Spot Market Rates vs Contract Rates: What Should Shippers Focus On

Managing transportation costs and ensuring reliable carrier capacity are significant challenges for shippers, particularly small and mid-sized businesses. To address these challenges, many shippers turn to contract pricing as a solution. However, obtaining contract rates is not as straightforward as securing spot rates. This article will explore the differences between spot market rates and contract rates, helping you decide which option suits your needs.

Understanding Contract Rates in Truckload Freight Shipping

Contract rates referred to as primary, bid, or dedicated rates, provide consistent and stable pricing for full truckload transportation. Typically established during an annual bid process, known as a Request for Proposal (RFP), contract rates involve shippers sharing their projected shipping needs with transportation providers, who then offer committed pricing.

 After evaluating factors such as rates, service, capacity, and other considerations, shippers award specific lanes to carriers. Contract rates enable shippers to secure fixed transportation rates for consistent freight volumes. Agreeing to a contract rate gives you the advantage of predictable costs and reduced vulnerability to market fluctuations. Contract rates include line-haul and accessorial rates, with additional charges such as fuel surcharges based on the Department of Energy’s diesel price index. 

By entering into a contract, you establish a stable pricing arrangement that allows for better budgeting and forecasting, eliminating the need to navigate the market for each shipment.


Reasons to Choose Contract Rates

Choosing contract rates offers numerous advantages, like cost predictability, and the opportunity to discuss fuel and accessorials, but also reduced administrative efforts. When you establish long-term relationships with carriers through contracts, it leads to improved service levels as they become familiar with your requirements. These connections may lead to preferred access to resources when demand is high, a deeper understanding of your operations and storage facilities, and a decreased chance of possible damages. With contract rates, you can enjoy the stability and peace of mind that comes from working with trusted partners.

Reasons to Consider Spot Rates

Spot rates are more suitable in specific scenarios. For instance, unpredictable spikes in shipment volume can overwhelm contracted service providers. Irregular shipment timing, where you don’t require the same capacity each month, can also make contract rates less ideal. Furthermore, when your cargo deviates from established shipping routes, securing advantageous rates becomes challenging due to insufficient volume.

 In such cases, spot rates offer flexibility and the opportunity to access available capacity on short notice, without the constraints of a long-term contract.

Understanding Spot Rates in Truckload Freight Shipping

Spot rates refer to prices provided by freight service providers for transporting shipments from one location to another. These rates are applicable for a limited period and are influenced by the fluctuating conditions of the real-time market. Spot rates are primarily determined by the supply and demand dynamics. Higher demand and restricted supply contribute to increased pricing. They are particularly valuable for both full truckload and less-than-truckload (LTL) shipping, covering various shipment types such as dry van, flatbed, and refrigerated shipping. Spot rates allow businesses to react swiftly to market conditions and secure transportation services when needed.

Cons of Exclusively Using Spot Rates

While spot rates can be useful in emergency situations or when dealing with sudden spikes in demand, they have certain drawbacks. Spot rate pricing lacks the opportunity to build long-term relationships with carriers, which can lead to less accountability and security. Carriers may require different agreements, and constant switching between carriers may result in inconsistent insurance regulations and service levels. Additionally, spot rates lack the stability, trust, and confidence established through long-term contracts. This makes it difficult to effectively manage specific requirements and accurately measure carrier performance.

Choosing the Best Freight Rate

The choice regarding contract and spot rates depends upon the distinct requirements of your business. Shippers typically utilize a strategic mix of contract and spot rates, depending on their specific requirements. Spot rates are short-term, transactional pricing that reflects real-time supply and demand in the truckload market. Shippers turn to spot rates when their main and alternative carriers are unable to accommodate a shipment, when there is an immediate or unforeseen need to ship, or when there is an inadequate amount of available freight density or consistency to justify contract pricing. Understanding the distinction between contract rates and spot rates allows shippers to optimize their freight management approach. Companies that predominantly use contract rates can still benefit from analyzing spot market trends to optimize their shipping strategies.

Similarly, businesses relying primarily on spot rates can explore the advantages of establishing contracts for certain lanes or specific periods to mitigate risks and secure capacity when required. When making your decision, consider factors such as seasonality, price fluctuations, guaranteed capacity, commodity type, delivery time frame, weight, and required specialization.

Determining the Cost-Effectiveness of Contract Rates

While contract rates generally favor shippers by offering negotiation opportunities for guaranteed and consistent freight volumes, the cost-effectiveness ultimately depends on the current state of the truckload market, the nature of the freight, and the relationships with providers. Truckload market cycles significantly impact pricing, leading to instances where contract rates may be higher, lower, or equivalent to spot rates.

Market Dynamics: Shippers’ Market vs. Carriers’ Market

In a shippers’ market, securing capacity is relatively easy, and carriers face intense competition for available loads. Consequently, spot market rates are typically lower than contract pricing in this scenario. Conversely, in a carriers’ market, capacity is tight, and shippers compete intensely for available drivers. As a result, spot market rates tend to be higher than contract pricing in such situations.

Impact of Spot Rates on Contract Rates

Spot market activity in the months leading up to a bid significantly influences contract rate negotiations. The relationship between spot market rates and contract rates is evident in historical trends, where fluctuations in spot rates tend to influence subsequent contract rates. Inflationary spot market rates generally result in increased contract rates in the next bid, while deflationary rates often maintain stability or even lead to year-over-year decreases.

How Nova Lines Can Help

At Nova Lines, we prioritize fair contract rates for our partners. With our flexibility, expertise, advanced technologies, extensive network, and sizable fleet, we ensure exceptional experiences and comprehensive coverage during peak demand and normal market conditions. Trust Nova Lines to handle your freight with efficiency and care. To learn more about our flatbed services and how we can help: SHIP WITH NOVA LINES!


What are contract rates?

Contract rates refer to long-term and stable pricing agreements between shippers and transportation providers. These rates are established through a bidding process and offer fixed transportation costs for consistent freight volumes.

What are spot rates?

Spot rates refer to one-time prices offered by freight service providers for moving shipments from one point to another. These rates are subject to real-time market fluctuations and are particularly useful for reacting swiftly to market conditions and securing transportation services when needed.

How to choose between contract and spot rates?

Consider factors such as seasonality, price fluctuations, guaranteed capacity, commodity type, delivery time frame, weight, and specialization.