partial truck load

Partial Truckload (PTL): A Comparative Guide to Truck Loads

Shippers that transport large volumes of cargo typically require multiple trucks. However, for smaller companies, it can be difficult to fill up an entire truckload and dedicate entire vehicles for a single shipment.

As a result, most US trucking companies offer either less-than-truckload (LTL) or partial truckload (PTL) services in these circumstances, allowing shippers and receivers to move goods according to their weight and size. Most shippers are familiar with LTL services, and partial truckload is similar for the most part.

A partial truckload refers to the process of transporting freight that may not require the full use of a truck or semi-trailer. Trucks in this arrangement generally carry more cargo for a shipper than a less-than-truckload. 

In this article, we’ll explain partial truckloads in detail and share the most common truck types used to move partial loads. We’ll also compare PTL with LTL and FTL in terms of cost, capacity utilization, and other factors so you can choose the right freight mode for your shipments.   

What Is a Partial Truckload (PTL)?

A partial truckload (PTL) is the most efficient freight transportation option for shippers that have a large amount of cargo but are still unable to fill the full capacity of a truck or trailer.

partial truckload (PTL)

Simply put, their cargo weight typically falls between 5,000 to 25,000 lbs, which utilizes a maximum of half of what flatbed trailers, reefers, and dry vans can transport.

Similarly, the cargo’s linear length, which stretches from the truck’s or trailer’s front to the back without accounting for the width, is typically between 12 and 30 ft (about 25% to 50% of the total truck capacity). This is equivalent to about 6 – 18 pallets. With PTL, multiple shippers can share the capacity of a single truck, allowing for more efficient use of the space inside. 

Partial Truckload (PTL) Trucks

Partial loads are commonly transported in box trucks. However, they’re not the only type of transportation shippers and trucking companies have at their disposal. Below are three other types of trucks or trailers trucking companies use for transporting PTL.

  • Dry Van Trucks – Dry van trucks are fully enclosed and protect cargo from outside elements. They are a popular choice for shippers looking to transport palletized, boxed, or loose freight. 
  • Flatbed Trucks – Flatbed trucks are common in the industry for transporting heavy and oversized cargo, including construction machinery, lumber, and equipment, to name a few. Unlike dry van trucks, they have an open deck with no roof or side, making them incredibly versatile. 
  • Reefer TrucksReefers or refrigerated trucks are variants of their dry van counterparts equipped with cooling systems. Shippers use them for temperature-controlled shipments, mainly common perishable items like food (meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, etc.), sensitive electronics, and pharmaceuticals.  

Partial Truckload (PTL) Versus Full Truckload (FTL)

In essence, full truckloads allow shippers to utilize the entire cargo space, whereas partial truckloads restrict the volume utilization to about 50%.

In this section, we’ll explain in more detail the similarities and differences between partial truckloads and full truckloads with regard to space utilization, turnaround time, cost, and cargo versatility.

Space Utilization

As the name suggests, a full truckload utilizes the full capacity of a trailer or truck. Hence, shippers who opt for FTL have 100% of the available space to fill with their cargo, regardless of size or weight.

In other words, their cargo can be between 42,000 and 48,000 lbs, depending on the truck/trailer type and capacity. Conversely, PTL typically utilizes 25-50% of a truck or trailer’s capacity. 

Turnaround Time

PTL is generally slower than FTL when it comes to turnaround. With FTL, the entire truck or trailer is allocated to shipping a single client’s cargo. Hence, you can expect quicker deliveries since there aren’t any additional stops or pickups.

In contrast, PTL involves multiple transit points along the route and cargo handling processes since shippers share the truck or trailer capacity with other shippers. 

Cost

FTL is a more cost-effective freight mode than PTL for shippers because most carriers are willing to offer better rates for clients who can ship an entire truck’s worth of cargo.

However, it can become even more expensive than PTL per unit volume or weight if the shipper doesn’t utilize the full capacity of the vehicle. In comparison to FTL, PTL has a different payment model. Shippers pay a bespoke price based on the space they use (cargo linear length) and the weight they occupy. 

Cargo Versatility

PTL is suitable for compact shipments but can also cater to cargo that may have non-standard shapes and sizes as long as they don’t occupy more than about 50% of the truck’s capacity. This includes construction materials, industrial equipment, as well as components and spare parts.

Conversely, FTL provides more flexibility for specialized and oversized cargo since shippers have access to the entire storage space. This enables them to transport practically all types of cargo, depending on the truck or trailer type. 

Partial Truckload (PTL) Versus Less-Than-Truckload (LTL)

Less-than-truckload (LTL) shipping is similar to partial truckload (PTL) in many ways, as they revolve around the concept of not utilizing the entire cargo space of a truck. One of the key differences is that a partial truckload typically occupies about 50% of the cargo space, whereas a less-than-truckload can occupy much less, as it’s usually calculated by weight, linear feet, or cubic meters.

It’s important to note that there are other distinct differences between the two freight modes that we’ll be exploring below in more detail.

Space Utilization

PTL and LTL utilize less than 100% truck or trailer capacity. The main difference between the two freight modes falls in the amount of utilization. For instance, LTL capacity utilization is typically above 150 lbs, but below 10,000 lbs and less than six pallets.

The cargo transported using LTL is limited by either the weight or volume, whichever takes up a truck’s higher utilization capacity. PTL caters to shippers looking to transport cargo more than a typical LTL shipment but less than an FTL shipment. 

Turnaround Time

PTL is generally faster than LTL since the load volume is larger, meaning there are fewer pickup points and delivery stops. This translates to less cargo handling during the transit. In contrast, LTL transit times are longer, depending on the number of shipments.

The rule of thumb is, the more shippers sharing a truck or trailer for shipments, the longer the consolidation and deconsolidation process at different terminals or warehouses.

Cost

Just like FTL is more cost-effective than PTL, PTL is more cost-effective than LTL per unit volume or weight. When opting for PTL, shippers would have to pay a flat rate based on how much space they utilize. Conversely, LTL shippers would have to pay according to the rates set for different weight brackets or cargo sizes.

The more the weight or linear length of a shipment, the better the ratio of its transport cost. Another major difference is that LTL may include a higher handling fee and other accessorial charges compared to a lump sum for PTL. 

Cargo Versatility

PTL offers better cargo versatility compared to LTL due to its larger space availability. However, shipments like e-Commerce orders, small electronics, product components, and merchandise are more suitable for LTL shipping since they have a lower weight and volume. 

Benefits of Partial Truckload

Partial truck loads can be a great way for shippers to reduce costs compared to other methods of shipping. Let’s explore some of these in more detail.

  • Cost-Effectiveness – The cost of PTL shipping lies between LTL and FTL price points. Hence, it offers a more cost-effective option for shippers with partial loads who don’t want to hire a full truck or trailer. It also helps them avoid paying according to rates set for different weight brackets or cargo sizes. Simply put, PTL shipping can help optimize logistical expenses, especially for small businesses that require about half a truck’s cargo capacity.
  • Reduced Administrative Work – PTL loads don’t fall under the National Motor Freight Classification (NMFC) or commonly known as ‘Freight Classes’. Therefore, shippers are charged a flat rate and can bypass classification work to save time and money.
  • Utilization Flexibility – Partial truckloads offer more utilization flexibility for shippers looking to transport goods exceeding the typical LTL range but not enough for FTL. It also accommodates volume and weight fluctuations, making it more convenient for businesses with peak and off-peak seasons. 
  • Reasonable Turnaround Time – PTL shipping is generally faster than LTL, as explained earlier. Even though the turnaround time might not be as great as it is for FTL, it’s a fair compromise for shippers who just don’t have enough volume to fulfill a full truckload. 

Drawbacks of Partial Truckload

Like FTL and LTL, partial truckloads come with various drawbacks of their own, which we will further explore below.

  • Available Routes – As all carriers aim to increase the number of profitable trips, many truckers may not have enough volume to transport partial loads on certain routes. This could lead to increased wait times due to the less route flexibility compared to FTL. 
  • Slower Scheduling – As trucks need to wait for sufficient volume from shippers, PTL can easily become subject to slower scheduling, especially during off-peak business seasons. 
  • Increased Liability – PTL often involves more cargo handling, which increases the risk of damage. So, shippers transporting unsecured cargo in less than full truckload have to do so knowing that their load would be made subject to shifting multiple times during transit. 
  • Complex Coordination – Partial truckload shipping requires frequent coordination between multiple shippers. Therefore, the process is relatively more complex to manage compared to FTL, especially when shippers have different, truck and trailer types, as well as other requirements. 

Selecting Between FTL, PTL, and LTL Transportation Services

If you’re a shipper looking to move cargo via trucks, there are various factors you should consider, before deciding on a specific transportation mode. These factors include cargo volume, price, cover, and more.

Cargo Volume

First, you need to determine the volume and weight of your shipment. It’s more common to choose FTL for larger shipments that require an entire or close to an entire truck’s cargo capacity.

Similarly, opt for LTL when your load is less than 20% or 25% of a truck’s capacity or six pallets. For anything in between, it’s recommended to ship using partial truckloads.  

Delivery Timelines

The next factor you should consider when choosing between FTL, PTL, and LTL is your delivery timeline. For instance, if you’re looking to move cargo urgently, you should consider FTL. PTL has slightly longer transit times, depending on the number of shippers involved.

Finally, LTL has the longest transit times due to more complex cross-docking activities and consolidation/deconsolidation processes at different terminals and warehouses. Ideally, you should opt for FTL or PTL when moving perishable goods. 

Coverage

FTL, PTL, and LTL services have varying levels of geographic reach, coverage, and availability in different regions or for specific routes. So, you should proactively contact carriers to learn which services they can offer based on your shipment volume.

You can also learn about any specialized transportation, including hazardous materials, fragile items, and temperature-controlled shipments. Opt for the freight mode that accommodates your specific needs. 

Price Point

All three freight modes have varying price points. Therefore, you’ll need to evaluate the overall costs accordingly. FTL is the best option for larger shipments that fill a truck’s full capacity. PTL is ideal for shippers willing to share the truck or trailer space with other shippers, while LTL is suitable for smaller shipments but usually incurs handling fees and other accessorial charges. 

Carrier Reputation

Before choosing any service provider, learn about their capabilities, reliability, and reputation in the market. You can do this by checking customer reviews and ratings on official websites, forums, social media, freight marketplaces, and third-party review sites. 

Case Study: Partial Truckloads

In our case study, MiniMakers, a medium-sized manufacturing company is currently fulfilling their daily order to one of their customers by booking FTL services from a local trucking company. They load up the first and the second truck to 75% of their cargo capacity. They pay $2,650 per FTL truck for each, totaling to $5,300.

After conducting an internal analysis, MiniMakers decides to implement a hybrid approach that uses FTL and PTL services, as they found that they are not maximizing cargo utilization.

They found a PTL carrier running regular trips on their typical route for $1,500 that allows them to use up to 50% of the truck’s cargo capacity. MiniMakers decides to continue the FTL services and load the first truck to 100% capacity.

They then engage the second carrier and load the second truck up to 50% capacity, making sure not to exceed the agreed threshold. Instead of having to pay $5,300 for two FTL trips, they are now only spending $4,150 for transportation ($2,650 for the FTL truck and $1,500 for the FTL truck).

The new approach resulted in significant cost savings for MiniMakers, as they are effectively saving $1,150 per day by switching from two FTL trucks to one FTL and one PTL truck.

Andrew Lin

Co-Founder & Writer
at freightcourse

About the Author

Andrew is a multi-business owner with over 10 years of experience in the fields of logistics, manufacturing, operations, training, and education.

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