Skip to main content

When transporting products across the globe, one of the key decisions you have to make is how you will get them to your destination. The two main options for doing this are air freight or sea freight.

The decision is ultimately your own, and if you choose the right company to work with each option should guarantee safe delivery. There are some key differences between each option, which may make one means of shipping more suitable for what you have in mind.

The choice will depend on your priorities. If you’re looking for the quickest service, air freight will nearly always be the best option. If you’re looking to keep a lid on costs, then air freight fees may make it impractical.

Another key factor to consider is the actual products you’re shipping. If your cargo is perishable or is required for sale within 2-3 weeks, then waiting for delivery via sea freight won’t be an option. The value of the cargo may also be a factor. With air freight being more expensive, it may cost more to transport the product than the price you will be selling the products for.

When these factors are in play your choice will usually be reasonably clear-cut. If, however, the choice looks less clear what other factors might influence your decision?

Differences in cost

There is a marked cost difference between air and sea freight, with the latter usually being between 4-6 times cheaper than air freight. If you’re looking to keep your costs down, then sea freight will usually be the most practical option.

When you’re determining the costs for a sea freight shipment, 1 cbm is equal to 1000kg, for air freight 6 cbm is equal to 1000kg. With sea freight, an increase in the weight of your cargo is unlikely to have much impact on the overall cost of shipping. However, when it comes to shipping heavy cargo via air freight, the costs can rise substantially. As a general rule, the heavier the cargo the bigger the cost difference will be between air and sea freight.

Time considerations

The speed with which delivery of goods is required will be a key factor in your decision. Air freight from China to the UK can sometimes be as quick as just 4 days, door to door. To make a comparable journey via sea freight would take weeks. If you or your clients have urgent stock requirements that you have to fulfil, then air freight will usually be the best option. If, on the other hand, you can wait for up to six or so weeks, then a cheaper sea freight option may be available.


The further your goods are travelling, the sharper the differences will be between modes of shipping in terms of time. If your goods are travelling within Europe, then the time differentials between air and sea freight will be less than if you’re moving goods between the UK and China or the US. Distance will also impact on costs.


The good news is that both sea and air freight are incredibly safe means of shipping goods. Sea freight ships around £8.5 billion worth of cargo across the world every day of the year, and 99.99% of all containers safely reach their destination. These impressive figures increase year on year as the industry looks for ways to reduce risk and become more efficient. The only potential issue is that belongings may move around in transit, which is why it’s important to ensure that your goods are packed professionally.

Air freight has similar statistics when it comes to the safe delivery of your items, with the chances of a commercial plane crashing being vanishingly small. If you’re making your choice based on safety alone, then there isn’t much to choose between the two forms of transport.

Duties and VAT

The UK Duty and VAT bill will be impacted by the mode of transport you use to ship your goods into the country. Duty is calculated as an allocated percentage of the cost of good plus the shipping costs. If your shipment costs £5000 and your freight bill is £500, you would pay a UK duty of 6.5% on £5500.

If you opted for air freight and as a result, your shipping costs rose to £1000 you would pay 6.5 duty on £6000. This can make a substantial difference on the overall duty that you pay. The same applies to the application of VAT. If your company is registered for VAT this amount can be reclaimed and may not be an issue. If you’re a small business and are not VAT registered, then you will be picking up the cost for the extra VAT.

Environmental Impact

Carbon footprint is of increasing importance to businesses and consumers alike and when it comes to environmental impact, sea freight wins hands down. While sea freight accounts for 3% of the planet’s total greenhouse gas emissions, a plane will create 44 times more CO2 than a ship.

While sea freight emits 15g of CO2 per tonne of cargo moved a km, air freight emits 545g per tonne moved a km. If you’re serious about the environmental credentials of your business then sea shipping will be your preferred option.

A freight forwarding company will help find the best shipping option for you

An experienced freight forwarding company can be a great source of advice and support when it comes to making decisions about how your goods will be shipped. At SSO Logistics, our freight forwarding service can be relied upon to simplify the whole process, finding the most cost and time-effective way of shipping your goods.

Call 01744 416 999 or email to find out more.

Leave a Reply