What Is a “Shipping Method”?

When you order something online, or box something up and take it to the UPS store, post office, etc. (more about them here), you’ll be asked what your desired “shipping method” will be.

Depending on context, this term will have one of two meanings: either the specific shipping process your parcel requires, or the urgency with which it will be delivered (check the “Tempermental Timelines” section of the glossary to learn more). Let’s talk about the former of those two.

For starters, there are significant differences between “domestic” and “international” shipping methods. “Domestic,” which means the package won’t have to leave the country, is pretty straightforward. That’s business as usual for shipping carriers.

“International,” which just means “between nations” (like an “international flight,” or an “international man of mystery”), gets a little more complicated. There are customs and other legalities involved, not all carriers serve all the same countries (and a hand-off to a local carrier is often required), and so on. Suffice it to say that it’s a can of worms we’ll be opening another day.

Transportation Methods

Whether the package is going across state lines, or across national boundaries, though, there are a number of ways for it to get where it needs to go.

Ground Shipping

The most common (and least expensive) is “ground shipping.” This just means that they’ll load the parcel on a truck, slap the back closed, shout “Giddy Up!” and send it your way.

(Ok, maybe there are a few more steps to the process than that, but you get the gist).

While every parcel will travel at least part of the journey in a ground vehicle, whether that’s from the pickup point to the docks or airport, or from the port of call to the delivery point, it’s almost impossible to get a shipment somewhere without loading it onto something that drives on roads at some point.

But shipping ground means that the package will only travel via roadways. In other words, this is primarily a domestic shipping method, as it’s hard to get international without crossing some major body of water.

Air Freight

If you’re feeling bougie, or just really eager for the parcel to get where it’s going, you can send it via “air freight” (aka “air shipping,” “next-day/overnight air,” etc.). Giving your package a plane ride, much like taking a plane ride yourself, is almost universally more expensive than loading it into a truck or van and driving to the destination.

It can, however, improve the speed of delivery, depending on the point of origin and the destination, and the distance between the two. And depending on the delivery destination and time of year, it may be the only way to make the delivery.

Case in point, some locations in rural Alaska aren’t accessible via roadways. About a century ago, this very circumstance gave rise to the first Iditarod journey. These days though, villages like Barrow rely on “bush planes” to receive pretty much everything—mail, groceries, supplies, retail goods, and so forth.

Maritime Transport

Finally, we have the type of transport that puts the “ship” back in “shipment.” “Maritime transport” (aka “waterborne transport”) is when things travel some or most of the distance via some form of watercraft.

This shipping method usually comes into play when shipping international, especially if the item in question is a) being shipped in large quantities, or b) is too large or heavy to efficiently transport via air freight. In fact, most overseas shipping is done this way, for the same reasons that most domestic shipping is done via ground transportation: it’s less expensive.

Of the three methods, this is the one that requires the most logistical legwork, usually because it’s a third-party outfit that’s running the ship itself. Carriers often have their own ground and air transports, or have established relationships with partners who do.

With maritime transport, though, the arrangements are a little harder to put in place, and the maritime team typically only handles things from port to port (i.e., any part of the journey that requires a set of wheels is “outside their jurisdiction”).

It should be noted, however, that international shipping is not the only use case for maritime transport. There are a number of domestic applications, typically for locations that (like the Barrow, Alaska example above) aren’t accessible by road. In these cases, smaller ferries are used to transport items, people, vehicles, and other things.

Now, all these different ways for a package to travel mean there are a lot of variables that go into determining shipping price, you might be wondering, is there any way to pay a flat fee for it?

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