Air, road, rail or sea. Which is the best way to transport goods?

There are a many of ways to get your cargo to its destination. Products can travel over land by road or rail, cross vast oceans and seas on cargo ships and jet through the air on freight carrier planes. The question we’re often asked is; which mode of transportation is best for transporting my goods? 

Different types of shipping modes – which is best? 

Usually, a cargo journey is multimodal, combining different modes of transportation to reach a recipient. At the very start and very end of the process, they’ll most likely move via road but what about the middle? In deciding how your cargo freight is shipped, there’s always one or several core modes of transport to choose from and consider how your package will travel for the largest chunk(s) of time.

Selecting a core mode of transport is a big decision, one which heavily impacts on factors like speed of delivery, cost of shipping and delay/damage risk as well as considerations such as environmental impact. Each mode of transport has its own advantages and drawbacks, which we’ll explore now. 

Sea freight: The go-to option for global cargo shipping 

Let’s start with the mode of transportation most synonymous with moving freight, cargo ships. In a bygone era before the dawn of aviation, the only way to get packages overseas was exactly that, over the oceans in a seaworthy vessel. To this day, packages are ‘shipped’ no matter how they travel. 

Low carbon emissions 
Sea freight is still the choice for international freight shipping. It’s by far the most carbon efficient mode of transport. Think of it this way, you could push a boat down a river but how hard would it be to push a truck down a road…ergo, sea freight uses far less energy to get moving. 

Truly global reach
By comparison, sea movements are more likely to be delayed by bad weather and can generally be the slower way to transport cargo, but what you lack in speed you certainly make up for in reach. Nowadays, you can ship cargo to almost any place by sea, as a port of entry nearby is nearly always guaranteed.  

Cost Effective 
Sea freight is highly cost effective for any size of cargo. Large volumes of packaged goods or bulk shipments are able to move long distances across oceans or short distances by barge at a price often unmatched by other transport modes.  In addition, smaller volumes by bottle, case and pallet or, IBC and drum, also move at attractive prices, since freight forwarders can share space in their containers amongst shippers with Groupage / LCL services.

Today, 90% of all goods reach their destinations via ocean routes, resulting in a giant and robust global shipping network. However, 
the sea freight industry is currently facing unprecedented and chaotic conditions, with port congestions, shipping container shortages, customs delays and more (read all about that on our blog here). So, it’s worth bearing in mind that there are other reliable modes of transportation at your disposal as well. 


Air freight: The speedy choice for urgent, valuable and perishable cargo
The only other way to move goods overseas is, of course, on a plane. 

Fast delivery 
When time is of the essence, air freight cargo is unsurpassed (Take a look at this story from a customer, when Hillebrand scrambled into action to fly 100 tons of French wine to New York in less than a week!) as cargo aeroplanes generally cruise at speeds of approximately 900 kilometres per hour.  What’s more, cargo planes usually travel on direct flight paths and there is zero risk of a traffic jam in the sky which also adds to their uncompromised speediness of delivery. The trade-off of this though is the cost of air freight, both financial and environmental; being the most expensive mode of transport and biggest generator of carbon emissions.

Low risk 
That said, air is an extremely low risk mode of transport. In terms of product, perishable items have a limited shelf-life and high-value goods require tight security measures, making both of them ideal candidates for air freight. In regards to packaging, damages are less likely to occur once en route as flight paths can quickly be adapted in bad weather and with far more ease than other logistics transport modes. 

Any quantity 
It also sometimes surprises people to know that you can move large quantities of freight cargo by air.  Planes can be fully chartered with larger freighters able to carry up to a massive 110 tonnes.  This type of shipment is of course rare, but possible nonetheless, though most shippers opt for a space in the hold, paying for only their portion of the flight.  


Rail freight: dependable, green and fast overland 
If the delivery trajectory is over land, rail freight is an underrated mode of transportation for cargo. It’s surprisingly fast, safe, reliable and faces few delays.

When planning your transportation of your cargo, the single most important factor is nearly always meeting its required delivery date. So choosing a mode of logistics transport that promises reliability is a key factor; and rail freight transport offers just that.  Trains are mostly unaffected by weather conditions and capacity on the tracks is tightly controlled by Railway authorities so you’ll never experience a traffic jam.  There is also little cause for stops en route and most service are direct to destination. 

What’s more, rail freight transport is an environmentally-considerate option for in-land cargo movements. Why? By using electricity to operate it emits minimal CO2 levels and so carry large cargo loads across many carriages and at long distances is greener by comparison to other transport modes. 

High security 
Where rail freight transport also comes into its own, is the levels of security it provides for the cargo it carries.  Old movies and historical tales, depict great train robberies and the theft of the goods they carry as easy-pickings. When in fact it is quite the opposite. Theft from cargo trains is very rare. Railways and freight terminals are highly secure spaces with low rates of criminal activity and therefore the safest way to transport your goods over land. 

Streamlined operations  
Inland transport requires a crossover with road freight transport at some point. Either at the beginning or end of the cargo’s journey, or both. What you might not be aware of though, is that to Hillebrand uses multimodal containers which significantly reduces the handling of your product to minimize any chance of accidental damage. How do they do that?  Once packed, your goods will sit safely inside their container until delivery, without the need to unload/reload, so that it can transfer between road and rail; the container can be lifted directly from train to truck or vice-versa. 


Road transportation: where it all begins and ends
The second most common way to transport your goods is by road, and hands down the easiest and quickest way to handle domestic deliveries.  Fun fact, three quarters of Europe’s inland freight moves by road.

Integral transport  
Every logistical movement of goods requires road transportation, albeit for part of the journey, if not for all of it.  So not only is it the second most common mode of transport, it is the number one most required mode of transport.  Much like sea freight, it can offer freight payers both full container load and groupage/LCL services. Though, via road there can be more touch points involved, which can make the cost associated to container/trailer sharing lower.

Reduced documentation 
Road freight is also lighter on the documentation front, especially if trucks don’t cross borders.  The movement of goods by road is usually quick to action too, as there are an abundance of hauliers with a range of vehicle sizes ready to move your cargo.

Choice of vehicle 
Another benefit to road freight transport is the range of vehicles available to you.  Beyond the difference in the physical size of trucks, there are an array of associated options too; flat bed, low loaders, curtain sided trailers, tail lifts, containerlifts to name a few. So whatever your capabilities for loading/unloading, size or distance, there is a road freight vehicle available for you

The ‘best’ mode of transport depends on your priorities 
As you’ll have noticed, there’s not one single cargo shipping mode that’s better than the others. Cost and risk should be weighed up according to cargo type and the urgency of the delivery, while taking into consideration the current disruptions.  


Get in touch to discuss how Hillebrand can forward your cargo in the most efficient and safe way to its destination. 

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