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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available – United MileagePlus Explorer Card

Today, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr delves into the clandestine world of airline fare classes to help you understand exactly what you’re getting with your next ticket.

I expect few things are more complicated than the revenue management department of a major airline. Forget about the miracle of flight — the people and computers that decide how much you and your fellow passengers will pay for a ticket are modern marvels themselves. They’re also under quite a bit of pressure to deliver a strong bottom line, and one of the ways they control revenue is by offering tickets in different fare classes for every flight.

Within what we think of as service classes (economy, business and first), there are subdivisions that even many devout frequent flyers can’t identify. Fare classes are complicated and vary from airline to airline, but having at least some familiarity with the lingo can help the next time you’re searching for an elusive award ticket. Today, I’ll address one of our common reader questions by explaining fare classes, so you can decipher the fare basis code on your next flight.

Most airlines have a different fare class for all 26 characters in the alphabet.
Most airlines have a different fare class for all 26 characters in the alphabet.

Fare Class Basics

In their most simple definition, fare classes divide every seat on a plane into different categories, each with its own price and rules. Fare classes are identified by one-letter fare codes. Some fare classes and codes are standard across all airlines, while some are very different depending on the airline. Here are a few fare codes that are the same across all airlines:

  • Y – Full fare economy class ticket
  • J – Full fare business class ticket
  • F – Full fare first class ticket

Fare classes are used by airline reservation systems and travel agents to sell seats on a plane, keeping track of which fare classes are still available.

This screenshot shows fare class availability for American flight 176 from Tokyo to Dallas.
This Expertflyer screenshot shows fare class availability for American flight 176 from Tokyo to Dallas.

In the above screenshot from ExpertFlyer, you can see the fare classes still available on American Airlines 176 from Narita to Dallas on May 13. The number after the letter delineates how many tickets are left in each fare. F, A and P fare codes are first class fares; J, R, D and I are business class fares; and Y, B, H, M, K, L, W, S, N, Q and O are economy fares. Q and O fares for American airlines are the most discounted economy fares they sell, meaning the cheapest tickets for this flight are sold out. I’m impressed by how many different fares are sold within economy class alone.

Keep in mind that the most discounted fares also have the strictest rules when it comes to refunds, changes, baggage allowances and earning frequent flyer miles or elite credit. Some airlines don’t award frequent flyer miles at all if you buy a ticket in the most discounted economy fare class. 

Example: Yesterday you might have checked the price of a round-trip ticket from Chicago to Los Angeles and found one for $305. You waited to purchase until you confirmed dates with a family member. Today the price is $375. The best explanation for the price increase is that the fare class you were looking at yesterday is now sold out.

Many airlines have multiple fare classes for upgrades alone, one for each type of upgrade.
Many airlines have multiple fare classes for upgrades alone, one for each type of upgrade.

Standard Practices and Common Fare Rules

Combining a fare class with other rules signified by alphanumeric codes creates a fare basis code, which quickly tells airline reservation specialists and travel agents everything they need to know about your ticket. You’ll commonly find an E after your fare class to indicate that the ticket is an excursion fare, which has a minimum or maximum stay at the destination.

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 8.11.47 PM
I use the ITA matrix to find fare basis codes for a particular ticket.

The above screenshot shows the fare basis code VE21A0SC for a Delta flight from Atlanta to Seattle. I know this is a V fare class excursion fare, but I would have to get a travel agent to look up the fare rules to find out exactly what the rest of the fare basis code tells me. A V fare with Delta is a deeply discounted economy fare that still earns 5 miles per $ spent for non-elite members, but is not eligible for upgrades unless you have Delta medallion status. I find this site very helpful when deciphering Delta, American and United fare codes.

Fare basis codes can also tell an agent whether a fare is refundable, good for one-way or round-trip tickets, departing to or from specific countries, combinable with other fares, good in high or low season, how far in advance it can be booked and whether there are any routing restrictions or change penalties.

Example: Fare basis code WH7LNR tells me the following:

  • W — I have a W fare class ticket.
  • H — It’s a high-season ticket.
  • 7 — I have to book 7 days in advance.
  • L — Long-haul.
  • NR — The ticket is non-refundable.

Deciphering fare basis codes takes practice and knowledge specific to the airline, as each one has its own style for writing codes. I wouldn’t put too much time into being able to understand anything beyond your fare class and its set rules.

Common Fare Classes in the Points and Miles Hobby

You may see bloggers or avid award travelers discussing tickets using these four codes:

  • Y – Economy
  • W – Premium economy
  • J – Business
  • F – First

For example: “There’s a great J fare from North America to Paris this summer.” You’ll also commonly see these three codes pertaining to award tickets:

  • X – Economy award seat
  • I  – Business award seat
  • O – First award seat

I find knowing these fare classes to be handy in case my online booking screen doesn’t tell me what cabin I’m in for partner airline flights. If I book Thai Airways with United miles, sometimes my confirmation only says TG 678 (I). Because I know “I” is business, I don’t have to call United to confirm that I was booked in the correct cabin.

A nice benefit of the United MileagePlus Explorer Card is that it gives you access to fare class XN award space — extra award seats only available to elites and cardholders. That card is currently offering an increased sign-up bonus of 40,000 miles after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months of account opening.

Special Fare Classes

Some airlines have specific fare classes for their own special products, special passengers or other situations. Here are a few:

  • R – Singapore Airlines uses this only to signify A380 Suites.
  • RU – Delta uses this for complimentary medallion upgrades.
  • CB – Indicates an extra seat for cabin baggage.
  • P – Etihad uses this for The Residence on A380s.
  • IN – Infant fare, usually 10% of an adult fare.
  • CH – Child’s fare, varies from 0%-50% savings depending on the airline.
  • CL – Clergy fare (who knew?).
  • DP – Diplomat.
  • PG – Pilgrim.
  • YGA – I fly these contracted military fares often for work. They are treated mostly as full Y tickets, but unfortunately are no longer upgradeable on American Airlines.
Etihad instructs travel agents to book fare class P for The Residence on Etihad
Etihad instructs travel agents to book fare class P for The Residence on Etihad’s A380.

Bottom Line

Knowing your fare class is important for several reasons. First, it can tell you whether you’ll earn 100% of your frequent flyer miles from a purchased ticket. This is even more important when crediting your flight to a partner airline. Your fare class also tells you whether your ticket is upgradeable and where you stand in the free upgrade priority line. In case things go wrong or you need to make a change, knowing your fare class can tell you if your ticket is refundable and if any change fees are required, and it can help you plan your strategy for making changes before talking to the airlines.

Please share your questions about fare classes in the comments below!

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