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Explaining TL, STL, LTL, FCL, and LCL shipping

05.31.2018 | By AJ Todd | 4 min. read

The nitty-gritty of the most common land and ocean transportation methods

Table of Contents

–   TL shipping
–   Shared truckload (STL) shipping
–   LTL shipping
–   FCL shipping
–   LCL shipping

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

Now, if you’ve researched how to move a large amount of freight, you’ve likely realized that there are a variety of shipping options at your disposal. Because of this, you may find yourself at an impasse, unsure of which step to take next. To make matters even more difficult, there are a multitude of factors for you to take 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, customers who are faced with too many options can feel overwhelmed by the large amount of seemingly similar choices, especially given the importance of shipping to their success. You likely want a cost-effective and flexible shipping service that can meet all of your business’ specific requirements.

If you find yourself at such a crossroads, fear not! We’ll break down the differences between truckload (TL), shared truckload, (STL), less-than truckload (LTL), full cargo load (FCL) and less-than cargo load (LCL) shipping to help you decide which option best suits your business’ shipping needs.

When researching the most suitable type of shipment for your cargo, be sure to consider your budget, the size of the shipment, the fragility or value of the freight, and the delivery date.

TL shipping

With TL shipping, you buy a whole truck for your exclusive use. TL service is ideal for companies that ship high volumes or exceptionally heavy objects across long distances, especially in bulk. The general rule of thumb for choosing TL service is 10 or more pallets.

How FTL Works

TL carriers generally deliver the semitruck to you for cargo loading. Once the freight’s on board, the driver collects the required paperwork and leaves directly for the intended consignee. Depending on the route’s length, one or more drivers may take over the haul. Truckload transit times are generally constrained by drivers’ Hours of Service regulations for work shifts and distance. Upon reaching the consignee, the goods are ready for removal. From there, the consignee checks the freight for damage and other issues.

Due to regulations and requirements for different goods, TL carriers often specialize in moving a specific type of cargo. While carriers will work with you on transporting your goods, you’ll most likely need to utilize equipment that can move heavy or unwieldy freight and provide specialized logistical support for difficult shipments. Often, you can choose additional options to further ensure the safety of your delivery, such as driving pairs, extra-long flatbeds, or removable gooseneck trailers.

Pros of FTL

TL service is ideal for large shipments. You’re the only customer, and specialized equipment helps load or unload cumbersome freight. Plus, a team can support you throughout the process.

Also, TL service is fast. There’s no switching hands or extra prep required. There are no stops or transfers from one truck to another. Once your shipment is packed, it travels directly from the pickup location to its final destination as fast as possible.


Shared truckload (STL) shipping

Shared truckload (STL) takes a familiar concept — sharing —and applies it to the trucking industry to help shippers and carriers move freight on their own terms and create optimal shipping outcomes. By giving shippers the power to decide how their freight moves and incentivizing carriers to efficiently transport multiple shipments at once, the STL approach flips the outdated freight system on its head and offers an innovative alternative.

With shared truckload shipping, there’s no freight class. This shipping mode is ideal for four to 24 pallets, shipments that measure 8-44 linear feet, and freight that weighs less than 36,000 pounds.

How STL works

With shared truckload service, shipments that are traveling on a similar route move on the same truck. Like TL shipping, shared truckload freight travels directly from its pickup location to its destination — without passing through hubs or terminals. Flock Freight® offers a shared truckload solution, FlockDirect™️, that uses algorithmic technology to streamline routes and optimize the loads themselves.

Pros of STL

The shared truckload method enables shippers to deliver damage-free loads on time. With STL service, shippers share the cost and deck space of a full-size trailer and guarantee the efficiency of TL service. Plus, shipments never leave the truck until delivery, so risk of damage is about zero. By charging shippers only for the space they need, the STL mode offers TL service at a better rate.

To understand the sustainability of shared truckload service, you need only look at its environmental impact. Shared truckload shipping fills trucks to capacity and moves freight hubless to eliminate wasted trips, reducing fuel emissions by up to 40%. This mode also:

  • Removes the need for carbon-intensive and energy-consuming LTL hubs.
  • Erases the environmental risks of remanufacturing and reshipping previously damaged goods.

To learn more about this sustainable shipping mode, download our “Inefficiencies and Green Shipping Solutions in the LTL Freight Industry” white paper here.


LTL shipping

A shipment may be considered “LTL” if it doesn’t fill a 48-foot or 53-foot trailer. With LTL, you pay only for the space you need, similar to STL shipping. If your shipment takes up 20% of the deck, you pay for 20% of the truck. LTL service then fills the other 80% of the truck with small shipments from a variety of other companies. LTL is ideal for small businesses — especially in e-commerce — that don’t generally ship in large amounts like, say, Amazon does. LTL shipments generally less than 4,000 pounds. Carriers calculate LTL rates based on distance traveled, shipment weight, and mass of the freight.

How LTL works

Once LTL shipments leave your dock, they move through the hub-and-spoke system. Because they bounce from truck to truck and trans-load or cross-dock at multiple LTL facilities throughout transit, shipments are susceptible to loss, damage, and delays.

However, LTL shipments are more economical for smaller companies that do not typically ship TL. LTL is an affordable and safe way for vendors with smaller inventories to ship products to customers.

Pros of LTL

LTL allows companies to send a variety of items – that vary in size, weight, and value – to numerous locations throughout the country.

It’s also cheaper to ship. If you’re not distributing enough freight to require a full truck, LTL is more cost-effective than TL or parcel shipping. Unless your goods are extraordinarily heavy, difficult to ship, or extremely valuable, TL costs you extra money for space that you will not fully utilize.

Lastly, the vast majority of shipping companies offer LTL pickup and delivery assistance. They have all the tools and experience necessary to safely load and unload shipments in a time-efficient manner.


FCL shipping

FCL shipping has to do with moving freight over an ocean. As you might imagine, the rules of shipping FCL and the benefits of doing so are quite akin to TL service. The standard size of an FCL shipment is six 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 not to share with other freight due to risk of contamination or damage, a partially full FCL may be the wisest decision. At times, a half-full FCL is more cost-effective since there are no handling or consolidation fees for loose cargo, like there are for LCL shipments. Responsibility in the import and export business generally varies for each of these options, sometimes falling on the consignee and at other times falling on the shipper.

How FCL works

Ocean freight companies offer a variety of containers that differ in size and functionality. They include standard dry containers, refrigerated containers, tank containers, flat rack containers, and collapsible flat rack containers. The average lengths of these containers are 20 feet and 40 feet. Once you’ve chosen a container, you often have the option of arranging for the shipper to load your container or to live-load the cargo yourself.

While it may be cheaper to live-load, having the shipper load and unload may be a more efficient use of time. Once packed, the container travels to the port and loads onto a cargo ship. Upon arriving at its destination (and depending upon which type of delivery you chose), the goods are ready to unload and deliver to the consignee. Because of this process, FCL is the safest and fastest way to ship freight —  especially valuable goods — over the ocean.

Pros of FCL

FCL is great for large-volume shipments. You have the option to ship big order quantities or volume freight in a specialized container for your commodity.  

FCL is also safer than LCL shipping. With FCL shipping, items are less likely to incur damage or contamination by other goods. Risk of losing items along the delivery route is also significantly less than LCL shipping.

To wrap up this section, FCL shipping never stops at other delivery locations. Without transfers, freight goes straight to its destination.

LCL shipping

LCL shipping is like LTL service for ocean freight. For small- to medium-size businesses, LCL often is the most cost-effective and logistically sound method of shipping freight internationally. Generally, consignment falls below the minimum threshold of six to 12 pallets and is neither dense nor voluminous enough to warrant FCL. Therefore, most companies with smaller cargo volumes choose the LCL route and simply pay for the space in the container that their goods require, sharing the rest.

How LCL works

Like FCL, LCL shippers may choose to move their goods in a variety of 20- and 40-foot containers including refrigerated, tank, flat rack, standard dry, and collapsible flat rack. Once you’ve chosen the container type, you must measure cubic volume and weight of your cargo, taking into account length of travel. From there, the shipping company calculates the transportation fee. Upon completion of fee payment and signatures, the shipping company takes your goods and loads them into the container. 

Something to consider: With LCL, you have no say about the other type of cargo that’s in the container with your freight. Also, there may be unpreventable delays since multiple entities are utilizing the container.

Pros of LCL

LCL is budget-friendly. If you don’t have a large enough cargo volume to warrant FCL service, LCL is often the cheapest and easiest way to ship internationally.

LCL is flexible. This shipping mode gives you the freedom to send whatever, wherever, whenever.

Final thoughts

Whether you plan to utilize TL, STL, LTL, FCL, or LCL service, be sure to take into careful consideration your shipping budget, the size of your shipment, the fragility and value of your freight, 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.  

Optimize your freight-transportation operations with shared truckload shipping.