Less than truckload, less than load, and LTL freight are terms used to describe palletized or large parcel freight shipments that don’t fill up a freight carrier’s truck. Typically, LTL freight is a shipment ranging from 1 to 6 pallets, crates, oversized parcels, or other shipping units. Shipments of around 7 units or more that fill most or all of a carrier’s truck are called partial or full truckload (FTL) shipments.
For years, I reduced my online store’s shipping costs by using LTL freight when shipping large, heavy, or multibox orders to customers. It’s not hard to do and is a great tool to expand your sales reach into large commercial orders. In this guide, we’ll explore the ways you can pack LTL freight shipments, plus cover things that can help you save money and time.
In particular, we’ll cover:
- What is LTL Freight
- When Should You Use LTL Freight
- How LTL Freight is Priced
- Your LTL Freight Shipper Options
- How to Pack Your LTL Freight Shipment
- Other Volume Shipping Options
As you read through this guide, remember that the right freight partner makes shipping LTL freight easy and hassle-free. So when you’re done, be sure to check out our guide covering top-rated freight brokers and online exchanges here.
What is LTL Freight?
If you’ve received a pallet, large box, or crate delivered by truck, then you’ve received LTL freight. The term LTL freight simply means less-than-load or less-than-truckload, and is used to define freight shipments that don’t fill up an entire truck.
LTL shipments often use wrapped pallets (left), wood crates (center), or corrugated containers (right):
Most carriers consider a shipment between 1 and 6 units an LTL freight shipment. A larger shipment of 7 to14 units is generally considered a partial- to full-truckload shipment and is priced at different rates than LTL freight.
When Should You Use LTL Freight?
Once a parcel shipment reaches a certain number of boxes and total weight (the weight of all boxes added together), LTL freight can be far cheaper than shipping parcels individually. For my ecommerce company, the LTL savings tipping point was typically a 250-lb shipment. Depending on what you ship, your tipping point may be higher or lower. We’ll discuss LTL freight pricing in detail in the next section.
Another plus to shipping LTL freight: the entire order is packed into one unit that’s typically moved via forklift while enroute to your customer. This can help reduce breakage compared to shipping several smaller boxes that get tossed around by shipping employees along the way.
At first, preparing an LTL freight shipment can take more work that shipping several smaller boxes. And if you ship small parcels daily, the thought of interrupting your workflow to handle a large shipment might seem daunting. But believe me, the savings can be worth the effort.
Once you know how to do it, you’ll be quick to include LTL freight options in your shipping toolbox. This guide will give you all the information you need to see if, and when, LTL freight is right for you.
How LTL Freight is Priced
LTL freight rates are based on these five main factors:
- Total Weight of your shipment
- Total Size of your shipment
- The Distance it’s travelling
- The Service Type or delivery speed
- The Freight Class, based on the goods being shipped and/or shipment size
Now let’s look at each factor in detail:
1. The Total Weight of Your LTL Freight Shipment
This is the weight of your shipment, all packed and ready to go. For a single-piece shipment, you just need the final weight of the packed unit, be it a pallet, crate, or other container. For multi-piece shipments, just add the weights of all units together, like this:
2. The Total Size of Your LTL Freight Shipment
This is the total space, length x width x height, that your shipment will fill in a truck. For single-piece shipments, just measure length, width, and height of the packed freight. For multi-piece shipments, measure the width, height, then add the lengths together to get the total size of the shipment, like this:
Luckily, most LTL freight shippers will do this math for you when you get a quote. But remember, it’s important to be accurate when measuring the total weight and size of your LTL freight shipment. If wrong, you could wind up paying more than your quoted rate.
3. The Distance Your LTL Freight Shipment is Travelling
This is pretty self-explanatory, but there is one interesting fact you should know. Freight travels via commercial routes called shipping lanes. Depending where you’re shipping from and to, lanes to closer destinations can be more expensive than lanes to farther destinations. So if you’re in Houston, don’t be surprised if the same shipment costs less to ship to New York City (1,628 mi) than to Los Angeles (1,546.0 mi).
4. The LTL Freight Service Type You Choose
Delivery speed is another factor that affects your LTL freight costs. Carriers have different names for these service types, but they typically fall under three timeframes:
This is the ground transit time for LTL freight. When you get a freight quote, be aware that standard shipping times aren’t guaranteed. Plus you’ll see they vary as much as 2 to 3 days among carriers.
Faster delivery service is available for an additional cost with most LTL freight carriers..
Guaranteed freight adds another cost to your LTL shipment, but is the only way to be certain freight will arrive on a specific day. You can even schedule a delivery appointment.
5. The Freight Class of Your LTL Freight Shipment
This is where shipping LTL freight gets a bit complicated. Freight class requires some explanation to truly understand, but here’s what you really need to know:
- LTL freight classes are numbered from 50 to 500
- The lower the number, or class, the lower your LTL freight costs
- Freight class is determined by either the goods being shipped or by shipment weight and size (called density-based classing)
Codes, called NMFC codes, are assigned to different types of goods. This is based on the idea that some goods are easier, less fragile, and safer to ship than others.
This assigns a class based on the total size and weight of your shipment. Most freight carrier and broker websites include an online freight calculator that determines density-based class when getting LTL freight quotes.
“Freight classing can be quite overwhelming and sometimes a complete mystery for shippers that are new to the industry. A freight broker can assist and explain how to get the best class for your freight to ensure that you get the best and most accurate quote every time.”
—Cole Wittmeier, Inbound Sales Executive, FreightPros
So, How Do You Determine Your Freight Class?
As you can imagine, classifying and coding every single thing that can possibly ship is open to a lot of interpretation. Plus it’s not always clear when to use a goods-based or density-based class. When you get a quote, carrier reps and freight brokers will help assign the correct class to whatever it is you’re shipping.
I’ve found that freight brokers, in particular, are helpful in lowering your freight class to get you the lowest possible rates. You can find reviews for the top-rated ones here, plus we’ll discuss how freight brokers can help you save when shipping LTL freight below.
Other LTL Freight Fees for Special Services
Along with the five factors above, other charges called assessorial fees can affect your LTL freight pricing. These include:
Liftgate Pickup or Delivery
If there’s no dock or forklift at the pickup or delivery locations, a liftgate is required to load and unload shipments to and from the truck. Many carriers charge for this service, usually around $40 at each end.
Inside Pickup or Delivery
If pickup or delivery locations don’t have some sort of loading dock or truck-accessible delivery area, you can be charged for an inside pickup or delivery. Always describe loading and delivery areas accurately to avoid any surprise charges.
Deliveries to homes generally cost more than to commercial addresses.
If a freight shipment exceeds certain dimensions, it could be billed as oversized. If you’re freight is larger than a standard packed pallet; that is, larger than 40” x 48” x 72”, be sure to provide accurate measurements to avoid a surprise upcharge.
Reweighing or Reclassification
This happens when shipments are inspected during transit and its determined the weight or freight class on the paperwork doesn’t match what’s being shipped. These can be costly upcharges and hard to get removed.
Now that you know what goes into your LTL shipping costs, let’s take a look at how you can get those costs as low as possible.
Ways to Save on LTL Freight Rates
LTL freight is a competitive business with many players vying for your shipment. But sometimes you have to know what to ask for to get the best deal. So before we move on to discuss your freight shipper options, let’s look three ways to get the best rate on your LTL shipments:
1. Use a Freight Broker
Freight brokers tap into a nationwide network of carriers to find you the best rate for your particular shipment. It costs you nothing to compare quotes from several brokers to see who has the best deal. We’ll look at how to get quotes in detail below.
2. Ship Using Freight of All Kinds (FAK) Rates
A freight broker can help you with this cost-saving tip. If your shipment is made up of a variety of goods that fall under different NMFC codes, you can request an average rate, called a Freight of All Kinds or FAK rate. For example, if roughly one-third of your shipment has the freight class of 300, one-third has 100, and rest is 275, you can ask for a negotiated FAK rate of, say 225, instead of basing the full shipment on the highest class.
3. Ship Using Negotiated Rates
If you regularly ship LTL freight, you can negotiate lower rates based on your shipping volume. This works best if you can use a single carrier or freight broker for all of your LTL shipping needs.
Your LTL Freight Shipper Options
You can price and ship LTL freight through different types of freight service providers.
LTL Freight Shipping Provider Options
|Freight Brokers & Exchanges||Small businesses who ship freight occasionally|
|Independent Nationwide & Regional Freight Carriers||Larger companies who ship freight regularly in some volume|
|UPS & FedEx Freight Services||Companies who ship both parcel packages and freight in volume|
Now we’ll discuss each in detail, plus show you where to start your search:
1. Freight Brokers & Exchanges
A freight broker is an industry pro who constantly navigates the world of freight carriers, classes, and lanes to get you the very best rates for whatever you’re shipping. A freight exchange is an online do-it-yourself version of a freight broker. Both let you compare rates among many carriers. but a freight broker offers a full suite of services while an exchange leaves freight management up to you. Find reviews of several top-rated freight brokers and exchanges here.
“For occasional shippers, a broker will typically allow a single point of contact to a variety of LTL options. This is usually the best fit for the occasional shipper.”
—Rafael Zimberoff, Founder, ShipRush, Seattle, Wa.
Most freight brokers and online exchanges have excellent websites that let you do everything needed to set up your LTL freight shipment, including:
- Compare rates among several carriers
- Compare delivery times among carriers
- Get instant freight quotes for your specific shipment, including service add-ons like liftgate and inside delivery
- Prepare and print shipment paperwork, called a Bill of Lading (BOL)
- Schedule shipment pickup
- Track the progress of your LTL freight shipment
Here’s RedHawk Global/eFreightLine’s rate summary screen showing a range of quotes:
Freight Brokers & Exchanges: Here’s My Take
I shipped freight for more than a decade and have used all of the LTL shipper options mentioned in this section. On average, we shipped an LTL freight shipment two to three times each week, to different locations each time. In this type of freight scenario, we consistently received the best deals, service, and delivery follow-up using a freight broker. Another plus, I never had reclassification or billing surprises using a freight broker. I did on several occasions using UPS, and I’ll explain those below.
2. Independent Nationwide & Regional Freight Carriers
You also can ship LTL freight by working directly with independent carriers like Saia, YRC, and R&L Carriers, to name just a few. Many deliver nationwide, while others, called regional carriers, focus on shipping lanes within just a few states. You can find most nationwide and regional carriers on this list.
“Do your research prior to committing to an LTL carrier and see what the best fit is for the needs of your customer and your business. A national name is nice but a regional carrier may be able to handle your needs more effectively.”
—Mike Wolf, Director of Operations, Delgado Stone Distributors, Brookfield, CT
If you ship freight often, you can ship exclusively with one carrier and negotiate lower rates based on overall volume. For example, if you ship repeat orders to the same locations, you can work with just one carrier and garner lower rates. This also works if you ship within a limited geographic region. Regional carriers specialize in smaller areas, and many offer very competitive rates with faster delivery times. Here’s the service area of AAACooper Transportation (ACT), my regional carrier:
Independent Nationwide & Regional Carriers: Here’s My Take
Freight brokers always provided me with lower rates than I could get direct from nationwide carriers. However, I’m a real fan of working direct with regional carriers. My freight broker could give me quotes for my regional carrier, AAA/Cooper. But since I shipped in volume within their service area, I could negotiate even lower rates working direct.
3. UPS & FedEx Freight Services
Both UPS and FedEx have huge freight networks and offer many levels of freight service. Both companies’ freight and parcel divisions operate separately but they do consider total volume, parcel + freight, for your discount rates. You can access their very complete freight tools on the UPS and FedEx websites.
If you have a small parcel account and ship in enough volume to have an account rep, you might ask about negotiating LTL rates. Depending on your account volume and other factors, you might be able to get some good rates on LTL and keep it all in the family.
UPS & FedEx Freight: Here’s My Take
UPS and FedEx rates were always quite high for my LTL needs, so I rarely used them. Plus, UPS in particular had a bad habit of inspecting and reclassifying my LTL pallet freight to the highest possible class for the goods shipped. That resulted in much higher charges which I then had to fight. I always won those disputes, but they were a real time-waster.
However, many of my product vendors used both UPS and FedEx when shipping to us. These companies shipped freight daily in large volume and received deeply discounted rates. If you frequently ship LTL freight, UPS and FedEx are worth exploring, especially if you use them for parcel shipping, too.
How to Pack Your LTL Freight Shipments
After you’ve determined that an order will be shipping via LTL freight, you need to prepare the shipment. LTL freight is generally shipped as a large, single unit packed one of three ways:
- Pallets: Wood or Plastic
- Crates: Wood, Plastic, or Metal
- Large Corrugated Shipping Containers
We’ll cover each in detail below, plus show you how to pack your shipment for safe transport and where to find materials needed.
1. Pallet Shipments
Pallets are the most commonly used packing method for LTL shipments. Whether you’re shipping one item, like a piece of machinery, a few heavy boxed items, or a large stack of smaller boxes, a pallet makes it easy to handle throughout transit. To ship most items via pallet, you really need only four things:
|A Pallet |
Pallets are typically 40” x 48” and come in both wood and plastic. Purchase online at Uline, locally by searching for local freight suppliers, or save some for later use when you receive stock in palletized shipments.
This stretchy plastic film holds the shipment together and on the pallet. Find it at Uline.
|Clear Plastic Paperwork Envelopes|
These adhesive, zip-close envelopes protect and display your shipment Bill of Lading and and other required paperwork, like a packing list or invoice. Find them at Uline.
These aren’t required by all shippers, but it’s a good idea to affix a destination address label to all four sides of your pallet. For this, you can print an adhesive label or just use paper and tape it to a box underneath the pallet wrap.
Your freight provider will issue these to print on paper or on labels when you book your LTL freight shipment.
If you’re going to be handling pallets somewhat regularly, you’ll need a pallet jack (below left) to easily move them within your shipping area, warehouse, or shop. If this is a one-time thing, your truck driver will have one and load it for you. If shipping pallets is a major part of your business, you might want to invest in a fork truck (center) or forklift (right) to maximize your efficiency.
Preparing Your Pallets
Here’s a video that shows you how to wrap a pallet, no fancy equipment needed. This is how we shipped every pallet from our location and never had damage issues. And here’s a video that shows you why stacking your boxes on your pallet properly is so important.
If your boxes are different sizes, as ours often were, you have to be careful with your stacking. If you’re into Jenga, this job is for you! The general rule is: heavy items on bottom, larger boxes to the outside, and fill in with smaller boxes. Here are some other pallet packing tips from Redhawk Global:
If you ship heavyweight unboxed items like machinery parts, you can also use pallet straps to keep items in place. Then you can further protect them in transit with a thick layer of pallet wrap.
Also, keep your stacked pallets under six feet (72”) in height. This is a general requirement for most shipping companies. And if your shipment is travelling via air freight, pallets typically need to be under 48” tall. To prevent delays, always confirm shipment sizes with your carrier or broker when using a special service like air freight.
2. Crate Shipments
Fully enclosed crates are often used to ship things like motorcycles, machinery, and breakable items via LTL freight. Since they’re fully encased in sturdy wood or plastic, items are well protected. However, they can shift inside, so make sure large items are secured with strapping and smaller or delicate items are well padded with plenty of protective material.
3. Corrugated Shipping Containers
Enclosed corrugated containers offer some of the benefits of a crate but at a lower cost. A corrugated container is essentially a reinforced oversized shipping box. You can pack loose items or small boxes within a container without the pallet stacking issues. As with crate shipping, you do need to ensure fragile items are properly padded or protected within to avoid damage during transit.
Some corrugated containers come with skids attached to the bottom so you can move them with a pallet jack and forklift. Others are just giant boxes and can be placed on a pallet. With the latter, once filled, you’ll want to wrap the container and pallet with pallet wrap, both for protection and to secure it to the pallet for transit.
Other Volume Shipping Options to Consider
Sometimes a shipment teeters on the edge of being large enough to ship via LTL freight. In cases like this, discounted multi-parcel shipping rates from UPS or FedEx can be cheaper than LTL freight. Let’s take a look at these options and see what advantages they offer:
- UPS Hundredweight
Available with most UPS business accounts, applies discount pricing to multi-parcel shipments totaling 150-lbs. or more
- UPS Ground for Freight
Requires a UPS contract agreement to receive discounts lower than Hundredweight for large volume multi-parcel shippers
- FedEx Multiweight
Requires a FedEx contract agreement to receive discounts on multi-parcel shipments totaling 200-lbs. or more
These volume rates only apply to orders that ship to the same location as a single shipment (as in: box 1 of 6, 2 of 6, and so on). Aside from price, other benefits to using multi-parcel options over LTL freight include:
- No extra charges for inside delivery
- No time spent packing and wrapping a pallet
- Up to three delivery attempts, like normal UPS and FedEx shipments
- Part of your daily pickup service if you have one
- They’re tracked just like any other UPS or FedEx package
- They fall under normal published Ground or Standard delivery times
“Freight will often be less expensive for a shipment of this kind, relative to a parcel shipment. But UPS & FedEx have tight, predictable delivery times via Ground service, and do not require one or more days of lead time to schedule a pickup (like LTL). Bottom line: Ground will be faster by 1-4 business days in the majority of cases.”
—Rafael Zimberoff, Founder, ShipRush, Seattle, Wa.
Sometimes choosing between LTL freight and multi-parcel options can be a close call. But if you need additional services like a liftgate or inside delivery, LTL may prove more costly. This is where knowing your savings tipping point will help.
LTL Freight vs. Multi-parcel Discounts — What’s Your Tipping Point?
I had a simple rule of thumb for LTL freight in my ecommerce business. If an order weighed over 250-lbs or was going to ship in more than 10 of our largest (16x16x16) boxes, we compared rates between LTL freight and UPS Hundredweight. Note! We didn’t have contracts for the other UPS and FedEx multi-parcel services listed above.
For us, an order totaling 250-lbs or 10 large boxes was our LTL savings tipping point. We learned this by pricing out many shipments over the years. After factoring in transit times and other considerations like lift gates or inside delivery, LTL usually was cheaper for this size order, but sometimes UPS Hundredweight was close and a better shipping option.
Based on what you sell, your LTL cost savings tipping point may be a different weight or number of boxes than mine. Once you’ve compared some shipments between multi-parcel discount options and LTL freight, you’ll find your own rule of thumb.
The Bottom Line
Shipping large orders via LTL freight can offer some real savings over shipping several smaller parcels with UPS or FedEx. And for some items, like heavy machinery parts, it’s your only option. When shipping LTL freight, remember these key tips to ensure that you pay the best rate possible and that your shipments arrive safely:
- Determine the best way to pack your specific products for LTL freight and have those materials on-hand so you can pack and ship an order without delay.
- If you don’t have a large freight scale, accurately weigh the individual items that will make up your shipment. Don’t forget to add the weight of your pallet (estimate 40 lbs), crate (varies), or corrugated container (varies).
- Use a freight broker to price and book LTL freight shipments unless you can negotiate lower rates with specific carriers.
- Take time to understand the NMFC classifications for your specific goods. Using the right classification, for the right reason, can save you money.
- Ask regional carriers about negotiated rates if you ship in volume within their service areas.
- Know your LTL vs. multi-parcel tipping point and compare costs on orders that could go either way. Sometimes LTL isn’t the ideal or cheapest option.
Packing, pricing, and preparing LTL freight shipments can take some time. But once you have packing procedures in place and a shipping partner you trust, LTL freight can fit into your workflow, extend your sales reach, and lower your overall shipping costs.