When you’re deciding on your business’s freight mix, it’s important to get it right. If your shipments don’t move fast enough, you could end up with empty shelves and unhappy customers. However, if you pay more to move your shipments quickly, your freight costs can quickly take a bite out of your margins. Additionally, some items are simply better suited for particular freight modes, so you’ll need to plan accordingly.

If you’re deciding between air freight and ocean freight, we’ll show you how to strike the right balance between these two modes. First, we’ll walk you through the major question around these modes: how to balance speed and cost. Then, we’ll discuss which items are better for air freight vs. ocean freight so you can decide on your freight mix confidently—and budget for it appropriately.

We’ll start with a quick overview of how these modes stack up. Then, we’ll break it down for you.

Ocean vs. Air Freight at a Glance

chart of ocean vs air freight

Cost: The Balance Between Price and Speed

In short: Air freight is generally faster than ocean freight—and more expensive. Ocean freight is slower, but it’s often the cheaper option.

As you’re deciding between ocean freight and air freight, one of your major considerations will be deciding between speed and cost. The faster a shipment moves, the more expensive it will usually be. Air freight arrives faster than ocean freight. It’s also more expensive. In other words, when you choose air freight, you’re paying for speed.

However, there are still plenty of reasons you might choose ocean freight. If your margins are tight, air freight might not be a viable option. Additionally, if your cargo is large or heavy, air freight might be prohibitively expensive. Let’s take a look at how each mode is priced to give you a better sense of what to expect.

Speed: How Fast Do You Need to Get Your Freight to Arrive?

In short: Air freight is generally faster than ocean freight, for a couple of reasons.

First and foremost, airplanes are simply faster than boats. It takes a plane from California 5-6 hours to reach Honolulu. It can take a steamship 5-7 days. That’s a pretty sizeable difference. However, transit time isn’t the only factor impacting the transit time of your freight shipments.

Now that we’ve talked about the trade-offs between speed and cost, let’s talk about which shipments are right for which types of freight.

Size: What Cargo Is Right for Ocean Freight vs. Air Freight?

In short: Large or oversized shipments are better for ocean freight.

Some freight concepts boil down to simple common sense. Oversized cargo is one of them. If you’ve ever seen a container ship up close, you’ve got an appreciation for its massive size. Now compare that to a large airplane, like an Airbus 380 or a Boeing 747.

Sure, those planes are large, but there’s no comparison in terms of cargo space. It’s like comparing a hot dog to a six-foot submarine sandwich!

As a result, it might not surprise you to discover that ocean freight is simply better suited for oversize cargo—and cheaper, too. To hammer this point home, let’s take a quick look at the cargo containers for both modes of transportation.

For air freight, these are called ULDs, unit load devices. If your shipment doesn’t fit in a ULD, it’s considered oversized cargo, which is both more costly and more difficult to ship.

For ocean freight, steamship lines use standard 20′ or 40′ containers. For large or oversized cargo, flat rack, platform, and open top containers are available. However, since they’re not stackable like standard 20′ and 40′ containers, items shipped in these containers are priced differently.

Now, to give you a sense of the space available for ocean freight vs. air freight, let’s compare a 40′ container to a ULD:

  • A 40′ container offers a shipper 2,350 cubic ft. of loading space.
  • An LD-9 ULD offers a shipper 381 cubic ft. of loading space.

In other words, a standard 40′ ocean freight container offers you six times more space than one of the larger air cargo ULDs. The obvious conclusion? If you have a sizeable or oversized shipment, ocean freight will be your best choice.

Weight: Which Is Best for Heavy Shipments?

In short: Heavy shipments are better for ocean freight.

As we mentioned earlier, air freight is charged by either the actual weight of your shipment or the dim weight, whichever is greater. As a result, if you’ve got a really heavy shipment, air freight can get expensive—fast. That same cargo shipped via ocean freight will usually be significantly cheaper.

In other words, when it comes to heavy shipments, ocean freight is almost always going to be your more cost-effective choice.

Handling: Air Freight or Ocean for High-Value Goods?

In short: Air freight means less handling for high-end goods.

If you’re shipping something like luxury handbags, it’s essential that your items arrive in perfect condition. Air freight subjects your items to a minimal amount of handling, due in large part to the fact that air freight shipments are simply touched by fewer parties.

In contrast, ocean freight containers get loaded on and off chassis for over-the-road drayage, then they’re loaded on and off the vessel by crane, placed back on a chassis and moved to the next destination, etc. And that’s not to mention the days that ocean freight cargo spends at sea, subject to wind, waves, and the rocking of the boat. If your ocean freight cargo isn’t packed properly, it can arrive with some bumps and bruises.

At the end of the day, when it comes to items that are expensive or delicate, air freight is the right choice for minimal handling.

Hazardous Materials: What Can Ship via Air or Ocean?

In short: Ocean freight is available for more classes of hazardous material than air freight.

Ocean freight is available for more classes of hazardous material than air freight. Finally, you might not have much of a choice as to whether your items ship via ocean freight or air freight.

Airline regulations are more restrictive. Certain items can’t ship via air freight, no matter what. For example, flammable materials like paint and large volumes of perfume are a no-go for air freight. Lithium batteries can ship via air, but not on planes that also carry passengers, limiting available routes.

When it comes to ocean freight, many carriers are willing to transport hazardous materials with restrictions. Materials must be disclosed, properly stored, and carefully labeled so the steamship line can manage them appropriately during the journey.

Whether you’re shipping via air or ocean freight, the key is disclosure. Let your carrier or forwarder know up front exactly what you’re transporting. That way, the proper precautions can be taken to avoid problems—or large fines.

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