One of the biggest decisions you will need to make when arranging international transport logistics, is whether you want to use sea freight, air freight or ship your goods via road or rail.

There are many different options available, each with its own pros and cons, which we will always explain to you when you book each individual shipment.

For this article, we want to examine the options between sea freight vs air freight. These choices are typically chosen if you are importing goods manufactured in the Far East, the Americas, or if you are exporting items to the other side of the world.

We’ll explain the differences between the two, and help you figure out what you need to consider before making your final decision.

Let’s get started!

What is sea freight and why is it popular?

Typically, most shipments coming in to the UK from the Americas or Far East are via sea freight. This is where cargo ships are loaded up and travel around the world, potentially stopping at different destinations along the way.

The advantages of sea freight

Sea cargo vessels are enormous – they often carry up to 18,000 containers.

They are ideal for big bulky or oversized items.

They are more environmentally friendly than air freight, making them an important choice if sustainability is important to your business.

Sea freight is flexible. You can choose between FCL (known as Full container load) or LCL (Less than container load). This means you only pay for the space you need to use, allowing you to make the most of your budget.

The disadvantages of sea freight

Sea freight is only suitable for long lead times. You can expect a 38-day turnaround for goods to China or a two-three-week turnaround for goods to and from the United States. If rapid timescales are a factor in your decisions, you may need to look at other options.

You can be subjected to unexpected delays. Issues relating to weather conditions can derail your shipments, as can piracy around certain routes. Back in 2021, shipping vessels were significantly delayed when a shipping container ran aground in the Suez Canal.

What about air freight?

Air freight is the fastest way to ship goods around the world. It is ideal for time-sensitive shipments or for goods that are high in value or perishable. Air freight is also a more secure option than sea freight, as there is less risk of theft or damage.

The advantages of air freight

It’s much faster, making it the preferred option for rapid dispatches or short lead times. The quicker timescale is because many goods may be flown via passenger flights as well as dedicated air cargo.

It’s ideal for perishable goods, with temperature-controlled cargo options available.

There are more intensive security screenings in place, which can aid the protection of your goods.

You can hire couriers to personally accompany small packages, ideal for small but high-value goods.

The disadvantages of air freight

Air travel is bad for the environment.

It’s the most expensive way to ship goods around the world.

It’s not suitable for large, bulky or oversize goods.

Paperwork can be extensive and complicated to manage.

The three questions you need to ask yourself when choosing between sea vs air freight

Now you what the options are, along with their pros and cons, it’s time to start thinking about how you make an informed decision.

For some shipments, your choice will be made for you. The size and weight of your goods, your budget, and even your timescales will largely determine what option is right for you.

But there are three primary questions that you should ask yourself, which will help you in your decision making. We’ve detailed them below, along with some further sub questions that may be worth discussing.

Where is your shipment coming from, and where is it going?

  • Are there any road or rail freight options available along that route?
  • What is your package size? Do you need a full container or would a part-load suffice?
  • Once your goods arrive at your chosen country, do you need to factor in freight forwarding to your final destination?

What are the customs regulations of the countries involved?

  • What paperwork do you need to think about as part of your shipments?
  • Do you need to consider language barriers?
  • Are you goods impacted by any specific trade regulations?

What are the available shipping options at your origin and destination?

  • How easy is it to get your goods from the origin to the port or airport?
  • Are there any other options available to you?

Our advice when choosing between air or sea freight

While we will always advise on each individual shipment, our general advice is as follows.

If you are on a tight budget and your shipment is not time-sensitive, then sea freight is the best option.

If you need your goods to arrive quickly or if they are high in value or perishable, then air freight is a better option for you.

Are there any alternatives if sea or air freight is not appropriate?

You might be questioning what you should do if neither sea nor air freight is appropriate.

While your choices will typically be fairly straight-forward, there may be circumstances where sea freight takes too long, or your shipment is too big for air freight.

Luckily, we do have alternative options available to us.

Here at Waller Transport Services, we’re always looking for alternative routes or different shipment solutions. We know every business has different priorities. If sustainability and environmental credentials are essential to your business, then you might be searching for something different.

We do have a rail freight solution that prioritises shipments from China to Europe. This route is not only better for your carbon footprint, but its quicker than sea freight and cheaper than air cargo.

Of course, it’s not suitable for every cargo, which is why we will offer our independent advice and guidance based on each individual shipment.

The great news is that by having multiple options available, we can easily bring in contingency plans to get your goods from A-B, when factors outside of our control could potentially derail your deliveries.

To find out what we recommend for your next shipment, please get in touch.