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The Extra Mile

Shipping Tips

Demystifying the LTL vs FTL Freight Shipping Decision

The Yellow Team | July 22, 2022

    Graphic illustrating the difference between less-than-truckload and full truckload shipments

    Here are the key factors that shippers should consider while choosing between less-than-truckload (LTL) and full truckload (FTL) for their shipments.


    “LTL” and “FTL” are frequently used terms in the trucking industry. However, as a shipper, you may have struggled with making the choice or even doubted the decision you made. With driver shortages, capacity crunches, regulatory mandates and disruptions in the global supply chain, it is more important than ever that you make smart and informed shipping decisions. The appropriate mode of transportation or trucking service should fit your specific needs. The right choice will help you meet deadlines, assure customer satisfaction and stimulate your business growth by increasing profitability.


    What is the difference between LTL and FTL?


    Less-than-truckload (LTL) and full truckload (FTL) are the two most traditionally used modes of ground transportation throughout North America. As the names suggest, the key difference between the two is that LTL shipments partially occupy trailer space, while FTL freight (sometimes also referred to as “truckload”) meets the entire space and/or weight limits of a 48- or 53-foot trailer. There are other differentiating factors between FTL and LTL as well, like cost, delivery times and handling.


    A worker loading a pallet onto a truck

    How to choose between LTL and FTL


    Each of these two transportation modes have specific pros and cons. For example, one might be more cost-effective than the other, or may ensure more secured transportation for your cargo. While there might be several factors influencing this decision, there are a few key things about your freight and shipping needs that play a major role in making the right choice. Below are four questions that you must consider the next time you move your shipment:


    1. What is the size and weight of your shipment?


    Your shipment will fit best in the LTL mode if it consists of less than 10 pallets or weighs under 15,000 pounds. Also, the combination of size and weight helps calculate freight density, which determines the freight class for your LTL shipment. You may use our online density calculator to accurately determine your shipment’s density.


    If your shipment is larger and exceeds these dimensions, FTL would be the way to go.


    2. What is your budget?


    Naturally, securing an entire truck would cost more outright than paying for trailer space. If you don’t have the volume or if you are able to split up your load, LTL shipping will likely be more affordable. 


    However, with FTL shipping, you pay by the mile as opposed to weight or freight class. If you have the volume, FTL can save you money. A few other things that can impact truckload capacity and cost are seasonal trends, such as agricultural booms and holiday uptick.


    3. What type of cargo are you shipping?


    With freight traveling directly from point A to point B, FTL offers less handling, which means fewer potential freight damages. If you have a high-value shipment that is vulnerable to theft (think pharmaceuticals, electronics, or defense goods), FTL shipping eliminates the truck transfers that could pose a security risk. Or if you are moving fragile cargo or cargo that might get contaminated within a shared space, FTL may be best-suited to meet your needs. 


    For less sensitive cargo that can deal with some increased handling, LTL services are more convenient.


    4. Is your shipment time-sensitive?


    Typically, LTL shipments take a little longer and operate on estimated delivery dates (unless you pay for a guaranteed or time-critical service), as transit is not straight through. If you are flexible with your pick-up and delivery timeline, LTL can be more cost-effective than FTL.


    Also, as trucking capacity gets tighter across the country, some shippers choose FTL and are willing to pay to keep a vehicle on standby, especially if the shipment consists of certain healthcare and manufacturing verticals where the ability to ship freight immediately is essential.

    A Yellow tractor with two trailers

    In Summary


    In short, LTL is generally more budget-friendly for a smaller volume of cargo, while FTL shipments involve fewer touches and can meet firm delivery and pick-up dates for a higher price. The next time you question whether to choose LTL or FTL, just go over the above checklist of questions to make an informed and cost-effective decision. Also, having some up-to-date knowledge on which carriers specialize in what types of freight can go a long way in ensuring that you secure the most efficient solution as trucking capacity continues to tighten.


    If you are looking for advice on more complex requirements pertaining to your shipment, contact a Yellow account executive today to learn more or to address your specific needs.

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