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UPS Supply Chain Solutions®

Freight Shipping Guide

What is Freight Shipping?

Here’s the simplest freight definition: freight shipping—or freight transportation—is the process of moving goods, commodities and cargo in bulk from one point to another, almost anywhere in the world. Freight shipping options include air, ocean, ground and rail shipping, or intermodal, which is a combination of these modes.

Freight vs. Shipping Small Package

What’s the difference between packages and freight? The simple difference is weight. If your shipment is 150 pounds or less, it’s considered small package. If your shipment is larger than 150 pounds, and up to 15,000 pounds, it’s considered freight. If you’re still not sure, consider this: if you just have a few parcels, traditional small-package transportation is probably just fine. But, if you have a large shipment with a large quantity of goods, we recommend freight transportation.

Freight shipping is ideal for a vast array of goods, and there's really no limit to what can be shipped via freight.

How Do I Select the Right Mode of Transportation?

With so many types of freight shipping, how do you know which is best for your situation? And, how fast is freight shipping? While there are other important considerations, which we’ll discuss shortly, your primary decision-drivers are usually urgency and cost.

If your top concern is, “How fast can I move freight,” air freight is likely the best place to begin. Air freight is the fastest option, but also the most expensive. For example, we can help get your shipment on a Next Flight Out with delivery from ‘as soon as possible’ to three days later.

If your top concern is, “How much does it cost to move freight,” ocean freight is likely your best option. While it’s the slowest option, ocean freight is also the most budget-friendly option, an important considerations when you’re trying to conserve cost.

What Are the Other Key Considerations When Shipping Freight?

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How Does Freight Travel?

Freight travels by air, ocean, ground, rail or a combination of multiple modes.

Mode Air Freight Ocean Freight Ground Freight Rail Freight Multimodal


Generally, one of fastest and most expensive types of freight transportation. Air freight is typically used for time-sensitive goods that are high-value and lightweight. (Can be cost prohibitive for low-value, commodity products or goods that are bulky or heavy.) Ocean freight is transported by ship, in large containers. It is the slowest, but most affordable freight option. In addition to traditional ocean passage, water carriage also includes inland and inter-coastal waterways, such as rivers, canals and lakes. Also known as truck, highway or road transportation, ground freight is a less expensive transportation option to ship large, non-time-sensitive cargo by truck. Delivery can take 3–10 days, depending on pickup and delivery locations. The process of moving cargo by utilizing trains and railroads. This is ideal for raw materials or moving ocean containers across long distances. Combining more than one mode of transportation to provide a unique solution that can be cheaper than air freight, but faster than ocean freight. 


Shorter transit times

Better freight condition on arrival

Greater inventory control

Increased security

Less expensive mode

Tremendous cargo capacity

Accommodates almost any weight or volume configuration

Good value; faster than rail, cheaper than air

Flexible and accessible
Adaptable for goods requiring special conditions (Ex. temperature control)

Good for large shipments traveling long distances across land

Ideal for bulk commodities in car-load quantities

Can be less expensive than ground or air for distances more than 600 miles

Cheaper than air transportation

Faster than ocean transportation





FCL- Full Container Load

LCL- Less than container load

FTL Shipping – Full Truckload

LTL Shipping - Less than truckload


Surface intermodal

Express intermodal

Ocean intermodal

What is a Freight Forwarder?

A freight forwarder is a company that specializes in helping shippers (often called consignees) arrange for the importing and exporting of their goods. The freight forwarder itself does not actually move your freight, but acts as an intermediary between you and the various transportation carriers you can utilize (i.e. air, ocean, road, rail and/or intermodal).

Freight forwarders have established relationships with carriers, enabling them to recommend the best balance of speed, cost and reliability when moving your goods. They also handle the considerable, and sometimes complex, logistics of transporting goods across borders. A good forwarder has extensive knowledge of Customs documentation requirements, country codes and regulations, transportation costs and international banking practices.

What are freight services they can provide:

  1. Preparation of shipping and export documents
  2. Booking cargo space
  3. Negotiating freight charges
  4. Storage and warehousing
  5. Tracking transportation
  6. Freight consolidation/deconsolidation
  7. Assistance with cargo insurance

How Do I Know if I Need a Freight Forwarder?

The complex processes, paperwork and regulations required for international trade can be intimidating to those unfamiliar with them. This is where a freight forwarder can be an invaluable asset.

Regardless the size of your company, or the type of goods you ship, a good freight forwarder will be an end-to-end provider who leads your cargo from origin to destination. It’s their job to know the shipping companies, documentation procedures and customs laws of various countries.

Though a freight forwarder is not required for importing or exporting goods, they can be tremendously valuable to companies dealing in the international transportation of goods. They can be especially helpful if your in-house resources are not as informed on international shipping procedures.

Freight forwarders typically charge modest rates for their services, but also have access to shipping discounts. Bottom line: choosing the right freight forwarding provider can save you untold time, eliminate considerable headaches and provide a reliable transportation experience for you and your goods.

Looking for a Forwarder That Can Understand Your Unique Business?

UPS Supply Chain Solutions is one of the world’s largest providers of transportation, logistics and freight forwarding services. But that doesn’t mean we only keep company with companies our size. On the contrary, the vast majority of our customers are far from intergalactic enterprises. And each of them — regardless of size — can take advantage of our global expertise, brand stability and leading-edge compliance and technology capabilities. Whether by air, ocean, road or rail, we’ll get it there for you.

How Do I Ship Freight?

1. Choose a Transportation Mode

Decide which transportation mode is best for your timeline, budget and specific needs. You can get and compare air and ocean freight quotes using the UPS® Forwarding Hub.

2. Fill Out the Forms

Freight can’t be picked up without proper documentation, so gather and fill out the necessary shipping documents. Learn more about shipping documents.

3. Pack Your Freight

Determine the best packing options and materials to secure and protect your shipment and mitigate damage. You can choose from a variety of packaging materials, such as paper, foam or bubble wrap padding, loose packing, edge boards, corrosion protection and shrink wrapping. If you’re shipment will be palletized, decide if you’ll use plastic or wooden pallets. Depending on the destination, determine if the wooden pallets need to be heat treated.

4. Schedule a Pickup

If you’re scheduling your own pick-up, it’s a good idea to book the pickup several days in advance of your needed pickup date. Determine if you or your recipient will require a liftgate, in the event either of you don’t have a loading dock. Contact the carrier’s local service center. If you’re using UPS, you can schedule your pickup through the UPS® Forwarding Hub, where you’ll also receive your cost estimate and tracking number.

5. Your Shipment is Transported

If you have a tracking number, you can keep track of your shipment, or if available, be alerted at key milestones or if any exceptions occur. Your shipment is transported to the local service center. If it’s going by air, it’s taken to a local hub or directly to the airport. If it’s going by ocean, it’s transported to the nearest port and loaded on an ocean vessel.

6. Clearing Customs

When your shipment arrives at the destination air gateway or port, it is processed for Customs clearance, which can take up to three days. If the shipment clears Customs before 9 a.m. that day, it can be loaded onto a truck to be driven to its final delivery destination. Your shipment only has to clear customs in the country of its final destination.

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What Factors Impact Freight Shipping Rates?

When all things are equal, freight prices are determined by several factors:

What Freight Documentation Do I Need?

There are several key documents used in the international shipping process. They define the shipping transaction and provide information for Customs and regulatory compliance. You can fill these documents out in the UPS Forwarding Hub.

What is Customs Clearance?

When international shipments enter the importing country, they must be cleared by that country’s Customs authorities before they can be delivered to their final destination. Customs clearance is the act of moving goods through the Customs process.

In addition, every country imposes import duties and taxes on the goods that cross their borders. This helps to generate income, while also protecting their economy, their environment, and their citizens.

For those unaccustomed, this can seem like a complex, sometimes confusing, process. But managed properly, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Here’s what happens when a shipment arrives at Customs:

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Should I Insure my Freight Shipment?

It’s important to understand the difference between carrier liability coverage and cargo insurance. Though they sound similar, there are significant differences between the two. Understanding the difference can help you reduce risk and lower shipping costs.

Simply put, the main differences define what’s covered/not covered and who’s considered at fault when something goes wrong.

Hoping nothing bad happens to your cargo probably isn’t the best risk-mitigation strategy.

Unforeseen events can result in damage or loss to your cargo, events that can damage both your bottom line, your customer relationships and your company’s reputation. Talk to us about the best risk-mitigation strategies and Cargo Insurance Services for what and where you ship. 

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