Sea Freight or Air Freight – Which freight forwarding service should you choose?

Sea Freight or Air Freight – Which freight forwarding service should you choose?


5 minute read | By Denholm Good Logistics

Last updated: March 25, 2024 | Published: October 10, 2017


When it comes to international shipping, there are two main transportation options available to you – sea freight and air freight. Each has its own pros and cons, and your choice is likely to depend on what factors are the most important to you and your business. Read on to discover the five main factors to consider when shipping goods internationally, and which method comes out top in each.

1) Cost

Cost is obviously a big factor for every business, so – whether you’re importing or exporting – if the cost of shipping falls to you then this is a huge consideration.

Usually, you’ll find that shipping by sea is the cheaper of the two options by far – as a very general rule of thumb, you can expect it to cost between 4-6 times less than shipping by air. However, due to differences in how the cost is calculated, the size and weight of your shipment can affect this. There’s likely to be less of a margin between the cost of shipping a small, light package (and sometimes shipping by air can even be the cheaper option), while heavier, larger shipments will always cost much less to ship by sea freight.

You also have to consider the destination costs on top of the actual shipping costs. Warehousing fees at seaports can be significantly more expensive than those at airports.

A good freight forwarder can give you an inclusive quote for both methods of shipping, to ensure no nasty cost-related surprises.

Winner: Sea freight

2) Duty & VAT

The other import costs to consider are UK Duty and VAT (if payable), which are affected by the type of transportation you use for your goods. This bill is calculated as a percentage of the cost of both the goods and the shipping, so it follows that the cheapest method of transportation (usually sea freight) will also result in a lower Duty and VAT bill (on goods of equivalent value), lower costs overall and a better profit margin.

Winner: Sea Freight

3) Speed

It’s pretty evident that goods travelling by air are going to reach their destination much quicker than goods travelling by sea. An air freight shipment could take just a few days to get from China to the UK, while goods travelling by sea are likely to take around a month to arrive.

Your choice here will come down to how quickly you need your items. If you already have orders waiting and have promised your customers quick delivery, or need the goods as soon as possible to stock a shop or use within your business, then speedy receipt of your shipment is essential. However, if you’re smart with your stocking and give yourself plenty of lead time, sea freight is the cheaper, if slower, option.

Winner: Air Freight

4) Carbon Footprint

Environmental issues are a growing concern for all businesses, and some may even have environmental targets that they need to adhere to. If you want to minimise your carbon footprint when importing or exporting, shipping by sea is the far more environmentally friendly option. Sending goods by air freight produces approximately 36x the amount of CO2 (greenhouse gas) emissions as sending the equivalent by sea freight – a huge difference by anyone’s standards!

Winner: Sea freight

5) Reliability

A business is only ever as good as its suppliers and service providers – and misplaced or delayed shipments are going to cause problems. It’s far less common for a flight to be significantly delayed than it is an ocean freight carrier, as ships are not as good at keeping to schedule and typically run with less frequency.

Winner: Air freight

The key to choosing the best shipping method for you is to consider your highest priorities of the above five factors carefully. If your bottom line is your top concern then sea freight is likely to be the right choice. However, if speed and reliability are key, shipping goods by air could be worth the additional cost.

An experienced full-service freight forwarder like John Good Logistics can help you weigh up the pros and cons, history of air freight and sea freight, to ensure your choice of shipping method matches the priorities and needs of your business.

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