TPG from A to Z: Your complete travel glossary
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We’ll be the first to tell you that jumping headfirst into the travel world can be confusing, especially for beginners. With so many terms being thrown around, understanding the ins and outs can be a bit like learning a new language. To some extent, it is — I mean, MQMs, open jaw, C fare class availability? If it’s your first time visiting The Points Guy, you’re probably looking at us like we have two heads.
That’s exactly why we put together this glossary of terms that you can reference again and again. You’ll see these terms pop up all over our site, so you’ll want to bookmark this page for reference — and before you know it, you’ll be the one explaining what these terms mean to all your friends.
Award availability: Just because you want to use your points and miles for a flight or hotel, doesn’t necessarily mean you can; you’ll have to check for award availability, which is the number of seats an airline has made available on a particular flight or route that you can get specifically with points or miles. See also: Award redemption, fare class, points and miles.
Award redemption: Using your points or miles (redeeming them) to book a hotel stay or flight. The whole trick here is to never pay more in the value of points or miles than you would if you just bought your room or plane ticket outright. See also: Award availability, fare class, full award, saver award, points and miles, transfer ratio.
Basic economy: A new class of travel many airlines have introduced in recent years that’s worse than regular economy with stripped down perks. Restrictions depend on the airline, but vary from no seat assignment or carry-on allowance to fewer miles earned for the flight, since you’re paying a lower price on the no-frills fare. Thankfully, there are workarounds. See also: Elite qualifying miles.
Base fare: This is the price of your airline ticket before taxes, fees and all those pesky surcharges.
Credit cards: Where do we even begin with this one? So much more than just rectangular pieces of plastic or metal — they allow you to pay after purchase, and can maximize the spending you have to do anyway by helping you earn some free flights, hotel stays and other perks. Credit cards usually have a set credit limit extended to you by a bank from which you can spend regularly, and then pay back 30-45 days later, either in full (recommended) or partially (you’ll pay huge interest charges if you carry a balance, so don’t do it). See also: Points and miles, sign-up bonus.
Devaluation: We’ve seen an ongoing trend of loyalty programs “devaluing” their programs — as in, raising the prices of award redemptions, making it more difficult to make award redemptions and even taking away perks that they previously offered. While the jury is still out on whether or not the sky is falling, it’s something to be aware of … and it’s exactly why we say hoarding your points and miles is a bad investment. If you’ve earned them, burn them. See also: Loyalty program.
Debit card: A phrase that’s not in your vocabulary any more (assuming you’re financially stable and responsible about paying your bills on time and in full every single month). When you use a debit card to pay for a purchase, the money usually comes instantly out of your bank account, versus credit cards where you’re using a credit line issued by the bank to fund the purchases and then paying it back later. Some people like debit cards because you can’t spend more money than you have in your account. But by using a debit card, you’re spending money and not getting anything back in return. See also: credit cards.
Direct flight: Surprisingly not the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B — seeing as how there also might be a Point C sandwiched in between. Direct flights can actually stop at multiple airports along their route, so long as the flight number stays the same. See also: Nonstop flight.
Elite status: Airlines and hotels have programs for their most loyal members that offer a host of perks. Think: room upgrades, free nights and more. You earn elite status by spending a certain amount of money and flying a certain amount of miles or segments (flights) with any given airline, or staying a certain amount of night with any given hotel chain, all in one calendar year. Status can also be included as a perk with certain premium or cobranded credit cards. You may even hear of people doing a “mileage run” or “mattress run” if they’re really close to hitting the next level of elite status — as in, they’ll book a cheap flight or stay in a hotel for a couple of extra nights even if they don’t need to just to earn status. There are different levels to elite status within each loyalty program, too, so be sure to check out these guides to brush up. See also: Elite qualifying dollars, elite qualifying miles, mileage run, open jaw.
- What Alaska Airlines elite status is worth
- What American Airlines elite status is worth
- What Delta elite status is worth
- What JetBlue elite status is worth
- What Southwest elite status is worth
- What United Airlines elite status is worth
Fare class: Airlines classify your ticket based on the “cabin” you’re flying in — whether it’s economy, premium economy, business or first class — and then each cabin is further divided by often unseen fare classes designated by letters such as “Y fare class” or “C fare class.” They can be somewhat complicated and vary from airline to airline, but at a most basic level, know that they determine how much you pay for the ticket, how many miles you’ll earn for the flight and whether you’re eligible for an upgrade. Fare classes can also be tied to error or mistake fares, where algorithms within an airline’s system accidentally price out crazy-cheap tickets. While you likely won’t earn a lot of elite miles for them, you’ll want to book ASAP since they typically disappear within minutes. See also: Award redemption, upgrade.
Fifth-freedom flight: One of the “freedoms of the air,” which refers to the commercial aviation rights that have been agreed to by many nations via international treaties. The fifth-freedom is the right for an airline to carry passengers from its own country to a second country, and from that country onward to a third country. As a result of this weird aviation quirk, you could have the opportunity to fly a possibly much better plane and/or airline, often at a fraction of the cost. Have you ever booked a trip from the U.S. to Europe, only to realize that your flight was operated by an Asian or Middle Eastern airline? There you go.
Flexible points: The holy grail of points and miles. If you earn points or miles from a specific airline or hotel, you’re stuck redeeming them with that airline or hotel (though when it comes to airlines, you can expand those options by taking advantage of airline alliances). But flexible points aren’t tied to a single airline or hotel loyalty program — instead, they can be transferred to many loyalty programs. Most flexible points are issued by banks via credit cards, and the most popular programs include Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Capital One Miles.
Global Entry: You know that really long line you have to go through when you land back in the U.S. after an international trip (also known as immigration and customs)? Having Global Entry will help you bypass that line. This program allows you to clear U.S. immigration in minutes by submitting ahead of time to a background check and a relatively painless interview. Once enrolled, your Global Entry approval is good for at least five years, which means you can skip the big line and use one of the Global Entry kiosks on all of your international trips. So easy! As an added bonus, Global Entry typically includes TSA PreCheck, which you can use to skirt security wait times before domestic flights without having to unpack your laptop or take off your shoes. Many credit cards cover the $100 application fee, too, such as The Platinum Card® from American Express, Chase Sapphire Reserve® and Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card. If you travel internationally frequently, this is a game-changer.
Hidden-city ticket: Let’s say you want to fly from New York to Dallas, and the price is $200. But then you look up a flight from New York to Phoenix with a stop in Dallas and the price for that itinerary is only $150, even though it’s a much longer distance. Congrats, you’ve found yourself a hidden-city ticket. Some people will book the longer, cheaper itinerary (in this case, New York to Phoenix) and then get off the plane at the connection point (Dallas) and simply not get on the next flight, thereby saving themselves money. But be careful. This only works if you aren’t checking bags, as your bags will usually be sent all the way to the final destination with or without you. You could also run into problems if there are weather delays that cause you to be rerouted, as the airline will try to get you to your final destination, not the connection point. Oh, and airlines are cracking down on these in general, so it may not be worth the risk.
Hotel category: Some hotel chains such as Marriott, Hyatt and IHG group their (many) different hotel properties into a handful of categories. The higher the hotel category, the more points you’ll have to shell out to stay there. For example, Category 1 Marriott properties start at just 5,000 points per night during off-peak dates, but Category 8 hotels will run you a minimum of 70,000 points per night — and up to 100,000 on peak dates.
IFE: You’ll see these three letters frequently on our site — they stand for inflight entertainment. While many airlines have been cutting back on seatback IFE screens in recent years (hello, iPads), others have been going full steam ahead. We always rate the quality and selection of an airline’s IFE in every flight review we do, so you’ll know exactly what to expect.
Island hopper: This is a thrice-weekly service on United that flies from Honolulu (HNL) to Guam (GUM) with five stops at different Pacific Islands along the way. A bucket-list item for so many AvGeeks.
Jumbo jets: Strictly speaking, the biggest (commercial) aircraft you’ll find in the sky. These are the A380s and 747s of the world; they’re “double decker” planes since they have both a top and bottom floor, although both types of planes have been struggling in recent years.
Known Traveler Number: This number, issued by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, designates you as a Trusted Traveler. You’ll get one by enrolling in TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, SENTRI or NEXUS, all of which will save you a ton of time at the airport, either before or after your flight.
Layover: You think you know, but it’s a little more nuanced than you think. Technically, a layover is a flight connection of less than four hours if you’re flying domestically, and 24 hours if you’re flying internationally. Anything longer is considered a stopover. See also: Stopover.
Loyalty program: Simply put, an airline or hotel program that lets you earn rewards based on how much you use the company’s services. Rewards are often issued as points and miles when it comes to travel. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you fly an airline or stay in a hotel without signing up for their loyalty program, since you’re essentially throwing valuable points and miles down the drain. Popular airline loyalty programs include Delta SkyMiles, American Airlines AAdvantage and United MileagePlus, while travelers may also be familiar with the major hotel loyalty programs Marriott Bonvoy, Hilton Honors and World of Hyatt.
Minimum spend: When you’re trying to hit a credit card’s sign-up bonus (more on that in a minute!), this is the minimum amount of money you have to spend within a specific time frame to get it. Usually phrased as a dollar amount and a specific period of time, such as “spend $3,000 in the first 90 days you have the card” or “spend $10,000 in the first six months of card membership.” See also: Sign-up bonus.
Mileage run: Ah, yes. A long, luxurious, not-at-all-grueling trip. By that we mean when you book a really cheap flight — oftentimes to the other side of the world — not because you need to go to that destination, but in order to earn qualifying miles (which are separate from the redeemable miles that you can use to book award tickets) that will get you closer to earning airline elite status. Most of the time, you’ll also be sitting in coach, and won’t be spending a lot of time in the city you’re flying to. We know a thing or two about these here. See also: Elite status, qualifying miles, redeemable miles.
Mistake fare: You just hit the jackpot. It’s when an airline or hotel makes an error, resulting in a very unusually cheap airline or hotel fare that you may be able to book — although it almost never lasts long, so book fast. Just ask Cathay Pacific.
Nonstop flight: Not to be confused with a direct flight. All nonstop flights are direct, but not all direct flights are nonstop. A direct flight can actually make multiple stops along the way to your final destination, whereas a nonstop flight goes straight from Point A to Point B without any pesky layovers. Now you can impress all of your AvGeek friends. See also: Direct flight.
Open jaw: This is a type of itinerary where you fly from Point A to Point B, but then return to Point A from a separate Point C. Say you book a flight from New York-Kennedy (JFK) to London (LHR), and then from Paris (CDG) back to New York, without any flight between London and Paris. That’s exactly what we’re talking about. The reason it’s called an “open jaw” is because if you look at the flight lines between the cities on a map, there’s no line between Point B and Point C, resulting in what visually looks like an open mouth.
OTA: Short for “online travel agency.” It’s a third-party website that sells flights, hotels or car rentals. You likely know them as Hotels.com, Expedia, Orbitz, etc.
Points and miles: That’s the reason you’re here, right? Points and miles are a type of currency issued by airlines, hotels and even banks via credit cards. In the old days “miles” often referred to a currency earned by distance, while “points” were earned based on money spent. But nowadays there isn’t really much difference between “points” and “miles.” They all have a certain value attached to them — checking our monthly valuations guide is a good place to start to find out approximately how much a point or mile is worth — and the key here is to never pay more in the value of points and miles than if you paid for a hotel or airline ticket using your credit card. See also: Loyalty program, redeemable miles.
Qualifying dollars: To earn that elusive airline elite status — you know, the thing that will get you additional perks on flights — you’ll have to spend a certain amount of money, typically in addition to the amount of miles you’ll have to fly or flights you’re required to take. Airlines track the amount you’ve spent on their tickets each calendar year as a metric known as qualifying dollars. American calls them Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs), Delta calls them Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs) and United calls them Premier Qualifying Dollars (PQDs, though United is switching entirely to a points-based system in 2020). See also: Elite status, qualifying miles, qualifying segments.
Qualifying miles: Hint: We just went over this one, except in this case, instead of the amount of money you’ve spent, it’s the number of miles you’ve flown on a particular airline in a calendar year and it’s used to calculate your elite status. On American, they’re called Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs). On Delta, they’re Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs). And on United, they’re Premier Qualifying Miles (PQMs, though again, this will change in 2020). Qualifying miles are separate from the redeemable miles you earn not just from flying, but also via credit cards and other means, and cannot be used to redeem for free flights. See also: Elite status, qualifying dollars, qualifying segments, redeemable miles.
Qualifying segments: It’s the number of segments (also known as flights) you’ve flown on an airline within a calendar year, and it’s used to calculate your elite status on that airline. We have a feeling by now you can also guess what each airline calls them, but for the record, they’re Elite Qualifying Segments (EQSs) with American; Medallion Qualification Segments (MQSs) with Delta; and Premier Qualifying Segments (PQSs) with United (changing to Premier Qualifying Flights in 2020). See also: Elite status, qualifying dollars, qualifying miles.
Questions: We know you have a lot of them. Have you read our Beginner’s Guide yet?
Redeemable miles: Most people just refer to these as “miles,” but they’re sometimes called “redeemable” to differentiate them from the “qualifying miles” that you need to earn to get airline elite status. When we’re talking how to travel for free (or nearly free), redeemable miles are what you’ll need lots of so you can travel around the world to places you could possibly never afford to go otherwise. See also: Points and miles, qualifying miles.
Restrictions: Some credit card issuers put restrictions on how many cards you can sign up for. The most notorious is Chase’s 5/24 rule, which is a restriction that means you cannot have opened five or more credit cards (excluding certain business cards) across all banks in the last 24 months if you want to successfully get any Chase credit cards. This is why, if you’re looking to apply for multiple credit cards, you should look into signing up for your Chase cards first. See also: Credit cards, sign-up bonus.
Reward: An award redemption’s fraternal twin. A reward is any points, miles or loyalty currency you’ve earned. See also: Award redemption, points and miles.
Saver award: For loyalty programs that employ an award chart, the “saver” level award is the lowest number of miles you can use to book a flight. Unsurprisingly, they’re harder to find than higher-level awards that cost more points or miles. Keep in mind, as we mentioned earlier, you never want to pay more in the value of points or miles than you would if you just bought your room or plane ticket outright. See also: Points and miles, award redemption.
Sign-up bonus: Also sometimes referred to as a “welcome bonus.” It’s a fancy term that banks use to say, “If you’re a new customer and you sign up for our credit card and spend a certain amount of money on it in a certain amount of time, you’ll earn a bunch of extra points.” Remember when we mentioned something called minimum spend? That’s where this comes into play — the minimum spend is the amount of money you have to spend on that card in order to earn the sign-up bonus. Sign-up bonuses are usually phrased as a number of points or miles — a “40,000-mile sign-up bonus” or a “100,000-point sign-up bonus” — and vary from card to card; you can check our current favorite offers here. Often, these offers are enough to get you things like free night(s) in a hotel, or round-trip flights … if you play your cards right, of course. See also: Minimum spend, points and miles.
SSSS: You’re SSSSpecial — as in, you’ve been selected for Secondary Security Screening Selection. If you see these letters on your boarding pass, you’ll have to go through another round of security screening after you go through the regular security line. It’s nothing to be nervous about, just a little tedious and time-consuming.
Stopover: I’ll see your layover and raise you a few more hours. More than 24, to be exact, if you’re traveling internationally. If you’re traveling domestically, a stopover is a flight connection in a city that lasts longer than four hours. And thanks to airline stopover programs, travelers can schedule an extended stopover in a city (often the main hub of the airline) en route to their final destination, allowing you to explore two destinations during your next vacation for the price of one. See also: Layover.
Transfer ratio: We talked a bit about how flexible points can be transferred to different loyalty programs, but there’s another element to the equation here, known as a “transfer ratio.” It means how many increments of points you’ll have to transfer from a flexible program to an airline or hotel program to get that dream award redemption. While many flexible programs make it easy for you and will give you one point or mile for every point you transfer (1:1 transfer ratio), some are more complicated and you might have to transfer more; there’s a little bit of math involved. We always recommend doing the research to see how many points or miles you’ll get from any given program before you make any moves. See also: Award redemption, flexible points, points and miles.
Upgrade: Ah, you’ve got the magic ticket … and a coveted upgrade, meaning you get to fly or stay in a better cabin or room than you originally booked. To get one, you can pay for it outright with cash, or by using points and miles (just make sure there’s award availability!), or simply hope that your elite status snags you a free one. See also: Award availability, elite status.
Variant: If you’re one of those people who thinks there’s only one type of giant metal tube that flies through the sky, we’re about to tell you something that will blow your mind: There are many, many types. For starters, you have Airbus and Boeing, which are the world’s two major commercial plane manufacturers. Most commercial Boeing planes start with “7” (like the 747) and most commercial Airbus planes start with “A” (like the A380). There are different types of variants, or versions, of each model, too. Typically, they are identified by progressively higher numbers, with bigger numbers identifying a later variant; for example, the 737-900 was designed after the 737-800.
Wet lease: Sometimes, an airline will “rent out” another plane from another airline. If that rental agreement includes not just the plane, but insurance, maintenance and even the crew, it’s a wet lease. Likely, the airline providing the wet lease isn’t even one you can book, and there’s a strong chance you’ve never heard of them before. It’s why you might find yourself booked on airline A, but flying on airline B (though that can also be the result of a codeshare). This, my friends, is called wet leasing. (Dry leasing means, you guessed it, only the airplane with no crew or any other extras.)
X: It marks the spot, and also means a connection. Word to the wise: Give yourself plenty of time if you have one of these in your itinerary. See also: Direct flight.
XBAG: Airline lingo for “excess baggage.” More likely than not, you’ll have to pay up for this.
Y Class: A type of fare class that signifies a full-priced economy (coach) class fare. Translation: You’re going to earn a decent amount of redeemable and qualifying miles, although you’ll likely be paying a lot more for the ticket than you would for discounted fare classes, such as H or O. Then again, these discounted fares won’t earn as many redeemable or qualifying miles. You win some, you lose some, right? Other popular fare classes are F (first) and J or C (business). See also: Elite status, fare class.
Zero: The number of free vacations you’ll go on if you don’t play your cards right and use a rewards credit card. Plus, now that you know what all of these terms mean, you’ll be navigating this site like a pro in no time.
Zulu: What you should say the next time you’re telling an airline agent you have the letter Z in your confirmation code (also known as a record locator). In fact, there’s an entire alphabet you should be using if you really want to impress them. How’s that for being a savvy traveler?
Featured photo by FabrikaCr/Getty Images.
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