Navigating the Holiday Season: How to Prepare as a Small Carrier

Semi-truck driving on a snowy road at dusk.

The holidays are a joyous time of year, but they can be extra stressful if you aren’t prepared. That goes for everyone — whether you’re a company driver, an owner-operator running under your authority or a small carrier in charge of a few trucks.

A lot of what makes you successful is sticking to the plans you’ve made for yourself, including the lanes you’ll run, the customers you’ll work with and the budget you’ve set. But there are hoops to jump through throughout the year that require you to adapt to turn a profit. The holidays are a perfect example of that. 

Anderson Trucking Service (ATS) has been in business since 1955 and ATS Logistics since 1989. We’ve been around the block a few times and know how the holidays can throw a snare in your operations due to freight availability, rates, weather and driver capacity changes. 

These tips will help you easily navigate the holidays so you can spend more time enjoying the season and less time stressing. 

Improve Cost Efficiency 

The biggest thing you can do to ensure you make it through the holidays unscathed is to watch your costs. Cut back on unnecessary costs and boost your income by trip planning, fueling smart and preplanning.

You can make the most cost-efficient moves by trip planning. Taking that extra 15 minutes each day to plan your route and stops makes all the difference. Doing so will help you avoid driving extra miles and spending more money on fuel because you drove out of route to find places to stop and park. Trip planning will help you avoid getting lost and failing to meet deadlines.

Winter road conditions can put a damper on your plans. Check the weather as you trip plan and plan your route accordingly. Make sure you’re also using tools like SafeTravelUSA and 511. These will provide updates on road conditions. The radar might show the storm has passed, but these tools will show you if the roads are passable.

Stop in a safe location if you need to; driving in dangerous conditions is certainly not worth it — for the sake of your well-being or your bottom dollar.

Give yourself plenty of time to arrive at your destination. Avoid being late. Outstanding customer service is key to maintaining relationships with customers. 

Truck driving on a two-lane, snow-covered highway surrounded by snowy pine trees.

Preplan Loads 

Preplanning ties back to being cost-efficient. Instead of booking a load the same day, book a couple of days ahead of time. When you’re booking a load to your next destination, plan ahead and book your next load out of there. You should always know what your next load is, instead of waiting around hoping a golden load opportunity will land in your lap.

Booking ahead versus booking same-day can help you get better rates going where you want to go rather than just taking last-minute high rates that take you into a backhaul market

Some small carriers and owner-operators won’t run in certain areas during the year because of the weather. They’ll only run certain routes — often in the South. While every carrier has a different plan, consider opening up your options to boost your profits. 

For example, a lot of drivers don’t like going to the Midwest and Northeast during the colder months because of chain laws, poor road conditions and concerns about product damage in the cold. However, rates going there will be higher because others are less willing to go there. 

Of course, if you do decide to run in colder areas, keep your fleet in good condition and be prepared to run in colder temperatures. That means winterizing the trucks, filling up with winter fuel blends, adapting your driving style to account for poor road conditions and stocking the truck with winter essentials.

Preplans are also crucial in the winter because the weather can make you late. 

Related: Winter driving tips 

Watch Market Changes 

Keep an eye on the markets to see what’s hot. A few different products will be moving for the holidays, like trees, household goods and food. 

During the holiday season, people do a lot more cooking and baking, so we typically see a lot more van freight and reefer freight moving. Shopping is also up, so retail freight does better too. Open-deck freight, on the other hand, will slow down. Things like farming, road work and construction work slow down, so there’s not as big of a need to move that freight. 

If you have the capacity, take advantage of better rates by hauling the van and reefer freight that’s performing well. Because open-deck freight is tighter, stay on top of opportunities as they become available. Holding out isn’t always the best thing; it could cause you to miss an opportunity that would put you in a good place. 

Manage Driver Capacity 

Most drivers want to go home for the holiday. With a small fleet, this is something you’ll need to manage. You need to ensure there are enough drivers to haul freight for your customers. You may need to rearrange schedules or take less time off to get freight covered. 

Instead of going home for a week or two, you may decide to only go home for a long weekend to keep the money flowing in. Many shippers and receivers will be closed in the days leading up to and after the holiday, so you might need to hold onto loads longer. As soon as they open up again, it’s time to get back on the road and keep moving. 

Use load boards to keep moving and get loads that take you closer to home. 

Semi-truck parked at a home on a narrow street.

Navigate the Season with Ease

The holiday season presents both joy and challenges. As you gear up for this festive period, remember these strategies — this could be the difference between a chaotic rush and a smooth sail through the holidays.

Cost efficiency is the cornerstone of every successful trucking company. Trip planning might seem mundane, but those extra minutes mapping your route can save fuel, prevent delays and bolster customer satisfaction. Winter brings its own set of hurdles, so checking weather forecasts and adjusting plans accordingly is crucial for timely deliveries and maintaining relationships.

Preplanning loads isn’t just about securing cargo; it’s about securing better rates and navigating the market's fluctuations. Sometimes, taking routes less traveled in the colder months can mean higher rates, but it necessitates preparedness for harsh conditions. Flexibility in choosing routes and loads can aid in capitalizing on market dynamics.

Speaking of markets, understanding what’s in demand during the holidays is vital. Van and reefer freight often spike due to increased consumer activity, while open-deck freight might slow down. Being adaptable to market changes can position you for better opportunities and rates.

Driver capacity management becomes an intricate dance during the holidays. Balancing the needs of drivers for time off with the demands of delivering goods timely requires strategic scheduling. Sometimes, opting for shorter breaks ensures the freight keeps moving, especially when shippers and receivers are closed pre-holiday.

In the end, load boards become your ally in keeping the wheels turning. They offer a lifeline of continuous movement while potentially inching you closer to home.

ATS FreightMatch provides a user-friendly experience so you can earn more money, faster. It should be your best friend this holiday season. 

By prioritizing cost efficiency, preplanning, market awareness and adept driver management, you can pave a smoother path through the festive season, allowing you to savor the joys of this time with less worry and more success.

Tags: Carrier Resources

Sean Glenz

Written by Sean Glenz

Sean has been with ATS in various capacities since early May 2011. During this time, Sean has thoroughly enjoyed the work he does with carriers and customers spanning the country. Today, Sean serves as operations manager in the logistics division and continually strives to develop lifelong relationships with his customers and co-workers.

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