The Role of Port and Canal Costs in Shipping Pricing

auction in progress - group of ships of various types, such as cargo ships and tanke

In traversing global shipping routes, seagoing vessels pass through strategic ports and canal networks that serve as vital junctions for cargo flows. The various fees levied on ships utilizing these maritime passages and docking facilities constitute a significant component of overall operating budgets for shipping firms. As such, fluctuating port and canal costs ultimately impact the pricing dynamics in freight transport markets.

Prominent canals

The prominent canals facilitating shipping between international waters include the Panama Canal which bridges the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Suez Canal connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, and the Kiel Canal linking the North Sea to the Baltic Sea. Each charges tolls for passage based on factors like vessel size and volume of cargo. For example, a container ship traversing the Panama Canal may pay over $100,000 in toll fees, while mega-sized bulk carriers transiting the Suez often incur fees reaching $500,000 to $600,000.

Panama Canal Authority has introduced an auction system


The Panama Canal, which plays a role, in trade is currently facing a significant challenge due to a severe drought that has led to lower water levels. 

To address this issue the Panama Canal Authority has introduced an auction system where ships can bid for slots that allow them to move ahead in the queue. The starting bid for these slots is $55,000. Due to competition some bids have reached as high as $4 million.

According to a report from Markets Insider, shipping companies collectively spent $235 million in 2023 to secure transit times through the canal. 

ship crossing panama canal

This auction system has become a tool for the canal authority in managing ship traffic through this vital waterway (“The Panama Canal auctions more spots to jump the line amid a growing backlog of ships waiting to transit key waterway for commodities ” Markets Insider, 2023).

One notable example of how this backlog has affected finances is Maersk’s head of customer delivery in the Americas, Lars Oestergaard Nielsen’s revelation that they paid a $900,000 on top of the toll fee of $400,000 for each ship crossing the canal. This amounts to more than 3 times their toll fee.

This particular case, which was highlighted in an article, by Business Insider emphasizes the expenses that shipping companies have to bear in order to ensure passage through the canal (“The world’s worst traffic jam isn’t on any road. It’s at one of the most important shipping routes where ships are paying up to 3 times the fare just to get across ” Business Insider, 2023). The backlog and the resulting system of auctions not only have implications for these companies but also pose broader challenges to global trade. This situation particularly impacts the United States as it is the largest user of the Panama Canal. The canal plays a role in transporting commodities such as petroleum products, chemicals, coal, consumer goods and food. The ongoing situation poses a threat, to the flow of these goods.

Suez Canal in 2023 with an accident - large cargo ship partially blocking the canal, causing a noticeable disruption

The predicament of the Suez Canal

Similarly, the Suez Canal plays a role in connecting the Mediterranean and Red Sea regions. However, it faces access limitations that cause disruptions to the Asia-Europe corridor, which handles almost 25% of global container traffic.

As we witnessed during the incident involving the Ever Given in 2021 when the vessel got stuck for a week it resulted in a traffic jam with over 400 ships waiting to pass through. 

Expensive rerouting around Africa…

This led to expensive rerouting around Africa for shipments. Analysts estimate that this blockage caused a suspension of goods delivery worth than $9 billion highlighting the substantial economic impact that a potential shutdown of the Suez Canal could have.

Similar to increases in transit fees at Panama, denial of access, to the Suez Canal would directly affect carrier budgets and influence freight pricing decisions for customers.

Domestically within the United States

The most strategically important canal networks comprise the Intercoastal Waterway spanning the Eastern Seaboard, the Mississippi River bisecting the country by connecting the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, and the Columbia River facilitating shipping through the Pacific Northwest. Locks and channels along these corridors also assess assorted toll charges from barges and vessels carrying cargo. 

As with other ancillary costs like fuel, fluctuations in port authority levies and international or domestic canal tolls contribute to balance sheet considerations which shipping enterprises use to develop competitive yet profitable freight rates. Especially on international intermodal container routes flowing through critical bottlenecks like the Panama or Suez Canals, major hikes in passage fees can impact decision-making on pricing models. Though representing just one dynamic amongst many, analyzing trends in port and canal access costs thus provides useful context around prevailing shipment rates.

here are some FAQs about the role of port and canal fees in shipping costs

The high tolls charged for mega ships passing these major canals, which can exceed $500,000, contribute to firms’ operating costs that influence pricing decisions.

Variances in port access levies do factor somewhat into shipping companies’ expenditures and rate adjustments when marked changes occur.

Yes, barges and ships traversing domestic corridors like the Intercoastal, Mississippi River and Columbia River also pay assorted tolls and lock fees to local authorities.

For large container vessels, Panama Canal toll charges typically exceed $100,000 for a single crossing, part of overall operating costs.

Yes, analyzing probable increases in tolls through critical canals allows firms to account for these likely higher costs in their adjustable rate schedules.

When analyzing the busiest shipping canals globally, some similarities emerge in terms of key attributes and cargo types commonly transported:


The Panama, Suez and Kiel Canals share strategic geographic advantages by connecting major bodies of water and enabling more direct shipping routes. Their positioning saves vessel transit times that would otherwise require lengthy diversions.

High Traffic/Bottlenecks:

Being critical marine junctions, all these canals handle tremendous vessel traffic and can be vulnerable to periodic bottlenecks or logjams impacting the shipping industry. Executing traffic management is paramount.

Infrastructure Depth/Capacity:

These vital canals maintain sufficient depth, width and often employ lock systems to accommodate deep-draft mammoth cargo ships which could not transit otherwise, in contrast to more shallow waterways.

Most Common Cargoes

While diverse fleets use these canals, they do see higher proportional flows of certain goods like containerized finished products and components shipping internationally, liquefied natural gas for European and Asian energy demands as well as crude oil supplies diversity sourcing – all benefiting from more direct passages these canals facilitate through strategic locations.

All types of vessels utilize these critical marine crossroads

So while all types of vessels utilize these critical marine crossroads, the high frequency of container ships, LNG tankers and bulk petroleum carriers passing through leveraging the canals’ infrastructure capacities and more efficient routing does stand out as a trend. This higher prevalence of these cargo carriers highlights how the infrastructure and locations of canals like the Panama, Suez and Kiel align well with vessels transporting finished goods in containers, liquefied natural gas, and bulk oil shipments. The attributes of these canals enable more optimal transfers for such vessels and cargo types transiting between international ports and regions.

In summary

The containerized goods, LNG and oil cargo outputs of the ships most commonly using major shipping canals aligns with and benefits from the infrastructure, positioning and capabilities canal networks offer as vital navigational hubs. Let me know if this helps explain the intent of that sentence more clearly! I’m happy to reword further if the relationship between frequent cargo types and canal engineering attributes can be described more understandably.

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eezyimport is an online platform and is not a licensed customs broker. However, we work closely with a third-party licensed customs broker who can assist with any entry-related issues.

eezyimport is an online platform and is not a licensed customs broker. However, we work closely with a third-party licensed customs broker who can assist with any entry-related issues.

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