The terms freight and cargo share a few things in common, but their meanings in the world of transportation are quite different.

For businesses just getting into the import-export game, these terms are often blurred. Therefor, when talking ti industry professionals, using them in their proper contexts will help eliminate any possibilities for confusion.

In this article, we’ll clarify the differences between the two, exploring traditional definitions, modern contemporary use, and where the lines become blurred.

Traditional Differences Between Cargo & Freight

In a nutshell, the traditional difference between freight and cargo comes down to the type of vehicle carrying products.

Here are a few examples of common terminologies and their somewhat mixed meanings relative to the type of  vehicle:

  • Instead of freight planes, we use cargo planes
  • Instead of a freight ship, we use a cargo ship
  • Instead of cargo trains, we use freight trains

Additionally, long-haul trailers loaded with products are generally referred to as freight trucks.

Therefor, we associate the term used with the type of transportation mode used to move it. Over land, we would typically use the term “freight”, whereas transporting by air or on the seas would use the term “cargo”.

Still, whether we use traditional or contemporary definitions, there is an underlying common ground in both terms refer to the transportation of goods and products. Moreover, the terms cargo and freight are almost exclusively associated with commercial items.

That being said, there’s one interesting exception, and that is for anything under the umbrella of “mail” regardless of the transportation mode – train, truck, plane or ship. Whether it’s bundled letters, parcels or packages, as a category, these federally regulated items are always referred to as “cargo” instead of “freight”.

Freight vs Cargo, the Contemporary Differences

In the professional sense, logistics providers will think only of the goods being transported instead of their monetary value. Their focus is on the “freight-payable” aspect of moving the cargo; the actual costs and dollar value of moving the products from place to place.

The confusion then lies around the word freight itself as it is the rather ubiquitous term used to describe payment processes attached to the transport of goods.

For example, the word “freight” can describe any number of the following:

  • The money charged
  • Amounts payable
  • The product or goods itself
  • Goods moved by any method

Although the word freight is skewed towards land transportation methods, it’s also an acceptable term in deference to cargo moved by truck, train, plane, or cargo ship.

However,

cargo can only be called freight if it is used in reference to both the cargo itself and the transportation cost or payment rolled into one, which is where the lines start to blur.

Because the transportation industry is constantly evolving, and the world is becoming logistically more flat every day, the lines differentiating cargo and freight are blurring even more.

As time passes, they’re being used more interchangeably. Still, logistics specialists and international freight forwarders are more likely to stick to their traditional meanings.

In Summary, the Subtle Differences Between Cargo and Freight Are Well Worth Noting

In short, the term cargo is traditionally used to refer to commercial goods shipped by sea or plane, and mail of course, is always cargo.

Freight on the other hand,  is cargo moved overland in trucks or trains. Plus it has the direct connection to the financial aspects of the transportation of goods.

As a shipper of your own products, better understanding of the differences between these terms will help you avoid confusion, and possible errors through miscommunication while talking to your freight forwarder or 3PL provider.