Shipping 101
4 Factors to Consider when Choosing Between Air Freight vs Sea Freight

4 Factors to Consider when Choosing Between Air Freight vs Sea Freight

Value of goods, product density, and sensitivity to shipment time and money spend will dictate whether air freight or ocean freight is the right shipping solution for your business.

7 mins read, 14 Feb 2020
Air Freight VS Sea Freight
Bookairfreight’s Key Takeaways:

• High density & low-value goods, or time is not an important factor - Ocean freight.

• Low density & high-value goods, or time can make or break a deal - Air freight.

• Both freight can encounter unexpected accidents, so always insure your goods.

What Is Air Freight and What Is Ocean Freight?

Check our Freight Dictionary 📖 - Air freight and Ocean freight for simple explanations and FAQs. 

So, is there a winner between Air VS. Ocean Freight?

Short Answer:

Nope. It depends on the volume of your shipment, distance and the flexibility you have.

Long Answer:

You need to consider all the different elements that come into play - cost, speed, volume, reliability and if you’re going the extra mile - environment friendliness.

Based on that, you should analyze the cost of getting the goods to your destination faster vs getting them there cheaper, and what that means for your business.

Read on to explore any of the elements that will help you holistically decide between Air or Ocean freight.

Which Is Cheaper?

It depends! Ocean freight is not always cheaper than air! If you’re shipping 20kgs, it is way cheaper to ship by air than by ocean.

You may be wondering how? It’s because of the volume and weight.

How Does Volume and Weight Matter?

Freight forwarders charge based on chargeable weight - which is volumetric weight VS gross weight, whichever is greater.

Here is an overview of costs across the different freight options from China to US:

  ✈️ Air Freight 🚢 Ocean Freight
Base Cost (ie: AWB Fees, Custom Bond) US$ 0 US$ 200 US$ 650 US$ 650
Shipping Cost US$ 7.5/KG US$ 5/KG US$ 1.5/KG US$ 2600/ per 20 ft container
Total Weight (Kg)        
30 KG US$ 350 US$ 695 Not advised
150 KG US$ 1,050 US$ 950 Not advised
500 KG US$ 3,500 US$ 2,700 Not advised
1500 KG US$ 10,500 US$ 7,700 US$ 3,250


Air and Ocean are only a rough port to port cost estimate from China to the US.

Express Courier rates are for Door to Door

For LCL shipments, the minimum weight is usually around 100 kg

So, the cheapest mode of transport depends on the shipment weight. 

For larger shipments weighing MORE than 150kg - choose Ocean freight.

For smaller shipments weighing LESS than 150kg - choose Air freight.

Be aware, air freight prices are very volatile- you can get good rates if booked in advance, but you’ll be paying 3-5x more if you book in the last minute.

Air vs Ocean Freight - Which Is Faster?

Air freight! Undoubtedly, air freight will always be faster than ocean freight. 

Air freight allows for faster transit times, and flies ‘remote’ destinations which are may not be possible by ocean freight directly. 

And if you miss the deadline for loading your freight on to the plane, it won’t cause a huge delay as there are multiple flights in a day.  This is an underrated advantage of air vs ocean freight.

Here is a quick overview of the different air freight options: 

Air Freight Options Transit Time (Door to Door)
Express Couriers (DHL, FedEx)
2-3 biz days
3-5 biz days
5-7 biz days
6-8 biz days
Traditional Air Freight
5-7 normal days
10-12 normal days
12-15 normal days

Note: Faster options utilize direct flights, and slower options are transit flights

Ocean freight takes longer because the timing is just port to port, so you will still need to factor in the 4-7 days it takes the goods to go from the port of import to your final destination.

Here is a quick overview of the different ocean freight options:

🚢 Ocean Freight Options Routes Transit Time (Door to Door)
Normal Boat All 30 - 35 normal days
Speed Boat Only available from: Shanghai or Ningbo Port (China) to Long Beach Port (US) 20 - 25 normal days

And one more thing! These ships are scheduled to operate on a weekly or monthly basis, so if you miss the deadline to load your cargo, your shipment will be delayed big time! 

So when speed is more important than cost, and you need the goods ASAP - choose air freight.  

Air Freight vs Ocean Freight - Which Is Reliable and Safe?

Air freight! There’s very minimal handling - once the goods are loaded to the aircraft, there’s no chance to open it until it reaches the destination.

  ✈️ Air Freight 🚢 Ocean Freight
Handling of Goods Minimal handling More handling

‍ (lot more loading, and unloading of goods involved comparatively)
Regulations Very strict rules
(ensures high safety)
Less strict rules
(less safety)
Risk from Weather Conditions • Cargo pilots are well trained,

• Can declare emergency landing if needed
• Cannot fully prevent containers falling into the ocean, rain water getting into containers

• Cannot immediately reach a port for safety reasons
Theft, or Loss of Goods Less loss of goods Piracy and robbery is still a major concern!

So, either way, make sure to get cargo insurance to protect your goods.

Which Is Environment Friendly?  

Many firms are constantly on the lookout for reducing their carbon footprint, which is great!

When it comes to air vs ocean freight, ocean freight is the clear winner!

It is more eco-friendly - produces way less carbon emissions compared to air freight.

If you ship 2 tonnes of freight for 5000 kilometers:

  Air Freight Ocean Freight
Carbon emissions 6,605 KG 150 KG

What type of freight can ship more volume?

Ocean freight is definitely capable of shipping larger volumes

  40-foot Container
(Largest Standard Container)
Largest Cargo Plane
(Antonov An-225 Mriya)
Cargo Planes
Maximum Capacity 25,000 tons 250 tons 40-150 tons

Because ships can carry greater volumes, economies of scale come into play. The larger your shipments are, the better off you’ll be if you ship through the Ocean.

What If You Want to Ship by Ocean, But Don’t Have Large Quantities?

Don't sweat it! You can still do LCL (Less than Container Load) shipments -  which is when your shipments get consolidated with other exporter’s smaller shipments into a single container.

When should you do an LCL or FCL (Full Container Load) shipment?

Cubic Meters (CBM) Should You Choose LCL vs FCL?
1-13 LCL
Get quotations for LCL and FCL -
compare and choose
13.1 - 15 CBM
15.1 CBM and greater FCL

Not sure how many CBM your shipment is? Find out on our platform.

Air vs Ocean Freight - Which is Better for Restricted Goods?

You can ship restricted goods by both Air and Ocean, but Air has very strict rules. 

Because aircrafts have pressurized space, and can only carry limited volume - certain products like electronics or battery products are a lot harder to ship by air. 

So, When Is the Best Time to Choose Air Freight? 

Choose air freight if you’re shipping the following: 

• Unitised Cargo - Things that can be put into pallets, or packed separately (not like sand, coal or other bulk cargo)

• High Cost & Low Weight - Jewellery, cosmetics 

• Perishable Goods - Fruits, vegetables, processed meat

Ocean freight is far more flexible - It does not have many restrictions on types of goods and is a little complex in terms of regulations. So really you can ship anything by sea - even a zebra if you wanted.

Compare Your Air and Ocean Freight Costs Instantly! 

Bookairfreight lets you compare air vs ocean freight quotes from multiple tier 1 forwarders on one website, saving you days spent waiting for quotes and at least 20% of the cost compared to traditional methods. 

how much cost for air freight and ocean freight?

Try it out at, or email us at with any questions!

Try our instant quotes for free
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Cristian Ungureanu

Logistics nerd and resident marketing guy of Bookairfreight. I love writing content that simplifies old-fashioned industry processes and provides solid, accurate information you can base your decisions on. Outside of logistics, I enjoy nature, hanging out with friends, electronic music and spirituality.

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