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For Shippers, FBA

Ocean freight or air freight - which one is the right option for me?

When it comes to international shipping, there are two main options: ocean freight or air freight. Air freight is basically moving cargo in airplanes from point A to point B. Ocean freight means moving the cargo in ships, either in a full container (Full Container Load: FCL), or sharing space with other shipments in order to fill a container together (Less than Container Load: LCL).  Small ocean shipments will always be an LCL load.

Transport Method Can Be A Commodity-Based Shipping Decision

Some commodities lend themselves only to air freight. High valued goods, like laptops and mobile phones, are usually shipped by air because the shorter transit time decreases the risk of damage or theft. Airport connections take just a few hours, boxes are moved quickly from one airplane to the other, and there are more security cameras to keep a close eye on goods. In contrast, ship connections take at least a day, the cargo often sits at a waiting area during container loading, and cargo and be moved around during re-loading and rearranging. It’s also not surprising that cargo on an ocean vessel can sometimes get wet.

Pricing Difference, Time Line Difference

Most shipping decisions will hinge on time and price. Companies will want to use a transport method that best fits their timeline and their budget. Air freight is more expensive – and can be up to 6 times as expensive as ocean freight. Keep in mind, however, that air freight is also much quicker. An air shipment from Hong Kong to Los Angeles takes around 5 days, while an ocean shipment takes at least 3 weeks.

There are other major differences between air and ocean shipping. Customs clearance and door delivery are two significant factors for a shipment’s time line.  Let’s review these differences:

For ocean shipping, customs clearance can take anywhere from a day to 4 days. It will vary depending on the port of arrival. If the ocean transport is an LCL load, it is possible that other shipments sharing your container will cause a delay. Perhaps the cargo’s owner did not have paperwork filled out correctly or on time.

After the clearance, there is a need of a few extra days for all the goods in one container to be placed in a Container Freight Station (CFS), for a future classification according to their destinations.  Finally, the items are classified and loaded on a truck to be sent to the consignee’s location. However, if the consignee’s location is not in a big city, the shipment still needs to go to another CFS for consolidation with other group of goods that is destined for the same area. All of this time adds up.
In contrast, an air shipment only takes a few days from start to finish. When the airplane arrives it is immediately unloaded. Customs clearance may start within the same day or the day after, and it takes no more than 2 days. After the clearance, the cargo is free and does not have to wait for anything else. Therefore the cargo is loaded on a truck to be delivered to its consignee. This is the difference you pay for when you book air shipments. That extra amount you spend is more than made up for in speed.

A very similar concept is when you buy a product on Amazon. When you choose standard shipping, you get the basic shipping rate. Yet, when you choose next day shipping you pay extra to get your product in a timely manner. Your decision will depend on your need for this product, just as your decision on ocean or air will depend on the urgency to move your cargo to its destination.

In Which Situation Should I Use Ocean Freight Or Air Freight?

Besides the above mentioned situations, you should also consider the following: Is there a holiday coming soon? Is it peak season for shipping? Is the shipment appealing enough for freight forwarders?

When holidays are around the corner, you’ll often realize that you cannot find enough shipping space in a boat. Therefore you will have to pay higher shipping costs and book via air if you want to make sure that the cargo arrives on time.

Peak seasons also imply that while containers are traveling the world through different ports, there are chances that some shipments “miss” getting on the ship during one week, and must wait an entire week to begin its journey. This is simply because shipping lines really decide which containers are priority on the ship and which have to wait. Some shipments inevitably get bumped, and there’s nothing you can do about it. This risk is also present with airlines, but because air freight is so fast you will lose a day instead of a week. For further tips on how freight forwarders look at your cargo based on its size, you can read our article “Why are freight forwarders not interested in small shipments?”.

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