Complete Guide to Freight Shipping

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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 what classifies as freight, break down the different freight shipping methods, walk through how freight shipping works, and more.

What do you want to learn?

What is freight shipping?

Freight shipping is the transportation of large shipments of goods 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.

5 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: 

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 get freight shipping quotes

Before committing to a freight shipping partner, you’ll want to request and compare quotes from multiple freight service providers. Different companies may request different information in order to give you an accurate quote, but in general, be prepared to provide the following information:

  • Company name
  • Contact information (email/phone/business address)
  • Cargo ready-by date
  • Supplier/origin address
  • Destination address
  • Shipment mode (ground/air/ocean/etc.)
  • Type of package (pallets, boxes, or crates)
  • Dimensions of the shipment (length, width, height)
  • Weight of shipment in kilograms and pounds
  • Number of containers 
  • Value of the shipment 

Quotes are influenced by a variety of factors, including the mode of transportation, shipping distance, a shipment’s size and weight, and others. Precise quotes will vary from company to company — but in general, the larger and heavier the shipment, the farther it’s traveling, and the more complicated it is to ship, the more expensive it will be. 

Freight prices are extremely volatile, with some of the highest quotes we’ve seen since the onset of the pandemic. For example, this snapshot below from Freightos’ index shows how much quotes changed over a 3-month period from for a China/East Asia to North America West Coast route (going from USD $15,764 in mid-April 2022 to USD $7,409 in mid-July 2022). 

There are dozens of freight providers out there, but there are a few that stand out from their competition. Here is our list of top freight providers, and approximate quotes.

Note: Freight shipping quotes are often volatile, and can even change from day to day. As such, we recommend that you reach out to each provider for a timely quote. 

How to select a freight shipping company

While pricing is important, there are many other facts you should also consider when choosing a freight service provider. Depending on what you’re shipping, you may require particular services or features in your freight shipping solution. Checking to make sure a provider and provide these services or accommodate your needs before signing on will save you time and cost down the road, and greatly simplify the freight process. 

Consider the following factors when assessing various freight partners:

  • Transportation — What mode of freight transportation will you be using? Will you utilize more than one mode? Choose a freight partner that specializes in the modes of transport that you’ll rely on most. 
  • Origins and destinations — Where will you be shipping to and from most often? Selecting a partner that can easily and affordably ship to and from your locations. Double-check that your partner is capable of handling international freight shipments if you need to bring inventory in from or send it overseas. 
  • Special handling — Certain products (such as HAZMAT items or perishables) will incur additional fees and charges to ship, and may have unusual delivery requirements. Make sure that your freight provider is aware of any and all specifications, and that they have the correct procedures in place. 
  • Technology — To avoid partnering with a freight provider that has clunky or outdated technology or operating procedures, ask potential partners about their software’s capabilities.
Freight Shipping ProviderCore OfferingsQuote
FlexportA freight-forwarding service offering a web-based app that provides real-time visibility. 

Services include: 
– Multimodal shipping (air, ocean, & trucking)
– Warehouse & fulfillment
– Customs brokerageCargo insurance
Request a Quote
FreightosA digital booking platform for international shipping.

Services include:
– Real-time quote comparison between air freight, ocean freight and trucking freight providers
– Interface for live updates and shipment tracking
Request a Quote
Echo Global Logistics A 3PL specializing in transportation management for freight shipments. 

Services include:
– Multimodal shipping (air, ocean, & trucking) 
– A proprietary, web-based technology platform that compiles and analyzes data across a network of transportation providers 
Request a Quote
MatsonA transportation services company specializing in ocean freight. 

Services include:
– Pacific shipping, servicing Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, Micronesia and the South Pacific Terminal and steredoving services at 8 terminal facilities on the U.S. West Coast
– Truckload, intermodal, and LTL logistics services across the U.S.
Request a Quote
ZIM Integrated Shipping ServicesFreight provider specializing in cargo shipping with a digital portal.

Services include:
– Freight shipping lines to and from the Americas, Caribbean, Mediterranean, Europe, Middle East, and Africa
– An online dashboard through which customers can monitor import and export shipments and receive documentation, notifications, and more   
Request a Quote
MaerskIntegrated logistics and transport provider.

Services include:
– Ocean, air, inland, and intercontinental rail freight
– Supply chain and logistics services, including warehousing and distribution
Request a Quote

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 the necessary labels

Depending on the details of your shipment, you will need to affix various labels and documentation to pallets before you send them. 

Standard freight pallets should have visible labeling with a telephone number and the shipper’s address on each side of the pallet, as well as a packing list and bill of landing (BOL). For international freight, you will also need a commercial invoice and certificate of origin (although these are often sent electronically). 

If you partner with a 3PL, your partner may also have specific labeling requirements for freight. ShipBob, for example, requires customer to follow a WRO process and attach the WRO to the shipment (or, if crossdocking, attach one WRO for the crossdock location and another for the end destination).  

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.

The state of the freight shipping industry in 2022

In 2022, the aftershocks of COVID-19 have continued to ripple through the global supply chain, feeding the ongoing supply chain crisis. 

Consumer demand began cooling off in 2021 and kept cooling in 2022, especially as inflation and interest rates rise. With the looming American recession on the horizon, consumers are beginning to curtail their spending, which may likely cause freight volumes to drop and even usher in a new freight recession. 

Freight providers also saw no end of global challenges this past year. A COVID outbreak forced a lockdown in Shanghai, leading to an estimated 20-30% drop in export volumes and brief spike in air cargo rates, and geopolitical conflicts in Europe caused oil and gas prices to skyrocket. As a result, many freight providers have had to pass fuel surcharges along to their customers, which, if persistent, could further contribute to declining freight volumes. 

The good news? While freight prices are still well above the pre-pandemic norms, they seem to be stabilizing overall. However, cost can be volatile depending on mode of transport and route. Asia – US ocean freight prices to both coasts, for example, dropped by more than 13% yoy as of the end of June 2022, but Europe – US East Coast rates are 42% higher than a year ago. 

With still more factors yet to influence freight volumes and prices in 2022 and into 2023 (such as new COVID variants or worsening of the Russo-Ukrainian war), freight providers should prepare to operate in an ever-changing landscape, and buckle down for the challenges ahead. 

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.

ShipBob, for example, partners with ecommerce businesses of all sizes seeking to outsource their inventory receiving and storage, as well as their order fulfillment and shipping logistics. With ShipBob’s help, you can arrange your freight shipment and distribute your inventory across dozens of ShipBob fulfillment centers, where ShipBob’s warehouse teams will handle picking, packing, and shipping your DTC and B2B orders for you.  

How ShipBob helps ecommerce businesses manage their freight

If you find yourself struggling to navigate the complexities of freight (especially in the current supply chain crisis), ShipBob can help. Through integrations with major freight service providers, ShipBob facilitates a smoother freight shipping and inventory receiving process for ecommerce businesses while lowering cost. 

Specifically, ShipBob’s managed freight program FreightBob is designed to help you sidestep port congestion and supply chain blockages, reduce time-in-transit, and distribute your inventory more strategically. 

Powered by Flexport, this program sees inventory loaded onto guaranteed weekly sailings from China to cut transit time to 15-30 days, keeping your freight shipments predictable, and your customers happy. Dedicated containers for ShipBob merchants and priority dock space at ShipBob’s fulfillment centers enable you to stock inventory faster, and we’ll even help you distribute your inventory strategically across the US.  

If you’re interested in learning more about FreightBob, click below to talk to an expert.

Freight Shipping FAQs

There are a few things to keep in mind before you start shipping products via freight. Here are some answers to common questions.

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. 

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). 

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 distances. 

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. 

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. 

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

Written By:

Rachel is a Content Marketing Specialist at ShipBob, where she writes blog articles, eGuides, and other resources to help small business owners master their logistics.

Read all posts written by Rachel Hand