Everything You Need to Know About Car Shipping Rates and Terminology


Shipping a car can eat up much of your overlanding budget and thus may play an important role in the final decision as to your itinerary. The international shipping world is overwhelming, complicated and expensive.

Forced to find a quote in a professional market where terms like THC, B/L, and BAF are bandied about as if it’s all about the weather, it is easy to be confused about what you have to pay, and to whom.

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General Elements That Determine Car Shipping Rates

Like any merchandise, shipping rates are based on supply and demand. Little-used shipping routes, as well as busy ports, can be exorbitantly expensive in comparison to other routes or ports. Of course, a rise in oil prices will quickly influence any shipping quote but rates may also vary per season.

For example: In autumn containers from China to the U.S. and Europe are full because of the craze around Christmas presents and thus makes shipping your vehicle expensive. Subsequently, many containers return empty after Christmas and you might be able to ship your car for next to nothing to Asia then.

Read More: How to Ship a Car

Which Parties Get a Share of Shipping Costs?

Car-shipping costs consist of two main elements:

  • The ocean freight, which is paid to the shipping line.
  • The handling and clearing costs at the ports of loading and unloading – fees paid to port authorities, freight forwarders as well as the shipping line.

It is important to realize that the price of a container is standard, worldwide. The final price paid by you is determined by all operations and go-betweens that stand between that empty container on the quay and the car outside the port waiting to be shipped. The closer one can get to that empty container, the cheaper the shipment will be.

What Determines Car Shipment Rates?

Some shipping lines or agents want to know specifications such as the type of car, the age of the car and modifications made to the vehicle in order to determine a price. However, this should not be a point of discussion, it is irrelevant. Don’t get lured into a discussion on this issue because it will probably be used (in whatever way) to make you pay more than you should.

What is relevant information in determining shipping costs are aspects such as:

  • Port of departure and port of destination.
  • Season.
  • Oil price.
  • The weight of the vehicle.
  • The height of the car in case it doesn’t fit inside a 20 or 40 ft container.

Some practicalities of shipping costs:

  • Shipping costs are usually calculated and quoted in US dollars.
  • Any destination and import charges accrued through the port of destination are ultimately your responsibility, regardless of what has initially been quoted.
  • Note that in the case of immigration there are other costs involved than when bringing in a car just for the purpose of travel (which is called a temporary import). Never pay import duties when overlanding!

Read More: A Temporary Import Document – What is it and Why do you Need it?

How to Find Shipping Rates on the Internet

There is no umbrella search-site for shipping companies (at least not that we know of), where you can enter data like the port of departure, the port of destination and dates, and the computer subsequently provides a list with available shipping companies and their rates.

Be prepared for a time-consuming process of searching for all possible shipping companies that ply your desired route. Many of the large shipping companies do list timetables and through the contact page of their websites you may be able to request an estimate.

Unfortunately our experiences have taught us that many of these companies either do not respond to these requests or come with outrageous rates. An overseas shipment of a private vehicle is in general of no interest to large shipping companies as it will probably cost them more than it brings in. This may be a reason for not receiving any car shipment quote at all, or an outrageous one – a determent policy.

Our way: we visit the companies personally and find that one person who is passionate about what we’re doing and wants to help.

Shipping Quote Terminology

Shipping companies and freight forwarders use different terminologies to give a breakdown of their estimates, seemingly for no other reason than to create endless and incomprehensible lists of charges and surcharges.

We have learned to ask for the breakdown of the quote to be able to make comparisons with other shipping companies to cut down unnecessary costs or weed out unnecessary costs such as cleaning the container, field supervision, stuffing charges, or the creatively invented ones.

Shipping quotes can be assigned to one of the following categories:

  • Fees at the port of departure.
  • Ocean freight – the actual transport of the container.
  • Fees at the port of destination.

Some shipping jargon is commonly used and likely to be found in any shipping quote:

  • Ocean freight is the large bulk – the actual price for the container.
  • CAF, Currency Adjustment Factor – allows for changes in exchange rates during the journey.
  • BAF, Bunker Adjustment Factor – a charge covering possible fuel price fluctuations.
  • Congestion charges at busy ports.
  • Customs Clearance fees – fees to stamp a Carnet de Passage or to arrange a Temporary Import Document for the car.
  • THC, Terminal Handling Charges – port charges at both departure and destination ends.
  • B/L or BOL is the Bill of Lading fee – the official legal document representing ownership of the cargo and specifying the terms of delivery. This is your most important shipping document – without it, it will be impossible to retrieve the car!
  • Wharfage – a fee charged for the time the container sits on or passes through the wharf.
  • Lashing charges – to lash the car to the container floor.
  • Surcharges, such as peak season surcharge, security surcharge and so on.
Dog sniffing for drugs but it was not at ease in such a small space.

Minimizing Car Shipping Costs

A couple of tips to keep the budget as low as possible:

  • A regular car fits into a 20ft container. Sharing a 40ft container with another traveler may reduce shipping costs.
  • At the port of departure try to get some insight into the port handling fees and shipping line’s fees at the port of destination – preferably in writing – to minimize the risk of being cornered. (Which by no means the same as that you won’t be cornered). The obvious remark to your question, “How much will be charged by your shipping company at the port of destination?” without a doubt will be, “Oh, that won’t cost much.” Having a ballpark figure may help your negotiations at the port of your destination.
  • Be flexible about dates. Shipping one month earlier or later may save hundreds of dollars because of seasonal demand, like the China to Europe/U.S. shipments I talked about earlier.
  • The same can be said about the shipping route. Shipping to the eastern or western side of a continent may make a large difference in your shipping costs. It could determine whether you drive from Canada to Argentina, or the other way around.
  • Take the time to call around and compare quotes. Don’t decide just on the basis of quotes. Having a good feeling about a company may be the determining factor in selecting a shipping company.

Tips, Suggestions, Feedback?

What are your experiences with shipping your vehicle? Feel free to share them below in the comment section.

Originally published in 2013 / Updated in 2017

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4 thoughts on “Everything You Need to Know About Car Shipping Rates and Terminology”

  1. This is a terrific breakdown and thank you for sharing it! I came across this article while looking for information about deciding between shipping companies and this has been very helpful. I wanted to add that I ended up using A-1 Auto because they seemed a little easier to deal with, gave out prices and times, etc. Thanks again for unpacking some of the complicated terminology, it really was helpful.

  2. Thank you for sharing this information. It is really useful while shipping a car. As due to insufficient knowledge about car shipping many people have to face losses. Shipping rates depend on type, distance and service of car shipping. It is always better to first have shipping quotes and then transport your vehicle. There are many shipping companies like, who Take the shipping charges after the delivery of the vehicle. The company who provides you the quotes and exact information is trustworthy and hiring them is beneficial.


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