Modes of transportation explained: which is the best for your shipment?

Airplane flying over container terminal

For moving your shipment from origin to destination, there are usually several different modes of transportation available. Most suitable transport mode depends on possible transport routings available between the point of origin and point of destination. For example, if you need to move your goods from New York to Amsterdam, there are no road freight and rail freight options possible.  

When selecting most efficient cargo transport mode, you need to consider how quickly your shipment should arrive to destination (transit time) and what is your budget for shipping (transportation cost). In most of the cases faster means higher cost, but not always.  

Besides transport time and cost, the cargo value and the measurements of the shipment should be also considered when selecting most efficient freight mode. In this article we will help you to understand better difference between the transport modes to make wiser decisions for your supply chain.  

The most used modes of transport in global freight

Recent statistics show that 70% of the global freight is shipped by ocean transport, 18% by road freight, 9% by rail, 2% by inland waterways and less than 0.25% by air. [source:]

Graph of global transport split by freight mode.

Graph 1. Global transport by freight mode.

The most used freight modes inside European Union

Inside the EU the split of used transport modes is as follows:

  • Road transport – 49,3%,
  • Maritime transport – 32,3%,
  • Rail transport – 11,2%,
  • Inland waterways – 4,0% and
  • Oil pipelines 3,1%.


Graph of transport split by freight mode in EU

Graph 2. Transport split by freight mode inside EU.

Modes of transportation explained

There are 4 main transport type categories in global shipping:

  • ocean freight (or maritime transport),
  • air freight,
  • rail freight and
  • road freight.

In addition, there is a multimodal transport, what means combining several different shipping modes.

In general, we can say, that the air freight is the fastest and most expensive type of cargo shipping. For bigger cargo quantities, and where it is possible, the ocean freight has the lowest shipping cost level, but it also takes the longest time. Road freight and rail freight are somewhere in between. Trucking is most flexible way of transport, but for bigger and long-distance transport there are several benefits for rail freight.

Graph - transit time versus transportation cost

Graph 3. The 4 modes of transportation: transit time versus transportation cost.

Sure, things are not so black and white. In next paragraphs we will give more detailed overview of the transport modes.

Ocean freight

Ocean freight is the main mode of transport for the global trade. It’s also called lifeblood of global trade. Ocean transport the best shipping mode for the large cargo quantities, for many large cargos actually the only option (if it does not fit to the airplane).

The biggest ocean container ships have a capacity to load more than 20 000 containers.

Big ship with with shipping containers

Ocean freight – container ship with shipping containers. The most used modes of transportation.

Benefits of ocean transport

Ocean transport has the lowest cost per unit compared to other freight types, but it has also the longest transit time in most cases. For overseas transport, if the cargo size and weight is too big for the air freight, the ocean transport is the only option.

Most of the low-cost bulk cargo, such as cereals, iron, coal etc., is moved by ocean freight. It is also preferred mode of transport for high volume and heavy cargo, such as minerals, metals etc., what are just not economically reasonable to move by air.

Ocean freight has the lowest environmental impact for shipped kg compared to other freight modes; therefore, many customers are preferring this.

In short, main benefits of the ocean freight are:

  • lowest cost,
  • good for high volume goods,
  • most environment-friendly,
  • good for wide range of cargos.

Ocean containers

Most of the ocean cargos are shipped in containers. The main types of ocean shipping containers are:

  • Standard Container, also named Dry Container;
  • High-Cube Container;
  • Open Top Container;
  • Flat Rack Container;
  • Platform Container;
  • Reefer Container.

Shipping containers are with strict measurements to make it possible to load these on huge ocean vessels as LEGO blocks. Most commonly are used 20’ (external dimensions 6090mm x 2440mm x 2590mm) and 40’ containers (12180mm x 2440mm x 2590mm). There are also longer 45’ containers in use and some higher (High-Cube Container) and wider (Pallet Wide Container) options.

You can find more detailed info about the different container types and container dimensions from our Resources page

Colorful ocean containers at port

Ocean containers – 40 ft standard container.

What TEU stand for?

The Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit (TEU) is an exact unit of measurement used to determine cargo capacity in shipping industry (for container ships and terminals). It is based on the dimensions of a 20’ Standard Container. This means that 20’ container is equal to 1 TEU and 40’ container is equal to 2 TEU.

The ocean carrier with a 10,000 to 20,000 TEU capacity is defined as a Very Large Container Ship (VLCS), while the carrier with a capacity more than 20,000 TEU is defined as an Ultra Large Container Ship (ULCS ).

At the beginning of 2022 the largest container ship in the World is Ever ace, which can carry 24 000 TEU.

Full Container Load (FCL) and Less than Container Load (LCL)

Full Container Load (FCL) is an ocean freight shipment in which the cargo occupies a full container. So, FCL shipment is reasonable, if cargo volume is big and takes most of the container capacity. If customer is ordering the FCL shipment, in most cases, the empty container is delivered to place of loading, where shipper loads it with cargo.

Less than Container Load (LCL) is an ocean freight shipment wherein the shipper does not contract for a full container since the quantity of shipment is not enough to a full container and container is filled by multiple cargos from different shippers.

There is a break-even point at which the price of a large LCL shipment equals the price of a 20’ FCL container. This varies depending on what route you’re transporting from and the current situation of the ocean transport market. At MyDello platform you can easily sort and compare available LCL, FCL and other transport options by total transport cost or by transit time.

Air freight

Air freight is the best transport mode for the goods that require fast delivery and minimal inventory level. Half of the international air cargo is carried in the bellies of passenger aircrafts and the other half with cargo freighters.

In air freight, depending on the operating aircraft, there are size and weight limitations for the shipments.

The World’s largest cargo plane is Antonov An-225 (called also as “Mriya”). It can uplift more than 180 tons of cargo. See more here

One of the disadvantages of the air transport is its high CO2 emission for transported kg. It’s the highest compared to other transport modes.

Sometimes on the way to final destination airport the shipments are moved between the middle airports by land (called road-feeder service), but still considered as air cargo service.

Loading cargo to airplane

Air freight – air cargo transport.

Benefits of air transport

Air transport is the fastest, but also the most expensive mode of shipping. Although air cargo makes only small portion of total international freight, it is essential transport mode for many industries, such as high-tech, automotive, medical etc., where time-critical deliveries are needed.

Air transport has the fastest handling processes and documentation is quite well-structured, therefore takes less time.

Air cargo needs less handling and there is no need for heavy packaging.

With air transport you can ship your cargo basically anywhere, to most of the countries and territories in the World.

Road freight

Road freight is the most common mode of transport for intra-continent deliveries. For example, inside Europe the road freight makes about half of the total cargo deliveries.

Sure, we also need to consider that for international air, rail and ocean deliveries, the pick-up from place of loading to international air- or seaport is done by road transport. Same applies for the final delivery to consignee location.

Regular trailer in Europe is 13.6 meters long and holds up to 33 EUR pallets.

However, road freight is quite flexible mode of transport, its efficient operation is affected by weather, road conditions and traffic.

Road transport industry has been struggling resent years due to lack of truck drivers. Truckman is not popular profession among younger generation anymore.

Trucks on the highway

Road freight – trucks on highway.

Benefits of road transport (or trucking)

For short-distance deliveries the road transport is the most cost-efficient mean of transport. Road freight is relatively quick and has mostly regular time schedules in place. As it is well-regulated the expected transit-times are quite well predictable in road transport.

Road freight is flexible and available also in rural areas.

Full Truck (FTL) and Less than Truck Load (LTL)

Similar to ocean freight shipments, there is used full-load and part-load concept in trucking.

Full Truck Load (FTL) is a road freight shipment in which the cargo occupies a full truck.

Less than Truck Load (LTL) is a road transport shipment wherein the shipper does not contract for a full truck since the quantity of shipment is not enough to a full trailer and the trailer is filled by multiple cargos from different shippers. LTL shipments can pass several terminals and different trucks on its way to the point of destination.

At MyDello platform you can easily sort and compare available LTL, FTL and other transport options by total transport cost or by transit time.

Rail freight

Historically the rail freight has played important role in international cargo deliveries. Tough, in recent decades its part in total global freight has reduced, still from 2015 rail freight container deliveries from China to Europe have shown rapid increase.

When considered in terms of ton-kilometers hauled per unit of energy consumed, rail transport can be more efficient than other means of transportation. [source:]

Compared to road freight the rail freight becomes more cost-efficient especially for long-distance deliveries.

One block train can have more than 100 wagons and only needs one driver.

The longest cargo train in the world is operating in South Africa on the 861km Sishen – Saldanha heavy-haul line. At maximum payload it has had 375 wagons with total length of 4.1 km

Containers on train

Rail freight – container train.

Benefits of rail transport

For long-distance transportation rail freight is the most environment-friendly mode of transport. Rail transport is also relatively fast. For example, rail shipment from China to EU takes about two times less time compared to ocean freight shipment.

In most cases, the rail freight is not affected by weather or traffic situation. Traditionally, rail has a strong safety record.

Multimodal transport

Multimodal transportation combines at least two different modes of transportation such as rail, ship, airplane and truck. For some routes multimodal transport gives faster transit time or lower transportation cost.

Sometimes the multimodal transport is the only way to move cargos to the areas difficult to reach.

Rail freight and trucking combined transport

Good example is moving cargos out from China by rail freight up to Poland or Germany and then onforwarding from there by road freight to final destination in Europe. This solution is about two times fasted than ocean freight, but has significantly lower cost compared to air freight.

All the biggest integrators such as DHL, UPS, Kuehne+Nagel and DB Schenker are offering rail/truck solution along Silk Road network from China to Europe.

Sea freight and air freight combined transport (sea/air)

With sea/air transport solution shipments move out from APAC ports by ocean freight up to Dubai and from Dubai uplifted with air freight to Europe. This solution gives about 40% faster transit time compared to pure ocean freight, but has lower total transport cost compared to pure air freight. It is also more eco-friendly.

Map - sea-air service from APAC

Sea-air service map – from APAC ports to Europe.


There are several options for moving your shipment from origin to destination. Each transport mode has its advantages and disadvantages and there are several factors to consider before making the final choice. Still, in general, the decision comes down to (1) what transport options are available, (2) how urgently you need the cargo at destination and (3) what is your budget for shipping.

Considering your shipment’s weight and dimensions, modern logistics platforms help you to make wiser decisions between different modes of transport on transit time and price scale.