What are the costs associated with using containers to transport goods?

Table of content

the costs associated with using containers to transport goods

Moving shipping containers involves a variety of costs beyond international transportation fees. This article provides a comprehensive overview of the costs associated with sea freight container carriage, along with strategies that can be implemented to optimize the process and minimize expenses.

How are the container costs calculated?

When calculating container costs, various factors come into consideration. Here are some key elements that impact the pricing structure.

Container size, type and capacity

Standard container sizes include 20-foot, 40-foot standard, and 40-foot high cube. Due to their smaller capacity, 20-foot containers cost less than 40-foot shipping containers. Moreover, standard containers are generally more affordable than high-cube containers, which offer extra height.

The weight or volume capacity of the container is a critical factor. Heavier loads may result in additional charges based on weight limits or needing larger and more robust containers that exceed standard dimensions. Consequently, oversized cargo or containers with an open top, requiring specialized equipment or handling, often incur higher prices.

Nature of goods

All cargo is handled with the utmost care. However, certain items require special boxes, specific handling procedures, safety precautions, maintenance, or additional documentation, leading to extra charges. Typically, higher shipping rates apply to hazardous materials and refrigerated or perishable goods with limited shelf lives.

Mode of transportation

Containers can be transported by sea, rail, road, or a combination of two or three modes, depending on the route and urgency. Intermodal transportation encompasses the use of different carriers and logistics providers with varied pricing structures, influencing the overall cost. Expedited freight or premium services incur higher costs for more urgent shipping needs.

Distance, route and destination

The distance a container must travel and the destination port or final delivery point are pivotal factors in cost determination. Longer distances and more remote destinations often result in higher transportation costs. The busiest shipping lanes are subject to General Rate Increases (GRI). Major shipping companies have announced a GRI for early 2024, notably affecting:

  • the Asia-Europe axis, often referred to as the “maritime Silk Road”, encompasses ports like Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
  • the trans-Pacific route, connecting Asia to the west coast of the United States and Canada, including major ports like Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Vancouver.


Additionally, tolls, labor costs, and port charges associated with a specific shipping route may directly impact average costs.

Moreover, in specific countries or ports, local regulations mandate specific fees or taxes applicable to containerized cargo. Certain destinations may encounter seasonal peak periods or experience congestion issues, leading to temporary surcharges. For instance, the San Pedro Bay ports, including Los Angeles and Long Beach in California, among the busiest in the US and the world, impose dwell fees to alleviate congestion.

Seasonal and market factors

Container costs are subject to fluctuations driven by market demand, seasonal variations, and economic factors. Prices tend to rise during peak seasons when demand is high, and the availability of empty containers is limited.

Typically, container costs are quoted as an all-inclusive rate, covering base charges, surcharges, and applicable taxes. Businesses engaged in international trade and shipping should meticulously take these factors into account when estimating and budgeting for shipping container costs.

container freight rates

What are the expenses involved in containerized sea freight?

Below is a comprehensive list of costs that businesses may encounter when involved in the sea shipment of containerized goods.

Container freight rates

Shipping lines levy sea freight for moving the container from the port of origin to the port of destination. The Bunker Adjustment Factor (BAF) accounts for fluctuations in fuel prices and is frequently added to the ocean freight cost. Additionally, the Currency Adjustment Factor (CAF) may be applied to accommodate fluctuations in exchange rates.

Container costs

Companies that do not own the necessary equipment for transporting their cargo may have to buy shipping containers, or lease or rent them. Additionally, certain shipping lines may request a deposit when a shipper takes possession of a container, which is refundable upon its return.

Handling charges at port

Terminal Handling Charges (THC) encompass the fees associated with handling the container at the ports of loading and unloading. These charges are supplemented by destination handling charges, covering additional manipulations of the container at the destination port. Finally, port dues and taxes are imposed by port authorities for the utilization of their facilities.

Documentation fees

The shipper or consignee is responsible for covering the cost of issuing the bill of lading (B/L), a document that acknowledges the receipt of goods for shipment by the carrier. In addition to the Bill of Lading fee, various paperwork, including customs documentation, may result in documentation and administrative charges.

document fees are expenses involved in containerized sea freight

Customs clearance fees

These charges are related to customs clearance formalities at both the port of origin (export clearance) and destination ‘import clearance). In addition to these fees, importers are obligated to cover duties and taxes, which are determined by various parameters, including the nature of goods (HS code) and their value, the import tariff of the destination country, any existing free trade agreements between the countries of origin and destination, and special duties for restricted materials (such as weapons, endangered species, and dangerous goods)

Insurance premium

Shippers have the option to insure their cargo to protect goods against damage or loss during transportation, and the cost of this coverage can impact overall expenses. Marine insurance rates may vary depending on factors such as the type and value of goods, as well as the extent of coverage.

Cargo inspection fees

When customs agents or other authorities conduct inspections, the associated charges are invoiced to the cargo owner.

Demurrage and detention fees

Shipping companies provide importers with a specific number of free days for container storage inside the destination port. If the container remains in the terminal beyond the allotted free time, demurrage charges are incurred.

Likewise, exceeding the agreed-upon period for keeping the container outside the port (including transportation to the warehouse, discharge of goods, and returning empty equipment) results in the assessment of detention charges.

Inland transportation costs

A container’s journey doesn’t always conclude at the port of discharge; its ultimate destination could be an inland location. Consequently, there are costs associated with transporting the container by truck, rail, or barge from the port to the final destination. Similarly, there may be a need to move a container inland to transport it to its port of departure.

Additional charges if applicable

  • Peak Season Surcharges (PSS): These charges may be applied during peak shipping seasons, which aggravate capacity constraints because of spikes in demand and equipment shortage.
  • Security Fees: These fees are associated with security measures, particularly for vessels navigating in high-risk areas worldwide.
  • Low Sulphur Surcharge (LSS): This surcharge is applicable when the use of low-sulfur fuel is necessary to comply with environmental regulations.
  • Bank Charges: Anticipate these charges when the shipper and consignee agree on letters of credit, international wire transfers, and other banking transactions for settlement.

How to minimize costs for containerized transportation of goods?

Minimizing costs for the containerized transportation of goods is crucial for maintaining competitiveness and profitability in businesses. Implementing key strategies that optimize various aspects of the process can lead to significant cost savings.

Negotiate sea freight rates

Shipping companies provide a range of freight rate options and discounts contingent on shipment volume and frequency. Consequently, businesses with consistent, substantial loads need to engage in direct negotiations with ocean carriers, freight forwarders, and logistics providers. Establishing long-term relationships and committing to larger shipment volumes often results in more favorable terms.

Beyond the base freight charges, negotiations can extend to securing rebates on demurrage and detention fees. Additionally, discussions may involve obtaining extensions of free time, especially when it’s anticipated that delays may occur at the destination due to specific documentation requirements or other factors.

Additionally, working with experienced freight forwarders and logistics providers can help navigate the complexities of how shipping costs are calculated. They can negotiate rates, manage logistics, and advise on the most cost-effective and efficient transportation options.

Optimize container utilization

Accurately determining the volume of goods is crucial for anticipating the loading plan and selecting the appropriate container size, thereby avoiding unnecessary costs for unused space. Employing space-saving techniques, such as pallet wrapping and filling voids with dunnage, contributes to maximizing space utilization and reducing the required number of containers.

Another effective strategy involves consolidating smaller shipments into a larger one, capitalizing on economies of scale—a principle reflected in LCL (Less Than Container Load)/FCL (Full Container Load) shipments. Consolidation minimizes space, optimizes container capacity, and lowers per-unit costs.

For sensitive cargo, consideration should be given to refrigerated containers for perishables or flat-rack containers for oversized cargoes. Despite their higher costs, these specialized containers optimize usage and help prevent damage.

Select the best route

Different shipping companies present various routes for the same port of origin/port of discharge. It is crucial to compare freight rates not only for the same routes but also for direct routes versus indirect ones. While direct routes may be faster, indirect routes with transshipments sometimes offer significant cost savings.

Planning the route should also take into account port fees and surcharges. The price difference needs to be weighed against the additional transit time.

Similarly, utilizing rail or truck transportation for inland legs of the journey, especially if closer to the origin or destination, might be more advantageous. Depending on the route and urgency, alternative shipment methods such as air freight or rail freight might be more cost-effective than ocean shipping, particularly for smaller or time-sensitive cargo.

Thoroughly plan shipments

Non-compliance with customs regulations and other regulatory requirements can lead to delays or fines, resulting in additional expenses. Ensuring accurate and complete paperwork is vital for swift customs clearance and release by the shipping line.

Continuous tracking of containers allows for the anticipation of all operations, including booking trucks or rail services for pick-up at port terminals and coordinating with store or warehouse teams for the discharge of goods. These precautions help mitigate the risks of incurring detention fees.

Evaluate incoterms

The agreed Incoterms (International Commercial Terms), which define responsibility and costs between the buyer and seller, can significantly influence transportation costs. It is highly advisable to simulate the rates based on the chosen Incoterms to align with cost-saving objectives. Additionally, it may be pertinent to evaluate the option of self-insurance versus cargo insurance, taking into consideration the value of goods and risk tolerance.

evaluate incoterms to minimize costs

Harness technology

Real-time tracking of containers can help identify delays and proactively address potential issues, minimizing disruptions and associated extra costs. Implementing logistics and supply chain management systems enhances visibility and control over shipments. Utilizing online freight marketplaces facilitates rate comparison and booking, allowing businesses to benefit from the most competitive offers.

Moreover, technology assists maritime industry stakeholders in staying informed about market trends (fuel prices, shipping demand, port congestion, etc.), enabling them to negotiate better rates when conditions are favorable. Lastly, regularly monitoring and analyzing transportation performance, costs, and key performance indicators enable the identification of areas for improvement and the implementation of cost-saving measures.

Invest in sustainable practices

Companies may not be sufficiently aware of this aspect, but adopting sustainable practices, such as utilizing environmentally friendly shipping options or optimizing routes to reduce emissions, can, at times, result in cost savings through incentives and improved efficiency.

FAQ about container costs

Container costs are calculated based on factors such as container size, type, and capacity, with considerations for weight or volume limits.

The nature of goods, mode of transportation, distance, route, and destination also influence pricing.

Additional charges may apply for oversized cargo, special handling requirements, and specific shipping routes.

Expenses in containerized sea freight include container freight rates, container costs (buying, leasing, or renting), handling charges at ports, documentation fees, customs clearance fees, insurance premiums, cargo inspection fees, demurrage & detention fees, inland transportation costs, and additional charges like Peak Season Surcharges, Security Fees, Low Sulphur Surcharge, and Bank Charges.

Businesses can minimize costs by negotiating sea freight rates, optimizing container utilization through accurate volume assessments, selecting the best shipping routes, thorough planning of shipments to avoid delays and fines, evaluating Incoterms for cost alignment, harnessing technology for real-time tracking and supply chain management, and investing in sustainable practices for potential cost savings.

When negotiating sea freight rates, businesses should consider factors such as shipment volume and frequency for potential discounts, establishing long-term relationships, negotiating rebates on demurrage and detention fees, obtaining extensions of free time, working with experienced freight forwarders, and understanding how shipping costs are calculated.

These strategies can result in more favorable terms and overall cost savings.

Need To Track A Container

Share This Post

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Get updates and learn from the best

You may also like: