The 5 Biggest Differences Between FTL and LTL Shipping

Full truckload (FTL) and less-than-truckload (LTL) are the most common shipping modes available for your ground heavy freight transport needs. It's important for SMB shippers to understand the difference since choosing the right freight shipping options directly dictates rates and shipping times. Here are some of the most significant differences between FTL and LTL shipping.

What is FTL and LTL shipping?

Full Truckload (FTL): Larger freight that fills an entire trailer, and the shipper pays for the use of the entire truck. FTL freight shipping is the action of moving freight from one shipper to a single destination. FLT is great when you want a dedicated truck for your goods.

Less-than-Truckload (LTL): Combines separate shipments from multiple businesses to fill one truckload. The shipper is charged based on the space their freight occupies on the truck. LTL is best used for shipments that are too large for parcel shipping but don't fill an entire freight truck.

How routing works within FTL and LTL shipping

  • FTL Shipping: The driver picks up the freight at the shipper's location, a seal is placed on the trailer, and the driver takes the freight directly to the delivery location. Shipments typically arrive on schedule, barring transportation issues.
  • LTL Shipping: Routing is usually not directly to the receiver. That means reaching the freight's final destination typically takes longer than FTL shipping. Delivery dates are estimated or can be guaranteed by paying a premium. Freight may be loaded, then unloaded, and reloaded in and out of trucks multiple times along the course of the shipping route. The vast majority of LTL freight is delivered without any negative effects of this handling, but due to all the added handling, good packaging becomes more important in FTL shipping.

Pricing depends on freight class in LTL shipping

  • FTL Shipping: Typically, FTL carriers are not concerned with freight class specifications for shipping in dry trucks. Pricing information is based on industry capacity (availability of drivers and equipment), transportation type (dry-van, flatbed, refrigerated, etc) and fuel costs.
  • LTL Shipping: Shipping rates for various freight specifications can vary widely, even for the same size freight loads transported in the same shipping lanes. All LTL freight carriers use the same standard freight classification system set up by the National Motor Freight Traffic Association. Typically, the easier the freight is to handle and transport the better the shipping rates will be. Items with lower freight classes usually have the least expensive shipping costs.

Accessorial charges are typically higher in LTL shipping

  • FTL Shipping: A single freight load may take a driver several days to get it to its destination. So, FTL carriers are often less strict about charging for accessorials. For example, a driver assisting at the origination point may not be viewed as a meaningful cost issue for the FTL service during a trip of several days.
  • LTL Shipping: You pay only for the portion of the capacity your freight uses in a trailer (plus other pricing factors). That dollar amount you pay is divided across multiple drivers and hub and spoke locations (The hub refers to the central warehouse shipments are routed through, while the spokes are the routes trucks take to transport shipments). So, any activity or issue that causes any disruption or delay in the flow of the freight movement can be expected to trigger added accessorial charges. However, the total cost savings versus FTL shipping are typically still greater over time.

Pick-up and delivery times are not specified in LTL shipping

  • FTL Shipping: Drivers can set firm dates and times for pick-up and delivery appointments.
  • LTL Shipping: Drivers need the flexibility in scheduling that enables them to manage multiple pick-ups and deliveries during virtually every run. So, in LTL shipping, pick-up times are not guaranteed, and first-come-first-serve windows of at least two hours at the final destination are standard.

Choose the Freight Shipping Type that Fits the Load

Ultimately, the biggest consideration for shippers trying to determine whether FTL or LTL is right for their current shipment is this: LTL shipping is usually a more efficient and lower-cost option for moving smaller freight loads. If you have a dozen pallets or less, you should consider LTL service. But, if you have enough freight to fill a typical 53-foot truck, an FTL carrier is probably the most efficient and cost-effective choice.

Of course, there are numerous other differences between FTL and LTL carriers and other freight shipping service types. Doing some research to understand as many of these as possible upfront can help you form a more efficient and cost-effective shipping strategy for your company.

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