Small Package versus LTL Freight

09/06/2012 — Scott Frederick

A common dilemma for businesses is deciding the appropriate shipping mode to use for their important shipments. Shipping mode choices include LTL freight, small package, ground, air, ocean, rail, intermodal, and others. When deciding whether to use a small package or LTL freight carrier, for example, shippers must take into consideration the weight and characteristics of the shipment, including delivery urgency. The old —150-pound' rule is not an absolute guideline anymore, but obviously the weight of the shipment must be a major consideration in choosing a shipping mode.

Shipment Characteristics

The size, weight, and shape of the materials you are shipping can also impact your decision making. Are your boxes big and bulky, small and compact, unitized or loose? LTL often is a preferable choice when the shipment's boxes are oddly shaped, as in furniture. LTL is also the way to go when your shipment is palletized, as small package carriers only handle individual boxes. Being less automated than the small package shippers, the LTL carrier will often use forklifts instead of conveyor belts. Strange as it may seem, moving odd-shaped boxes and pallets with a forklift produces fewer damages than moving them on a conveyor belt with thousands of other packages. The shape of the carton may cause it to fall off the belt or at least be tumbled around a good deal. Also, when you ship multiple loose boxes, the chances of losing one or two them are greater than had you shipped them together on a pallet.

Shipment Destination

Another area to consider is the receiving facilities for the shipment. Is there a dock? Does the shipment need to be delivered to the tenth floor of a building with no freight elevator? Is inside delivery even necessary? LTL freight carriers will generally be better delivering dock-to-dock and business-to-business, while small package carriers are better able to handle inside and residential deliveries.  

Service Needs

Service must also be taken into account. If your shipment must travel 2,000 miles and be delivered the next-day, you're going to have to consider an air express service (unless it's Friday, in which case some ground carriers can use the weekend to get your shipment across the country). Generally, if you don't need your shipment delivered within one or two days, LTL freight is going to be less expensive than small package carriers who have more urgent delivery capabilities built into their systems — particularly as your shipment weight increases. LTL freight may also be a good option for shipments moving less than 500 miles, because you can often get next-day delivery on those distances.  

Pricing and Fees

Of course, the primary consideration is quite often price. Most of you are painfully aware of the charges small package carriers assess for services such as rural delivery, address correction and Saturday delivery. LTL carriers have similar charges as well, especially for inside delivery or delivery to a recipient who has no loading dock. Carriers in both industries continue to charge fuel surcharges, which also have a material effect on your shipping price. On a percentage basis, LTL carriers generally charge higher fuel surcharges (about double that of small package carriers) but, in the end, it's the total price you need to look at, since LTL is often less expense on the —line haul' portion of the invoice.

Loss and Damage Concerns

The risk of loss or damage to your precious shipment is always a concern, regardless of what type of carrier you use.  Small package carriers have a higher loss and damage ratio than LTL carriers, but neither is altogether immune to the issue.  LTL carriers provide the advantage of providing significantly more liability coverage than small package carriers (which are often capped at $100 per package). So a small package carrier will have only $300 worth of liability on that 3 package, 300 pound shipment; whereas, an LTL carrier would provide liability coverage of $750. That's more than double the protection of the small package carrier.

Making the Decision

Sometimes the best course of action is to seek help from transportation professionals (like those at PartnerShip) to help you make the right decision. There is no set formula for the best service-price ratio, but as a general rule of thumb, shipments over 200 pounds that don't require urgent delivery are best handled by LTL carriers. Shipments less than 200 pounds, those that can't be placed on a pallet, or those that require urgent delivery over longer distances, are often best handled by small package carriers.

Interested in learning more?                                             

Let PartnerShip help you to determine when and where you should be using small package and LTL freight carriers. Contact us today.

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