Shipping international freight on a tight budget?

Cheap International Shipping: What’s the bottom line?

Pricing freight shipping, especially when moving items internationally, can be quite frustrating for those who are unfamiliar with the process.

Identifying the bottom line isn’t always a straight-line answer, because there are so many variables at play, which is quite contrary to what we experience when mailing smaller packages and letters. When you send a package via priority mail from California to Vermont, there may be questions about whether you’re sending perishables or things that could be hazardous in nature, but it doesn’t go much beyond that.

When you send a letter, you don’t even have to answer questions. You just drop it in the box with the appropriate level of postage based on weight and size, which are standardized and easy to understand, and don’t think twice about it.

When we start to scale our shipments, particularly with international freight, however, simplicity goes out the window, and is replaced with a system that sometimes feels overwhelming.

After all, you’ll need to provide details that don’t always feel intuitive, and although the specialist you hire will help you get your items to their destination, once we start dealing with large containers and international regulations, those details will be the difference between predictability and uncertainty in your final costs. 

So, to help you wrap your arms around the costs associated with your next international freight shipment, here are 4 things you should consider and be prepared to deal with as you begin the process:

1. Questions you’re going to be asked

I recently received a phone call from a gentleman who was looking to ship freight from Northern California to Thailand. We were on the phone for a half an hour, and never got to his quote, because he didn’t have an actual address for me to route his shipment to.

Now, missing this particular piece of information isn’t a common issue, but it is surprising how often we run into snags because of missing data. So, to make your lives easier, and to help you avoid spinning your wheels, here are some questions you should expect to receive when you make that call looking for an international shipping quote:

1 ~ What mode do you prefer? Air or Ocean?

2 ~ What is the exact origin and destination?

3 ~ What specifically are you shipping?

4 ~ How many outer packages are you shipping? (pallets, cartons, containers, etc)

5 ~ What is the total weight of your entire shipment?

6 ~ What is the total volume of your shipment in cubic feet or meters? (dimensions of outer packages are ideal)

7 ~ What is the total value of your shipped goods?

Which is the most important? Well, that’s like asking what’s more important for your car… the wheels, the engine, or the gas? You need all of them to make it go, and you need to know all of these things to get your quote if you want it to resemble your actual costs.

2. What it really means to go “international”

The rules and regulations become quite complex when involving multiple countries, and compliance to these laws is a crucial factor due to the potential and extreme penalties that can realistically occur for the non-compliance of simple details. To be clear, “multiple countries,” is more than one, so if you’re shipping from the US to anywhere else, you’re going to face these issues.

Rates often have to be acquired through international contact which can delay the processing of a quote due to worldwide time zone differences.  Therefore, an international quote, especially for an import into the United States, can often take minimum of 24 hours to process. There are also communication challenges because of language barriers. Grammatical errors and excessive use of abbreviation tend to compound the issue. Therefore, an extra day or more can be wasted just going back and forth with overseas agents asking them to clarify their quotes. 

It is highly imperative to provide as much information as possible to the overseas agents, especially including the above 7 points, because they too need accurate information to properly quote. 

Your rates will also depend on the vessel operating common carrier and co-loader rates, and are prorated according to shipment specifics.  And because there are so many other outside variables, fluctuations in cost can occur.

3. Dealing with US Customs & Other Outside forces

the recent contract crisis between the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union plagued the United States’ West coast ports with massive container congestion and delays for nearly a year. Port schedules were heavily delayed, and congestion fees were in effect, which don’t occur during normal times.

It didn’t matter who you were or who you knew, the sometimes outrageous fees being assigned hit everybody. But it’s not just during times of crisis and gridlock when strange fees can occur. Port terminals have been known to charge random, unforeseen fees for misplaced containers and logistical errors which may or may not be the fault of the shipping specialists, the terminals, or even the individuals themselves (depending on how much involved they are in the port logistics).

Port terminals and U.S. Customs are extremely powerful political, economic, and judicial organizations that always have the last and final word about the arbitrary tolling of all container traffic passing throughout their jurisdictions.

4. The Quote

Price quoting in international shipping is often divided between two common departments within the organizations of shipping specialists: outside sales and inside sales. 

Outside sales are the ones who listen patiently and apply customer service directly, the bridge and face between the customers and the shipping specialists. 

The inside sales team is the heart of price quoting within the shipping specialist community, where all the hard logistics come into play.  These are handled by the gritty operations personnel, the trench war-farers mired in the daily sludge of hard international freight logistics. They are responsible for the rate details and breakdowns. 

Getting the cheapest rates and best services quite often are in conflict with one another. Lower rates usually don’t mean better or faster service, and if time is money, you end up paying for it some way or another. With more than 30 years in the industry, I have seen the upside and downside to cut-rate shipping lines.

“Cheaper” shipping often ends up costing quite a bit more than premium, white-glove services because “unforseen” for one doesn’t necessarily translate to “unforseen” for the other. Those concerned about budgets and minimizing risk should be aware of this concept.



If you’re thinking now that there are quite a few unpredictable variables when moving international cargo, you’re right. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ship internationally or that you can’t budget for it properly. It just means you should have somebody experienced to lean on.

Listen to your shipping specialist about the risks and benefits of shipping by air vs freight, and listen to them about what’s necessary to provide quotes and timing, and even fill you in on the political and social climates impacting other folks in your situation.

Interested in learning more about shipping your international cargo or looking for a quote? Click HERE:

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