The Best China-to-Europe Freight Transport Methods Compared
8 March 2022

The Best China-to-Europe Freight Transport Methods Compared

Traditional sea and air freight transportation options are facing competition from rail’s low prices and fast transit times. Let’s compare them.


In this time of unprecedented supply chain issues, it’s worth looking into other transportation methods you may not have considered before.

Sea freight dominates as the most common transportation method. However, current vessel shortages, port bottlenecks and container availability are stretching out lead times and raising prices to historic highs.

In the world of Rail Freight, new developments with overland routes between China and Europe make rail transport increasingly attractive with short transit times and reasonable pricing.

And Air Freight usage is increasing year by year due to its speed and reliability.

Let’s quickly review these three methods of transporting goods from China to Europe. And please keep in mind that freight specialists from Ziegler Group will help you make informed decisions about what solutions make sense for your business.

Sea Freight from China to Europe

Easily the most common method of freight transport to Europe from China, sea freight is ideal for bulk and volume freight where longer lead times aren’t as much of a concern. Oversized cargo that is unsuitable for rail or air freight is more easily managed with sea freight.

In addition to lower prices, sea freight offers extensive global coverage of ports and multiple carrier options.

Rail and air freight are faster than sea freight, but sea freight traditionally offers the lowest prices. However, that low-cost advantage almost disappeared in 2021, with the sea and rail price gap shrinking and getting closer in cost.

Sea freight is more environmentally-friendly than air or road transport, but rail is still considered the most sustainable and eco-friendly transportation solution from China to Europe.

Depending on your proximity to sea ports, especially in Southern and Western Europe, sea freight is still one of the best options, even if transit times are longer than by rail or air.

When sea freight makes sense for your business, freight forwarders like Ziegler Group can handle various services required to navigate all the steps, paperwork, and customs formalities when shipping cargo by sea.

Rail Freight from China to Europe

The viability of rail freight to Europe from China has increased with each passing year thanks to prioritised rail investments and development along the routes. More companies have incorporated rail freight into their supply chains as a result.

In the first half of 2021, there were 7,323 freight train trips between China and Europe. That is 43 percent more than the same period the previous year.

According to Diane Govaerts, Ziegler’s customers who switched to rail haven’t looked back.

“Many companies are happier with Rail Freight. It’s faster, less hassle and less can cause a delay, especially during the shortages and challenges we’re dealing with in late 2021.”

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Regarding transit times during the supply chain crisis of 2021, D. Govaerts says, “Normally goods would take around 18 days to reach European terminals from China. However, at the moment it’s taking about 18-25 days due to increased demand and some bottlenecks at points along the route – which is still faster than by sea.”

And the cost of rail and sea freight is now almost identical. So when looking for the best transportation solution from China to Europe, rail freight offers an excellent cost-effective price, faster transit times, lower impact on the environment, enhanced security for cargo and reliability of departure and arrival dates.

“In spite of the challenges, Ziegler’s partnerships along the whole route are good and we don’t have issues procuring containers and guaranteeing space on trains for our customers. Rail really is the future of transport between China and Europe, and it’s just going to get better in years to come.”

And the advantages will only continue to grow. China is improving and building rail connections, reducing transit and processing times, and investing in rail infrastructure along the routes between China and Europe. And new alternative routes are being developed to alleviate the congestion elsewhere.

Chinese rail companies work exclusively with freight forwarders to book transport, and so Ziegler Group can handle the entire process on behalf of the customer – from the factory in China through to delivery to your warehouse in Europe.

Companies of all sizes have worked with Ziegler Group to incorporate rail into their supply chain, diversifying their transit options, ensuring speedier delivery of high value products, and to meet contractual delivery dates.

Air Freight from China to Europe

Air Freight is ideal when transit times and enhanced security are a top priority. Air transport gives you the advantage of speed, security, and peace of mind knowing exactly where your goods are 100% of the time with track and trace.

Although volumes are generally lower than rail or sea freight, air freight allows you to send a single envelope or even charter an entire aircraft.

Air Freight is ideal if you have lower quantities of high-value items that cannot wait for the longer transit times of rail and sea (especially during the supply chain crisis of 2021 current situation).

Depending on your needs, location, lead times and order frequency, Ziegler Group’s freight specialists can help you determine the best way to leverage or combine different freight solutions to keep your business flourishing and your customers happy.