LTL and FTL Shipping Explained | How to Choose the Right Freight Solution

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Terms such as full truckload (FTL) and less-than-truckload (LTL) can confuse eCommerce sellers. Both FTL and LTL have their pros and cons, and it can be difficult for brands to choose the right one for their unique needs. For this reason, many eCommerce businesses partner with third-party logistics (3PL) providers such as Shipnetwork. The 3PL partner can assist with seamless, hassle-free delivery. However, understanding key topics in the shipping process can help you make better choices. In this article you will learn the following:

  • What do LTL and FTL stand for?
  • The meaning of FTL in trucking
  • The meaning of LTL in trucking
  • How LTL and FTL work to help eCommerce businesses fulfill delivery

ftl ltl - Rakuten Super Logistics

What Does FTL Mean in Trucking and How Does it Work?

First, let’s define FTL in shipping. In FTL or full truckload shipping, a retailer hires the complete space in a semi-truck carrier or trailer. The retailer chooses between dry van, flatbed, and refrigerated trailers, and their goods may or may not use the trailer’s total capacity. 3PL providers or the booked shipping company will offer the necessary guidance and instructions for packaging based on the consignment. 

Goods readied for transportation are loaded onto pallets. Next, the pallets are loaded onto well-built crates or container vehicles. On average, an entire truck shipment for a dry van trailer will consist of 24 standard pallets of cargo weighing up to 45,000 pounds and sometimes even higher.

FTL shipments are ideal for the delivery of large consignments. Quite a few companies prefer FTL even for smaller consignments. This ensures their cargo condition and delivery timelines aren't affected by other shippers’ goods sharing space in the LTL trailer. In FTL shipments, goods are generally moved directly to the destination within a fixed timeline. Once the trailer is sealed, freight isn’t handled en route. What's more, transit time is low and delivery is quick.

What Does LTL Mean in Trucking and How Does It Work?

When products ready for shipment do not need a full truckload, we call it LTL or less than truckload freight. When shipping LTL, a single trailer will carry cargo from several shippers or companies in a single trip. Usually, there are multiple stops before LTL consignments reach their final destination. LTL trailers are loaded with goods until their full or near-full capacity is used. A shipper’s cargo, weighing anywhere between 150 and 10,000 pounds, is palletized and loaded onto a trailer.

To maintain cost and operational efficiency, LTL shipments are delivered via a hub-and-spoke distribution model: 

Step 1

  • LTL freights from a specific region are gathered at a hub.

Step 2

  • Smaller shipments that need to be moved to a particular destination are bundled together in a truck or trailer.

Step 3

  • The truck stops at multiple points to deliver LTL consignments at appropriate destinations while moving toward its final destination.

Small businesses and eCommerce retailers who deliver limited cargo at a time tend to opt for LTL shipments. Any company with fewer shipping requirements and budget restrictions can utilize LTL for delivering cargo.

FTL vs LTL | 8 Differences You Need to Know

Both LTL and FTL shipments are palletized, secured, and loaded onto semi-trucks before beginning their journey. While LTL carriers occasionally use intermodal rail shipping, both FTL and LTL carriers use the road as their primary mode of transportation. So, what is the difference between LTL and FTL freight? The space they occupy in the trailer is undeniably the key differentiator. Let’s look at eight more key points that separate the two.

1. Cost

In the case of FTL, you’ll book an entire trailer. Hence, the cost will be higher than what you would pay for an LTL shipment.

Are you looking to deliver only a few pallets at a time? The LTL shipping method can be cost-effective in this case. You’ll pay only for the space in which your goods or pallets occupy in the trailer. 

2. Accessorial Charges

For FTL, the driver assigned to deliver your shipment will be at your service right from the moment your goods are picked up from the source through delivery. FTL carriers spend quite a few days on the road to deliver a single shipment and are generally lenient with accessorial charges. For a journey spanning 3-5 days, they may not bother adding detention charges for a few extra minutes of trailer use beyond the free time period.

In the case of LTL, as your shipment will occupy only a small part of the trailer, it will likely be handled by multiple drivers and staff across different warehouses. A little delay can impact the delivery of other truckload shipments, too. To ensure efficiency, LTL carriers generally charge extra for anything that delays delivery or causes disruption. Do consider accessorial charges if you are opting for an LTL carrier for your shipment.

3. Freight Handling and Safety

Once a shipper loads palletized merchandise at the starting point, in the case of shipping FTL, the trailer is sealed and the driver delivers the shipment directly to its destination.

As LTL shipments can contain goods from multiple shippers, your cargo may be taken in and out of the trailer several times before it reaches the consignee. The probability of damage in LTL shipments is higher due to the increased movement. Hence, if you opt for LTL, we recommend taking extra care while packing your products to avoid damage during transit.

On the brighter side, since there’s space in the trailer after your freight shipment is loaded, LTL delivery will improve your pallets’ safety by loading in goods from other shippers. This will help to reduce shock and vibration during transit.

ltl shipments - Rakuten Super Logistics

4. Freight Class 

Your FTL carrier may ask you simple questions regarding your shipment:

  • Will your goods be palletized? 
  • Are you shipping any hazardous material such as fuel, toxic chemicals, and nuclear waste products? 
  • What’s the legal weight of your shipment — the total weight of your merchandise along with its packaging?

Generally, FTL carriers don’t ask you for the exact specifications of your goods, and answers to the three questions should be enough to give you a pricing estimate.

LTL carriers utilize the National Motor Freight Traffic Association’s (NMFTA’s) freight classification system to classify cargo and calculate shipping rates. This system comprises 18 different classes, ranging from Class 50 for the least expensive deliveries to Class 500 which is indicative of the most expensive deliveries. Based on your goods’ freight class, your estimate may show a very high amount despite having only a few pallets.

5. Reweighing for Accuracy

Once your goods are loaded onto the trailer, in the case of FTL, the driver will drive to a weigh station to ensure the gross vehicle weight is within the 80,000-pound legal limit. Once verified, the next inspection will be required only when the consignee receives the goods and the seal is broken. Multiple inspections during transit are very rare.

LTL shipment weights are inspected differently with automated weighing and volume measuring systems called dimensioners. The carrier will review the product once the goods are loaded. A dimensioner will scan loaded pallets to verify shipment weight and dimensions. If the weight indicated by the dimensioner doesn’t match the listed product specifications, there’s a possibility of freight reclassification. This could lead to additional charges.

6. Transit Time

If you opt for FTL, once your large shipments are loaded onto the trailer, the driver will take it straight to the consignee. In this case, it’s easy to predict delivery timelines quite accurately based on vehicle mileage, vehicle speed, service hours, and traffic estimates. You can be sure that the shipment will reach the consignee within the predicted timeframe unless there’s a vehicle breakdown, natural disaster, or an unpredictable event.

If you go for LTL, transit time can be greater in comparison with that of an FTL shipment. This is because, almost always, the route isn’t straight through. There could be delays and you may need to pay a premium for guaranteed on-time delivery of your LTL shipment.

7. Loading and Unloading Windows

For FTL shipments, drivers usually accept firm appointment times so they can arrive at the appointment-based facility at the right time.

In the case of LTL shipments, almost always, consignments are loaded or unloaded based on their order of arrival — on a first-come-first-serve (FCFS) basis. The FCFS arrangement offers flexibility to LTL drivers fulfilling multiple pick-ups and deliveries per run. However, pick-ups are not guaranteed.

8. Trailer Specifications

If you opt for FTL, your goods will likely be loaded onto a 53-foot trailer that has swing doors. The vehicle will have a width of 102 inches and a 110-inch clearance height.

LTL carriers use trailers with slightly different heights. These trailers, too, are 53-feet long and 102-inch wide but have roll doors instead of swing doors. The clearance height for these trailers is only 96 inches.

What’s Best for Your Specific Needs | FTL or LTL?

Do you need further help deciding what’s best for you when considering LTL vs FTL freight shipping? Here are six additional pointers to help you make a better choice:

  1. We suggest LTL freight if your shipment comprises less than 12 pallets and FTL in case you’re shipping over 12 pallets at a time.
  2. If you’re looking to transport fragile items, sensitive merchandise, or high-value cargo that needs special handling and care, it’s best to go for FTL. As pallets in LTL shipments are likely to be moved in and out of the trailer and warehouses multiple times, the probability of damage is higher.
  3. If you’re looking to fulfill a time-sensitive delivery, it’s better to go for FTL. FTL shipments usually have timely pick-ups and deliveries, unlike LTL shipments.
  4. As LTL shipments are less expensive, if budget is a constraint, we recommend going in for LTL freight.
  5. eCommerce companies with small shipments can't keep customers waiting for their products over long periods. They also can't wait for their consignment to reach a trailer’s full truckload capacity, making LTL the viable option.
  6. LTL can save costs if you’re looking to transport a smaller load. But, in case your consignment is significantly heavier for its size, doesn’t have a regular shape, or will occupy over half of a truckload. So check for the pricing of both FTL and LTL before making the final decision. FTL may work out better, being cost-effective and faster.

Now that you have all the important information, we hope you can make an informed decision between FTL and LTL shipping based on overall shipping costs, transit time, and handling requirements.

5 Reasons for Choosing Shipnetwork as Your FTL or LTL Shipping Partner

We understand that freight logistics and transportation can be time-consuming for eCommerce retailers. Our clients rely on us for their LTL and FTL shipping requirements for the scalability, flexibility, and cost savings we provide: 

  1. We promise 100% order accuracy, next-day shipping, and U.S-based client service. 
  2. Our team of freight experts will take care of your shipping needs right from pick-up to drop-off at the final destination without any hassles. We’ll give you a rate quote, generate the bill of lading, arrange the carrier, schedule merchandise pickup, provide an update on the estimated delivery of your goods, and also offer proof of delivery.
  3. Our exclusive SmartFreight technology enables us to offer cost-effective and efficient freight movement and transportation solutions.
  4. As your 3PL partner, we’ll shop for competitive rates for both FTL and LTL shipments, so you can enjoy low freight costs.
  5. Right from the starting point to the final destination, you’ll be able to track your goods accurately.

ftl shipping - Rakuten Super Logistics

Partner With Shipnetwork for Your FTL & LTL Shipping Needs

At Shipnetwork, we work closely with our clients to evaluate the most viable LTL and FTL shipping solutions at a low cost. Our wide network of facilities across the U.S. enables us to assist eCommerce companies with their shipping needs efficiently.

If you’re looking for a trusted 3PL freight provider, we’re here for you. Request a quote today.


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