Sea Freight vs. Air Freight Shipping | What to Choose?

Sea freight vs air freight shipment | Key differences for a better decision

Even though the difference between sea freight and air freight may seem obvious to some, it is crucial to weigh up the key parameters, such as speed, costs, and safety to make the right choice for your load. At Eurosender, we have prepared a comparison of air cargo and sea freight advantages and disadvantages to help you find a balanced solution for your shipping needs.


Comparison of air cargo and sea freight pros and cons

See the differences between sea freight and air freight to decide which one is preferable for your business.

Air freight pros

  • Faster than ocean freight
  • Cargo congestion is minimal at the airport compared to maritime ports and terminals
  • Air freight implies less handling compared to ocean freight as the goods do not need to go through a loading warehouse
  • A better shipping option for perishable goods
  • More suitable for inland destinations

Air freight cons

  • Much more expensive than ocean freight
  • Not suitable for all types of goods, especially liquid and hazardous ones
  • Not suitable for heavier and extremely large consignments
  • Delays due to external factors (weather conditions, strikes, etc.) can occur
  • Has a massive carbon footprint

Sea freight pros

  • The best option for heavy and bulky items
  • Bigger load capacity compared to air freight
  • More sustainable than air freight with minimal carbon footprint
  • The best shipping option for destinations reachable by sea
  • Suitable for almost any type of cargo with fewer restrictions than air freight
  • Ocean freight shipping is possible even under extreme weather conditions
  • Sea freight shipping price is much more stable than that of air freight

Sea freight cons

  • Less reliable for time-sensitive goods
  • Sea freight is significantly slower than air freight shipping
  • Ocean carriers have more difficulty in dealing with schedule changes than air carriers
  • Lower security level compared to air freight
  • Mishandling risks are higher with ocean freight compared to air freight due to more handling and warehousing involved
  • Higher insurance costs than with air freight
  • Dealing with unforeseen transport situations may take more time from the ocean freight carriers’ side


Is air freight always faster than sea freight?

Delivery times are one of the main differences between sea freight and air freight shipping. When comparing sea freight to air freight shipments, senders always imagine that goods transported by air usually take a few days to arrive, while with ocean freight, it can be a matter of weeks. However, it is not always true.

As a rule, only express air shipments offer the shortest delivery time. Air freight is usually delivered within 8 hours – 7 days, depending on the pickup and destination countries. Consolidated air cargo can in some cases take up to 2 weeks.

Even though in practice, air freight is always faster than ocean freight, multiple sea carriers currently offer high-priority LCL solutions, also called Expedited LCL, with shorter delivery times. They can sometimes compete with air cargo in terms of delivery speed but are still much more affordable than shipping by air.

Businesses tend to choose air freight when shipping perishable goods – fruit, vegetables, fish, meat, fresh flowers, etc. Air cargo is also an obvious winner for emergency shipping when medical equipment or other time-critical products need to be delivered as soon as possible.

When doing the comparison of air cargo and sea freight, the decision as to the optimal shipping method should always be made case by case, depending on the time sensitivity of the shipment.


Which one is cheaper: sea freight or air freight?

The difference between sea freight and air freight shipping costs is significant. Air freight is usually 10-15 times more expensive than ocean freight.

The cost calculation method is also different. With air freight, the shipment is charged by weight (volumetric or gross), whereas with ocean freight, the shipper pays for the volume occupied by his load.

Both shipping methods can imply additional charges, but they are more recurrent with sea freight. Such charges include but are not limited to inspection, demurrage, detention, storage costs, origin, and destination handling fees, etc. Storage costs for ocean shipments are much higher than those incurred by air cargo.


Is sea freight more environmentally friendly than air freight?

The difference between sea freight and air freight in terms of sustainability is essential. Cargo aircraft leave the largest carbon dioxide emissions and thus highly contribute to global warming. The carbon footprint of sea freight shipment of the same weight on the same distance is 44 times smaller than that of an air freight shipment. Aircraft emit between 500 and 560 grams of CO2 per metric ton of freight, while the same indicator for cargo ships stands at 3 grams per metric ton.


Comparison of air cargo and sea freight customs duties

Customs duties, taxes, and local fees will be paid in both cases, but with air freight, the total VAT and duty to pay will be higher than with ocean freight. Whether the exporter chooses sea freight or air freight, the goods will need to undergo customs clearance.

Export clearance will be required before the cargo leaves the origin airport/port, while import clearance will be the obligatory condition for releasing the shipment. With sea freight, the clearance procedure might take longer than with air freight shipments. Port holdups may also increase the overall transit time.


What is the difference between sea freight and air freight load capacity?

Air cargo capacities differ depending on the type of aircraft. With certain aircraft, the consolidated volume of air freight shipments may reach up to 500-600m3, whereas the capacity of smaller commercial aircraft ranges between 21 and 97m3. Acceptable weight can also vary between 13 tons and 95 tons.

Ocean freight load capacity depends on the container type. The approximate capacity of a 20’ container is 33 cubic metres, and that of a 40’ container ranges between 67 and 76 cubic metres. The weight per cubic metre should not exceed 1 ton (1000 kg). Weight allowance might differ from one container to another.

Considering the above, ocean freight shipping is more suitable for bigger loads and heavier shipments than air freight. Sea freight imposes fewer restrictions on products that can be accepted for transportation, which is an important asset for numerous exporters.


Difference between sea freight and air freight shipping options

When choosing between sea freight or air freight, one must understand that with both shipping methods, multiple options are possible depending on the type, size, urgency, and other characteristics of the load. Take a look at the rundown of the main types of sea freight and air freight shipping options:

Air freight shipments

Air parcel (passenger lines) – convenient for transporting lighter cargo on passenger planes.
Dedicated air cargo – suitable for large, heavy and some types of hazardous freight.
Air charter – charter flight without transit stops, mainly used for urgent freight shipments in food, cut flower, mining, energy, pharmaceutical industries, etc.

Sea freight shipments

Container shipping – optimal for suppliers and retailers exporting goods that occupy either an entire container (FCL) or a part of a container (LCL).
Breakbulk cargo shipping – convenient for transporting up to 150 thousand tons of unpacked bulk cargo.
Tanker shipping – optimal method for transporting liquid foods and commodities (petroleum, natural gas).
Reefer shipping – refrigerated transportation of big quantities of perishable goods.


Is air freight safer than sea freight?

Air freight is generally considered as the safest transport option given stricter regulations imposed by airlines and rigorous security checks at the airports. Both transportation methods are safe, even though ocean freight implies more handling and warehousing. More handling may sometimes translate into higher risks of damage, even though either with sea freight or with air freight, proper packaging is key to successful delivery.


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Sea freight vs. air freight shipping: which one is better for your business?

  • The key differences between sea freight and air freight are the shipping speed and cost. Air freight is much faster, but also much more costly than the ocean freight.
  • Whether you opt for sea freight or air freight, you need to know that both types of transport are reliable, but unexpected delays may occur with both.
  • Ocean freight is much more sustainable than air freight.
  • Sea freight shipping is more suitable for heavier loads than air freight.
  • The urgency of your shipment and the due delivery date agreed upon with your client are the crucial elements for the comparison of air cargo and sea freight in your case. The shipping methods preferred by your competitors can sometimes also impact the choice.


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FAQ about the difference between sea freight and air freight

Is sea freight cheaper than air freight?
Air freight is typically 10-15 times more expensive compared to the same volume of ocean freight. This differential comes from lower aircraft capacity, higher fuel consumption and maintenance costs. Cargo ships can carry more volume at once with much lower fuel usage, which is the main factor shaping the price difference between sea freight and air freight.
Still, the comparison of air cargo and sea freight prices may show substantial fluctuations depending on the season and the situation on the market.
Why is air freight always compared with sea freight shipping?
Even though there are substantial differences between these two shipping methods, both have their strong points when it comes to covering long distances internationally. Both air freight and ocean freight play an important role in world trade. If your freight shipment is not time-critical, sea freight can be a cost-saving alternative to air freight for your import/export operations. Keep in mind that for smaller consignments, the margin between air and ocean freight prices becomes lower.
How much faster do air freight shipments arrive at the destination compared to sea freight?
Even though the difference between sea freight and air freight delivery time always depends on the route, air freight generally takes several days, whereas ocean freight shipments can take weeks to arrive. Expedited ocean freight services offer better transit times than regular sea freight but still cannot compare to air freight in terms of speed.
Is it better to ship sea freight or air freight during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Both transportation methods are available, even though air freight costs have risen quite significantly during the pandemic. The optimal choice between the two services always depends on the shipment size, weight, time sensitivity, and type of cargo.