Freight is the lifeblood of Hawaiʻi’s businesses. However, getting cargo to, from, and around an isolated location like the Hawaiian Islands can feel complex.

To help add ease to your mainland, interisland, and international cargo logistics, we put together this guide to Hawaiʻi freight.

Below, you’ll hear expert freight tips from our teams on Oʻahu, Maui, Kauaʻi, and both sides of the Big Island (Hilo and Kona). These must-knows will help you keep your Hawaiʻi freight moving—and ensure it arrives in excellent condition. (We’ll even try to save you some money along the way!)

#1: Right-Size Solutions Are Available

Much of Hawaiʻi’s freight moves to the island in ocean freight containers—20-foot and 40-foot standard containers, high cubes, open tops, and flat racks.

However, you’re not locked into sending a full-container load to Hawaiʻi. There are several freight forwarders who handle less-than-container load (LCL) freight.

LCL freight moves in what are called consolidations. Here’s how they work:

  • A freight forwarder will collect smaller shipments all bound for the same destination.
  • Much of this freight is palletized—but not all of it. Shippers may send a few boxes, a pallet, or a couple of pallets, and they only pay for the space they need.
  • The forwarder loads all the freight into a container, sends it to the right Hawaiian Island, unpacks it on arrival, and then moves each individual shipment to its final location.

To sum it up, flexible Hawaiʻi freight solutions are available, if you know where to look.

For mainland freight, we partner with our DeWitt sister company, Approved Freight Forwarders. Between our two teams, we can handle most every kind of freight to Hawaiʻi—and we move freight direct to all islands twice weekly.
More on that below!

Even though flexible options are available via consolidations, some LCL shipments can be easier to handle than others.

When a freight forwarder loads a container, it’s a little like playing a game of Tetris. Palletized shipments that are up to at 84″ tall, 80″ wide and 48″ deep are like those handy Tetris squares that drop from the sky. They’re easy pieces to find a place for.

Here’s how this benefits you: If your shipment conforms to those specifics, you’ll:

  • Likely secure the best rates available for your shipment, since it’s easy for a forwarder to find space for your pallet, and it’s simple for them to load/unload with a forklift.
  • Subject your freight to minimal handling. Freight that doesn’t conform to standard sizes may need to get deconsolidated and repackaged. For example, if you send over a pallet of boxes higher than 84″, your forwarder may take off the top few rows to bring your shipment down to standard size and then place those boxes on another pallet. Although your provider will be careful—and they’ll keep all your cargo together for delivery—less handling is almost always better.
  • Set the stage for an easy delivery. As we mentioned, this standard pallet size fits in a box truck. Because these trucks can maneuver most anywhere, you’ll reduce the possibility of running into access issues. (Always a consideration in Hawaiʻi!)
By the way, if you need any advice on packaging your freight, our experts are happy to help. Just tell us what you're shipping and your timelines, and we'll work with you to uncover new efficiencies and minimize your costs.

#2: Direct Service = Faster Arrival for Mainland-Hawaiʻi Freight

When you’re moving ocean freight from the mainland to Oʻahu, Maui, Kauaʻi, or the Big Island, there are two schools of thought:

#1: Hub and Spoke

Some businesses move all their freight to Oʻahu, truck it to a warehouse, sort and segregate it, and then take it back to Honolulu Harbor to transport it by interisland barge to Maui, Kauaʻi, or the Big Island.

#2: Ship Direct

Other companies sort and segregate on the mainland, and then send the freight directly to neighbor islands without sorting and segregating on Oʻahu.

The bottom line is this: If you don’t want to unload, truck, and sort your cargo on Oʻahu, there are other options.

Direct service is available to Kahului Harbor (Maui), Nāwiliwili Harbor (Kauaʻi), and Kawaihae Harbor and Hilo Harbor (Big Island). Once your freight arrives in Honolulu, we can arrange for it to be transferred right to an interisland barge headed for the right island.

It’s easy to see why direct service is faster. In many cases, you can have your freight in hand as soon as two weeks after it leaves a California port. Direct service is also more efficient, and it will save you money on taxes, warehousing, and transportation costs.

We encourage our customers to ship direct to Maui, Kauaʻi, and the Big Island (both sides!) whenever possible. We coordinate these shipments with Approved Freight Forwarders, who uses their dedicated terminal in Los Angeles to sort and segregate shipments as needed before they head to Hawaiʻi.

#3: Twice Weekly Service Is Available—and It Can Make a Big Difference

Further on the topic of getting your freight to Hawaiʻi as quickly as possible, you should know that twice-weekly service from the mainland is available.

Some freight providers only offer weekly sailings. If you miss a cut-off, you’ll have to wait an additional week for your freight to arrive. That might mean running out of stock on a popular item, or having to tell a customer that you can’t get them the item they need. Neither is a good situation to find yourself in.

A provider with two sailings per week ultimately offers you more flexibility, so it’s something to look for when you’re choosing a partner for your Hawaiʻi freight.

#4: Owned Fleets Mean Preferred Scheduling

Some freight providers don’t have a physical presence in Hawaiʻi. As a result, they may either not offer on-island pickup or delivery—or they may use agents.

Essentially, an agent is a contracted trucking company that handles just the Hawaiʻi end of a freight project.

For example, if you have a shipment that’s coming into Nāwiliwili Harbor on Kauaʻi and your freight forwarder doesn’t have an office on Kauaʻi, they’ll arrange for another company to receive the freight and deliver it to its final destination in Kapaʻa. That other company who completes the delivery would be considered an agent.

Here’s where it gets tricky: That agent likely has customers of its own—direct customers that they’ve formed a strong relationship with. When it comes to choosing who gets a preferred delivery time, agents can be more inclined to choose their direct customers. Second-tier customers may be left choosing the less desirable time slots. Or, if the agent is busy, they may not be able to deliver second-tier customers’ freight as quickly.

Working with a company that owns its own fleet in Hawaiʻi means you’re more likely to get first choice of pick-up and delivery times. Additionally, your freight is more likely to move with greater urgency.

Ask your Hawaiʻi freight partner whether they’re using agents, and how that might affect your pick-up or delivery schedule.

In Hawaiʻi, Equipment Matters

Narrow roads, steep driveways, uneven terrain, and tight layouts can make freight pick-up and delivery challenging on just about every one of Hawaiʻi’s islands. (Even in busy Waikiki, where loading docks are few and far between!)

Look for a freight provider with a full fleet of owned equipment. Our teams use box trucks, flatbeds, and tractor-trailers to deliver freight—whatever’s best for the scenario.

#5: Know Your Freight Service Levels

At Royal Hawaiian, we’re thrilled to offer a full range of freight services on Oʻahu, Maui, Kauaʻi, and the Big Island, including inside delivery and white glove service. We even do installations and debris removal.

We know that the logistics jargon used to describe these freight services can feel confusing, so we’ll give you a quick run-down below. That way, you’ll know exactly what type of service to request for your next freight project.

Curbside Delivery/Pick-Up
  • What it means: Curbside is standard freight service. Just as it sounds, the driver picks up or delivers freight to the curb. Freight might be left on a loading dock, at the end of a driveway, or at a warehouse door.
  • What’s not included: The driver isn’t required to come inside/cross the threshold. Curbside also doesn’t include unpacking services or debris removal.
Inside Delivery/Pick-Up
  • What it means: In an inside delivery, the driver actually enters the place of business to deliver or pick up freight. Note that the driver is only required to come just across the threshold to drop or retrieve the freight.
  • What’s not included: The driver is not required go down a long hallway, climb stairs, or use an elevator to pick up or deliver the freight. Unpacking and debris removal is also not included.
White Glove Service
  • What it means: White glove is the highest service level available—and it’s highly customizable. White glove delivery might include services like unpacking, assembly, putting freight in place, and removing debris. White glove pick-up can include accessing freight wherever it’s located within a building, packing it for transit, and then loading it on a truck to move it to its next destination.
  • How much does it cost? If you’re interested in white glove service, our team will put together a complimentary quote for you.
Tip: If you want to take advantage of higher levels of freight service than standard curbside delivery, let your provider know ahead of time. That way, they can show up with the right team members and the right type of equipment to get the job done.

#6: Packaging Matters

Moving Hawaiʻi freight quickly and efficiently is just half the job. The other half is making sure it arrives in excellent condition.

That’s where packaging comes in. Proper packaging makes a world of difference for preventing freight damage. It not only protects your freight in transit, but it also enables your freight providers to handle it properly, minimizing potential bumps and bruises along the way.

To help you keep your Hawaiʻi freight as pristine as possible, we’ve put together a few packaging best practices from our freight team:

#1: Palletize and Shrink Wrap Whenever Possible

Freight that’s properly shrink wrapped and palletized can be easily loaded and offloaded with a forklift. This means minimal manual handling, which reduces the possibility for damage. Items that need to be hand-loaded can be at a higher risk for scrapes and bumps.

For extra protection, our team prefers to band ocean freight. This is especially true for interisland freight, which travels on an open barge. (If you need help banding your freight, talk to our team!)

#2: Avoid Common Palletizing Mistakes

The two most frequent problems we see with palletized freight include:

  1. Pallet overhang, which may expose your freight to potential crushing. It might also require special handling—and an extra charge—if the overhang prevents other freight from being loaded alongside.
  2. Freight that isn’t properly secured to the pallet, which can allow freight to shift in transit.

Avoiding these two issues will keep your freight safer in transit—and prevent unexpected charges.

#3: Leave Specialty Items to the Experts

Some of the freight shipments we get are one-off freight projects, including shipping equipment for Hawaiʻi businesses, hospitals, and medical offices.

For high-value, specialized equipment, it pays to call in the pros to handle the packaging. Depending on the piece, we may even build a custom crate to protect the equipment in transit. You don’t want to take a chance with big-ticket items. Asking a professional team to handle the packaging means more peace of mind for you.

Ultimately, a little extra care with your packaging can save you a ton of time and heartache. Our team is always here to help if you want to talk packaging before starting your next freight project.

Hawaiʻi: A Unique Place with Unique Freight Considerations

As you know, things work a little different here in Hawaiʻi. Freight is no exception. But with these tips, you’ll be well on your way to smooth sailing with your next freight shipment.

By the way, if you’re shipping to or from one of Hawaiʻi’s neighbor islands, don’t miss our island-specific freight guides:

Finally, we’d love to assist with your next Hawaiʻi freight project. We work with mainland, interisland, and even international freight. (With an assist from our DeWitt sister company, Approved Freight Forwarders!) Reach out to our team, let us know how we can help, and we’ll connect you with an affordable, efficient Hawaiʻi freight solution.

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