, and more can impact the final price. On average, you can expect to pay $2-$4 per mile for truck freight.

Like ocean freight, trucks shipments can be purchased in one of two sizes, depending on your needs:

  • Full truckload (FTL): You pay for the entire cargo space of a 14’ trucking trailer. Cost-effective if you’re shipping six or more palettes of cargo at a time.
  • Less than truckload (LTL): When you only pay for a portion of the trucking trailer. Useful when you only need a few palettes. However, it may be slower because other cargo will get loaded into the truck along the way.

5 Freight Shipping Best Practices

1. Assemble all necessary documents

Freight shipping requires more documentation than courier shipping, especially for international freight shipping. For example, a packing list, a bill of lading, a shipper’s letter of instruction.

Check with your freight shipping company for a full list of shipping documents. For international shipments, be sure to double check that you have all the documents you need to clear customs. You can also get an instant estimate on your duty and tax for any country with our Free Duty & Tax Calculator.

 Freight Shipping Best Practices

2. Package appropriately

Ensure your palettes and cargo should be in good condition. Faulty palettes and packaging can lead to damage in transit. Broken palettes make life hard on shippers and force them to repackage your shipment.

3. Use quality packaging

Freight handling can be rough. To best maintain integrity of your cargo, use boxes of the proper weight rate, quality adhesives, and strong packaging tape.

4. Foster quality partnerships

A reliable and productive freight partner is worth their weight in gold. Good relations start with setting clear expectations, asking for a shipping schedule, and keeping a close point of contact. Being open and communicative with your freight companies will return better service and fewer headaches over time.

5. Maintain visibility

To ensure success, it’s best to keep tabs on your shipments. Your shipping platform should integrate directly with the warehouse management systems (WMS) of your fulfillment partners. This way, you’ll be able to know in real-time where your inventory is.

Freight Shipping With Easyship

Freight shipping is like the grown-up brother of parcel shipping. You’ve got a few added considerations to juggle, but the cost-savings from bulk shipping cannot be overstated. If you’re looking to learn more about freight, you can contact the freight team at Easyship at no charge. To date, we’ve connected thousands of merchants with their years-long freight partner.

Not an Easyship user yet? You can create a free account. Doing so gives you instant access to discounted shipping rates at up to 70% for all top couriers like USPS, FedEx, UPS and more.

Freight Shipping FAQ:

How Long Does Freight Shipping Take?

Freight shipping can take days or months. Air freight can arrive in just two days, while sea freight can take two months to arrive.

What is the difference between freight and logistics?

Freight just means any cargo transported in bulk. Logistics is the business process that oversees the moving of freight to customers, plus other shipping-related activities.

What is the difference between LTL and FTL freight?

LTL means less than truckload, and FTL means full truckload. LTL freight involves you paying for a portion of space inside a freight truck. FTL is when you pay for the full space inside a shipping truck.

What is freight classification?

Freight classifications are cargo categories that shipping authorities use to determine the price of shipments.