How to Estimate Freight Shipping Cost

It’s a common question, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily simple. Even when using a shipping cost estimator or a freight class calculator, there are things to consider. The output is only as good as the input, and there are quite a few factors involved – each with their own variables to complicate and confuse the overall picture. However, there are five key points to consider and address when determining how to calculate shipping costs. Before you request a shipping estimate, do a little homework to save yourself time, money, and maybe even a few headaches.

Where is the shipping destination?

This is the first question, and much of the cost hinges on the answer. Where exactly is your freight being shipped to?  While the city and state isn’t a bad place to start, you’ll want to specify the zip code to have the most accurate freight estimate possible. Once that’s determined, having a good idea of what the receiving area is like will be helpful. For example, are you shipping freight to a business or a residence? Have you confirmed that, in either case, there are adequate means to unload your freight once it’s on-site? This could range anywhere from a few people with a pallet jack, a liftgate,  to a forklift or even a crane. A loading dock may also be necessary; otherwise, there may be no way to remove the freight from the truck. All of these questions are a part of the equation, and knowing the answers upfront will prevent unexpected issues and charges on the back-end. For example, sometimes, the trucking company delivering does not have liftgate equipped trucks, so it is not as simple as just paying the liftgate fee. The truck would have to leave the delivery location, deliver the cargo to a terminal, and a different trucking company would have to be contracted to pick up the cargo and make the final delivery.  Even if this is all local, this type of situation could increase a single pallet delivery cost by hundreds of dollars.

How much are you shipping?

When it comes to the amount of freight you’re shipping, a solid understanding of how – and if – your freight is classified is important. To do so, you’ll need to be familiar with some basic freight terminology. The specific terms are “LTL freight,” “partial truckload,” and “full truckload.” A standard trailer is 53 feet in length, and will hold approximately 26 pallets, so a full truckload (FTL) would not leave extra space for other shippers’ cargo. LTL freight, which means “less than truckload,” is one of the most common amounts or volumes shipped today. This would include anything less than six pallets, or under 12 linear feet. Partial truckload (PTL) falls in between these two volumes. In order for your freight to be considered partial truckload, the rule of thumb is that it would be more than six pallets, but less than 20.

In all cases, knowing the weight of your freight will also be critical. There’s a legal limit trucks are allowed to carry, but the weight will also factor into the shipping estimate you receive. The shipping costs by weight will vary, so make sure you know the total weight of your shipment, including the weight of the pallets and packaging.

As with your shipping destination, doing a little work on the front end to determine how much you are shipping, and knowing whether it’s a full truckload, partial truckload, or LTL freight, will only make the entire shipping process easier, and estimates more accurate

What is the commodity and how is it packaged?

This really is a question of dimensions and commodity, and both must be included in order to receive an accurate shipping estimate. The dimensions are simply measurements and weight. For example, a standard pallet is 48” x 40” and it takes up two linear feet of trailer space. Having palletized freight makes it possible for the trucking company to better know how much space to allocate to your freight because there are standard measurements to work with. Palletizing freight also allows for it to be handled in a manner where it is less susceptible to damage or loss.  Certain cargo cannot be palletized, and this should be expressed to your transportation provider before any freight is picked up.

Commodity specifically refers to what the actual product is.  The main categories are dry goods, temperature-controlled, and hazardous materials. The most common type of commodity is dry goods, which includes a wide spectrum of the freight shipped today.  There are sub-categories and “classes” that you should know if you are moving cargo LTL.  Produce would be a good example of something that would require a refrigerated, or temperature-controlled trailer, as would some pharmaceuticals. Hazardous materials, which are often referred to as “hazmat,” will require special placards on the trailer, as well as specific driver qualifications and paperwork to be filled out. If you’re not sure which category your freight falls in, ask your shipper. It’s much better to sort these details out before your freight is picked up.

What mode of transportation will be needed?

You may not have even thought about it before now, but the mode or modes you’ll be using will be important and will also determine shipping costs. Railcars, ships, trucks, and airplanes are all options, and, of course, your shipping estimate will need to factor in any and all that apply. Inter-modal freight transport is frequently used when shipping overseas. The freight is placed in an inter-modal, or shipping container, and can then easily be stacked on a ship or barge, and then moved to a truck or railcar once it’s closer to its destination. In this way, the freight remains secure in the container, and only the container itself is touched. Your freight may only require a truck; however, there are a number of inter-modal carriers who can assist with these slightly more complicated logistical decisions. How the cargo should be handled along with any time-specific need will greatly influence what mode or modes should be used to best manage your shipments.

Will you need extra services?

Lastly, there are a few extra services your freight may require, and there is the possibility of additional charges with each one. Most potentially occur at, or shortly before, the time your freight is delivered. For example, does the consignee require a phone call prior to delivery? What about a delivery appointment? Will the driver need to unload the freight once at the destination, or maybe make an inside delivery? All of this can factor into the time required and the associated cost of shipping your freight. Often, a seemingly small request at delivery can have a major impact on the extra charges.  It is always best to know what is needed before shipping the cargo.

On the front-end, if your freight requires a blind shipment – where one or more of the parties involved don’t know who the shipper, receiver, or both is – this will also qualify as an extra service and special bills of lading will have to be created.

One final consideration, although there can certainly be others, is whether the carrier will need to segregate your freight in any way from other freight that may be on the trailer. As with all of these questions, knowing and sharing that information with your shipping provider will not only make the process easier, but it is guaranteed to provide the most accurate shipping cost estimate available.