Sea vs. Air: Your Quick Reference Guide to Shipping

Shipping by Boat or by PlaneSea vs. Air: Your Quick Reference Guide to Shipping

Here’s your quick guide to sea versus air shipping.  One of the most complicated and frustrating aspects of managing humanitarian aid is coordinating shipping, especially for LCL shipping or smaller loads (officially referred to as “less container loads” or LCLs). With tight timelines, production delays, budget limitations, and everything else that can interfere with getting aid to its final destination, the last thing you want to do is choose the wrong shipping method.

If you’re new to humanitarian aid (or even if you’re not) you may be surprised at how difficult selecting the right shipping method can be. The longer you work in humanitarian aid management, the more likely it becomes that you will experience the challenge of LCL shipping. And let’s also get clear on terminology.  Freight transport is the physical process of transporting commodities or merchandise goods. The term shipping originally referred to transport by sea but is extended to refer to transport by land or air.

 So, what’s a busy disaster aid supply manager to do when they have an LCL shipment? That depends! Read our quick guide to find out what your best options are and how you might just be able to save some money by using a few clever solutions.

The Benefits (and Drawbacks) of Shipping by Air

When you choose to ship by air, you’ll find that your supplies arrive at their destination quickly, and most of your paperwork is taken care of by the freight services company. But buyer beware, this fast & consolidated process comes at a price. A rather high one.

“Air shipping, while expedient, usually costs much more than shipping by sea.”

That’s not to say that air shipment isn’t worth the price. Sometimes it is. LCL air freight is almost like a premium service. Much of the minutiae can be dealt with through the carrier themselves, including daunting paperwork or anticipated expenses such as duties, and you can usually ship “door to door.”

If you decide to ship by air, you or your supplier may end up working directly with one of the big two; UPS or DHL. Both are well known and trusted, though there are many independent freight forwarders who may be able to assist you as well.

When to consider air freight for your LCL:

  • There’s no time to lose and you need your shipment to arrive asap
  • You need to know that your cargo will arrive on time
  • You need a streamlined process to handle the paperwork and other details
  • Your shipment is much less than a container load
  • The products you’re shipping aren’t heavy
  • You need supplies to arrive in days, not weeks (or months)

The Benefits (and Drawbacks) of Shipping by Sea

Unlike air shipments, sea freight is calculated by volume. That means that you can transport an extremely heavy load for a lower price than you would pay to ship by air. However, while moving LCLs by sea is much less expensive than by air, it’s also a lot slower.

Ocean liners usually operate on a weekly schedule, which means not only will your shipment be processed at a slower rate, but if there are any delays, they could be substantial (think: a week or more). If you aren’t working with a freight forwarder, you may have to handle and pay duties and customs fees once the shipment gets to port, and you’ll need to arrange pick-up and delivery to get your supplies to their final destination.

Also, if for any reason you can’t move the cargo fast enough, you might need to warehouse your supplies for a while. And seaport storage can be quite costly; so if you think that could be the case, you’ll want to more closely evaluate the total estimated cost of your shipment.

“Air freight could potentially be worth the premium price if it will eliminate or reduce high warehousing expenses.”


But don’t be discouraged, sea freight does have some advantages over air. In addition to being less expensive, it’s also much better for the environment and produces only a fraction of the CO2 that air freight generates (about 30x less!).

When to consider sea freight for your LCL shipment:

  • Your shipment is very heavy
  • The timeline for arrival isn’t as tight or as strict
  • Budget constraints overrule any urgency
  • A potential delay won’t have an adverse effect on your mission
  • You want to use the more environmentally friendly option
  • It’s ok if transportation takes a few weeks or longer

Don’t fret – you might be able to stretch your budget!

If your head is spinning at the thought of paying air freight fees or you can’t risk your shipment being late but also can’t afford the LCL air rates, listen up. There are other (albeit unconventional) ways to mitigate costs.

If you plan to have boots on the ground and you don’t have a huge amount of supplies to ship, you could pay for extra baggage and have your team deliver the supplies themselves. Or, if that doesn’t work for your situation, you can try reaching out to other NGOs to split the costs and consolidate container shipments. Last but not least, you can always contact a reputable freight forwarder to inquire about groupage freight (when they organize multiple smaller shipments into one container and divide the cost accordingly).

Visit our blog for more articles like this and to stay up to date on humanitarian issues, learn about new disaster relief supplies, industry events, and more. 



10 thoughts on “Sea vs. Air: Your Quick Reference Guide to Shipping

  • I like that you talked about how shipping by sea is cheaper because the freight is charged by volume, so you can ship more for less. I would think that lots of businesses are always looking for ways to save money shipping products. If I had a business, I might consider shipping by marine transport if I want to save money.

    • Yes – knowledge is power! It just depends if you have the time available to wait for it to go by sea. Sometimes it can take months, depending on the destination. But if time isn’t an issue, there are big cost savings available.

      • Agree. I use air freight only when the volume of cargo is small or I want to have it received in days. For most of my shipments, I use sea freight and share a container with other people. Sea freight will save you some money only when you are shipping large volume cargo.

  • Overall, Air Freight Forwarding is an ideal affair for the businesses to carry out their dealings efficaciously, because it saves their time to a great extent and allows the businesses to grow effectively around the sphere with ease.

  • Hi SSB Star ,
    this was a excellent informative post you write on this page about the shipment of products door to door easily with in a required period of a time in a cheap delivery charges ,if you want to received a product quickly with in a very cheap delivery charges then the best solution is you try Proprepandfulfillment product deviled service, which is help full for you to solve the problem of receiving product quickly through shipment with in a cheap delivery charges and also give you a product shipment tracking code for your information about the delivery status of your product ,My opinion is you try this great service comming in all over the word today.

  • Thanks for taking the time to share this article here about the sea and air shipping. Your article is very informative and nicely describes the difference between sea and air shipping services.

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