Sea Freight Explained: What Does Sea Freight Mean?

Between 1990 and 2021, sea freight, the volume of cargo transported by ships more than doubled, emphasizing the continuous growth of this vital sector.

With numerous options available, businesses often face the question: is sea freight the right choice for my needs? 

Sea Freight Explained_ What Does Sea Freight Mean

What is Sea Freight? 

Sea freight meaning, also known as ocean freight, is the transportation of goods across international waters using specialized vessels like cargo ships, container ships, and bulk carriers. 

It plays a critical role in the global trade industry, enabling businesses to import and export goods efficiently and cost-effectively. 

How Does Sea Freight Work? 

These terms (FOB, EXW, DDP) are essential as they define the division of responsibilities and costs between the buyer and seller in a sea cargo transaction. 

FOB (Free On Board)

Free on board indicates that the seller’s responsibility ends once the goods are loaded onto the ship at the origin port. 

The buyer takes on the responsibility for freight sea charges and any risks involved during transportation. 

EXW (Ex Works)

Under EXW, the seller’s only responsibility is to make the goods available at their location (e.g., factory or warehouse). 

The buyer handles all aspects of transportation, including sea freight logistics, customs clearance, and insurance.  

DDP (Delivered Duty Paid) 

Under DDP, the seller is responsible for delivering the goods to the buyer’s designated location, including all the sea freight charges, customs duties, and taxes. 

This is considered to be the most comprehensive option for buyers.

What You Can’t Ship with Sea Freight?

While sea shipment offers a versatile shipping solution, there are certain restrictions on what can be transported due to safety regulations or practically limitations. These include: 

  • Perishable goods with strict temperature control requirements. 
  • Hazardous materials like explosive, flammable liquids, or toxic chemicals. 
  • Live animals. 
  • Highly valuable items requiring special security measures. 

This deems it important to consult with sea freight services to ensure your cargo complies with regulations and is suitable for sea transportation.

Benefits and Disadvantages of Sea Freight

Like any form of transportation, sea cargo shipping comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. 

Benefits of Sea Freight

Sea freight, or shipping by sea, is generally considered to be the most cost-efficient option for transporting large volumes of goods over long distances compared to air freight. 

Modern cargo ships hold enormous capacity, allowing for bulk transportation of diverse goods. 

Sea freight has a lower carbon footprint, making it a more sustainable option. 

Disadvantages of Sea Freight

Sea freight takes significantly longer due to the vast distance involved.

Sea transportation is subject to weather conditions, which can potentially cause delays. 

Routing options are limited compared to other modes of transport, and changing destinations mid-journey is generally not possible. 

There are a lot of drawbacks to shipping over the sea, such as:

  1. Travel times are typically substantially greater than those of alternatives like air cargo. This can be a major issue when sending time-sensitive or perishable items.
  2. The cost of shipping goods by sea is typically higher than that of other methods. This is because traveling by ship is inefficient and expensive due to its slow pace and other factors like fuel prices.

Your items will be exposed to the elements (including saline water) and so run the risk of being damaged while in transit.

Different Types of Sea Freight Services

Sea freight cargo offers a diverse range of services catering to various cargo types and budget constraints. 

Full Container Load (FCL)

FCL involves using an entire standard shipping container (typically 20 to 40 feet) solely for your cargo. This option is ideal for businesses with large volumes of goods, ensuring complete control and faster loading/unloading times. 

Less Than Container Load (LCL)

LCL, also known as groupage, involves sharing a container with other shippers. This option is suitable for businesses with smaller cargo quantities, as they only pay for the space their goods occupy within the container. 

Break Bulk

Break bulk involves transporting individual pieces of non-containerized cargo typically heavy or oversized items that require special handling. This method is often used for project cargo, machinery, and vehicles. 


RoRo ships are designed with ramps that allow vehicles (cars, trucks, trailers) to drive on and off the vessel under their own power. 

RoRo is efficient for transporting large numbers of vehicles and eliminates the need for individual loading and unloading. 

Specialized Services

  • Reefer Containers: These temperature-controlled containers are essential for transporting perishable goods like food and pharmaceuticals. 
  • Tankers: Designed for carrying liquid cargo such as oil, chemicals, and liquefied natural gas. 
  • Bulk Carriers: Transport loose cargo like grain, coal, and ore in large compartments.

How to Choose the Best Sea Freight Forwarder

A reliable forwarder acts as your logistics partner, handling tasks like customs clearance, documentation, cargo insurance, and liaising with shipping lines. 

Choosing the right forwarder is crucial for ensuring a smooth and efficient sea freight shipping experience. 

There are key factors to consider when selecting the best sea freight forwarder for your needs: 

Experience and Expertise

Look for a forwarder with proven experience in handling similar cargo types and routes relevant to your business. A strong track record demonstrates their competency in navigating the complexities of specific trade lanes and regulations. 

Choose a forwarder with a dedicated team of professionals knowledgeable in international trade regulations, customs procedures, and documentation requirements. 

This ensures that they can handle your shipment efficiently and avoid potential delays or issues. 

Service Offerings

Evaluate the range of services offered by the forwarder. Do they cater to your specific requirements, such as cargo insurance, door-to-door delivery, or specialized handling for temperature-controlled goods?

Consider the sea freight forwarder technology infrastructure. Efficient online sea freight tracking systems, real-time shipment updates, and user-friendly quotation platforms can enhance communication and provide greater transparency throughout the shipping process. 

Reputation and Customer Reviews

Research the forwarder’s reputation by checking online reviews, industry awards, and testimonials from past clients. This can provide valuable insights into their service quality, reliability, and customer satisfaction levels. 

Get quotes from several forwarders and compare their pricing structures. While cost is a factor, avoid solely focusing on the cheapest option. This most reliable service might not always be the cheapest, and the value proposition should be assessed considering the quality of services offered. 

Communication and Accessibility

Make sure the forwarder offers clear and consistent communication channels. Look for responsive customer service staff with the expertise to answer your questions and address any concerns promptly. 

Evaluate the forwarder’s geographical reach and accessibility. Do they have offices or partner networks located in key shipping hubs relevant to your routes? This can facilitate smoother communication and provide local support throughout the journey. 

Sea Freight Transit Times

Sea freight transit times are influenced by several factors, making an exact estimate challenging. However, understanding the elements that impact shipping duration assists in managing expectations and planning effectively. 

Breakdown of the key factors:

1. Route and Distance

As expected, longer distances typically result in longer transit times. 

Major shipping lanes between Asia, Europe, and North America have the longest transit times, ranging from 20-45 days depending on the specific pots and trade patterns. 

Shorter routes within regional trade zones offer shorter transit times. 

2. Freight Forwarder and Carrier

Different freight forwarders and shipping lines have varying routes, networks, and vessel schedules. Freight meaning good transportation for payment or cost of transporting goods, impacts transit times, especially on smaller or less frequent routes. 

Carrier schedules can be found online and provide an estimate of their typical transit times. 

3. Number of Transshipment Ports

Transshipment refers to cargo being transferred to a different vessel at an intermediate port. Routes with multiple transshipments tend to take longer than direct shipping services. 

4. Customers and Port Congestion

Delays in customs clearance at both origin and destination ports can significantly delay transit times. Port congestion caused by high volumes of traffic or unforeseen disruptions can also introduce delays. 

5. Seasonality and Weather 

Peak shipping seasons often experience longer transit times due to increased demand and potential port congestion. Adverse weather conditions such as storms and ocean currents can disrupt schedules and lead to delays. 

Air Freight vs Sea Freight: Which One is Right for You

Choosing between air and sea freight is a crucial decision for businesses, with each mode offering distinct advantages and drawbacks. 

The best choice depends on a combination of factors: 

In terms of Speed, air freight delivers goods internationally within a few days compared to the weeks it can take with sea freight. This is ideal for urgent deliveries or time-sensitive shipments. 

Between air freight vs sea freight, air freight is best for high-value, perishable, or time-sensitive items. Additionally, air freight is suited for smaller or lighter cargo where the cost difference compared to sea freight becomes less significant. 

Shipping cargo by sea is ideal for large, non-perishable goods, as well as oversized or heavy items that are difficult to accommodate on an aircraft. 

A more environmentally friendly choice is sea freight. It’s a preferred option for businesses conscious of their environmental impact and committed to reducing their carbon emissions. 

Air freight offers greater dependability in terms of schedule and estimated arrival times due to faster transit times and less exposure to potential delays from weather disruptions. 

While generally reliable shipment through sea is subject to potential delays from weather conditions, port congestion, and longer transit times. 

LCL vs FCL Sea Freight

When planning your sea freight shipment, you’ll encounter two primary container options: Full Container Load (FCL) and Less than Container Load (LCL). 

Here are the clear distinctions: 

FeatureFCL (Full Container Load)LCL (Less than Container Load)
Container usageEntire container for your cargo onlyShared container with other shippers
Cost per unitMore expensive (per cubic meter)Less expensive (per cubic meter)
Transit timeFasterSlower
Flexibility and controlHighLow
SuitabilityLarge shipments, faster transit requiredSmaller shipments, cost-efficiency prioritized