In general, cargo weighing more than 100kg or consisting of multiple cartons will be shipped in containers as ocean freight. In fact, about 90 per cent of the world’s trade is carried by sea.

But what are your options for smaller shipments that don’t fill an entire 20-foot or 40-foot container? Read on to learn all about less-than-container load shipping (LCL) and what to consider when choosing between LCL and full-container-load shipping (FCL).

What is LCL shipping?

LCL stands for less than container load. As the name suggests, with LCL you only use a portion of a shipping container’s capacity. The remaining space within that container will be filled by goods belonging to other people or businesses.

LCL freight is a good option if you’re transporting small volumes of cargo like boxes and pallets. And you only pay for the space your cargo takes up in the container — you share the space and the costs with others.

With Maersk, you can book LCL shipments in just a few clicks. Find out more here.

What is FCL shipping?

On the other hand, full container load shipping (FCL) is when you use and pay for an entire container.

FCL freight is a good option if you know you have enough cargo to fill a container. The size of the shipping container will also determine if this is the right option for you. For example, you might be able to fill a 20-foot shipping container but not a 40-foot one. Many businesses also opt for FCL sea freight if they can almost fill a container, making the difference in cost barely noticeable.

Some key considerations when choosing between FCL and LCL

With that said, you shouldn’t just choose LCL or FCL freight based on the cost or size of your shipment. Whether you opt for FCL or LCL sea freight will impact many elements of the ocean shipping service. Here are some important considerations you should remember when deciding:

1. Security 

Many businesses opt for FCL sea freight for the extra security and peace of mind that comes with having your cargo stored securely within its own container.

Although the risk of damage, theft or loss is very low when transporting your goods with an experienced ocean shipping provider, LCL freight will be handled more than FCL freight.

2. Speed

If you’re sharing a container with multiple shipments from different businesses, you may need to factor in extra days for processing. The time it takes to unload, load and separate goods in LCL freight can be significantly longer than when you opt for FCL freight. You may also have to wait for other goods to arrive before your container can be loaded if you choose LCL ocean freight.

3. Flexibility

If you need to divide your shipments to be sent to different final destinations, LCL sea freight offers far more flexibility than FCL. It allows you to split your cargo across multiple shared shipping containers, reducing the cost of additional warehousing, unloading and sorting when the shipment arrives at port.

For instance, if you’re transporting goods to the USA, you could use LCL sea freight to sort your cargo into containers for specific cities. This way you save on time and money not having to do this at the first port.

4. Cost

FCL freight doesn’t always cost more, as LCL freight can often be charged per cubic metre (CBM). It’s important to weigh up the costs. Depending on how much space your shipment needs, and the cost per CBM, it might be better to pay for an entire shipping container even if you don’t need all the space.

5. Availability

Sometimes, businesses will opt for LCL freight shipping due to the availability of these containers. FCL freight containers are often in higher demand during rush periods, particularly before long holidays like Chinese New Year. At times like these, it might be faster for you to ship using LCL.

6. Volume

The volume of your shipment will be one of the main determining factors of whether you choose FCL or LCL freight shipping. At Maersk, for example, single package LCL shipments can be a maximum 3,000kg and 29 CBM. The maximum limit per booking is 20,000kg and 60CBM.

Is LCL or FCL sea freight better for SMEs?

When it comes to small and medium-size enterprises, LCL sea freight is often considered the ideal option for shipping goods overseas. It’s ultimately a lower-cost option for lower-volume shipments, with the flexibility to ship to multiple locations.

However, as your business grows, or if you have large quantities of cargo shipping to certain destinations, it’s important to remember the option of FCL sea freight.

If it can travel by sea, why not air?

Where once we used to take ferries and cruises to go on holiday — now we fly. Why is it not the same for cargo?

Well, there are a few reasons, largely to do with capacity and cost. While air freight is often faster and a bit more reliable (as you’re not at the mercy of the sea!) it’s also more expensive — sometimes four or five times more expensive.

Ocean freight takes more time, but it’s far cheaper and there are fewer restrictions on shipping hazardous cargo. On top of that, there’s much greater capacity for the price you pay — a 20-foot container can hold about 100 washing machines for example!

Ultimately, you want to pick the best route for your cargo, and when it comes to ocean shipping, Maersk offers both LCL and FCL. Learn more about our global shipping services here.

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