Anyone who’s ever placed an online order is relatively familiar with the package tracking process. Basically, you will receive an email notification with a tracking number, which you can use to identify where the package is through every step of the journey until it reaches your front door.
If we are to look at tracking full-truckload (FTL) shipments, it pretty much boils down to plugging a vehicle tracker onto the trailer, and you get to track its movement in real-time. But when it comes to tracking less than truckload (LTL) freight, things become a bit more complicated. Usually, the shipments will travel on multiple trucks throughout their journey, making the process of tracking less straightforward and more complex than is the case with FTL freight shipping services.
In addition, LTL shipments can also be transported via multiple modes such as air freight, sea, rail, or road transport, and the majority of existing logistics tracking solutions are fleet-based. This means that they do not track individual pallets or shipments. Then, there are other factors that also need to be considered, such as the weather, accidents, various terminal delays, and numerous other unforeseen circumstances that lead to delays between the warehouse and the shipment’s final destination.
Given that the US LTL freight market is estimated at $80.16 billion in 2021, up from $78.91 billion in 2020 and $77.62 billion in 2019, knowing how to effectively track LTL freight shipments is increasingly necessary. To gain a reliable way of tracking LTL freight, businesses will need a plan capable of reliably and consistently accommodating all the variables that go into LTL freight shipping mentioned above.
What is LTL Shipping?
Before we can go any further, we will need a short rundown of what LTL shipping is all about. Put simply, less than truckload freight shipping is where a business doesn’t need the entire cargo space of the carrier’s trailer to transport their goods. In this scenario, they only rent out space they require while sharing the rest with other shippers.
However, unlike in FTL shipping, where the cargo travels directly from the pickup point to its final destination, LTL typically involves several pitstops and truck changes along the way. By following a so-called hub-and-spoke model, shipping freight starts by picking up the cargo from its origin and transporting it to a regional distribution center. Here, the shipment is loaded onto a different truck alongside other shipments and transported to a different distribution center, including the final destination. The cargo is again loaded onto a different truck which finally delivers it to the end-user.
With FTL shipping, tracking the truck is sometimes enough, but that’s not the case with LTL. And even with FTL, this doesn’t always provide a full logistics overview. There may be cases of pilferage where a few packages may be lifted off the truck. There may also be the case where there’s no insight into the state of the temperature-sensitive goods while in transit. Likewise, there is the case of implementing a fleet management system, but this is the responsibility of the carrier, nor is it possible to install GPS vehicle trackers on-demand.
So, what are the best practices when it comes to tracking LTL shipments?
Registering With the Carrier
Unless you’ve booked your shipment over the phone, you’ve likely used the carrier’s website to quote and book your LTL cargo. If, however, you haven’t used their website and created an account, it’s probably the best time to do so, as you will be able to receive an account number, PRO number, and other identifiers to use for shipment tracking.
Completing an Accurate BOL
When it comes to less than truckload shipping, the Bill of Lading (BOL) is an essential tool for ensuring that everything runs as efficiently as possible. The BOL contains vital and specific identifying information about the LTL freight, such as:
- The name of the shipper and the receiver.
- The address of the pickup point and final destination.
- The shipment’s weight and dimensions.
- Any packaging information.
- The cargo’s declared value.
- A detailed description of the items.
The reason this information is relevant is that it can leave a trail from start to finish. As such, an accurate bill of lading is essential when it comes to accurate freight tracking. If the data introduced in the bill of lading is wrong, it can lead to various delays, recalculations, and if the goods become lost, it will make it that much more challenging to track down. If the bill of lading becomes damaged, unreadable, or lost, it’s always a good idea to have the original freight quote summary, the shipment’s invoice, and a copy of the weight ticket as a backup.
Attaching a GPS Tracking Beacon
When it comes to the majority of carriers and their tracking information, it accounts for freight-truck tracking. Yet, this doesn’t necessarily account for individual packages, pallets, or shipments. In addition, since carriers log in the cargo when it enters and exits a truck, there’s no real way of knowing where the freight sits in the trailer or how exactly it’s stored at the distribution center warehouse until its next travel login.
If, as a shipper, you have a cargo of high value or simply want absolute clarity of where your goods are at any given time, it’s probably best to invest in individual freight-tracking beacons. These are attached to your pallets and will ride along with your cargo to every terminal along the way, providing you an accurate real-time picture of the shipment’s location.
In most cases, LTL freight-tracking devices have battery lives that last for weeks, making it highly unlikely that you need to worry about losing power on them throughout the entirety of the journey. That said, depending on your relationship with the receiver that picks up the cargo at its final destination, you might not see your trackers back, making them a one-time use item. While they are relatively inexpensive, it’s still a good idea to make sure that your budget can absorb the added expense, especially if you are unable to retrieve the GPS freight tracker after each use.
Tracking Via The PRO Number
Once the cargo has left the loading bay, tracking the LTL shipment is theoretically possible. While some freight forwarders and carriers will use the bill of lading data, such as the account number, others will provide you with a specific freight tracking number known as the PRO number. This is usually the easiest way of finding the most about the status of your shipment.
By using the PRO number provided by the freight carrier, shippers can log into their digital platform and retrieve any details regarding the cargo’s location and status. If the carrier doesn’t provide online tracking directly, there may be an option to directly contact the account manager or customer service department via email or phone. You could also contact the carrier directly to find out your cargo’s whereabouts.
Depending on the carrier and their systems, you may still be able to get access to your shipment’s information even if you’ve misplaced your PRO number. You could do this by using the purchase order number, the shipment reference number, or the customer reference number.
How To Avoid Delivery Delays
Tracking LTL shipments is vital since the chance for delays is higher than is the case with FTL. Since carriers will move pallets from truck to warehouse and back onto trucks, there’s also more risk of slowdowns, bottlenecks, and various unforeseen circumstances that can lead to delays and/or missed deliveries. To minimize the incidence of delivery delays is best to:
- Properly Palletize Your Cargo – The majority of carriers will not even consider picking up your LTL shipment if it’s not palletized. Pallets are readily available in 40 or 48 inches, which are considered standard but also come in other sizes. The main purpose of a pallet is to keep the cargo from shifting, rolling, or otherwise moving around while in transit. This can lead to substantial damage, not only to your load but to the other goods transported alongside yours.
- Providing Accurate Information on the BOL – As mentioned previously, the bills of lading contain vital data about the shipment such as its contents, pickup and delivery address, contact information, transit times, billing information, and more. Any inaccuracies in this information can lead to delays or additional fees regarding returned or misdelivered shipments.
- Don’t Consider the Delivery Date As a Guarantee – Especially given the high levels of disruption generated by the coronavirus pandemic, proposed delivery dates are not guaranteed. A guaranteed delivery will often incur an added fee. It’s, therefore, a good idea to offer yourself a few days of lead time, during which the shipment can arrive.
- Work With a Professional 3PL – Expert third-party logistics providers (3PLs) can help you arrange transportation in a wide variety of modes or destinations. They also have the tools, infrastructure, technology, and experience to ensure that everything is running smoothly and quickly determine if something is wrong with your shipment.
If you need help or want to be more cost-efficient, RedBird Logistics offers a range of logistic services – from simple LTL to personally tailored solutions. You can rest assured that they will ensure that your logistics processes are running smoothly and as efficiently as possible.