Freight Shipping Demystified: What is Freight Shipping & Benefits of Shipping Freight


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Freight is the transportation of goods in bulk via road, intermodal transport (rail and road), ship, or air. Freight shipping is an integral part of many ecommerce businesses’ operations, especially when international shipping is involved. 

In this article, we’ll cover freight shipping best practices, including what classifies as freight, the five different freight shipping methods, how to prepare a freight shipment, and more. 

What is freight shipping?

Freight shipping is the transportation of large shipments of goods transported domestically or across the globe via air, land, or sea. The goods are loaded on pallets or into large, sturdy containers and transported using one or more modes of transportation.  

What classifies as a freight shipment?

Any shipment that is larger than 30 inches by 30 inches by 30 inches, or weighs over 150 pounds is considered freight. Shipments under these dimensions would typically be more cost-effective to ship via parcel.

Freight delivery shipments can either be loaded onto a truck on pallets or floor-loaded. Floor-loaded trucks need to be unloaded by hand, while inventory loaded on pallets can be easily loaded/unloaded using a dock or forklift.

A standard truck can transport a maximum of 26 pallets. The typical dimension of a pallet is 48 inches wide by 40 inches long, with a maximum height of 80 inches. Any pallet exceeding 48 inches in height is considered a double-stacked pallet.

Truck beds and containers are typically four feet off the ground. In order to load/unload the truck, warehouses are equipped with an elevated dock. 

  • If the warehousing and storage facility isn’t equipped with a dock, an alternate solution is to load/unload the truck by using a forklift or loading equipment. 
  • If any pickup/drop-off location does not have a dock or forklift, a truck with a lift gate service can be booked for an additional cost.

Freight shipping methods

There are five types of freight shipping methods to choose from: full truckload (FTL), less-than-truckload (LTL), partial truckload (PTL), intermodal, and expedited. Below explains the differences of each: 

freight shipping methods - shipbob

1. Full truckload (FTL)

A full container is available for transporting inventory. Full truckload freight shipments can be moved via road or rail. Most FTL containers can transport 24 to 26 pallets. FTL shipments are direct shipments from the pickup location to the destination (e.g., from the manufacturer to a fulfillment center).

2. Less-than-truckload (LTL)

A less-than-truckload (LTL) shipment is between 1 and 6 pallets. LTL freight shipments are the most common method used. In LTL freight shipping, ecommerce inventory is often transferred onto different trucks on the way to its destination. 

3. Partial truckload (PTL)

A partial truckload (PTL) shipment is between 6 and 12 pallets. For PTL shipments, once the inventory is loaded onto the truck, the possibility that the inventory will be transferred to a different truck during the journey is low.

4. Intermodal

Intermodal typically involves the combination of rail and truck, but it can also be a variety of rail, trucks, and ships. One of the benefits of involving rail as part of your freight shipping method is it can reduce fuel use and lower shipping costs

5. Expedited

Expedited freight is used for time-critical shipments and often involves truck and air. Out of all the freight shipping methods available, expedited is the most expensive. 

How to prepare a freight shipment

Freight shipping preparations are different from a typical parcel shipment. Here are a few key tips to help ensure your freight shipment is shipped, handled, and received as securely and accurately as possible. 

Prepare appropriately sized pallets

Pallets are used to consolidate shipments and allow for ease of movement. A high-quality pallet is made of either wood or plastic and should weigh between 20 and 70 pounds. When choosing the right pallet, make sure it’s sturdy enough to support the load and large enough to avoid overhang, which can cause damage. 

Design non-palletized shipments

If you’re not using a pallet, prepare appropriate shipping containers, crates, or corrugated boxes, and make sure they are strong enough to support the weight of the package. If you’re reusing containers, remove old shipping barcodes and labels to lower the risk of goods being shipped to the wrong location. Many top carriers recommend that you avoid reusing boxes for freight shipping, but if you do, check for any holes or tears before using.

Use dunnage on all sides of the container to keep items in place and reinforce edges to protect from bending. Seal all openings and seams closed with reinforced tape. 

Attach labels

Each pallet should have visible labeling with a telephone number and the shipper’s address on each side of the pallet. 

Follow freight carrier instructions

Every freight carrier will have their own set of instructions on how to prepare for pickup. Some shipment pickups do require pre-authorization. Be sure to read through your freight carrier’s instructions thoroughly for a stress-free pickup.

Estimating freight shipping rates

When estimating how much freight shipping will cost, there are a few factors to consider, such as mode of transportation, the size and weight of the packages being shipped, the shipping destination, and any special handling your packages require. 

Factors to consider

  • Mode of transportation: The freight shipping method you choose will play a major role in how much you’ll spend on shipping. For example, air shipping will cost much more than shipping via truck or rail. 
  • Origin and destination: The further the distance between the package and its destination, the higher the rate. 
  • Size and weight: The bigger the package, the more expensive it will be. To calculate accurate weight measurements, be sure the length and width is rounded up to the next inch.  
  • Special handling: Deliveries that require special handling, such as refrigeration or those that contain hazardous materials, will incur additional fees and charges. 

The freight shipping industry in 2020

Many consider the freight industry to be the lifeblood of the US economy. In 2017, the United States spent $21 billion and transported 2,326 billion ton-kilometers in domestic transportation alone. 

According to the US Department of Transportation, as of June 2017, there were  777,240 for-hire carriers, 700,591 private carriers, and 80,247 other carriers on file. 91% of all carriers operate 6 or fewer trucks.

And the industry is only getting bigger! In the US, overall freight tonnage is predicted to grow a total of 35% between 2016 and 2027. Truckload volumes are predicted to grow 2% annually between 2016 and 2022, while less-than-truckload volume (see the difference explained below) will grow 3% year over year through 2022. 

Finally, private carrier volumes will grow 2.3% annually until 2022.

Overall, it’s clear that the freight services industry will continue to grow in the years to come, which is why it’s so important to get familiar with how it works.

Benefits of shipping freight

Shipping freight is a common, stress-free method of transporting goods in bulk and is considered a cost-effective, safe, and secure shipping option. Here are some of the biggest benefits of shipping freight. 

Working with top carriers

Picking a quality freight company to ship your products means on-time deliveries, safely shipped packages, and overall less of a headache. Here are some of the most well-regarded shippers in the freight industry: 

Safely shipped packages

Unlike shipping via parcel, when goods are palletized, it can lower the risk of damage and theft. 

Top freight shipping services also provide tracking details and notifications, which allows the shipper to see in real time when goods are picked up, in transit, on time or delayed, and dropped off. 

Cheaper shipping

Different freight methods may prove more cost-effective, especially LTL and/or PTL. By choosing less-than- and/or partial truckload shipping, you’re only paying for the truck space your packages take up. Cost is usually determined by dimensional weight to increase load capacity, and you split the cost of utilizing the truck with other shippers. 

Freight shipping FAQs

Although freight shipping is a liable method, there are a few things to keep in mind before you start shipping products via freight. Here are some answers to common questions.

1. What is a bill of lading?

A bill of lading a document that is issued by the carrier. It acknowledges receipt of cargo for shipping. It was once only related to shipping by sea, but a bill of lading may also be used for other freight shipping methods as well. 

2. What can be shipped via freight?

Just about anything, but it’s important to check with your carriers first as some rules for certain types of products may apply. Certain freight shipping providers have limitations on items that are high in value (e.g., fur, watches, jewelry), dangerous or hazardous (e.g., aerosols, fireworks), too large (e.g. canoes), or temperature-sensitive (e.g., frozen foods). 

3. What’s the difference between parcel and freight?

Parcel shipping refers to small, lightweight and individual shipments typically handled by common carriers. Most parcel shipments are limited to 150 pounds. Freight shipping is a great option for shipping heavy items, especially when transporting long distance. 

For ecommerce brands, shipping inventory in bulk from a manufacturer to a fulfillment center is often done with freight shipping. Once in the fulfillment center, direct-to-consumer orders are often sent with parcel shipping. If sending inventory to another retailer, B2B ecommerce or wholesale shipments may be done via parcel or freight shipping depending on the size of items and quantity of units. 

4. What is freight classification?

Freight classification is a standardized method designed by the National Motor Freight Classification (NMFC) to give consumers and carriers a uniform pricing structure when shipping freight. It measures an item’s transportability by density, stowability, liability, and ease of handling. Class numbers are between 50 and 500. 

5. How much does it cost to ship freight?

It depends on several factors, including:

    • Weight
    • Dimensions
    • Type of packaging
    • Mode of transportation
    • Time-sensitivity
    • Freight class
    • Distance between shipment’s origin and destination 

How does freight apply to ecommerce order fulfillment?

When working with a 3PL for order fulfillment, ecommerce businesses use freight shipping to send inventory to the 3PL’s fulfillment centers. Many logistic service providers help their clients book freight shipments with external providers, as well as walk them through the necessary shipping and receiving processes as well as freight shipping rates to ensure that inventory arrives at the fulfillment center safe and sound.

For example, ShipBob is a 3PL that stores inventory and provides retail fulfillment services for online sellers of all sizes. ShipBob partners with freight experts and can help clients book freight shipments from around the globe. From international fulfillment needs to nearby shipping, ShipBob can help ecommerce businesses scale their operations across the globe through discounted rates. 

Ready to ship your products internationally? Request a fulfillment quote from ShipBob. 

Written By:

Shannon Callarman is a Content Marketing Specialist at ShipBob. She researches and writes everything you need to know about the latest trends and best practices in ecommerce.

Read all posts written by Shannon Callarman