Air freight versus sea freight – when to choose what

By Bo Sunnaker, September 25, 2014

Choosing the correct mode of transport can be tricky. It’s often a question of time and money. Do your goods need to be moved quickly? Or would you rather keep the costs down? You probably want to strike a good balance between the both. To ease your decision I put together a number of key factors to consider before making your decision.


How much money are you willing to spend on transporting your goods?

If you ask which mode of transport that will cost you the least, you will most likely get the answer that shipping by sea is cheaper than shipping by air. Typically, this is true. However, it’s not necessarily the case. This might depend on how logistic and transport companies charge for international shipping.

Airlines charge according to the chargeable weight of a shipment, which is based on the weight and size. That’s because large items with a light overall weight take up more space on an aircraft than a small, heavy item. Sea carriers charge per container rates for shipping in standard containers. The charge is usually based on the size of a shipment (even if weight can factor into the price). A factor that affects the cost of containerised sea freight is whether the goods require a dedicated full container (FCL) or can be consolidated with other cargo (LCL). In case of the latter, your price is often determined by its volume in cubic meter.

With larger and heavier shipments, it is often much cheaper to ship by sea. As a shipment gets smaller, the margin between the prices gets smaller and sometimes air will even end up less expensive.

Another factor to consider is the destination charges, such as customs and fees, which you have to pay regardless of which mode of transport you chose. Even if you find that the costs for shipping by sea is cheaper than the costs for shipping by air, the warehouse fees at seaports can be much more expensive than the warehouses at airports.

How quickly do your goods need to be moved?

When it comes to speed, airfreight is, without a doubt, the fastest way to transport your products across long distances. For many businesses, shipping it is a question of time rather than money. If the consignment is urgent, choosing air freight instead of sea freight could make up for the potentially higher costs, as shipments by sea often take weeks and shipments by air often takes days.

How important is it that your cargo reaches its destination in time?

When comparing the two, air freight tends to be the more reliable option for international shipping. Airfreight can get delayed due to poor weather conditions or other factors, but the airlines are very cautious about their schedules and often on top of them. As most airfreight flights run daily back and forth between major cities around the world, missing a flight doesn’t cause much of a delay for a cargo shipment.

Ocean lines tend to run on weekly schedules and the risks of something going wrong and the shipment getting delayed is considerably high. Missing a ship could place a shipment a week off. For many businesses a weeks delay could have serious cost effects.

How important is it for you to reduce your ecological footprint?

Time and money is important. But, we also have a responsibility for the world we live in, not least the environment. As environmental protection is an increasingly pressing issue all over the world, every business today needs to consider how they can contribute to a more sustainable future. This is also a way of changing the way the public looks at a company. In the end it might end up being a question of whether a company actually chooses you or not.

When it comes to this category sea freight always win the battle. CO2 emissions are much higher in air freight transport compared to sea freight transport. This causes cargo shipping by air to have a much larger carbon footprint than cargo shipping by sea.

I hope you got a better picture of the possibilities and limitations of air freight and sea freight after reading this! Perhaps I’ve made it a little easier for you to choose the correct mode of transport! Please let me know what you think about my article by leaving a comment in the field below. Or if you like it, share it on social media with the tag @Greencarrier.

/ Bo Sunnåker Greencarrier Freight Services

11 thoughts on Air freight versus sea freight - when to choose what

  1. Thank you for providing this information. I own my own business and I need to send some of my products overseas. I’ve been researching different freight shipping options and this article was most helpful. For my needs, I think air freight shipping is my best option.

  2. You’re right in saying that a major difference between air and sea freight services is the guarantee that your cargo arrives on schedule. Obviously both methods will do the best they can, but air freight seems to me to be the more reliable solution. Of course, if you can afford delays, then there’s no reason why you can’t consider sea freight. You simply have to decide for yourself what’s a dealbreaker.

  3. Thank you for pointing out that speed has to be considered. As you said, how quickly the goods are shipped is usually more of an issue than cost. That being said, if you are consistently sending shipments that are, generally, the same size, it may save you some money to set up a schedule and use sea freight services.

  4. Ideally, the best option would be to deliver within the country of origin rather than having to focus on shipping Internationally. Shipping by air versus shipping by sea also depends on what type of goods you are transporting as well as how quickly your goods need to be delivered. I would choose air freight services as it provides me the reliability and peace of mind in knowing that I don’t have to wait too long for an item to arrive at its destination.

  5. Thank you very much for all of this information. I have some products that I want to ship overseas to another business, and I’m not sure if I should choose air freight or sea freight. What you said about air freight being the most reliable method really stood out to me. Reliability is very important to me.

    1. Dear Susan,
      Thanks for reading our blog article and we’re glad it was helpful for you in your decision.

      Have a nice day!

      Greencarrier Freight Services

  6. There are numerous ways in which retailers (or any other type of seller) can deliver a product that is being sold to customers, if the distance is not so big. However, if the product has to be delivered to another continent, then you are basically left with only two choices, and that is going for either the ocean freight (transport the goods by ship) or the air freight (transport the goods by plane). These two options differ in many ways and choosing between them should depend on the situation.

  7. It’s really up to the customers budget. I’ve done both air and see and can say that if they need something fast – Air , Ocean in any other way.
    So big companies with huge stock piles will go for ocean 90% of the time, while urgent cargo is mostly Air.

  8. I guess this is totally up to a shippers budget if you ask me. And offcourse time is also of the essence and with seafreight the chance of experiencing delay compared to airfreight is much greater indeed.

    Nice article and will come back every now and then!

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