Pros and Cons of Intermodal and Multimodal Transportation for Small Business Freight Shipping

Pros and Cons of Intermodal and Multimodal Transportation for Small Business Freight Shipping
Back to blog

Pros and Cons of Intermodal and Multimodal Transportation for Small Business Freight Shipping

Intermodal and multimodal transportation represent critical facets of modern freight shipping, particularly for  businesses seeking to optimize their shipping processes. As global commerce becomes more interconnected, understanding the intricacies of these two forms of transport is paramount. While they may seem similar on the surface, key distinctions exist that can significantly impact your shipping decisions and overall business strategy. 

In this post, we’ll explore the pros and cons of both intermodal and multimodal transportation in order to provide SMBs with the necessary knowledge to make informed and efficient decisions regarding their freight shipping. 

Let’s delve into these two approaches, their similarities and differences, and how they can influence your logistics operations.

What is Intermodal Transportation?

Intermodal transportation refers to the use of two or more different modes of transportation in a journey to move goods from the sender to the receiver. In this setup, different service providers are involved for each mode (such as truck, rail, and sea) to move goods from origin to destination. One defining characteristic of intermodal transportation is that each of these transportation modes uses a separate contract, waybill, or bill of lading

Coordination between different service providers is required, and this can be done by the shipper, the receiver, or a third party that has been appointed to ensure seamless transitions between the different modes of transport.

The following example illustrates how an SMB might use intermodal transportation:

In this case, an SMB is importing furniture from China and using a freight forwarder only for a portion of the journey. The rest is coordinated directly with various service providers.

  • The SMB collaborates with a freight forwarder to find an optimal ocean carrier from China to the U.S.
  • The seller, as per incoterms, arranges for the furniture to be trucked to the port in China and loaded onto the ship.
  • Upon arrival in the U.S., a separate customs broker or the same freight forwarder takes care of customs clearance.
  • The SMB arranges a local trucking company to deliver the furniture from the port to the final destination.

This represents intermodal transport, where the SMB is directly involved in every stage of the transport, with separate contracts for different parts of the journey, leading to greater control but also increased complexity.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Intermodal Transportation for SMBs?

Intermodal transportation can offer a range of benefits to small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), but it also comes with its own set of challenges. Let’s explore these advantages and disadvantages in detail.


  • Flexibility: Intermodal transportation provides flexibility as it allows for the use of different modes of transport (ship, rail, truck) based on the requirements of the cargo and the destination.
  • Environmentally Friendly: Intermodal transportation can be more environmentally friendly than relying on a single mode of transport. For example, rail transport can be more fuel-efficient and produce fewer emissions than truck transport.
  • Scalability: As the business grows, intermodal transportation allows for easy scaling of transportation needs. This is particularly useful for SMBs that are in a growth phase.
  • Access to Global Markets: Intermodal transportation, particularly when it includes sea freight, opens up global markets that might not be accessible otherwise. This can be a significant advantage for SMBs looking to expand internationally.


  • Transit Times: Intermodal shipping can be slower than direct modes of transport due to the need for transfers between different modes of transport.
  • Limited Flexibility: While intermodal transport allows for scaling, it may lack the flexibility of single-mode transport. Any changes in the shipping schedule or route can be challenging to implement due to the involvement of multiple carriers.
  • Increased Complexity: Intermodal transportation involves overseeing multiple complicated stages, a number of carriers, and different equipment types, increasing the complexity of the shipping process. SMBs need to have a robust logistics system in place to manage this complexity.

What is Multimodal Transportation?

Multimodal transportation, like intermodal, uses two or more different modes of transportation to move goods from the sender to the receiver. However, in multimodal transportation, the entire journey from origin to destination is covered under a single contract, despite using different modes of transport. This means that there’s only one operator responsible for the entire shipment, making the process relatively streamlined. In some cases, this type of service is also called “door-to-door delivery.”

The following example demonstrates how an SMB might use multimodal transportation:

In this scenario, an SMB is importing furniture from China, allowing the freight forwarder to manage the entire journey, thereby relieving the business from the necessity of coordinating with multiple service providers.

  • The SMB hires a digital freight forwarder, like Ship4wd, who oversees the entire shipping process.
  • The freight forwarder coordinates with the seller in China to truck and load the furniture onto the ship.
  • The freight forwarder handles customs clearance in the U.S.
  • The freight forwarder arranges for a trucking company to deliver the furniture from the port to the final destination.

This scenario depicts multimodal transport where the freight forwarder manages the entire process under a single contract, resulting in a streamlined process for the SMB.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Multimodal Transportation for SMBs?

Like intermodal transportation, multimodal shipping has its own set of benefits and drawbacks. It’s important to understand these to make an informed decision about which method best suits your business needs.


  • Simplified Logistics: Since the entire shipping process is handled by a single operator, the process is more streamlined and less complicated than intermodal transportation. This can make logistics management easier for SMBs.
  • Time-Efficient: Multimodal transport can potentially be faster than intermodal transport. As one company is managing the entire process, the transition between different modes of transport can be quicker and smoother.
  • Reduced Risk: By using multiple modes of transport, the risk of delays due to issues with a particular mode can be reduced. If there’s a problem with one mode, the goods can often be shifted to another.


  • Cost: While multimodal transportation can sometimes be more cost-effective, it can also be more expensive due to the multiple stages of transport, each of which incurs its own costs and the additional work and responsibility the transportation company takes on itself.
  • Limited Control: Since the entire process is managed by a single operator, the shipper has less control over the individual segments of the journey. Any changes or adjustments would need to go through this operator.
  • Dependence on a Single Provider: If the service provider fails to deliver as expected, it could impact the entire transportation process, as there’s no easy way to switch providers mid-journey. It’s critical to choose a reliable service provider for multimodal shipping that is highly communicative and provides excellent customer support, ensuring you always know where your goods are during the entire shipping process.

Intermodal vs Multimodal: What’s the Difference, and Which is Better for SMBs?

Intermodal and multimodal transportation are two popular methods of shipping goods in today’s global market. While they may seem similar on the surface – both involve using multiple types of transportation (such as planes, trucks, ships, and trains) – there are key differences that can influence which option is best for your small or medium-sized business.

In intermodal transportation, each segment of the journey is under separate contracts. This gives you more control over each part of the transport process but can also complicate logistics and increase the time required for goods to reach their destination.

On the other hand, multimodal transportation combines all segments of the journey under a single contract. This can simplify logistics and potentially speed up delivery times, but it can sometimes come at a higher cost and with less control over individual transport segments.

Deciding between intermodal and multimodal shipping depends on the specific needs of your business. If your company is concerned with preserving full control and has the time and resources to manage multiple contracts and complex logistics, intermodal may be a good choice. If simplicity, speed, and reduced risk of damage or loss are more important, multimodal may be the better option.

As with any strategic decision, it’s crucial to consider the unique requirements of your SMB and weigh the pros and cons of each shipping method before deciding which to use.

How Ship4wd Supports SMBs With Intermodal and Multimodal Shipping

The expertise we offer at Ship4wd makes us an ideal partner for SMBs regardless of the shipping scenario, be it intermodal or multimodal. 

As your digital freight forwarder, we make it easier for you to quote, book, and track shipments, and our 24/7 customer support team is ready to help you with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your shipment or how to use our digital platform.

Our experts are here to help you every step of the way, whether you’d like us to participate in your intermodal shipping operation or if you prefer our full-service door-to-door solution, which manages all aspects of multimodal shipping.

Choosing between intermodal and multimodal transportation doesn’t have to be complicated. With Ship4wd, you get a trusted partner who simplifies shipping, so you can focus on what truly matters – growing your business. Sign up with Ship4wd today, and let us show you how we can help take your international shipping operations to the next level.

Take control of your shipping

Sign up to create a new account
By signing up you are agreeing to terms & conditions