Most carriers and owner-operators in the US trucking industry are actively looking for ways to strike a balance between profit and quality of service. As a result, there’s been a rapid and continuous influx of innovative solutions disrupting the market, particularly in the last few decades. 

One of the most popular strategies utilized by most large trucking companies today involves the use of drop trailers. A drop trailer is a semi-trailer that is uncoupled (also referred to as “dropped”) from the semi-truck and left at a facility for a period of time. The trailer is then picked up at a separate time when it’s been loaded or unloaded.

This provides carriers with a more flexible delivery schedule and also better facilitates Hours of Service compliance. There are various types of trailers that are dropped, including flatbeds, reefers, tankers, and more, depending on the type of cargo. 

In this article, we’ll talk more about drop trailer services and their importance in the trucking industry. We’ll also share the main benefits and drawbacks of using drop trailers and share a guide for carriers and owner-operators in managing them. 

What Are Drop Trailer Services?

A drop trailer service is a popular shipping service in which a carrier leaves a semi-trailer in the possession of a shipper or receiver for an extended period (usually a few days).

The core purpose of this program is to provide convenience for all parties by minimizing wait times for drivers and reducing transportation costs for shippers, as well as receivers. 

drop trailers at a facility
Drop Trailers at a Facility

The service enables drivers to minimize detention and improve operational efficiency and profitability. It also minimizes dead miles and bobtailing, two highly undesired practices in the industry.

At the same time, it allows shippers and receivers more load and unload-time flexibility and reduces accessorial fees, such as detention and lumper fees. Compared to live loading, drop trailer services are much more flexible.

This is because it allows handlers to pay more attention to the job during peak periods as the schedules are looser and trailers can be queued which minimizes waiting time in between shipments. In turn, this improves the overall safety of operations. 

On the other hand, live loading and unloading require drivers to wait while the shipment is loaded or unloaded. Depending on the circumstances and conditions, a typical loading or unloading process can span from 30 minutes to a few hours, depending on the type of cargo, the available equipment, and how it’s handled.

In contrast, the drop trailer method usually takes a few minutes for the driver to uncouple, and they can be on their way to the next pick-up. 

Why Are Drop Trailers Services Used?

Drop trailer services are typically used in combination with drop-and-hook services. Drop-and-hook freight is one of the most popular shipping delivery and pick-up methods in the trucking industry, which involves leaving a drop trailer at a facility and hooking the semi-truck to a pre-loaded or empty trailer at the same facility.

In essence, it’s similar to a grab-and-go strategy designed to save time and costs for all parties in the supply chain. By offering drop trailer services, truckers can save hours during their shift and use the time to make more shipments by hooking another trailer from a drop yard along their routes.

Similarly, shippers and receivers can operate with a more consistent cargo handling schedule and maximize their operational efficiency. They can also avoid different types of accessorial fees incurred by long waiting periods and limited cargo handling resources. 

For example, high traffic at loading sites can lead to detention fees. Similarly, limited operational resources and cargo handling equipment like forklifts and cranes can prompt shippers to hire lumper services unnecessarily. Therefore, opting for drop trailer services can help them save a lot of money in the process. 

A Guide to Managing Drop Trailers

In this section, we’ll explain how to manage drop trailers from the perspectives of a service provider (carrier/owner-operator) and a client (shipper/receiver):

Shippers & Receivers

Below are some of the best practices and considerations for shippers and receivers (also referred to as consignees) when opting for drop trailer services:

  • Select Reliable Carriers – Before choosing a carrier or trucker, you need to assess your shipping volume and frequency to ensure the service provider has enough trailers, trucks, and other essential resources to handle your shipment needs. They should also be able to assist you with other related tasks, such as shunting. 
  • Check Terms of Service – Many truckers and carriers charge different types of additional fees, such as bobtail fees, trailer storage charges, truck ordered not used (TONU), etc. With that in mind, you’ll need to ensure that all of the terms are clear, including the responsibility for damages, dispute resolution, maximum waiting periods, and others. 
  • Clarify Scope of Service – Before opting for a drop trailer service, make sure you learn about their scope of service to ensure all your needs are met. For instance, many shippers and receivers have multiple loading facilities, so they require shunting. Unfortunately, not all truckers cater to these requests. Some may also charge extra. Secondly, make sure you learn about the total number of days you can hold drop trailers at your facility without charges. Doing so will help you make more informed loading and unloading decisions. 
  • Assess Facility Capabilities – Finally, you will need to check if your facility has sufficient space for storing a drop trailer (or more) along with essential facilities, such as parking lots and loading bays. Depending on the area or cargo type, you may also need to consider your security infrastructure to ensure the containers are protected. 

Carrier & Owner-Operators

Similarly, below are some of the best practices and considerations for carriers and truckers when managing drop trailers:

  • Leverage on Technology – One of the important aspects of running a drop trailer program involves leveraging the right technologies and solutions to improve visibility and operational efficiency. For instance, you can use electronic logging devices (ELDs), GPS trackers, and other solutions to monitor your trucks and trailers for efficient route scheduling. Similarly, you can leverage transport management systems to digitalize administrative tasks and enable real-time asset monitoring. 
  • Standby Sufficient Equipment – Secondly, depending on your shipping volume, you need to ensure you have enough trailers available at all times to avoid supply chain disruptions. Additionally, you need to plan maintenance and regulatory checks proactively. You also need to have contingencies in place to meet the client’s requirements. For instance, you can establish a mutually-beneficial partnership with other carriers in the region and use their trailers, and vice versa. 
  • Verify Site Conditions – Before offering drop trailer services, make sure you check the shipper’s or receiver’s facility to ensure they have sufficient resources, such as labor, loading equipment, as well as the required parking and storage space. Doing so will give you a better understanding of the premises and help determine how many trailers you need to commit to and whether the facility has enough space to maneuver trailers easily. 
  • Optimize Route Scheduling – The last thing you want as a trucker is to drive a truck bobtail. It increases road hazard risks and also affects your overall efficiency since you’ll be burning precious fuel and spending valuable time on the road without hauling cargo. To minimize bobtailing, you’ll need to create a schedule in which you drop a trailer at one facility and pick up another that is close by. 
  • Consider Drop-and-Hook Practices – To avoid additional trips and their associated costs, ask shippers or consignees about their turnaround time requirements so you can plan your schedule accordingly. If the shipment turnaround is frequent enough, you may be able to suggest drop-and-hook services and work out a cost-saving proposal for all parties.
  • Utilize Drop Yards – You can store empty trailers in drop yards nearby if you need to make multiple drops on a single route. Doing so will help you minimize bobtailing and dead miles during your trips. 

Benefits of Using Drop Trailers

Drop trailer services offer a host of benefits to carriers, shippers, and receivers. Below are some of the key benefits of using drop trailers:

Reduction of Accessorial Fees

The most important benefit for truckers offering drop trailer services is the time saved on live loading. With this, they can save thousands of dollars every year on truck expenses and also increase their daily income by hauling more cargo during the extended moving period.

It Can Increase Productivity 

By opting for drop trailer services, shippers and receivers can enjoy increased productivity from an even work distribution of loading and unloading. Moreover, smaller facilities can enjoy less congestion since drivers will leave as soon as they uncouple the trailer.

This leaves more space for people and MHEs to move freely. Pairing drop trailer services with drop-and-hook practices would further improve the productivity of all parties. 

It’s More Cost-Efficient

As mentioned earlier, opting for drop trailer services can help reduce accessorial fees. Furthermore, loading and unloading processes can be spread out according to the shippers’ and receivers’ working hours, thus, requiring lesser manpower and equipment.

For instance, shippers can procure equipment and labor to load an empty trailer and have the resources around to unload the loaded trailer that arrives at their facility in a single shift.

Additionally, if this shipping strategy is combined with drop-and-hook, it can further improve cost-efficiency by avoiding dead mileage and bobtailing fees. 

It Allows For Better HOS Compliance

By not having to wait for handlers to load or unload cargo, truck drivers can improve Hours of Service (HOS) compliance and avoid transporting cargo overtime in an attempt to recover lost income.

Better HOS compliance can prevent unnecessary penalties and even help drivers avoid accidents caused by fatigue. 

More Flexibility in Freight Planning

Since truckers can pick up other trailers after dropping one at different facilities, carriers can enjoy more flexibility, in terms of route and load planning. They can also plan multiple turnaround trips to save money.

Drawbacks of Using Drop Trailers

It is important to note that drop trailer services also come with some disadvantages. We have highlighted some of the drawbacks of using drop trailers below:

It Requires Additional Space

One of the biggest drawbacks of drop trailer services is the additional yard or parking lots to store trailers. The higher your shipping volume and trailer count, the more space you’ll need.

Depending on your routes and shipping locations, you may also need to procure space in different cities or states. 

It May Require Additional Equipment

Along with space, you’ll also need to invest in additional trailers and all the accessories and related parts that come with them. Depending on the cargo type, you may also need to procure different trailer types to attract different types of shippers.

For example, shippers moving vehicles will require car carrier trailers. Similarly, shippers looking to move liquids will require tankers. All of these trailers have different purchasing and maintenance costs, which you’ll have to take into account. 

It Can Lead to Bottlenecks 

As mentioned earlier, drop trailer services are enhanced when paired with the drop-and-hook freight shipping technique. When not planned properly, it can lead to a build-up of trailers in a facility causing disruptions, congestion, and even higher warehousing costs. 

Incompatible With Some Value-Added Services

Many trucking companies offer different add-on services to generate extra income. For instance, some companies partner with lumper service providers to procure manpower and equipment for loading and unloading.

Similarly, some truckers assist shippers and receivers with loading and unloading. Both these services (and more) require drivers to access the cargo, which is something drop trailer services do not allow by nature.

In other words, truckers have to drive away from a facility as soon as they drop the trailers, forgoing the opportunity to carry out any value-added services.

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Andrew Lin

Co-Founder & Writer
at freightcourse

About the Author

Andrew is a multi-business owner with over 12 years of experience in the fields of logistics, trucking, manufacturing, operations, training, and education.

Being the co-founder of freightcourse has given him the ability to pursue his desire to educate others on manufacturing and supply chain topics.