Shipping by sea or air – which one’s best for you?

If you have a lot of international shipping to do, understanding the difference between sea and air is helpful.

There’s so much information on both shipping methods that it can be overwhelming just trying to plan.

According to Jim Brown, senior Transportation & Logistics consultant, making the right decision between ocean and air can dramatically impact your total landed cost.

“Let’s look at fashion, something that quickly goes out of style. If you ship trendy winter jackets by ocean, a slower method, and they arrive in the spring, it’s too late for the consumer, explains Brown.

“Substantial revenue can be lost if you choose the wrong shipping method, driving up the total landed cost.”

This article compares air and sea to help you determine with method is best for keeping your landed cost down.


Specifically, this article will look at:

  1. Total Cost
  2. Reliability
  3. Speed: fast or slow
  4. Accessibility
  5. Sustainability

Here an overview of each of these five factors:

1. Total cost

When calculating your total cost when shipping by sea or air, you’ll want to know how each of these shipping methods charge differently for international shipping.

Airlines bills you by what is called a chargeable weight. Chargeable weight is calculated from a combination of the weight and size of a shipment.

Ocean carriers charge per container rates for shipping. With ocean carriers, charges are more often based on the size of the shipment. When shipping with what is known as less LCL (or less than container mode), cost is calculated by cubic metre.

Here are a few pointers on these shipping methods:

  • Shipping by ocean is much better for larger and heavier shipments.
  • As your shipment gets smaller, the margin between air and ocean decreases until it becomes cheaper to use air.
  • Exactly when air becomes cheaper than sean depends of the destination and the type of goods you are shipping.
  • You will also need to calculate destination charges and custom fees for both methods.

While the actual shipment cost of ocean cargo is usually cheaper than air cargo, the warehousing fees at seaports typically are more expensive than those at airports.

This is why it is good to quote both methods.

Your best choice:

1) Sea is substantially cheaper for big and bulky

2) Air for smaller or time-sensitive shipments


   2. Speed: fast or slow?

Air shipping is faster than ocean freight shipping, but you will pay a price for the speed.  So you need to determine how quickly you want your shipment to reach the destination.

In situations where time is of high value, the cost may be lowered by using air to save time.

Many ocean shipments can have transport periods of a month or more.

In contrast, an air shipment over a similar distance is unlikely to take much over a few days.

You should note that ships are getting faster with the rise in technology including modern canals and organized and efficient shipping routes.

Your best choice for speed:



   3. Reliability

Reliability is important in cargo shipping in and out of Canada, but not always guaranteed.

Though shipping by air has been around for a much shorter time than shipping by ocean, it is much more reliable.

This is because plane schedules are developed daily while ocean liners tend to have weekly schedules.

Ocean carriers are notorious for being bad about scheduling. It is not uncommon for ships to be off schedule.

For many, a day or two here or there doesn’t hurt. On the other hand, for others, a day or two could have serious consequences.

Missing the cut-off at a seaport can mean long delays such as a week or more. When time is a factor, air freight can often be the better option for shippers.

Your best choice for reliability:




4. Accessibility

Another important aspect to be considered when planning your relocation is the accessibility of your inland or ocean departure port and destination port.

Air freight shipments are delivered to the nearest international airport which tends to be more inland and easily reachable.

Shipping by ocean means getting your cargo to a loading warehouse close to the port of origin.

Your best choice for accessibility:

There is no clear choice for accessibility


5. Sustainability

Ocean liners are responsible for a much lower level of CO2 emissions than aircraft.

When you calculate fuel per kilo, it is much less with ocean liners versus aircraft.

This means that air shipping has a much higher carbon footprint than sea freight.

That being said, you likely heard how ocean liners run into problems with oil spills that result in severely disrupting the water ecosystems.

Social awareness of environmental issues often changes the way the public view a company impacting the bottom line.

While shipping by air has a much larger carbon fingerprint than shipping by ocean, the potential for oil spills needs to be considered.

Your best choice: 

There is no clear choice for sustainability



There are a lot of lot of different factors to consider when choosing how to send your next freight shipment.

If you have other views on shipping via air and ocean, we’d welcome your comments.