FTL vs. LTL: What's the Difference?
Understanding these seven key differences between shipping full truckload (FTL) and less than truckload (LTL) allows shippers to achieve the best possible results and support planning.
1. Increased freight handling. With FTL, a product ships straight to its destination and the seal remains unbroken on the trailer (unless it's a cross-border move). A single driver is usually responsible for both pickup and delivery.
With LTL, the goods likely load and unload across multiple trailers and terminals throughout the journey. This increased handling can escalate the likelihood of potential product damage, though LTL shipments will still arrive in good condition if proper packaging techniques are leveraged.
2. Freight class variation. Carriers moving an FTL shipment typically aren't as concerned with the exact commodity specifications. Product specifications—palletized, hazmat, or oversized—generally offer enough information to provide accurate pricing.
LTL rates often vary more significantly, even if the mixed commodities move in the same lane with the same number of pallets. All LTL carriers use the National Motor Freight Traffic Association's freight classification system to categorize commodities by attempting to account for their density, value, handling characteristics, and stowability.
3. Incremental accessorial charges. Since FTL drivers stay with a load from pickup through delivery, they are closer to the process and limit accessorial charges. FTL drivers are likely to worry less about taking a 15-minute driver assist or detention during a multiple-day transit.
With LTL, delays or unexpected consignee demands often result in charges since these carriers need to be paid for services rendered. Additionally, the provider needs to stay moving to stay profitable. In these cases, remember the total potential cost savings with LTL versus FTL. With LTL, it is also vital to understand the requirements at delivery to improve front-end quoting accuracy.
4. First-come, first-serve pickup (FCFS) windows. While FTL drivers schedule a firm appointment time, LTL drivers require more flexibility since they pick up multiple shipments daily. Delays can occur and compound, which impacts delivery windows. Typically, LTL pickup times aren't guaranteed, with two-hour (or more) FCFS windows being the industry standard.
5. Reweighing/reclassifying products for accuracy. With FTL, product inspection doesn't occur until the load gets to the receiver. The exception is an FTL driver stopping at weigh stations to verify the truck is under the 80,000-pound legal limit. With LTL, the origin terminal reinspects the load, and each order is likely reweighed by a forklift or floor scale to ensure accuracy.
Based on commodity profile, the freight might go through a dimensioner, which automatically scans it to determine weight and dimensions. If the dimensioner detects the product's specifications don't match the bill of lading, then the carrier reclassifies the freight, which could affect the rate.
6. Uninterrupted transit. FTL transit can be predictable if the driver makes a timely pickup and goes straight through to the receiver. Total mileage, hours of service, posted speed limit, and estimated traffic determine arrival time.
Loads moved via LTL, however, seldom follow direct routes and will likely take longer than FTL. Unless a shipper pays a premium to guarantee the quoted transit, delivery dates are estimates.
7. Differing trailer specs. FTL carriers typically drive 53-foot trailers with swing doors that are 102 inches wide and have clearance heights of 110 inches. LTL carriers' trailers maintain the same specifications, except for roll doors in place of swing doors. This lowers the clearance height to 100 inches, slightly reducing their overall capacity.