LTL vs. Full Truckload: 7 Key Differences that Every Shipper Should Know

LTL vs. Full Truckload: 7 Key Differences that Every Shipper Should Know

November 21, 2022

LTL, aka Less Than Truckload shipping, is an important part of virtually every supply chain.

Anytime you have a shipment that is 12 linear feet or less, LTL shipping could be a great way to reduce your costs while improving your efficiency.

Though there are many similarities between LTL and full truckload (FTL) freight, there a few important differences between the two modes.

Does your shipment look like this? LTL is probably a better choice than truckload:

Two pallets in an LTL dry van trailer

What Is Full Truckload (FTL)?

Full truckload, sometimes abbreviated as FTL, TL or OTR (over the road), generally refers to surface transportation with a semi truck.

The most common equipment type is a class 8 tractor with a 53’ dry van trailer, but refrigerated and open deck trailers are also common.

  • Only one shipper’s freight moves on the truck.
  • Shipper does not necessarily fill the entire truck but has exclusively reserved the full capacity of the truck.

What Is LTL?

Less Than Truckload, commonly referred to as LTL, is a mode of surface transportation that, like full truckload, uses semi trucks, but hauls multiple shippers’ freight  together on the same trailer.

  • Ideal for shipments ranging from 1 to 6 pallets (or less than 12 linear feet).
  • Shipments over 6 pallets are typically a candidate for volume LTL or partial truckload shipping.

When Should I Use LTL? When Should I Use Full Truckload?

There are several factors that should go into your decision-making process — you will have to determine what's right for your freight and what best fits your business needs.

These are not hard-and-fast rules, but generally speaking, you can use the following guidelines when determining whether you should ship your freight LTL or full truckload:

Similarities Between Full Truckload and LTL

Full truckload and LTL are two different modes with different nuances, but they do have several characteristics in common.

  • Both move freight primarily over the road, though some LTL carriers will utilize intermodal rail shipping.
  • Both utilize class 8 tractors (semi-trucks).
  • Both require professional drivers with a commercial driver’s license (CDL).
  • Both modes primarily ship palletized freight.

The 7 Key Differences Between Full Truckload and LTL

LTL’s core value is cost savings. If you’re only shipping a few pallets, it’s usually cheaper to use LTL instead of paying for a full truck.

To support their economical pricing strategies, LTL carriers need to maintain optimal efficiency at all times.

Long delays, empty miles, non-standard services and underutilized trailer space have a disproportionate impact to LTL carriers compared to full truckload carriers, all of which creates some key differences between the two modes.

Many shippers have challenges with LTL, but if you understand how it works, you can use this mode to your advantage.

1. LTL Freight Is Handled More

Full Truckload:
The shipper loads product at origin, pops a seal on the trailer and the driver takes the product straight to the destination for delivery.

Throughout the course of any LTL shipment, you can expect your product to be loaded and unloaded in-and-out of trailers and warehouses several times before it reaches the final destination.

Though an overwhelming majority of LTL shipments are delivered in perfect condition, the increased handling means greater exposure to potential product damage (and freight claims) compared to truckload.

It’s important to properly package and protect your product for LTL shipping.

2. Accessorial Charges Are More Common in LTL Shipping

Full Truckload:
You essentially have the undivided attention of a driver from pick-up through delivery.

Since a single load is usually several days of work for a driver, full truckload carriers tend to be a little more forgiving with trucking accessorials — 15 minutes of detention or driver assist in the course of a three-day transit isn’t as big of a deal.

You are only paying for a small portion of capacity in a trailer, and it’s spread across several drivers and warehouses.

As previously mentioned, LTL carriers need to maintain optimal efficiency to support economical pricing structures — anything that causes a delay or disruption will usually result in additional charges.

When this occurs, it’s important to remember the total cost savings versus full truckload.

Related: Learn everything you need to know about LTL accessorials.

3. You Will Need to Know Your Freight Class

Full Truckload:
Generally speaking, carriers are not overly concerned with exact commodity specifications (at least with dry van shipping).

Answering whether or not product is palletized, hazmat, and legal weight is usually enough to provide accurate pricing.

Rates for different commodities can vary quite a bit, even in the same lane with the same number of pallets. It all depends on a shipment’s freight class.

To categorize commodities and determine pricing, all LTL carriers use a freight classification system standardized by the NMFTA (National Motor Freight Traffic Association).

There are 18 different classes, ranging from Class 50 (least expensive) to Class 500 (most expensive).

Related: Everything You Need to Know about Freight Class & NMFC Codes

4. Your Product May Be Reweighed to Ensure Accuracy

Full Truckload:
Once loaded, a driver may stop at a weigh station to verify that the truck is under the legal limit of 80,000 lbs.

Otherwise, there is rarely a further inspection of the product until the receiver breaks the seal at the delivery dock.

Carriers will reinspect product once it arrives at the origin terminal. Most shipments will go through a machine — called a dimensioner — that automatically scans pallets to determine weight and dimensions.

If the dimensioner results vary from the listed product specifications on the bill of lading, the LTL carrier will reclassify the freight, which could result in an updated rate.

5. Transit Is Not Straight Through

Full Truckload:
The driver picks up the product at the shipper and drives straight to the consignee or receiver.

As long as the driver makes a timely pick-up, transit is predictable. Barring an equipment breakdown, he or she will arrive based on a simple equation of total mileage, hours of service, posted speed limit and estimated traffic.

Transit is virtually never straight through, which means it will usually take longer than full truckload.

Furthermore, delivery dates are estimates (unless you pay a premium to guarantee quoted transit). Many LTL carriers report service levels above 90%, but it can vary depending on lane and carrier.

6. FCFS Pick Up Windows Are the LTL Industry Standard

Full Truckload:
Drivers will accept firm appointment times.

Drivers are almost always completing multiple pick-ups and/or deliveries per run—flexibility is important.

For LTL, two-hour (or more) first-come-first-serve windows (FCFS) are the industry standard, and pick-ups are not guaranteed.

7. Trailer Specs Are Slightly Different

Full Truckload:
Most carriers have 53’ trailers with swing doors. Trailers are typically 102" wide with a 110" clearance height.

Most carriers also use 53’ trailers that are 102" wide, but most are equipped with roll doors, reducing the clearance height to 96".

One Size Does Not Fit All

LTL shipping is an economical and efficient way to move your smaller shipments.

If you have 12 pallets or less, you should consider looking into volume LTL, partial truckload and standard LTL options.

Understanding these key differences will help you, whether you're getting a single LTL quote or creating a better LTL procurement strategy.

7 Key Things to Know When Shipping LTL (Instead of TL):

  1. Your freight will be handled more.
  2. There are generally more accessorial.
  3. Freight class determines your pricing.
  4. Make sure you apply the right class and dimensions.
  5. Transit is longer and not guaranteed.
  6. Appointment windows are the standard.
  7. LTL trailers have roll doors with a lower clearance.