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Air Courier VS Air Cargo (And How to Save Money and Lose Money With Each)

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…

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: air freight (aka 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.

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).

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.

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 Air Freight
  • Expensive freight costs
  • 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
  • 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

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. 

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

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18 Comments

  • Reply
    Oni
    November 2, 2015 at 9:42 pm

    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?

    • Reply
      David Bryant
      November 3, 2015 at 6:11 pm

      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.

    • Reply
      Dave
      September 27, 2017 at 11:50 am

      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!

  • Reply
    Harry
    August 30, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    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

    • Reply
      David Bryant
      September 2, 2016 at 10:05 pm

      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.

  • Reply
    Amerijet
    November 11, 2016 at 3:20 am

    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.

  • Reply
    Lawoos
    February 17, 2017 at 10:40 am

    Please why is freight cost on Air passenger cheaper than Air cargo

    • Reply
      David Bryant
      February 18, 2017 at 5:55 am

      I’m not sure what air passenger is in terms of freight?

  • Reply
    Harrison
    March 6, 2017 at 10:25 pm

    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.

    • Reply
      David Bryant
      March 7, 2017 at 11:46 pm

      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.

  • Reply
    ANTON
    March 30, 2017 at 10:59 am

    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?

    • Reply
      David Bryant
      March 31, 2017 at 4:32 am

      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.

      • Reply
        ANTON
        April 3, 2017 at 11:22 am

        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?

        • Reply
          David Bryant
          April 4, 2017 at 4:29 pm

          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.

  • Reply
    Najma Qureshi
    June 22, 2017 at 7:59 am

    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.

    • Reply
      David Bryant
      June 27, 2017 at 9:33 pm

      Thanks for the tip!

  • Reply
    Alexandra
    August 25, 2017 at 1:01 pm

    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

    • Reply
      Dave Bryant
      August 25, 2017 at 1:46 pm

      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 :)

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