CAI Transportation Blog

Ocean freight vs. air freight: which is right for your cargo?


When you’re shipping goods around the world, you’ve got a lot of decisions to make. As a global supply chain professional, one of your primary decisions will be how to transport your goods from A to B—and C and D. Will you use a container vessel or an airplane to move your cargo internationally? This isn’t a decision to be made with haste, but with thorough consideration.

When making the decision between ocean and air freight, you’ll want to consider the following factors:

  • Timing
  • Budget
  • Destination
  • Cargo type
  • Sustainability
  • Accessibility

When choosing your mode for your global forwarding, it’s best to determine your needs for each of these factors listed above and rate them in order of importance. It’s also important to understand that money saved in one area could mean money spent in a different area or a higher chance of risk (that could cost you down the road). You want to factor out the details specific to your shipment needs to know what’s best for you.

Let’s break down the advantages and disadvantages of these main global forwarding methods to help you determine the best choice for your cargo.


If you’re under strict time constraints due to changes in demand, tight deadlines, or short shelf life, shipping speed will be a priority for you. Not only is air transport faster than shipping by sea, but it’s also known for its ability to maintain reliable schedules. In general, there’s less air traffic compared to sea traffic, meaning there’s less congestion at airports (and in the skies) compared to seaports. Air travel’s efficiency and reliability make for a better choice when time is your top concern.


In general, shipping by air will cost you more money. Airplanes have less capacity, higher fuel consumption, and overall higher operating costs than ships. Ships, on the other hand, have significantly more capacity than airplanes while operating at lower costs with less fuel. If budget is your number one concern, ocean freight will be your best bet. If airplane travel is your only option, there are still ways to save. Look for lower insurance premiums that recognize the security advantages of air travel.


This factor can lean on other factors like timing and budget, but it’s important to consider nonetheless. While airplanes can reduce the distance between two destinations, particularly over land, it’s most efficient to ship by sea when cargo is traveling great distances across open waters. When it comes to crossing oceans, airplanes are faster but carry significantly less cargo making ships the more efficient option. Unlike ships, however, airplanes are not constrained to port cities. With air freight, you can ship directly from city to city— if you have the budget to pay for it.

Cargo type

Cargo type can often be the deciding factor in the shipping mode of transport. Cargo with a short shelf life or high safety or security issues typically require shipping by air. Flowers, certain produce, and some pharmaceuticals cannot survive the conditions at sea. It’s important for these kinds of sensitive cargo to be transported in conditions that will not promote the growth of microbial pathogens or bacteria. Cargo traveling by sea is more affected by weather conditions than air travel. Conditions at sea are often hot and always humid, and not every type of cargo can handle it. However, the increased use of reefer containers allows for more cargo types to travel by sea than before. With rocky conditions at sea, a well-packed container can be all the difference in your cargo arriving in good condition.

In addition to weather conditions, ocean freight is also susceptible to safety issues like piracy, whereas airports employ more strict regulations. Generally speaking, it is more difficult to rob a plane than a boat.

If you have over-dimensional cargo, heavy machinery, or project loads, shipping by air is probably not an option. Airplanes are much more susceptible to weight and size limits than ships. Shipping by sea allows for a much wider range of load sizes and dimensions.  

If handling is a concern for your cargo type, there are arguments that can be made for both air and sea. When shipping by plane, there is generally minimal handling from starting point to destination. However, when using intermodal transport, your cargo could travel from barge to train to truck without having to change containers.   


Your cargo’s origin and its ability to access certain modes of transport could play a critical role in your shipping decision. In some cases, the lack of accessibility to a port could add additional expenses and time to shipping by sea.  


Despite capacity issues felt around the world, many companies are still committed to green supply chain operations in addition to saving money and scoring capacity. Shipping by sea offers more fuel efficiency than planes do, much like shipping by rail compared to highway.

Your specific transport needs may vary between orders— some shipments need to arrive on a strict time schedule while other shipments may need the most cost-efficient option or require over-dimensional project loads. Additionally, both air and sea can present volatile markets for shipping. Capacity, demand, and other factors may tip the scales toward one mode of transport over another at any given time. Working with an experienced 3PL will guide you through making the best decision for your needs, so you can be confident in whatever you choose. CAI Logistics represents customers worldwide through our global agency network, moving cargo all over the world. Our experience and industry knowledge help us successfully handle the complexities of international shipping and provide the best freight forwarding and NVOCC services to deliver your cargo. Contact us today to find the right services for your cargo needs.