Understanding Truck Load Rates A Guide for Shippers
How much will it cost you to bring your goods to market? That depends on how you ship. You might choose rail, water, or air carriers. But the vast majority of U.S. freight travels over the highways, loaded onto trailers pulled by semi trucks.
In 2023, for example, trucks moved more than 13 million kilotons — or 13 billion metric tons — of freight across U.S. highways. That’s more than all other modes of transportation combined. If you ship goods, you’ll probably need trucks.
Unfortunately, prices in the trucking industry are notoriously volatile. For full truck loads, rates change constantly—and the differences from one day to the next can be significant. So how can you plan for tomorrow’s shipping costs when they aren’t apparent today?
There are all sorts of data providers that can help you plan for over-the-road shipping costs. These include (but are far from limited to):
- The Federal Reserve’s Truck Tonnage Index
- The Energy Information Administration’s daily fuel price report
- DAT’s load-to-truck ratio trends
Perhaps the most direct indicator of how much you’ll pay to move a full truckload is the average truck load rate, available from a few sources. We’ll discuss those sources in this article, but first, here’s a quick definition of truck load rates, a common shipping term that might be a bit more complex than it sounds.
What Are Truck Load Rates?
A truck load rate is the cost shippers pay carriers to move freight, via truck, from one location to another. These rates are expressed as an average cost per mile. They refer to full truckload (FTL) shipments, so aren’t necessarily indicative of less-than-truckload (LTL) shipping costs.
Truck load rates are further segmented by trailer type, geographic region, and market segment.
Carriers charge different rates for different trailer types. Information on pricing, segmented by shipping container, includes:
- Van rates, which describe the average per-mile cost for moving freight in van trailers. Van, or dry van, trailers are enclosed shipping containers without temperature control.
- Reefer rates, which describe the average per-mile cost for shipping freight in refrigerated — hence reefer — trailers.
- Flatbed rates, which describe the average per-mile cost for shipping via flatbeds, which are unenclosed trailers often used for cargo that won’t fit into a dry van container.
Prices also vary by region. You’ll find average truck load rates for the following regions of the contiguous United States (i.e., excluding Alaska and Hawaii):
- Western U.S.
- North Central U.S.
- South Central U.S.
- Southeast U.S.
- Northeast U.S.
The trucking market is divided into two segments, each based on a particular relationship between the carrier and the shipper. Average load rates are available for:
- Contractual shipping relationships, in which shippers and carriers operate through ongoing agreements. According to Freightwaves, the contract market makes up 80% of trucking deals.
- The spot market, which covers one-time loads along specific lanes. Shippers who don’t contract carriers can find available trucks for single shipments on the spot market, which makes up the remaining 20% of shipper-carrier business deals.
In order to find useful data, then, start by selecting the trailer type your freight requires. Then look at the geographic region (or regions) through which your loads must travel. Finally, decide whether you’ll establish an ongoing relationship with a carrier (placing you in the contract market) or just need a single job completed (on the spot market).
These choices will lead you to a current — or nearly current — average truck load rate. Of course, first you have to know where to find this data. That brings us to our next question.
Where Do Average Truck Load Rates Come From?
The industry’s most-cited source of average truck load rate data is a shipping marketplace and analytics provider called DAT Freight & Analytics. We’ll discuss DAT in more detail shortly, but it’s not the only source for trucking cost data.
You can also find average truck load rates from DAT competitors. Here are a few additional sources of pricing data for shippers:
- The FreightWaves National Truckload Index (NTI)
- Coyote Logistics’ Coyote Curve Truckload Market Forecasts
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Refrigerated Truck Quarterly Datasets (for agricultural products, and typically expressed as per-load rates rather than average cost-per-mile)
Of all the free options for truck pricing data, DAT’s Trendlines is the most frequently cited within the shipping industry. That makes it the go-to source for surface-level information on truck load rates.
For more detailed analytics, there are several paid data products, including:
As we cover a few more topics, we’ll refer to DAT’s Trendlines data, since DAT appears to be the clear industry leader as we publish. Next let’s look at some examples of truck load rates, courtesy of DAT Trendlines.
What Are Some Examples of Average Truck Load Rates?
As of mid-June, 2023, DAT’s Trendlines report the following average outbound van rates for the contiguous U.S. as follows:
- West: $2.04 per mile
- North Central: $2.20 per mile
- South Central: $2.13 per mile
- Southeast: $2.16 per mile
- Northeast: $1.81 per mile
Note that these prices are averages that include both the spot and contract markets. Luckily, Trendlines also provides figures for the national average line haul rates — plus fuel surcharges, which might not otherwise be reported — for both spot and contract agreements. Here are those numbers as of June 2023:
- Average contract rate: $2.60 per mile
- Average spot rate: $2.09 per mile
Again, these are all prices for dry van trailers. You’ll generally find that specialty equipment like refrigerated containers and flatbeds cost more. For example, here are the regional average flatbed rates from mid-June 2023:
- West: $2.34 per mile
- North Central: $2.78 per mile
- South Central: $2.69 per mile
- Southeast: $2.78 per mile
- Northeast: $2.54 per mile
Depending on the region, you’ll pay between 30 and 73 cents more per mile to ship goods via flatbed compared to dry van shipments. Expect to pay more for access to temperature-controlled trailers, too. Here are the regional average reefer rates from the same time period:
- West: $2.62 per mile
- North Central: $2.54 per mile
- South Central: $2.58 per mile
- Southeast: $2.50 per mile
- Northeast: $1.98 per mile
Nationally, reefer shipments cost about 38 cents more per mile than their dry van counterparts in mid-June 2023. This disparity of costs between van and specialty containers generally applies, so factor that into your shipping plans.
Of course, regardless of the trailer you need, these numbers fluctuate constantly. We include figures here only as examples. To refer to the most up-to-date figures, check DAT Trendlines as you plan your next shipment.
During this planning process, however, it’s a mistake to depend too much on average truck load rates. That said, here’s how this data can help shippers plan their transportation budgets.
How Do You Use Average Truck Load Rates to Plan for Shipping?
As a single data point in a vastly complex system — the shipping market — average truck load rates provide limited value on their own. They’re best used for preliminary research, back-of-napkin type calculations that can help you decide what steps to take next.
Other indicators that can help you plan for freight costs. We listed three of those in the introduction to this article. (Here they are again so you don’t have to hunt: the Federal Reserve’s Truck Tonnage Index, the Energy Information Administration’s daily fuel price report, and DAT’s load-to-truck ratio trends.)
If you’re a frequent shipper, your relationship with brokers and carriers is often your best source of pricing information. Finally, many shippers rely on data analytics products offered by DAT, FreightWaves, Truckstop, and more. These platforms bring decentralized shipping data into a single user interface, which can be extremely valuable for optimizing shipping budgets.
As a dealer of heavy duty material handling, battery handling, and electrical handling equipment — as well as Bin Dumpers and bins — the Solus Group team has a lot of experience getting the best price on ground-freight shipments. Here’s what that means for you.
How Does Solus Group Handle Shipping Rates?
At Solus Group, we leverage our economies of scale along with ongoing carrier relationships to keep shipping costs as low as possible. That allows us to offer free shipping across the contiguous United States, regardless of where truck load rates fall in any given moment.
Find out more about Solus Group’s free shipping policy here, or contact a Solus Group material handling expert at 314-696-0200.