What airline fare classes tell you about your ticket

Dec 10, 2021

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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, premium 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, booking an upgradeable fare or simply trying to figure out how many miles you’ll earn for an upcoming trip.

Today, I’ll address one of our common reader questions by explaining fare classes so you can understand what the fare basis code tells you about your next flight.

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In This Post

Fare class basics

In the most simple definition, the various fare classes divide every seat on a plane into different categories, each with its own price and set of 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 typically the same across all airlines:

  • Y: Full-fare economy class ticket
  • J: Full-fare business class ticket
  • F: Full-fare first class ticket

NOTE: These letters are also commonly used as abbreviations on message boards like FlyerTalk to refer to the “generic” class of service e.g. “I’m flying in Y from NY to London and want to upgrade to J” means “I’m travelling in economy from NY to London and want to upgrade to business class”). However, this article is focusing on the actual published fare classes from airlines.

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.

Let’s take a look at a quick example. Here’s a screenshot from ExpertFlyer* with American Airlines Flight 38 from Miami (MIA) to London-Heathrow (LHR):

As you can see, the fare classes with a number next to them are still available; the one with a zero (O) is not. The number after the letter delineates how many tickets are left in each fare — ExpertFlyer maxes out at seven, so there are at least seven seats left in those fare buckets but zero seats left in fare class O.

Here’s how these fare classes fall into the four classes of services offered on the Boeing 777-300ER American is using on this route:

  • F and A: first class
  • J, R, D and I: business class
  • W and P: premium economy
  • Y, B, H, K, L, G, V, S, N, Q and O: economy

It’s worth noting that on this particular flight, American isn’t offering basic economy for sale, which would be E fare class and would remove many “normal” comforts for a rock-bottom price.

Keep in mind too 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, especially when trying to credit the flight to loyalty programs of partner airlines. 

Related: Everything you need to know about British Airways’ fare classes

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

How this affects you

Here’s an example of how these various fare classes come into play when you’re purchasing a ticket. Let’s say that you’re looking to book a flight from Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to Los Angeles (LAX). Yesterday when you checked the price of a round-trip ticket, you found one for £263 ($305) but you needed to confirm dates with a family member before locking in your itinerary. Today when you go to book, the price has jumped to £290 ($375). The best explanation for the price increase is that the more discounted fare class you were looking at yesterday is now sold out.

(Note that if you find yourself close to confirming your plans, remember that in most situations, you can pull the trigger on a flight and cancel within 24 hours and get a full refund. Check out our guide to airline hold and cancellation policies for more details.)

This may also impact you when you go to take the flight, as your fare class will sometimes dictate the number of miles you earn on the flight, both from a redeemable and elite-qualifying standpoint. While American, Delta and United have all switched to a revenue-based model of awarding miles for flights on their own (respective) flights, travelling on most of their partner airlines will use a somewhat complicated formula that takes into account distance flown as well as fare class booked.

As an example, here’s the current mileage accrual chart for American Airlines when you credit a British Airways flight to the carrier’s AAdvantage program:

As you can see, the lowest three fare classes (G, O or Q) only award you 25% of the miles flown. If you book a round-trip flight from Miami (MIA) to London-Heathrow, you’ll cover a total distance of 8,850 miles. However, that would only give you 2,213 miles. Booking into a fare class at the next level would double those earnings.

This is also critical if you’re chasing American elite status. Using the chart above, the lowest economy flights would only get you 4,425 EQMs and just 443 EQDs. Those numbers would be doubled if you booked into H, K, L, M, N, S or V.

Finally, it’s important to note that many carriers will either prevent you from upgrading tickets booked into certain fare classes or will add cash copays to do so. It’s thus critical to know what fare class you’ve booked so you can fully understand how that will affect your flight.

Standard practices and common fare rules

While fare class is generally designated by a single letter, this gets more complicated very quickly. When you combine a fare class with other rules, you’ll wind up with a series of alphanumeric characters, and this is known as a fare basis code. This 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.

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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 (ATL) to Seattle (SEA). 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 dollar spent for non-elite members but is not eligible for upgrades unless you have Delta Medallion status.

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 — It’s a long-haul flight.
  • 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 

As noted above, you’ll often see frequent flyer sites discussing tickets using generic codes:

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

For example: “There are great Y fares to Southeast Asia this summer.” Remember that these letters are often used for specific fare classes as well, generally the most expensive (full-fare) ones.

However, the most important implication of fare classes for points and miles enthusiasts involves award tickets and upgrades. Most airlines will set aside specific fare buckets for these awards. Just because there’s an open seat in the designated cabin that you want to fly doesn’t mean that it’s available using miles. The same holds true for upgrades, whether you’re looking to redeem miles, use certificates or take advantage of elite status for complimentary bumps to the front of the plane. I see almost daily comments along the lines of, “But there are three open first class seats! Why won’t (insert carrier here) upgrade me??” If those seats aren’t placed into the fare class designated for upgrades, the carrier isn’t making them available for upgrades. Note that this may not happen until 60 or even 30 minutes before departure.

The easiest way to illustrate this is with Star Alliance. The member airlines have standardised their award booking classes, so if you’re looking to use miles from one carrier’s program on a flight operated by another carrier, you’ll need the following inventory:

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

Since all Star Alliance member airlines are searchable on ExpertFlyer, this can make it relatively simple to search for award inventory and set alerts if your desired class of service isn’t available. That being said, there are some restrictions here. Swiss (for example) typically only allows elite members of its Miles & More program to redeem miles for first class on its own flights, while Singapore generally only releases long-haul first and business class awards to members of its own KrisFlyer program.

I also 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.

(Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

Special fare classes

Many airlines use specific fare classes for their own products, passengers or other situations. Here are a few other examples of these special fare classes:

  • RU – Delta uses this for complimentary Medallion upgrades.
  • CB – Indicates an extra seat for cabin baggage.
  • P – Etihad used 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.
  • YCA – I used to 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.

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. Once you know your fare class, make sure to utilise wheretocredit.com when deciding which frequent flyer program you’ll credit your flight towards.

Your fare class also tells you whether your ticket is upgradeable and where you may stand in the 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.

ExpertFlyer is owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures

Featured image by Zach Griff / The Points Guy

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