Sea freight and air freight are 2 common shipping methods in international transportation. They both have pros and cons. In today’s post, I’ll show you the details of their differences to help you make a good choice for cargo shipping.

Requirements of air shipment vs sea shipment

In international trade, sea shipping is widely used to ship cargo. Almost all product types could be transported by sea except for prohibited goods. Moreover, sea freight has no requirements for the volume and weight of the goods.

In contrast, it poses many restrictions on air freight. For example, your cargo can’t be delivered by air if there exists any type of dangerous goods, such as

  • explosives
  • gases
  • strong magnets
  • toxins and hazardous substances
  • flammable, radioactive, and corrosive items

The above are the most common restricted items. But DG cargo restricted by air freight could be transported by sea freight when with a MSDS sheet.

In addition, air freight also poses restrictions on the size and weight of cargo, because space on the plane is limited. Items that are extremely long or tall, such as some large furniture, can’t be shipped by air. For specific requirements, you can ask your freight forwarder.

Transit time of air freight vs sea freight

Undoubtedly, air shipping is much faster than sea shipping. Take Guangzhou to Los Angeles for example. In a normal situation, air shipping takes 5 days with a direct flight. Sea shipping needs 30 days to arrive at the New York port from the Guangzhou port. If in peak season, sea shipping time will become longer.

There are 2 main reasons. On the one hand, the speed of ships is much slower than that of airplanes. On the other hand, compared to sea freight, air freight is less restricted by natural geography. The routes are generally point-to-point straight, which is the shortest distance between two places.

Because air freight is faster, it is suitable for emergency goods such as masks, medical equipment during the epidemic, and some perishable items such as seafood.

Cost of air freight vs sea freight

Air freight cost is much more expensive than sea freight cost. Here we take 5 CBM (750kg) general cargo from Ningbo port to New York port for example.

Air freight fee

Air cargo fees are charged according to the larger one of actual weight and the DIM weight of goods. The actual weight is the weight of the goods and the packaging, which shows on the weighing machine. DIM weight is calculated based on the cargo volume. There are 2 types of calculating methods:

  • DIM weight = total shipment volume (CBM) * conversion ratio. In air freight, the ratio is 1CBM = 167 KG.
  • DIM weight = total shipment volume (cubic centimeter) / DIM factor. In air freight, the DIM factor is 6000.

In this case, DIM weight = 5CBM x 167kg = 835kg. Because DIM weight > the actual weight (750kg), the fees are charged by 835kg.

Here we suppose the air freight rate to be $6.5 per kg, the air freight cost = $6.5 x 835kg = $5427.5

Sea freight fee

There are 2 types of sea freight: LCL and FCL.

FCL shipping charges freight by container types and quantities. For example, a 20GP container is about $4100. If you have 2 containers of cargo, the freight is $8200 ($4100*2).

LCL shipping charges are calculated per CBM. Here LCL shipping is used in the case. Because the cargo volume is small and just needs to share container space with other cargo owners.

Suppose the sea freight rate is $75/CBM. For 5CBM goods, LCL sea freight cost = $75 x 5CBM = $375.

About the question of when to use FCL or LCL sea shipping, in real business, cargo between 1-13 CBM is usually shipped by LCL, and cargo over 17 CBM is shipped by FCL. If the cargo is between 13-17 CBM, remember to compare the two prices to choose a cheaper one.

Air freight vs sea freight, which is better?

Among all shipping methods, sea freight is the cheapest and the slowest. Air shipping is faster, safer, and more expensive, suitable for transporting high-value goods like jewelry.

Each shipping method has advantages and disadvantages. You should choose the most suitable method according to your current situation and budget. For example, if you are an Amazon FBA seller in the US,

  • For urgent replenishment, you can choose a flexible “Air Freight UPS Combined” shipping method. This is cheaper than Express. And it takes 11-15, not much longer than the express (3-5 working days).
  • Prepare goods normally and hope to receive the goods in about 20 days. You can choose a cost-effective “Sea Freight UPS Combined” shipping method. It is faster than traditional sea freight, saving you at least 10 days. Once your shipment arrives at the US port, it will be cleared at customs efficiently and transported by UPS to your address.

The carbon footprint of air shipping vs sea shipping

Nowadays, people pay much more attention to environmental protection, especially carbon emissions. According to an MIT study, air freight has the most significant carbon footprint. On average, for every ton of goods shipped per mile, a cargo plane produces 47 times more greenhouse gases than a cargo ship. If an airplane emits 500g of carbon dioxide per kilometer for one ton of cargo, a ship only needs to emit about 10g of carbon dioxide per kilometer. Moreover, aircraft release emissions directly into the atmosphere, which has a greater impact on the environment. Therefore, sea freight is more eco-friendly than air freight.

As a leading sourcing company, we have helped 4000+ clients source products and arrange shipping. We have long-time cooperative suppliers and forwarders, so we can offer you competitive prices and solve any problem occurring during shipping. In addition, we can help you with one-by-one quality control to ensure the product quality before shipping out of China if you need.

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