Explaining FTL, LTL, FCL, and LCL Shipping

If you are an e-commerce business or any other type of trade that requires heavy shipping, then you know first hand how integral freight shipping is to the current and future success of your business. You put your trust in truckers to deliver your goods to your warehouse or to your customer and to do so expediently, economically and safely. The relationship between the business and shipper is symbiotic and relies on trustworthiness and open communication.

Now, if you have done any research while looking to ship a large amount of freight, you have likely realized that there are a variety of shipping options at your disposal. Because of this and your lack of in depth knowledge of the freight business, you may find yourself at an impasse, unsure as to what step to take next. To make matters even more difficult, there are a multitude of factors that have to be taken into account when making this decision. These factors can include, shipment size, shipment type, price, and delivery speed.

As economists and psychologists have shown time and again, when customers are faced with too many options, it is quite possible to feel overwhelmed by all of these seemingly similar choices, especially with how important shipping can be to your success. You likely want a shipping service able to meet all your specific business requirements, as well as being cost-effective, and flexible.

If you find yourself at such a crossroads, fear not! Below, we will comprehensively break down the differences between FTL, LTL, FCL and LCL shipping, and help you decide which option best suits your business’ specific shipping needs.

When researching the most suitable type of shipment for your cargo, make sure to consider your budget, the size of the shipment, the fragility or value of the freight, and how quickly you need delivery to occur.  

FTL Shipping

FTL Shipping stands for full truckload, meaning the entirety of the shipment will take up all of the truck’s space and the shipment is exclusively for you. FTL services are ideal for companies that desire to ship high volume or exceptionally heavily objects across long distances, especially in bulk. Ten palettes is the general rule of thumb for whether or not an FTL is required.

How FTL Works

Full truckload carriers generally deliver the semi to you to pack all the goods into the semi. Once the freight is loaded, the driver collects all the required paperwork and then leaves directly for the intended consignee. Depending on the length of route, one or more drivers may take over the haul. Full truckload transit times are generally constrained by the driver’s union Hours of Service regulations on time and distance. Upon reaching the consignee, the goods are removed from the semi and checked for damage or other issues.

Due to regulations and specific requirements for different goods, truckload carriers often specialize in moving a specific type of cargo. So, whatever your needs are, shipping companies will work to make life easier on your end. In the case of FTL transport, shippers utilize equipment made to carry heavy or unwieldy freight and provide specialized logistical support for such difficult shipments. They often offer options to further ensure the safety of your delivery such as driving pairs, extra-long flatbeds or RGN (removable gooseneck) trailers.

Pros of FTL

  • Ideal for Large Shipments: They have the perfect space in their trucks for your specific freight and you are the only customer. They have specialized equipment to help load or unload cumbersome freight and a team that can help support you throughout the process.
  • Fast: No switching hands or extra prep required. There are no stops or transfers from one truck to another. Once your shipment is packed, it will leave the source until it reaches the final destination in as little time as possible.


LTL Shipments

LTL shipment stands for less than a truckload. A shipment may be considered to be LTL if it does not fill a normal 48 foot or 53 foot trailer. With LTL, you are only required to pay for the space within the truck that your cargo takes up. So, if your shipment takes up a fifth of the truck, you only are required to pay for a fifth of the truck. The other four fifths of the truck will then be filled with other smaller cargo from a variety of other companies. LTL is ideal for small businesses such as e-commerce that do not generally ship in as large amounts as say, Amazon. LTL shipment generally range between as little as 100 pounds and up to 10,000 pounds  and the rates are calculated based on distance traveled, weight and mass of the freight.

How LTL Works

With an LTL shipment, you only pay for the space in the truck that you need. For example, if your shipment only takes up one-third of the space on the truck, you only pay for one-third of the truck. The rest of the truck will then be filled with other small shipments from other companies, making LTL freight shipping a great choice for small businesses that don’t ship in large quantities and are looking for something that is budget friendly.

These types of shipments are more economical for smaller companies that do not typically ship by the full truck load and have been an essential element for the growth and success of small businesses as seen throughout the e-commerce world. With their smaller inventories LTL is an affordable and safe way for vendors to ship their products swiftly to their customers.

Pros of LTL

  • Tractability: LTL allows a company to send a variety of different items – varying in size, weight and value – to numerous locations throughout the country.  
  • Cheaper to Ship: If you have to make several drop offs, or are not distributing enough consignment to require a FTL, LTL is far more cost-effective than shipping via FTL or through parcel shipping. Unless your goods are extraordinarily heavy or difficult to ship, or extremely valuable, FTL costs you extra money for space that you will not fully utilize.
  • Pick-up & Delivery Support: The vast majority of shipping companies offer LTL pick-up and delivery assistance, which is extra nice for multiple delivery destinations. They have all the tools and experience to insure that your goods are safely loaded and unloaded in a time efficient manner.


FCL Shipping

FCL shipping, similar to FTL shipping, stands for Full Cargo Load when it comes to shipping freight over the ocean. As you might imagine, the rules of when it is ideal for a company to FCL ship and the benefits of doing so are quite akin to FTL shipping. The standard size of an FCL shipment would be 6 pallets in a 20-foot container and 12 pallets in a 40-foot container.

That said, if you have valuable or cumbersome commodities that you would prefer to not share with other freight and risk contamination or damage, a partially filled FCL may be the wisest decision. At times, a half filled FCL is more cost effective since there are no handling or consolidation fees LCL shipments charge for loose cargo. Responsibility in the import and export business generally varies for each of these options, sometimes falling on the consignee, and at other times on the shipper.  

How FCL Works

Ocean freight companies offer a variety of containers that differ in size and function. They include: standard dry containers, refrigerated containers, tank containers, flat rack containers, collapsible flat rack containers. The average length of any of these containers is either 20-feet or 40-feet. Once a container is chosen, you often have the option to arrange for the shipper to load your container, or to live load cargo yourself.

While it may be cheaper to live load, the shipper loading and unloading may be a more efficient use of time. Once packed, the container is sent to the port and loaded on a cargo ship. Upon arriving at its destination, and depending upon which type of delivery you chose, your goods will be unloaded and delivered to the consignee. Because of this, FCL is the safest and fastest way to ship goods via cargo ship, especially valuable goods.  

Pros of FCL

  • Great for Large volume shipments: you have the option to ship large order or volume goods in one container specialized to carry that type of good.  
  • Safe: Less likelihood of your items being damaged or contaminated by other goods. Also less chance of items being lost along the delivery route.
  • Fast: No stops at other delivery locations, no transfers, just straight to your destination.


LCL Shipping

Like LTL, LCL shipping stands for Less Than Cargo Load when it comes to shipping ocean freight. For smaller to medium sized businesses LCL often is the more cost and logistically effective method of shipping freight internationally. Generally, their consignment falls below the minimum threshold of six to twelve pallets, and is neither dense nor voluminous enough to warrant a FCL. Therefore, most of these companies with smaller cargo volume chose to go the LCL route of simply paying for the space their goods require and sharing the rest.   

How LCL Works

Like with FCL you may choose to ship your goods in a variety of 20 and 40 foot containers including: refrigerated, tank, flat rack, standard dry, and collapsible flat rack. Once you have chosen the type, the cubic volume and weight of your cargo is measured and the length of travel is taken into account. A fee will be calculated and then agreed upon. Upon completion of payment and signatures, the shipping company will take your goods and load them in their section of the container. Do consider that with LCL you have no say on what other type of cargo you will be sharing with. Further, there may be delays that are out of your control as well as a result of multiple entities utilizing the container.

Pros of LCL

  • Cost Effective: If you do not have a large enough cargo volume to warrant a FCL, LCL is often the cheapest and easiest way to ship internationally.
  • Flexibility: LCL gives you the freedom to send whatever, wherever, whenever.

Whether you plan to utilize FTL, LTL, FCL, or LCL shipping, be sure to take into careful consideration your shipping budget, the size of your shipment, the fragility and value of your shipment, and expected delivery date. Determining the proper method of transport for your goods is key to your business success, so weigh the factors judiciously as you select the best option for your company’s needs.   

Get the lowest prices on LTL shipping regardless of volume.