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

Air Courier Vs Air Cargo (1)

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 provided 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
34 x 34 x 40cm
 Here’s a quote I received from Freighteo:
The lowest price for 20 boxes weighing 34x34x40cm and 6.5kg each: $925

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

Now checkout the quote I received from Freight Forwarder:

Kindly find the below air rate from SZX to YVR base on general cargo:
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:
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 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 “haullage” 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.


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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    • David Bryant
    • David Bryant

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