a graphic of a ship and a plane in opposition

You’ve decided to move to a new country, leaving the stale and familiar behind in search of fresh pastures. You’re excited, your paperwork is ready, and you’re starting to dream of all the adventures you’re about to embark upon.

But you don’t want to leave it all behind when you depart on your globetrotting escapades. You have prized possessions you can’t imagine living without – and thanks to modern infrastructure, you won’t have to.

Thanks to air freight and sea freight, you can move anything and everything to anywhere on the planet – but which system is better?

We’ve got you covered. We’ve laid all out all the advantages and disadvantages of the two below, based on how they compare in terms of price, safety, speed, and the environment.

If you’re ready, fill in this form to compare all the best shipping companies who can help you with your move.

Best for cost: Sea freight

Best for the environment: Sea freight

Best for safety: Tied

Best for speed: Air freight

On this page:

01 | Cost
02 | Environment
03 | Safety
04 | Speed
05 | Pros and cons
06 | Summary

Cost

Winner: Sea Freight

There’s only one winner here, and it involves ships. Air freight is 12-16 times more expensive than sea freight, according to the World Bank – and when you’re already spending thousands of pounds, that makes a huge difference.

You’re also typically able to fit more on a container ship than you can on a plane, which means extra bang for your buck.

These items can also be heavier than a plane will allow, because the weight of your belongings is more limited when you’re using air freight.

If you’re taking lots of relatively small, heavy objects on your trans-global adventure, then shipping everything is your best option.

Dr Paolo Agnolucci, an associate professor at University College London (UCL), told MoveHub that unless you’re moving fresh produce across the world, sea freight is the most cost-effective option.

“I can see how in some cases, [sea freight] is not possible,” he said. “Strawberries only last 10 days or so, so it doesn’t make much sense to ship them from Australia to England.

“But in most other cases, it is possible – and it’s definitely cheaper.”

Environment

Winner: Sea Freight

Sea freight is the better option here, by far. A study by the UK government discovered a plane creates 44 times more CO2 than a ship when carrying the same freight over the same distance.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr Rachel Warren told MoveHub there was no question on the topic.

 


Nobel Peace Prize winner Rachel Warren

“Sea freight is much more environmentally friendly than air freight.”

– Dr Rachel Warren


 

“Sea freight is much more environmentally friendly than air freight,” she said. “The emission levels involved when using aeroplanes are much higher.”

Dr Warren, who is a professor at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, explained that planes’ larger impact on climate change is also down to how they work.

“Because of where aircrafts emit the emissions, they have a bigger effect on atmospheric chemistry, so the emissions they release have a worse effect on the environment on ships. 

“Airplanes’ emissions are released higher in the atmosphere, so it has a larger and worse impact.”

Dr Agnolucci agreed with these conclusions, saying: “Air freight is much more damaging.”

He explained that “there isn't much science needed” to draw this conclusion.

“It’s just the amount of CO2 emitted when moving a kg in an airplane vs the amount of CO2 needed to move a kg in a ship. These ratios are not debatable,” he said.

“I would recommend using sea freight. That would seem sensible to me.”

And sea freight is becoming increasingly eco-friendly.

The International Maritime Organisation has pledged to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 40% by 2030, and at least 70% by 2050.

From January 2020, ships won’t be allowed to have more than 0.5% sulphur in their fuel, down from 3.5%. The United Nations has said this move will have “potentially important benefits for human health and the environment.”

Richard Bucknall, a professor of marine systems at UCL, told MoveHub this new regulation would produce “a significant benefit to the environment.”

He said this was part of a sustained effort to make sea freight more eco-friendly.

“In recent years, there’s been a significant effort in the shipping industry to really look at alternative solutions. In every area now, they’ve been looking at this.

“There’s even talk of using sails to harness wind assistance. The shipping industry wants to reduce greenhouse gases – they just need the technology to be able to do it.”

If the idea of climate change makes your blood boil, sea freight is the way to go.

Safety

Tied

The two titans of international transportation are neck-and-neck in this area. When it comes to safety, they’re both a whisker away from perfection – tied at a hugely impressive 99.99%.

Sea freight

From 2014 to 2016, ships moved an average of £8.5 billion worth of cargo across the world every day, and 99.99% of containers travelled safely to their destination.

This rate is only improving, too – the number of large ships lost worldwide fell by a record 50% in 2018, according to a report by Allianz.

The only remaining worry is that your belongings may move around in transit, but this only happens if they’re poorly loaded. Pay a professional to pack your possessions properly, with protection, and you’ll have no problems.

Overhead view of sea freight

99.99% of sea freight containers get to where they're going safely

Air freight

If you use a plane to move your possessions, it’s just as safe as sending them out to sea.

In 2018, there were 14 accidents involving commercial flights certified for at least 14 passengers, according to the Flight Safety Foundation. These resulted in 555 fatalities.

Because of the sheer number of commercial flights in the world, this means that 99.99% flew without any mishaps – so if safety is your main concern, don’t worry. Both of these choices are as close to a full guarantee as you can get.

Speed

Winner: Air Freight

Finally, a win for air freight. It won’t surprise many of you to learn that planes are quicker than ships, which still pick up a respectable silver medal in this category.

The difference between the two can be a few weeks, depending on where you’re moving your belongings – but is it worth it for you to spend thousands more for the extra speed?

If you’re moving to another country, you’ve probably prepared well in advance. Time won’t be as much of an issue as money – a factor which is inevitably intertwined with a move of this magnitude. 

Air freight is generally used by corporations that need to move perishable items (like fresh fruit or flowers) in next to no time, or in emergency situations which urgently require medical products.

If you desperately need to get some precious cargo to your new place in a matter of days, then air freight is the right choice for you.

Otherwise, it makes sense to look into how much you could save by opting for sea freight. The only catch is that it’ll take a little longer.

Sea freight: pros and cons

pros and cons of sea freight as opposed to air freight

Air freight: pros and cons

pros and cons of Air Freight as opposed to sea freight

Summary

There are reasons why air cargo is now experiencing its longest slump since the Great Recession of 2008: it cost thousands more, and releases 44 times as much CO2 into the atmosphere.

Sea freight is the best choice if you’re concerned about your spending and the environment. There’s no reason why you should have to part with more cash when you’re already dealing with moving country, and helping the planet is always a good idea.

There should be no quarter given when it comes to your most cherished possessions – and if you compare shipping quotes, we can help find the best deal for you.