Ground Expedited Freight 101: Super Man With a Sprinter Van

There’s a network of super men and women whipping around the country in specially equipped  vans called "sprinters". You probably haven’t even noticed them but there’s one within 45 miles of your location at any given time ready to swoop in at a moment’s notice and scoop up your hot shipment (4 skids or less) bound for anywhere on terra firma. They’re the surface expedite army and they are the swiss army knives of the freight industry. (*I tried really hard to come up with a cool, clever title. But in the end I went with ‘Superman’ because it really just fits...and also it’s marginally clever.)

Expedited "sprinter" vans are not “air freight”...technically. They’re not going to get you from Boston to Los Angeles next day.  But, if you understand what they can do (Boston to Jacksonville, Atlanta, Chicago or Nashville within 24 hours) it gives you a very powerful tool to use in the right situation.

First things first, you should understand their limitations. These are vans, not trucks. Here are some facts and rules of thumb about the sprinter network:


The Facts


  • 4 skids (or 400 cubic feet) or less - This is a general rule of thumb but not universal. Vans can range from 300 cu ft to 550 cu ft. Always check with the carrier on the size of the van as they vary widely and verify that you’ve got accurate dimensions. Be sure to consider breaking your shipment up and stacking to the ceiling if you don’t have enough room to load in standard pallet configuration.

  • Loading/Unloading Height - Vans are considered "non dock high". This could potentially be an issue on either end. You have to ask the questions about whether the shipper can load and the consignee can unload a van. Ideally there is a forklift on both ends or the shipment can be easily disassembled and offloaded box by box with lots of help.

  • Shipper loads/Consignee unloads - This is not hired help, it’s only a hired wheelman. Ever see the movie Drive? It’s like that.

  • Transit time hours = Total miles / 50 MPH. Exclude time to pickup location and any weather or major traffic/construction delays and this formula will tell you when your man or woman with a van should arrive.

  • 15 minutes. That’s how much time you have to make a decision to book a van or to let that bird fly free. Time is quite literally money for these guys and things change fast. If you wait too long you’ll lose them to the next handsome suitor.

  • 15 minutes. It’s a not a typo, that is also the amount of free time you get to load and unload. They are making money by being on the road moving shipments so they will charge for any detention time beyond their allowed.


What You Can Expect:


  • Reliability - Very low failure rate. Once you book them they show up ASAP ready to drive, the equipment is well maintained and they will get you from A to B as fast as legally possible. Most of the agents in these networks are operated by team drivers. Legally they can just keep on moving at an average 50 MPH with short stops for the restroom and to switch drivers. Some of them are probably tossing a trucker bomb here and there but who hasn’t done that?

  • Flat rates - If it fits it ships. As long as your stuff fits in the back, the rate you’re quoted is the rate you get. No haggling over classes, fees and rules. The price is the price. You gotta love that.

  • Low rates per mile - Since the vans are smaller and lighter than standard dock-high straight trucks they cost less to run and can charge less. Ultimately, everyone wins, especially the end consumer because this really makes expedited van a viable and widely available option.

  • Consistency - We put our network of agents to the test constantly and they constantly perform. You will get exactly what you expect, nothing more, nothing less and nary a teardrop window in the back.


When & When Not To Use


So, you might be wondering "is a sprinter van better than guaranteed LTL? Air Freight? My own truck?" These are all fantastic questions and the answer is…it really depends on the situation. Here are some situations to help you conceptualize when you should use a sprinter and when LTL, Air Freight, Straight Truck or your own truck are better:


When to use a sprinter on long runs:


  • With large, light or bulky shipments that are not a good fit for air freight due to the high cost/cubic foot on planes.

*Note: sprinter and cargo vans are also limited by size but they do not consolidate runs so you get the entire cargo space of the van to your shipment. In other words they will not charge you extra for your bulky...they only care that it physically fits in the cargo hold.

  • With large, light or bulky shipments that won’t fit inside a cargo plane at all.

  • For deliveries outside an air carrier’s same day delivery fleet range. In this case, the air carrier will sub out that delivery to one of it’s agents and you’ll lose a day and thus your advantage to paying more for an air shipment.


When to use a sprinter on short runs:


  • In general, it’s a very good option for short runs (under 1200 miles).

  • You’ve missed the cutoff for either LTL or air freight and you need your shipment to arrive the next day.

  • Your shipment isn’t ready by cutoff time for LTL or air freight and you need it there next day.

  • Your shipment needs to arrive at an odd or specific time (6:00 AM or between 8:00 AM - 9:00 AM).

  • You need a pickup or delivery on a weekend day (LTL & air freight (except for charter) do not operate on weekends).


When not to use a sprinter:


  • Long runs (over 1200 miles) of small or dense shipments of 1-2 skids.

    • Because air carriers charge by dimensional space (how much room the freight occupies as opposed to the weight) they are a better value for small, dense shipments. Surface expedited carriers focus on the mileage rather than the weight or dimensions.

  • Long runs over 850 miles that require delivery the next morning and can be put on a plane.

    • Sprinters can only go so fast so they lose effectiveness beyond a certain range and depending on how early your consignee needs the shipment.

  • Very large shipments that exceed the space of a sprinter van.

    • With exceptions, 4 skids tends to be the max.

      • In these cases your best bet is to upgrade to a straight truck (box truck).

  • Dock height is required.

  • Liftgate is required.

  • Inside delivery or any other “white glove” type of service is required.

  • Driver assistance is required.


So there you go, that’s the run-down on sprinter vans and I hope you feel cool and in the loop. If you think of your providers as receivers and you are the quarterback (why would you analogize them any other way?) sprinters are like slot guys: small but fast and very effective in the right situation. (For the non-footballers, please ignore the first part and just know it’s a great option when you pick the right spot to use them.)

If you need help knowing when to use them and when not, or if you just want to hire a quarterback to run your offense (shipping) please get in touch with me by clicking on the big, white, juicy button below and let’s have a chat!