Written by
David Koke
Senior Marketing Manager

Beacon’s supply chain visibility and collaboration platform empowers organizations to achieve more efficient, reliable and sustainable supply chains.

In this article

February 15, 2024

How to track a shipping container – the easy way

You know what it’s like to waste hours every week tracking containers using multiple platforms.

Logging into various carrier and freight forwarder portals. Entering dozens of tracking numbers. And then pasting the results back into a master spreadsheet, your ERP or an email summary. 

That’s nobody’s idea of a good time. But whenever you send goods from one place to another, shipment tracking is a vital process that serves as the foundation of resilient supply chains. 

Without it, you’re a step behind when things go wrong. Because up-to-date tracking makes it easier to identify and then act on any issues while they’re still small enough to handle without too much fuss. 

Even though it’s essential, shipping container tracking isn’t always as easy as it should be.

We’re all familiar with the struggle of staying on top of different shipments being transported by different carriers to different ports around the world – the work never ends.

But technology makes it easier than ever to track shipping containers – if you’ve got the right tools. 

How does container tracking work?

For many businesses, the ability to track a shipping container depends on a patchwork of tools from your network of supply chain partners.

That would usually mean manually logging into a carrier portal with a bill of lading number, container number, or booking number to get updates. 

  • Bill of lading tracking: Every bill of lading outlines the origin and destination of a shipment (or shipments), the goods being shipped, and their value. They also feature a unique number that can be used for tracking.
  • Booking number tracking: This is very similar to bill of lading tracking, but instead uses a system-generated booking number provided by the shipping company (or freight forwarder).
  • Container number tracking: Lastly, a container number is often more accurate than a booking or bill of lading number, as both of those can sometimes incorporate multiple containers. 

Whatever number you need to use for tracking, you should be able to find it on your bill of lading, as you can see in the example below that shows a bill of lading number as well as a booking number.

Source: yumpo.com

Once the shipment and ship it’s on are identified, the carrier whose portal you’re logged into will give you an up-to-date status of where that shipment is in the world using its own data sources. 

But even though this might give you some answers, tracking your containers at scale is still a lengthy and very manual process if you don’t use any container tracking software.

To put things in perspective, think about how many containers you have to keep track of in a typical year.

Let’s say you’re moving 2,000 containers, and that number is spread over somewhere between 10 and 20 different carriers.

That’s an awful lot of time spent manually typing, searching, and pasting. Time that could be much better spent on something else. 

Why tracking a shipping container manually isn’t your best bet

Siloed systems

Here’s an example. If you’re on the MSC tracking system and want the most accurate updates, you’ll need to find the relevant container numbers on your bill of lading (as shown in the example above) and then enter them for each and every container that you want to track.

This will tell you exactly where they are in the world – from Brazil to Bahrain. 

The problem is that every carrier's system is slightly different, and they can’t talk to each other to bring everything into one place.

This is a challenge for businesses with lots of different shipments across multiple carriers, because they’ll have to bounce between systems to see the full picture of where their shipments are, and when they’re expected to arrive. 

So if you’re limited to airline and ocean carrier systems, manually entering tracking numbers over and over again is a major drain on time.

But it’s far from the only issue.

Outdated data

You’ll also want to store your tracking data somewhere for easy reference without logging into various portals and systems.

Spreadsheets have traditionally been the answer here, but the moment you enter data into one, you run the risk of it becoming out of date – which you won’t know until the next time you check that specific shipment’s tracking details. 

This is a particularly big problem if you’re sharing tracking data with customers, partners and other stakeholder parties.

If you can’t do that regularly, the spreadsheets you’re pinging around could easily be stuffed full of information that’s hours, days or even weeks out of date.

Multiple sources of truth

Add to this the simple fact that, for most businesses, maintaining a single ‘source of truth’ using spreadsheets just isn’t realistic.

The lack of a single, accessible location for information makes it all but impossible to get insights from your supply chain or easily see the full picture.

But there’s an easier way to get full visibility of your supply chain and the different shipments within it.

Say hello to Beacon.

Track all your shipments in real time, in one place

Beacon integrates with carrier portals, port databases, GPS data and satellite imagery to automatically pull together the most accurate tracking information. 

Because Beacon tracks 98% of the world’s ocean carriers and airlines – with more added all the time – all your shipments sit on one dashboard.

That means no more wasted time copying hundreds of different tracking updates into dozens of different spreadsheets.

Freeing you and your teams up to focus on other jobs, whilst knowing all your containers are being tracked in one place, and the data you and your partners are seeing is always up-to-date. 

The benefits of real-time container tracking with Beacon

Beacon features all the tools you need to visualize and optimize your supply chain.

That includes customizable searches to find specific shipments, instant alerts whenever something, somewhere goes wrong, and access to historical data so you can make better decisions in the future. 

Intuitive collaboration tools make it easy to share information across teams and with supply chain partners, making your business more structured and transparent, while also reducing detention and demurrage costs by making it easier to course-correct whenever things change. 

That’s the power of real-time supply chain tracking software.

So get started with Beacon tracking today to stay on top of your shipments – wherever they’re going.