Export Shipments: Which transport method to use?

Along with many other export factors, the transport method you choose for your export shipments is very important.  When exporting goods, the physical shipment is after all, what most people would think of first and foremost.

So which transport method should you choose?  Transit times compared to cost will probably be your two main considerations.  The type of commodity, quality of the service and the reliability are also notable points to pay attention to though.

In terms of export shipments, the main transport methods are as follows.  Below, we also list some of the main pros and cons of each;

Air freight

  • Best for larger consignments that need to arrive quickly
  • Global reach
  • Highest standards of safety of any transport method
  • Runs to accurate timetables meaning least delays on the whole
  • The most expensive form of international shipping
  • More risk of capacity backlog problems to due limited cargo space compared to sea freight
  • Susceptible to adverse weather, particularly considering the expected speed of service
  • Highest environmental impact with the largest carbon footprint

Sea freight

  • It’s the cheapest method per kg of shipping goods beyond Europe
  • Bills of Lading allow you to retain the title over goods, giving more ownership control to the shipper
  • The longest serving global shipment method and therefore the most familiar to exporters/importers
  • Almost unlimited cargo sizes (within reason) can ship by sea
  • It’s the slowest method of transport with transit times potentially up to 8 weeks
  • Longer shipping times mean increased exposure to risk of loss or damage
  • Highest chance of longer delays if port arrivals are delayed or missed altogether
  • Most onerous in terms of documentation (although a freight forwarder or agent can often handle this on your behalf)

Road freight

  • A good balance of cost vs. transit time compared to Air and Sea freight
  • Door to door services are often available
  • Particularly cost effective for tall packages
  • Flexibility to adapt by changing routes means delays are more easily avoided
  • Distance limited – Road freight from the U.K serves only as far as Eastern Europe
  • U.K road freight exports still need to rely on either sea transport or the Channel crossing
  • Lowest level of overall security e.g. risk of theft
  • Different rules and regulations for each country and toll charges can vary


  • Best suited for smaller packages
  • Quickest door to door transit times
  • Delivery time definite options e.g. guaranteed next working day to many destinations
  • ‘All In One’ service – many of the export and import procedures are completed on your behalf
  • Can get very expensive for packages over certain chargeable (either gross or volumetric) weights
  • Generally not suitable for palletised freight
  • Some destination countries avoid couriers handling the import process
  • Letter of Credit compliant transport documents aren’t available

The above is a broad summary of the factors that exporters should contemplate when selecting a method of transport for their export shipments.

Whichever method of transportation you use, there are ways to reduce costs.  If you’re shipping Air freight, can you use a consolidated shipment?  If your using Sea freight, can you ship Less Than Container Load (LCL) i.e. ‘share’ container space?  Can you stack your packages to reduce the footprint if shipping by road?  Have you packed your goods in the smallest (but still export worthy!) packaging possible to reduce the volumetric weight?

Also consider if you have any specific requirements.  For example, are you shipping your goods under a Letter of Credit?  Will the carrier or agent be able to provide you with a compliant transport document?  It’s always best to agree on exactly what you need from a carrier before committing.  This is especially important if your payment depends on any documents issued by carriers or agents!

At Access to Export, we work with a tried and trusted network of carriers, partners and agents.  This allows us to offer high quality international shipping services at competitive rates.  We can make recommendations and arrange any international shipment you require.  Our goal is to ensure our clients goods are delivered in the most timely manner and at a competitive cost that doesn’t compromise on quality.  We can also support you with any export documentation, export compliance and licensing requirements.

If you need advice or practical support with your export shipment, get in contact with us.  We are always happy to provide free quotations or discuss your requirements for any international shipments.