Pros and Cons: Sea Freight vs. Air Freight

There are two main options for those businesses and individuals that want to ship goods overseas. You can go for international freight shipping by sea or by air. The first option has been around for quite some time now, but the latter is gaining more and more popularity.

Moving goods internationally demands tremendous knowledge and experience. A different set of rules, regulations and implemented practices makes transferring of assets through air or sea even more challenging. Whether you are a business owner or an individual on the verge of your next international move there is always a bottom line or a budget to be considered. Add to it, the time it takes to move things is another factor. With many other nuances it does not hurt to compare both – the ocean freight versus the air freight methods and find out which works best.


International air freight shipping is a lot faster than its alternative. It is between 15 and 30 times quicker. Simply, humans have yet to invent something that transports goods faster than an airplane. This is why this mode of transportation is always used in situation where speed is of the essence.

The speed of sea transportation is not particularly high. This is mainly due to the size and weight of the vessels used. At the same time, the transport is well organized with many ports being close to major industrial and commercial centers. You can expect your goods to travel from a couple of weeks to around two months depending on the distance to the destination.



Typically, you will hear that shipping by sea is cheaper than shipping by air. And in general, this is true; however, this is not necessarily the case. To make the best decision, it helps to be educated about how carriers charge for international shipping. Airlines bill you by what is called a chargeable weight. Chargeable weight is calculated from a combination of the weight and size of a shipment. Sea carriers charge per container rates for shipping in standard containers (20’ and 40’ being the most common sizes). While weight can factor into the price from sea carriers, their charge tends to be based more on the size of a shipment. If you are shipping less than a container load, your price is often determined by cubic meter.

With larger and heavier shipments, it is often much cheaper to ship by sea. Sea shipping is considered the better option for large volumes of goods and for cargo that is large and has irregular shape. As a shipment gets smaller, the margin between the prices gets smaller and sometimes air will even end up less expensive.

Shippers should note that there are destination charges to consider. Whether shipping by air or by sea, there will be customs and destination fees. While the actual shipment cost of sea freight is usually cheaper than the shipment cost of air freight, the warehousing fees at seaports are many times more expensive than those at airports.


Air transportation can get affected by bad weather and other adverse circumstances such as strikes. Also, airplanes are always exposed to possible engine failure or the chance of emergency landing, but the rate for this is so low, that air freight is one of the safest ways to transport cargo globally. Air transportation is fairly reliable especially if the air carrier has extensive operations and a large number of flights daily.

The international freight shipping by sea is quite reliable. The vessels undergo inspection to confirm that are in good condition when they leave the port. Most ships are designed to overcome all kinds of weather conditions so that they can keep their schedule. However, water currents and harsh weather might cause unforeseen delays, but you should not expect them to be for more than one or two days. Sea lanes can be exposed to possible pirate threat, but this is very rare.

When you choose your international freight forwarder, ask about insurance coverage for either of these options, as it is peace of mind for a small additional charge on top of your freight charges.



A Guardian newspaper report suggested that shipping produces around 2.5 times the amount of emission that airplanes create, thus making air freight a better option than sea freight. However, this leads to the following question: if the same amount/weight of goods was shipped by sea freight as by air, which mode would produce more greenhouse gases?  The derived result showed that shipping 1.5 tones of goods created 0.124 tones of carbon dioxide (CO2), while sending 0.5 tones of the same product by air created 4.5 tones of CO2. If these numbers are to be believed then it is definitely worth shipping by sea rather than by air.

Air Freight versus Ocean Freight Differences

Factors Air freight Sea freight
Reliability, safety of goods More reliable, less succession time Less reliable, probability of goods damage is higher
Cost More expensive Less costly
Charges for goods By weight By volume
Time Faster Slower
Destinations Lesser stops Might make more stops in a journey
Logistics Specific  logistics and rules  Specific logistics and paperwork
Tracking Provided Provided

The above table gives a brief overview about how different factors pan out for both methods of shipping. Deciding which one is better than the other depends a whole lot on your personal requirements. Choose the type of international freight shipping depending on your goals and budget.