Sea Freight vs. Air Freight: Which Is Right for Your Shipment?

December 1, 2023
min Read
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Organizations dealing with international shipments have always faced this unique conundrum - Sea freight or Air freight; which is the better option for my shipment?

On the one hand, you have air freight, which is known for its quick delivery. On the other, you have sea freight, known for its cost-efficient services and the ability to handle large cargo volumes.

Both channels have their own positives and negatives, and choosing between the two has never been easy till now.

But this guide is going to help you find the answer to this million-dollar question. We are going to compare both these channels on seven different parameters and help you make an informed decision.

Let’s roll.

Sea Freight vs Air Freight: Which is cheaper?

In most circumstances, sea freight has always been the cheaper option among the two. In fact, one study suggests that air freight is priced 12-16 times higher than sea freight. A $100 sea shipment will at least cost $1200 by air.

But there is a catch. This difference is substantial only when the weight of your cargo is high. For sea freight, when a package is small and less than a full container’s load, its cost is calculated in cubic meters. A lot of times, this can actually cost a lot more than air freight for the same package.

Advanced rate management platform such as Freightify allows you to compare sea and air freight rates among 30+ LCL and FCL carriers and 90+ airlines, providing real-time freight rate data for more informed and quicker decision-making.

Winner: Sea freight, unless the package volume is small

Sea Freight vs Air Freight: Which is faster?

Air freight is a clear winner in this department. It can deliver your goods in a matter of a few days or weeks, while sea freight will often require 4-6 weeks.  Although many ‘express sea freight’ options have been introduced in recent times, they are still no match to air freight.

There are three main advantages enjoyed by air freight over sea freight.

1. Air freight is a more direct option for your goods. In other words, your shipment will reach the last mile, irrespective of how remote the consignee location is. Sea freight, on the other hand, needs to be supported by additional transportation such as rail, trucks, or even air for the goods to reach the endpoint.

2. Unlike air freight, sea freight is subjected to many external factors that can affect its journey time. Port hold-ups, customs, and weather conditions are some of the common issues faced by sea freight.

3. Even if you miss the deadline for your air freight, there won’t be long delays, as there are multiple flights in a day. The same cannot be said about sea freight, which operates less frequently.

Take complete control of your shipment planning with Freightify, where you can access schedules from carriers and airlines, facilitating quicker decision-making.

Winner: Air freight

Sea Freight vs Air Freight: Which can handle more cargo volume?

                                                                                                    Source: Offshore Energy

Look at the above image. This is MSC Irina, the largest cargo ship in the world that can carry 24,346 twenty-foot equivalent units of cargo. In layman’s terms, the ship can carry 24,346 20-foot containers. Each standard 20-foot container has 1,172 cubic feet of volume. Now, do the math for 24,346 containers. Mind-boggling, right?

The capacity of air freight is just a fraction of this. The Boeing 747 is one of the largest aircraft in the world. When you configure this plane as a freighter, it can hold only about 26,000 cubic feet of cargo.

So, if you are transporting bulky or heavy items, it is better to pick sea freight. This rule is also applicable to large-scale shipments. However, if you have time constraints or are sending perishable goods, then air freight might be a better option.

Winner: Sea freight

Sea Freight vs Air Freight: Which is better for the environment?

The environmental impact of sea freight versus air freight typically revolves around factors like fuel consumption, emissions, and overall sustainability. In general, sea freight tends to have a lower carbon footprint per ton of cargo transported compared to air freight. This is because airplanes release more greenhouse gases during transport.

Here are some numbers proving this -

  • Flights, on average, emit 500 grams of carbon dioxide/metric tons of cargo per kilometer of transportation.
  • Ships, on the other hand, emit only between 10 to 40 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer.

Also, new regulations around the carbon emissions of ships will come into effect on January 2024. According to these regulations, both new and existing ships have to mandatorily reduce or buy equivalent carbon credits to offset their carbon emissions. This means ships’ carbon emissions are going to come down further, making them more eco-friendly than ever. .

So, if you are a business who is environment-conscious or looking to reduce their carbon footprints, you know where to go.

Winner: Sea freight

Sea Freight vs Air Freight: Which offers better cargo safety?

This is one of the few factors that doesn’t have a clear winner. Ultimately, it depends on the risk profile of your products and how well it is handled during loading and unloading processes.

One school of thought suggests that sea freight carries a higher risk of damage or theft because goods typically undergo multiple handlings before reaching the destination. In air freight, cargo is less likely to be mishandled and more closely monitored, thereby reducing the risk of damage. Airports have thorough security measures that guard against intruders and theft. So, for small-volume goods of higher value, air freight might actually be a better choice.

Another school of thought suggests that sea freight is not far behind when it comes to cargo safety. After all, goods are tightly packed into standardized containers before being loaded onto the ships. These containers offer a secure and sealed environment for the goods within. In other words, the risk of transportation damage caused by rough seas, adverse weather conditions, and handling procedures is considerably low in these containers. So, if you are sending large shipments and you are worried about their safety, sea freight might be a better option.  

Winner: Both wins

Sea Freight vs Air Freight: Which offers more restrictions?

Both sea freight and air freight come with their own set of restrictions. The extent of limitations can also vary depending on factors like cargo type, regulations, and destination. However, if you compare in terms of overall flexibility, sea freight seems to have an edge here.

Air freight tends to have a lot more restrictions when compared to sea freight. We are not talking only about the stringent security measures at airports or weight limitations set by air cargo carriers. Restrictions on certain types of hazardous materials are also pretty common in air transport. For instance, transportation of certain goods, such as dangerous chemicals, magnetic items, toxic and corrosive items, flammable liquids, etc., are generally prohibited or subjected to specific handling requirements in air freight.

Sea freight is generally more accommodating in terms of the types of cargo it can handle. However, it has its own share of challenges and restrictions, such as customs regulations, import/export restrictions, and port-specific rules, to name a few. But on the whole, the more stringent rules posed by air freight make sea freight a more versatile option for most people.

Winner: Sea freight

Sea Freight vs Air Freight: Summary of Differences

Wrap Up

As you have seen, the choice between sea freight and air freight ultimately boils down to a delicate balance of priorities. However, it doesn’t matter which channel you choose, navigating the complex landscape of global logistics is not easy. You need to stay constantly informed and make data-driven decisions. This is where Freightify, a cutting-edge freight tech platform, emerges as a game-changer. It offers real-time insights into sea freight and air freight rates and ensures that you are always one step ahead of your shipment, whether it is information about its cost, schedules or charges.

Let us help you with your journey
Book a discovery call with us see how we can help you provide a world-class digital quoting experience to your customers!
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