When it comes to over-the-road transportation, you’ll have two main choices: less-than-truckload (LTL) and full truckload (FTL) shipping.

Each of these options offers different timelines, different costs, and different advantages. We’ll walk you through all of them so you can understand the distinctions—and pick the one that moves goods on your preferred timing, at your preferred budget.

In This Article

  • Definitions & Basic Differences: FTL vs. LTL
  • Cost Considerations: FTL Pricing vs. LTL Pricing
  • FTL & LTL Transit Time & Efficiency: A Comparison
  • Safety & Handling of Goods: Who’s the Winner? LTL or FTL?
  • Environmental Impact: Which Has the Lighter Carbon Footprint, LTL or FTL?
  • Flexibility: Which Mode Is Best for Companies with Fluctuating Needs?
  • FTL vs. LTL Shipping: The Bottom Line


-When to Choose FTL


-When to Choose LTL


-Real-World Example: Comparing FTL & LTL Pricing and Timelines


Definitions & Basic Differences: FTL vs. LTL

Let’s start with a few definitions.

Full truckload (FTL) shipping means hiring an entire, dedicated truck for a shipment. Because there’s just a single shipper’s load on the truck, it heads straight to its destination without any intermediate stops.

Overall, FTL tends to be best suited for large shipments, as well as time-sensitive ones.

And because they’re reserving the entire truck, shippers choosing FTL also have to pay for the entire truck, no matter how much space their load takes up.

Less-than-truckload (LTL) shipping means that shipments from several different shippers are loaded into the same truck, allowing them to “share” the space. These shipments will all head to their own destinations, so the truck will make several stops along the way.

In broad strokes, LTL shipping is better suited for smaller shipments of up to ~6 pallets.

(By the way, there are some scenarios in which it might make sense to move shipments of 7-12 pallets via LTL. That’s why it pays to talk with an expert!)

In LTL shipping, you only pay for the space you use. This makes LTL an attractive option for many businesses, since the total cost will generally be lower. However, since the truck makes multiple stops, shipments take longer to arrive at their destination.

Now that you understand the overall concepts, let’s take a more detailed look at the differences between these two shipping methods so you can choose the right one.

Cost Considerations: FTL Pricing vs. LTL Pricing

The Bottom Line: For smaller shipments, LTL is cheaper since you’ll “share” the cost with other shippers. However, FTL shipments can produce economies of scale.

As you saw in the section above, the pricing structure is different for FTL shipments vs. LTL shipments. In an FTL shipment, you’re paying for the entire truck. In an LTL shipment, you’re only paying for the space you use on the truck.

So, when you’re looking solely at the overall total cost, booking an FTL shipment is more expensive.

But that’s not the whole story.


FTL Cost Efficiencies

If you’re able to put together a shipment that’s large enough to fill a truck (or almost fill a truck), FTL becomes a much more cost-effective strategy. When you look at the cost on a per-unit basis, an FTL shipment can be cheaper, which ultimately means a lower landed cost for you.

In other words, FTL offers economies of scale. These typically come into effect when you have more than six pallets or your shipment weighs more than 12,000 lbs.

Of course, if you simply don’t have a large enough shipment to make the math work, LTL may be the better choice.

(By the way, if you want a hand running the math for both scenarios, reach out to our experts and request a quote!)

FTL vs. LTL: Ease of Pricing

FTL and LTL shipments prices are also calculated differently. FTL pricing is generally fairly simple. It’s calculated at current market rates, often quoted as a rate per mile, plus any accessorials (like inside delivery) and possibly a fuel surcharge.

FTL prices may be influenced by the weight of your shipment, the shipping lanes it will travel in, the season, and the location of the origin and destination points.

LTL pricing can be a little more complex, since rates will be based on the shipment’s National Motor Freight Classification (NMFC) code. The NMFC code, in turn, matches up with a freight class. Freight class is one way that carriers evaluate the “transportability” of a shipment by taking into account factors like density, handling, liability, and stowability. Freight classes also offer carriers a standardized way to classify less-than-truckload (LTL) freight shipments, making them easier to price.

In addition to the freight class, LTL pricing also depends on factors such as special services or handling, fuel surcharges, origin and destination, time of the year, weight, and the absolute minimum charge (AMC).

In other words, LTL pricing can be a little more complex. It’s useful to be aware of this before you go through the quote process.

Now that we’ve discussed cost considerations, let’s take a look at one of the other big differentiating factors: transit times.

FTL & LTL Transit Time & Efficiency: A Comparison

The Bottom Line: If timeline is your top consideration, choose FTL shipping.

When you need to move your goods fast, FTL shipping delivers:

  • Since you’re buying the entire trailer, the only cargo in the truck is yours, and the only stops will be yours as well.
  • This means a shorter timeline—and a more predictable one, too. If you need to make a delivery window with a fulfillment partner, FTL can offer you greater peace of mind.

With an LTL shipment, you’ll see longer transit times, since the driver will make multiple drop-offs and pick-ups. Since there are simply more factors involved, the timeline isn’t always as precise as for FTL shipments.

There’s also another factor to consider when selecting between FTL and LTL shipping.

Safety & Handling of Goods: Who’s the Winner? FTL or LTL?

The Bottom Line: If you’re moving fragile items, delicate items, or items that require special handling, choose FTL shipping.

In an FTL shipment, your freight will be loaded and unloaded once. Additionally, your cargo will stay in the same trailer the whole time, and it won’t get shifted around to make room for another shipment.

In contrast, with an LTL shipment, your freight will share space with other freight. Other goods will get loaded and unloaded around it, increasing the possibility of damage. Ultimately, the more handling a shipment is subject to, the greater the potential for bumps and bruises.

That’s the risk you take when you choose LTL. Choose your shipping method accordingly.

Environmental Impact: Which Mode Has a Lighter Footprint, LTL or FTL?

The Bottom Line: If you’re not able to fill a full trailer, LTL lowers your carbon footprint by “carpooling” with other shipments.

If sustainability is a value your company is pursuing, LTL may be the more environmentally-friendly choice, depending on your load size:

  • If you’ve got a smaller load that you were considering sending FTL, choosing LTL means a lower carbon footprint since other shipments can essentially “carpool” with yours. If other shippers also combine their freight into LTL shipments, that can ultimately mean fewer trucks on the road and fewer emissions.
  • If you’ve got a full trailer of freight, FTL might be the more environmentally friendly choice. After all, since you’re maximizing the truck’s carrying capacity and sending it on a very direct route.

At the end of the day, your environmental impact depends on the size of your shipment.


Flexibility: Which Mode Is Best for Companies with Fluctuating Needs?

The Bottom Line: If your shipping needs vary, LTL offers you more flexibility.

Businesses whose freight volumes fluctuate frequently will likely find LTL solutions easier to manage. Rather than having to commit to filling a trailer, LTL offers you the ability to simply book the space you need.

So, if you’re just getting started—or the volume of freight you ship varies significantly—LTL will likely be your better bet.


FTL vs. LTL Shipping: How to Make Your Final Choice

Full truckload (FTL) shipping offers faster, more reliable timelines and a lower risk of damage. However, you’ll need to fill the trailer to take advantage of economies of scale, which means less flexibility overall.

Choosing FTL makes sense when:

  • You can gather enough freight to fill a trailer
  • Your shipment falls between 5,000 and 44,000 lbs.
  • You need to move 6 or more pallets
  • You have a firm delivery appointment/window to meet with a fulfillment partner and face penalties for delays or the delivery date is time sensitive
  • Your product is fragile or high value
  • You do not want your cargo handled during transit

Less-than-truckload (LTL) shipping offers a more flexible solution that can be more cost effective and environmentally friendly. However, the trade-off comes in extended transit times and increased risk of damage.

It makes sense to choose LTL if:

  • You’re moving anywhere from 1–6 pallets
  • Your shipment weighs between 150 and 12,000 lbs.
  • Your product is sturdy or properly packaged to protect against increased handling
  • You can deal with potentially longer transit times
  • Cost is the most important factor in your decision

To offer you one more perspective on the pros and cons of these shipping methods, take a look at this real-world example of the difference between LTL and FTL cost and timing:

FTL vs. LTL: Cost & Timing

Shipping a single pallet from California to Arizona might take an LTL provider two business days and cost ~$250-$300, versus going FTL which could be delivered overnight for ~$1,200-$1,400.

The same pallet going from California to Georgia could be shipped via LTL in 6-7 business days for ~$500-$1,000 versus shipping it via FTL in 3-4 business days for ~$7,000-$7,500.

Keep in mind that these quotes are strictly ballparks to demonstrate the overall difference between FTL and LTL pricing and timing. For a firm quote for your FTL/LTL shipment, please reach out to our team.

Choosing the Right Shipping Option for Your Business

Ultimately, savvy shippers leverage both LTL and FTL, depending on the shipment they’re moving. Understanding the pros and cons of both options offers you the agility and the flexibility to match the right service to the load you’re moving, so you can maximize the advantages of each shipping mode.

When it comes to LTL and FTL shipping, our experts are here to help. We can connect you with quotes for both LTL and FTL shipping options. We would also be happy to take a holistic look at your transportation needs to see if we can help you leverage these modes more effectively and save you money. Just reach out to our team to start a conversation.

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