Understanding the difference between transloading and intermodal freight shipping can help you keep your cargo moving efficiently—and save you money.

Not sure what these logistics terms mean? We’ll walk you through the definitions of both, and explain which method to choose when—and why.

We’ll also throw in a quick discussion of another similar term, transshipping, so you can understand all of these logistics strategies and pick the right one for your freight.

What Does Transloading Mean in Shipping?

Transloading refers to moving cargo from one mode of transportation to another. More specifically, when cargo is transloaded, it’s unloaded from one transportation method (such as an ocean freight container) and reloaded into another (such as a truck trailer).

Transloading may involve:

  • Unpacking goods and palletizing them for their ongoing journey
  • Storing cargo until the next mode of transportation is ready
  • Services at either origin or destination—or both

To help you better understand transloading, let’s look at an example involving a business receiving goods from their supplier in Vietnam. The cargo travels in an ocean freight container from the factory in Vietnam through the Port of Ho Chi Minh City to a West Coast port and then to a nearby warehouse. At the warehouse, the goods are unloaded from the ocean freight container, and placed in the warehouse. A few days later, the goods are loaded into a truck trailer for transportation to the business’s nearest distribution center.

That’s an example of transloading.

What About Cross-Docking?

If you’ve looked into transloading, you may also have heard about cross-docking, which can be a smart way to reduce your storage use and keep your freight moving.

Cross-docking is similar to transloading, in that it’s a strategy that involves moving goods from one method of transportation to another.

Here’s the difference: In a cross-docking scenario, your cargo doesn’t get stored in a warehouse, and it doesn’t get repackaged. Instead:

  • The inbound cargo is removed from the container or trailer and placed right on another dock.
  • As soon as the outbound container or trailer is ready to receive the cargo, it’s loaded and sent to its next destination.

When you choose cross-docking, your goods spend as little time as possible sitting around. They’ll also stay in their original packaging. There’s no breaking down of cargo or reconfiguring of pallets. This maximizes efficiencies of both time (by keeping the cargo moving) and cost (by minimizing storage and handling/packaging costs).

Now that we’ve covered transloading, let’s look at another logistics strategy that shares some similarities.


What Is Intermodal Freight Shipping?

Cargo Containers Transportation On Freight Train By Railway. Intermodal Container On Train Car

As you probably know, inter- means between, so intermodal freight shipping means between modes.

Given that transloading also involves moving cargo between shipping modes, you might be wondering…

What’s the difference between intermodal and transloading?

In both intermodal shipping and transloading, cargo is transferred from one freight mode to another—from truck to rail, for example.

However, there’s a key difference:

  • When transloading, cargo is unloaded from its container or trailer and then reloaded into a new container or trailer.
  • In intermodal shipping, cargo is loaded into intermodal containers. These containers are simply transferred from mode to mode. They remain closed, and the cargo isn’t unloaded from the container until it reaches its final definition.
The Bottom Line: In intermodal shipping, cargo stays in the same container throughout its journey.

Domestic Intermodal vs. International Intermodal

Some of the confusion around intermodal freight transportation and transloading comes from the way domestic and international intermodal freight interacts in the U.S.

First, it’s important to understand that international intermodal containers are different than domestic intermodal containers:

  • International intermodal freight moves in the standard 20-foot and 40-foot containers you’ll see used for ocean freight.
  • U.S. domestic intermodal freight moves in 53-foot containers, which are most often transferred between truck and rail.

When goods arrive in an international intermodal container, they may be transloaded into a 53-foot domestic intermodal container for ease of movement around the U.S.

In other words, there is a reason that an intermodal container would be opened and the cargo removed (i.e. transloaded): if it’s coming from an international destination and being transferred to a standard domestic intermodal container. However, once that cargo is in the domestic intermodal container, it will stay inside until it reaches its final destination.

Why Choose Intermodal vs. Transloading When Moving Freight?

Now that we’ve explained the differences between these two shipping strategies, let’s take a closer look at when you might choose intermodal freight transport and when you might choose to transload.


Intermodal shipping can occasionally be subject to delays due to congestion or equipment shortages. Transloading can offer more flexibility for keeping your cargo moving.


Would you rather move five 40-foot containers or three 53-foot domestic containers? Depending on the size and shape of the cargo you’re moving, transloading the contents of 40-foot containers to 53-foot domestic containers could mean fewer trips, saving you money.

Potential Damage & Security

Although transloading providers are experts at what they do, the increased handling that comes along with transloading also comes with risks. These include potential damage during repackaging or cargo loss. Some shippers prefer intermodal solutions that mean a sealed container from origin to destination.

Additional Services

If you’re working with a transloading service provider, they can offer assistance when things go awry with your shipments. For example, if you’ve missed a delivery window, they can offer short-term storage. They might also be able to reload and restack any pallets that may have gotten damaged during the first leg of transit, which can prevent further damage and salvage final deliveries.

If you need some help making the decision for your business, reach out to our experts for a complimentary consultation. We’d be happy to talk it through with you.

Finally, let’s talk about one more related term: transshipping.

How Does Transshipping Work?

containers on cargo

Transshipping is a pretty simple concept. It means moving a container from one ship to another.

Think of transshipping like booking a plane ticket with a layover. If you’re flying between large hubs, like Los Angeles and New York, you can often get there in a single flight. The same is true for cargo traveling between major ports.

However, if you’re going from Los Angeles to Detroit, you may need to stop at an intermediate airport and connect to a second flight.

That’s essentially what happens in transshipping. Cargo travels to one port, where it’s removed from the first ship, then put on a second ship to its final destination port.

What Is the Difference Between Transloading and Transshipping?

The big difference between transloading and transshipping is that the cargo never leaves the container when it’s being transshipped. Additionally, transshipping takes place between two ships, whereas transloading usually involves different modes of transportation.

What Is the Difference Between Intermodal and Transshipping?

Intermodal shipping involves transferring cargo between more than one mode of transportation, such as ocean to truck or truck to rail. In a transshipping situation, the transfer happens between sea-going vessels.

Transloading vs. Intermodal vs. Transshipping: Know Your Logistics Strategies

Now that you’ve got a handle on the differences between transloading, intermodal freight shipping, and transshipping, the next step is to maximize your efficiencies by using the right strategies for the right situation.

One of our experts would be happy to help. We’ll sit down with you and take a holistic look at your cargo flow to identify areas where we can save you time and money. Reach out to schedule a complimentary consultation—and start leveraging the right logistics strategies for your business.

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