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Air Courier and Air Cargo: Which One Should You Use?

All air is not created equally, at least when it comes to shipping.

We’re all familiar with the difference between shipping something via air vs ground. In ecommerce, you never ship something air unless you’ve royally screwed up a customer’s order and need to get it to them quick! In other words, it’s EXPENSIVE!

In international shipping there’s a further distinction to be made within air shipping: air courier vs air freight.

 

Air Courier is the shipping method most of us are familiar with. Air Courier includes your popular services like UPS, FedEx, DHL, etc. These companies provide door-to-door service. When you ask your supplier to send you something via UPS, a few days later it shows up to your door, and normally with an invoice asking for some payment of brokerage and duties, unless of course you’ve asked your supplier to declare that $2000 PO as ‘no commercial value’ which is a whole different post…

ups-fedex
We’re all familiar with services like UPS and FedEx.

As I mentioned in the opening, we all know air courier is expensive, especially when shipping from China. However, there exists another method of shipping via air which is literally a fraction of the cost of air courier called air freight (air freight is also referred to as air cargo).

How Much Cheaper is Air Freight?

So how much less expensive is air freight compared to air courier? Well, let me give you a real example. I need to have several boxes of products shipped from Shenzhen to Vancouver in a few weeks. The boxes measure as follows:

Box Size
Weight
Qty
34 x 34 x 40cm
6.5kgs
20

Here’s a quote I received from Freighteo:

The lowest price for 20 boxes weighing 34x34x40cm and 6.5kg each: 5
The lowest price for 20 boxes weighing 34x34x40cm and 6.5kg each: $925

 

Now check out the quote I received from Freight Forwarder:

Kindly find the below air rate from SZX to YVR base on general cargo:
+100KG
By CI   usd4.95/kg   SZX-TPE-YVR  D12457
By BR  usd5.03/kg   SZX-TPE-YVR  D13457 
By CA  usd3.41/kg  SZX-PEK-YVR  Daily

 

The freight forwarder gave me three options (those are all flight numbers) and the lowest price is $3.41/kg. If you do the math, 20 boxes weighing 6.5kgs each works out to 130 kgs. At $3.41/kg the grand total price is $443! Less than half the price of the quote I got via air courier with UPS.

Related Listening: E165: Shipping from China Made Easy with Freightos

Using Import Records to Find and Vet Suppliers and Snoop Competitors

One of the best things an importer can do is to use import records to help them find products to import and vet suppliers.

Jungle Scout allows you to see the real export history of nearly any Chinese Supplier.

As mentioned, in America, import and export records are public information, however, the government does not catalog or give easy access to this information. However, there are tools that do allow you to easily search this information, the most popular and cheapest being Jungle Scout (others include Import Genius and Panjiva).

These tools allow you to:

  • Find out what Chinese supplier a competitor is using (great for finding products)
  • See how much a supplier exports
  • Find out what suppliers export specific products

See our article A Secret Weapon for Doing Supplier Research

How Exactly Does Air Freight Work?

Remember how I said the quote the freight forwarder gave me also included flight numbers (i.e. SZX-PEK-YVR D12457)? That’s because my products would be going on a regular passenger flight to Vancouver, not some exclusive UPS or FedEx Cargo plane, just a regular old Boeing 747 operated by Air Canada or Air China or some other passenger airline.

You see, here’s a little secret I wasn’t aware of before I had the chance to sit beside the Regional Cargo Sales Manager for Air Canada during an event: passenger airlines don’t just use their cargo areas for luggage; they use it for commercial shipping as well! My 20 boxes of products would be sitting beside someone’s Swiss Gear suitcase on a flight from Shenzhen to Vancouver. In fact, there are other companies who will actually pay you to take commercial products on international flights (in effect, you’d be a courier), but that again is a whole other post (and business).

air-cargo
Passenger airlines use their cargo area for commercial shipping too.

These Passenger Airlines generally only work with freight forwarders (i.e. you can’t buy cargo space on them direct) but even going through a freight forwarder, the rates are very affordable, as you can see.

But Of Course, There’s a Catch to Air Freight

This is amazing you’re thinking. Air shipping for a fraction the cost of what you’re used to! But there’s a catch. That quote I gave you above from my freight forwarder was not the complete quote. Here’s the complete quote:

Kindly find the below air rate from SZX to YVR base on general cargo:
+100KG
By CI   usd4.95/kg   SZX-TPE-YVR  D12457
By BR  usd5.03/kg   SZX-TPE-YVR  D13457 
By CA  usd3.41/kg  SZX-PEK-YVR  Daily
Vancouver Local charge :
Handling: CAD85.00/shipment
Terminal: CAD70.00/shipment
Navcan: CAD0.10/kg (min CAD45.00/shipment)
Airport Transfer: CAD0.10/kg (min CAD45.00/shipment)

 

There will be nearly $200 in additional fees assessed by the Airports et al (and I have no idea what Navcan is, but it’s $45).

But wait, there’s more! With Air Freight, you are strictly paying for airport to airport service. I will either have to pick up my goods at the airport, or pay additional money (about $150) to have a truck move them to my house. Moreover, this rate does not include customs brokerage. I have to have my customs broker do the brokerage for this shipment, which will be about another $150. Ultimately there’s around $500 in additional fees on top of the ‘freight’ portion of the shipment.

Related Reading: How to Get Your Shipments from China to Amazon FBA

When to Ship Air Courier and When to Ship Air Freight

Before we look at when to ship Air Courier and when to ship Air Freight, let’s take a quick look at the differences:

air-cargo-vs-air-courier2

Air Courier

  • Is door-to-door service
  • No additional “haulage” fees to get the item to your door
  • Can use the courier’s inexpensive customs broker normally
  • Few surprise fees
  • Expensive freight costs

Air Freight/Air Cargo

  • Inexpensive freight costs (often less than 50%+ of Air Courier)
  • Is airport to airport service
  • Additional “haulage” fees to get your products from the airport to your door
  • You need a separate customs broker
  • Lots of Surprise Fees

There’s lots of pros to Air Courier except for one thing – cost and cost is often the most important thing!

So when do you ship with each method? Well, as we saw in my example, things were nearly dead even. Assuming $500 in additional fees with Air Freight on top of the $443 freight costs, my landed cost is around $943. I was quoted $925 with UPS. My experience with Air Freight is things often seem to end up 10% higher than I anticipate (and am quoted) so I wouldn’t be surprised if that $943 quote works out close to $1100 when all is said and done. So for a 130 kg package, Air Courier is likely the cheaper and easier option.

In my experience, Air Freight tends to become a better option than Air Courier for packages 200kg and above. 

Some people suggest that number is closer to 300 kg and often they’re right. But regardless, it’s somewhere in that 200-300 kg mark. Of course, when you start to get that size and volume, sea freight often becomes MUCH cheaper, but also MUCH MUCH slower.

Conclusion

A lot of people don’t even realize Air Freight exists. And the truth of it is, the vast majority of my air shipments are still done via Air Courier and via the usual suspects like UPS and DHL. However, Air Freight has absolutely saved me at times. There was once a time we needed the equivalent of a small room full of products shipped to us from China within a couple of weeks for an upcoming trade show. Sea Freight wasn’t an option due to the speed requirements, and all of the Air Couriers were charging thousands of dollars. We walked away paying less than $2000 via Air Freight.

Do you have any experience using Air Freight? Do your experiences support my advice above that anything over 200 kgs is normally cheaper via Air Freight? Or, do you have any other questions or comments? Please share below.

Dave Bryant

Dave Bryant has been importing from China for over 10 years and has started numerous product brands. He sold his multi-million dollar ecommerce business in 2016 and create another 7-figure business within 18 months. He's also a former Amazon warehouse employee of one week.

48 Comments

  1. Kindly advice me the best freight forwarder that you are personalty use good and cheap. Its Cargo From China is a good option for freight forwarder and custom brokerage?

    Its shipping with DDP term is better than CIF term?

    so its the only information that i need when asking for freight quotation is only your dimension and weight of the products package?

    1. Hi Oni,

      The freight forwarder I use specializes in the Vancouver market so it won’t be of a lot of use for you. You can always ask your Supplier to arrange.

      DDP is cheaper than CIF, as it includes all duties.

      Yes, your freight forwarder will only need the weight, dimensions and address of your Supplier.

    2. I used Cargo From China for air freight and had a terrible experience. Denzel gave a low price quote, but didn’t specify transit time. After the goods were picked up from the factory, he told me 3 days later that it would be another 12 days. I questioned the transit time, and he told me to use someone else. Then, after my goods were taken over by another company, he delayed paying the refund he had agreed to earlier. I had to file a dispute through PayPal and then elevate to a claim to get my money back. Denzel even tried to convince me to cancel my claim before he refunded the money. Upon talking to PayPal, I learned that would have ended my ability to recover my funds. Trust this company at your own risk!

  2. Hello David,
    Thank you for the article. I also enjoyed reading your book from Amazon. Soon I will be air shipping my first 30-40 kg order from China. Hence as you advised, I will be using a courier. Though what is the best way to arrange this?
    Do I simply tell my supplier to send/drop my order to a courier’s depot, and then I pay for any required fees upon delivery?
    Or I have to contact a freight forwarder?
    Finally what is “Freighteo”? Is it a booking service?
    Thank you

    1. Hi Harry – I’d probably just ask my Supplier to arrange. You can use your own freight forwarder if you’d like. Freighteo basically helps you get bulk shipping discounts with UPS et al.

  3. If your business needs to charter an aircraft for air cargo shipping, there are several things you should first consider: Consider the size of your shipment, type of goods you’re shipping and flight schedule.

  4. Rates on http://www.freighteo.com are significantly cheaper than if you search for the same on websites of the actual courier companies (UPS, FedEx, DHL, etc.). Is this because courier brokers (freighteo.com) receive heavy discounts for volume? Also, does that mean that all other courier brokers should have their rates be close to what freigheo.com gives? Thanks.

    1. There’s a lot of brokerage services (unishippers is another really popular one for domestic) that simply pass on their negotiated rates like Freighteo is doing. There’s a pretty big variance between rates of brokers depending on their rates and how much of a cut they’re taking.

  5. Hello David,
    Is there any custom`s broker fees if i send my good from China to US via UPS. Does it include all the tax, like 925$, or there some additional fees can come out?

    1. There will be duties, brokerage, and tax (if applicable). UPS will bill you for this though which is the benefit – you don’t need to use another party, i.e. a customs broker.

      1. I cant confirm with chinese UPS if the price they give me for 1 kg is included all the duties, brokerage and taxes. Or it is impossible that they give me only price for shipment, not including duties and taxes?

        1. You can estimate the duties yourself using dutycalculator.com. The brokerage you can find through the UPS websie, but it’s probably around $50-100.

  6. Thank you for this article. Air freight is a good mode of transportation, the quickest and the most reliable but there some limitations of air freight. Because your items are being shipped via plane, there are going to be weight restrictions and limited space. You may only be able to ship certain items because of those limits, you need to plan accordingly.

  7. Hi David,
    this is my first time ordering from Alibaba. How do I manage the shipping? I want UPS air courier. Should I just tell this to my supplier, and will they arrange everything for me, so the package will just arrive to my doorstep one day, or should I contact UPS first? Thank you

    1. Hi,

      You can ask your Supplier to arrange shipping. Long term it’s not a bad idea to get a UPS/FedEx/DHL account as it gives you more control and you might get a better deal :)

  8. Yes, get a DHL account… it can save you 50% or more…. For example, DHL Air Courier gets you around $7 per kg when 70 kg to 300 kg… 0 to 70kg is like $25/kg so pricey!

  9. I used DHL global forwarding service from USA to Malaysia in July 2017. Freight rate was just USD 1.91/kg. Total cost approx. Usd 980 for 236KG shipment,door to door excl custom duty.

    1. That’s very good. The Malaysia to USA route could be abnormally cheap for some reason. China -> USA seems to somewhat be the victim of high demand and limited supply right now.

  10. dear,

    i am a freight coordinator here in Kuwait, currently we are working a lot of supplier from china and other parts of the world…most of your statements above are true…i would like to add also that season is also an important factor on air cargo, as if there is a holiday season coming especially in china which they have a lot of holiday season…freight rate will increase massively, as for air courier which you will have a fix rate any time of the year…
    so in my opinion especially those having big businesses, they need to multiple options to move their packages or shipments from one point to another…

    thank you…

    1. Excellent advice Marck – I unfortunately know all too well about the freight pricing surge during peak times.

  11. Thanks for a great post David. Really explains lot for newbie like me!!!

  12. I’m moving from Atlanta GA to Oakland CA and was wondering what would be tyhe best option to send my larger items?

  13. Hello Mr Bryant! Would you happen to know of any China air crafts that fly daily from China to America that offer under $3usd/kg? I am starting a new business and would love to work with you as well!

  14. Hey Dave,

    When I placed my first order few months ago it was around 200kg so I was considering to ship it via Air Courier but I ended up using my own freight forwarder and shipping it via Air Freight because I ran into some issues with my supplier when I asked them to ship it by Air Courier. Basically I wanted my products shipped directly to Amazon’s warehouse and they said how customs duty invoice would be sent back to them, since they are the sender and Amazon as the receiver wouldn’t pay for it. I have a smaller order that I would like to ship soon via Air Courier but I am not sure how to take care of these customs fees. How can I pay for it, instead of UPS or DHL charging my supplier? I looked into creating my own account with UPS but I am not sure if that’s necessary. What does the usual process look like?

    Thanks,
    Stefan

    1. There’s no way as far as I know aside from creating your own UPS/FedEx Account (which isn’t that hard though).

  15. Great Post!
    I have the supplier quoting me $4.13/pc FOB Qingdao to Toronto Pearson air freight, and courier would be $6.13/pc door-to-door. If I want to use my Fedex account number for any discounts I may have, what would I have to tell the supplier?
    Should I be telling them to use my account number for shipping? Would the supplier have to deliver the pieces to a Fedex warehouse in China?

    1. They should be able to arrange FedEx pickup. Your supplier should be familiar with the procedure for using a customer’s account- be sure your FedEx number can accommodate China shipments though.

  16. Hi Dave,

    Thanks a lot for this article. I own an IT company in Ghana and usually supply my clients with the hardware and accessories they need to use my software as well as other items we sell. A chunk of our profit goes into freight charges and sometimes makes our products slightly expensive than what is available locally. I am actually planning of turning this into e-commerce as it progresses. The challenge I have with my suppliers is they usually quote for higher weight than I see on the airwaybill. They usually have some funny explanations. I have placed orders from multiple suppliers and find using a freight forwarder very useful as all the goods will be consolidated as one shipment and the prices are also cheaper than what I usually get from my suppliers. I came across your post because I want to know whether to Ship via air freight or air courier. The freight forwarder has given me rates for UPS between 7.76/kg and 7.16/kg depending on the weight. Below is the pricing I received for door to airport for goods with battery as well.
    sz to ACC airport 100kg+ USD5/KG 300kg+ USD4.72 /KG 300kg+ USD4.5/KG by ET about 5—7 days
    I do the clearing by myself but haven’t done that of the airport clearing before. How different is that from the usual customs clearance for goods at the airport without a courier. I will appreciate any advice you can give me. Thank you

    1. Typically, customs clearance for airport or sea ports are the similar/same. No idea how it is in Ghana though :) If you’re doing the clearance yourself, then your basically save $3/KG. Keep in mind, it’ll probably take a few days longer too though.

  17. Sometimes this is true. However, FedEx has a spot rate program out of Asia and many times their door-to-door rate is much better than the freight forwarders. The FedEx experience is always better and the additional spend with FedEx contributes to my domestic earned discounts.

    1. Agree totally – fedex (and most of the couriers) can have some good rates if you negotiate.

  18. For air courier, how do I pay the duties and tariff fees? I’m paying for shipping through my supplier and they gave me a quote, but I’m not sure if that includes all the fees. What are the surprise fees?

      1. My supplier will include any duties and tariff fees in their quote if I choose air express shipping DDP, correct? Can I have my supplier ship air express DDU or DAP?

        1. Yes. It can be hard to get suppliers to ship even DDP as they’re used to FOB and EXW- never tried DDU or DAP with them.

  19. Hi dave. Im a reader from maldives and stumbled upon this article. My question is how to import fragrances from dubai or USA to my country as from what i read there are alot of restrictions as its considered a dangerous item. Even MYUS site i believe only ships 30ml fragrances. I do not know how to go ahead with starting a perfume selling business as such since I cant even bring a fragrance for personal use due to this issue. Your help is much appreciated.

  20. I spent the last few of hours looking for a similar post I came across a couple weeks ago, but your viewpoint, really hits it home for me personally. I shared this pages link in my Fb group and in Twitter, for others to read. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Nada! We’re glad to hear you liked this article and thanks for shared it!

    2. Thanks, Nada, for sharing the article with your audience! We’re glad that you like our post.

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